The Guest


The Gift

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

D. H. Lawrence[1]

It is here, it is taken care of and tended, it makes its acquaintances and leaves its traces before it travels on. A guest. The same, and yet different. New layers laid over the old, transparent, but if there are enough of them, they form a new subject.

A gift is not a simple gesture of exchange. It is rather the accumulation of honor through loss of material wealth. A gift is born out of a surplus, and by being expendable it leaves its giver glorious. One of the main characteristics of the gift economy is the circulation of wealth, making it a dynamic and performative structure capable of holding entire societies together. A gift is the opening of a relationship, and the definition of the roles and the power structure within it, with the giver positioning herself symbolically higher in the hierarchy than the receiver. Acceptance of the gift implies acceptance of the power relation that it installs.

The gift is not first and foremost “good”. It is first and foremost powerful. Now and then it comes as an attack. Steals in under the skin. Active, restless, and symbolically attached to the giver, the gift is a magic object, binding giver and receiver together until it is returned or passed on. To keep a gift instead of passing it on is to arrest its dynamic nature; it quits working and loses its characteristics as a carrier of dynamic relations when removed from circulation. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.[2]

What is art doing in the museums? Resting?

The Virgin Annunciate

Antonio de Antonio, better known as Antonello da Messina (1430–1479, Italy), begins painting as a teenager at some time in the 1440s. As the name indicates, he lives in Messina, a seaport city in Sicily, on the periphery of Europe. He studies painting at Naples under Niccolò Colantonio, court painter to Alfonso of Aragon, between 1445 and 1455, but then moves back to Messina. His production is influenced by Flemish painting, especially by Jan van Eyck (1395–1441, Belgium) and his pupils. The Flemish style is characterized by precise, lifelike landscapes and interiors where trompe-l’oeil and mirror effects fool the eye and create space in the surface.

Towards the end of the 1460s Antonello begins to paint portraits, all in clearly Flemish-inspired style. Small paintings on wooden panels, which are easy to transport. The figures are shown in bust height, either frontally or in three-quarter profile. They are dressed in everyday clothing and sit against a dark background. This is a radical break with the idealized, rigorous, and formal portrait style from coins, cameos, and medals that has typified Italian painting hitherto. The focus on the individual physiognomy of the sitter, the details of the clothing, the facial features and expressions are so close to the Flemish painters that art historians have often been uncertain about who painted which works. And the composition, the postures, the lighting, even the colors of the clothes are often the same. The closeness to Van Eyck’s portraits, painted in Bruges just a few decades earlier, is striking. That the idiom of a painter in the southernmost periphery of Europe so much resembles the extremely modern pictures of a master in northern Europe at almost the same time has been an enigma in art history. For the resemblances are also technical. Until then, Italian painters had worked with egg tempera and fresco techniques. Antonello was one of the first to introduce to Italy the oil painting typical of Flemish painting in the 1400s. Thus he cannot simply have based his works on reproductions in other media such as copperplate prints or drawn sketches. But his technique is still not close enough for him to have acquired it in direct studies under the Flemish painters. The brushstrokes are more agitated and varied, and have a different form from theirs. It is more likely to be a matter of isolated but highly skilled and inspired imitation based on observation of finished paintings.[3] He would have seen not only the motif but the whole work. Earlier assumptions that Antonello engaged in extensive travel activities and had personal encounters with the Flemish painters during stays in northern Europe are no longer considered credible.[4] So where did he get it from?

Trade binds Europe together from south to north at this time, and Messina is a port in the Mediterranean, which shipping crisscrosses in a close network. Flemish paintings are status symbols in collections all over Europe. Alfonso of Aragon, King of Naples from 1442, is preoccupied with art and signals his power by collecting Flemish masters. He receives van Eyck’s famous Lomellini Triptych as a gift in 1444, and several other works follow. It is not unlikely that some portraits by van Eyck, or copies of them, are imported to Naples. It is also possible that they stop by Sicily on their way to Venice by sea. Somewhere along the shipping routes of the Mediterranean, Antonello may have seen them.

The high point of Antonello’s portrait painting is The Virgin Annunciate, a very small portrait of a young woman dated 1476, just after he has spent a year in Venice. Antonello’s Virgin has no halo, but the figure itself forms a light field against a dark background. She is not addressing us. In front of her she has a book rest with an open book. The pages of the book refuse to lie down—perhaps she is reading it for the first time. Her left hand is holding her slightly stiff blue mantle together. Her right hand is half-raised, in the midst of a gesture. I can almost hear her draw breath—and hold it.

Some people think the angel, who is perhaps just outside the picture beside the viewer, has just interrupted her in her reading. But I do not think so. I think the picture is about the actual reading, and suddenly realizing that one understands. Her gaze is closed and inward; she is isolated. Something new has just emerged: an insight. The critics of his time call it “the motions of the mind.”

What does a picture want? How does it travel? How do the impulses behind the pictures travel? Through the originals and their copies, through our minds, memories, and stories. Through us, through time and space. Like ghosts, the abstract will of forms from a parallel dimension.

Mary is bright and enclosed in her blue mantle, remote as a star in the firmament.


Pulses of light

Flesh, blood, and steel

Like a projectile through the atmosphere. Forward, faster, faster, faster. God, but better dressed

Synthetic continuity

Formed by and for speed, stretched towards perfect efficiency.

“Traders’ need for speed has grown so voracious that two companies are currently building underwater cables (price tag: around $300 million each) across the Atlantic, in an attempt to join Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange by the shortest, fastest route possible. When completed, one of the cables is expected to shave five to six milliseconds off trans-Atlantic trades.

One trading engineer has proposed positioning a line of drones over the ocean, where they would flash microwave data from one to the next like (a) chain of mountaintop signal fires . . . .[5]

“Modernity is a world in motion, expressed in translations of strategic space into logistical time, and back again.”[6]

Modernity is speed.

The Meteorite

This is a meteorite. It probably comes from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which is around 2.2 to 3.2 astronomical units from the Sun. One astronomical unit corresponds to about 150 million kilometers, or the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun. I bought it on the Internet from a dealer in St. Louis, and picked it up from the local post office in the shop on the corner where I live. It is run by a Nepalese who came to Norway with his family five years ago.

“Then the land was consumed by fire and flames surrounded the trees, plants, animals and men. Only a few of the Mocoví people saw the fire coming and dove into rivers and lagoons, where they were turned into capybaras and crocodiles. Two of them, a man and his wife, sought refuge in a tall tree, where they looked on as the rivers of fire flooded the surface of the earth; but unexpectedly, the fire blew upwards and burned their faces and turned them into monkeys.”[7]

Four thousand years ago a meteorite shower fell over an area in Argentina between Chaco Province and Santiago del Estero. The asteroid that fell was almost pure iron, remains from the origin of the solar system. It is thought that it weighed around 800 tons, and that it came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. In the encounter with the atmosphere it burst into thousands of pieces, and scattered over an area of 320 square kilometers.

Shining sky storm, melting stardust.

The area was called Pinguem Nonraltà, which means “sky plain” in the Guaycuru language. The name described the experience the locals had of the event four thousand years ago. One can imagine that very many died.

A meteorite is a piece of an asteroid that survives the encounter with the atmosphere and falls to the earth without being destroyed. Meteorites are found often, but not always, in the vicinity of hyper-velocity impact craters. Sometimes the whole asteroid may evaporate so that no meteorites survive. The air in front of a falling meteorite will be pressed together by the extremely high speed and may reach a temperature of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of the meteorite melts, peels off, and is shaped by the heat.

The astronomer William Herschel introduced asteroids as a special category in 1802. The name comes from Greek asteroides, which means “star-like.” The only thing that distinguished these celestial bodies from the stars was their fast movement. After observing Ceres and Pallas, two of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, Herschel concluded:

Neither the appellation of planets, nor that of comets, can with any propriety of language be given to these two . . . They resemble small stars so much as hardly to be distinguished from them. From this, their asteroidal appearance, if I take my name, and call them Asteroids; reserving for myself however the liberty of changing that name, if another, more expressive of their nature, should occur.[8]

There are millions of asteroids. It is thought that many are scattered remains of planetesimals, celestial bodies in the nebula of the young Sun which never became large enough to be planets. Most known asteroids are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where this one comes from, or in the orbit of Jupiter itself. It is thought that the asteroid belt was formed relatively quickly, probably within the first ten million years of the genesis of the solar system.

Article III of the Treaty of Rome from 1967 states that the exploration of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, must be done for the whole of humanity, and that no state may make territorial claims or prevent the entry of another state into space. One cannot own an asteroid. But one can buy a meteorite.

We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under . . . lamps . . . starred like our spirits, shining like them with the prisoned radiance of electric hearts. . . .

An immense pride was buoying us up, because we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars glaring down at us from their celestial encampments. . . .

“Let’s go!” I said. “Friends, away! Let’s go! . . . We’re about to see . . . the first flight of Angels! . . . We must shake at the gates of life, test the bolts and hinges. Let’s go! Look there, on the earth, the very first dawn! There’s nothing to match the splendor of the sun’s red sword, slashing for the first time through our millennial gloom!

. . . the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.[9]

The planet Earth—the universe. White marble, black larvikite, granite, sandstone, slate, gneiss, iron, silver, gold. We spin as we fall through millions of years. Is there anything outside, anything new? Fluid energy-creatures in the core of a sun?

Flaming statements. Bodies transformed into language. While the word becomes body, language becomes flesh, bone, and blood. A new population takes up residence among us.

The word. The image. Passing through, pushing their way forward.

Do they settle anywhere?


Inspiration, inspirare, to breathe in, or to breathe into.

The Greeks thought inspiration came from the Muses, or from Apollo and Dionysus. Through a trance-like state the artist is filled with the gods’ own thoughts.

In Hebrew poetry, inspiration—unlike revelations, which are conscious and require interaction with a vision—is something one receives independently of participation and understanding. In Christianity, inspiration is considered a product of God’s grace; wished-for, but not sought, uncontrolled and irresistible. In Romanticism, inspiration came to the poets because they were receptive to the divine mystical “winds” and because the soul of the poet was open to visions. Psychoanalysis situates inspiration in the artist’s inner psyche. Marxist art theory sees inspiration as an expression of friction between structurally different positions within the economic system, an unaware dialogue between competing ideologies or an expression of a ‘fissure’ in the ideology of the ruling class. In modern psychology little attention is devoted to inspiration, but it is generally considered an entirely internal process.[10]

Inspiration is uncontrollable. It involves body and mind, but is first and foremost a gift. When the artist receives it, she sends it onward in the form of a work. She is a channel for something that has its own, unpredictable life. Larger than her, other than her, unknown to her. Dizzying and demanding, nameless and new. It runs through her, is conducted through us.

A gift is an obligation, a challenge, a contract. It binds giver and recipient together until it is either sent on or reciprocated. It WILL, it must, it shall. Pushes the world in front of it, urges to action. Dishonor is the price of holding it back. The only thing that can be grasped is the thing it has lived in.We may easily take the shadow that it is for the prey we have hunted. It is like it, yet unlike it. Like a river that runs to the sea, the gift will not be caught, but will always sooner or later slip through our hands.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

In the forests of the night:

What immortal hand or eye,

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?[11]


Barbera, Gioacchino. Antonello da Messina: Sicily’s Renaissance Master. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.

Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Baumann, Nick. “Too Fast to Fail.” Mother Jones, January/February 2013.

Blake, William. “The Tyger.” In Songs of Experience, 1794.

Bratton, Benjamin H. “Logistics of Habitable Circulation,” introduction to Speed and Politics, by Paul Virilio. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006.

Buchwald, Vagn F. The Handbook of Iron Meteorites. Volume 2. Excerpt on “Campo Meteorites.” Accessed on June 15, 2015.

Faivovich, Guillermo, and Nicolás Goldberg. “An Introduction to the Great Meteorites of Campo del Cielo.” Last accessed March 23, 2015.

Heier, Marianne. Ex-Centric. Norwegian Artistic Research Programme/KhiO (2013).

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books, 1983

Lawrence, D. H. The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1994.

Lucco, Mauro, ed. Antonello da Messina: l’opera completa. Milan: Silvana Editore, 2006.

Marabottini, Alessandro, and Fiorella Sricchia Santoro. Antonello da Messina. Rome: De Luca, 1981.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. “Fondazione e manifesto del futurismo.” In Le Figaro, Paris, February 20, 1909. English version from Umbro Apollonio, ed. Documents of 20th Century Art: Futurist Manifestos. Translated by Robert Brain, R.W. Flint, J.C. Higgitt, and Caroline Tisdall. New York: Viking Press, 1973, 19–24, reproduced in Jessica Palmieri. “Italian Futurism.” 2014.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Function of Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Cohen & West Ltd., 1966.

Uthaug, Geir. Den kosmiske smie William Blake: liv – diktning – verdensbilde. Oslo: Aschehoug, 2014.

[1] D. H. Lawrence, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” from The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence (Ware, Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1994), 195.

[2] Marianne Heier, Ex-Centric (2013), 9–10

[3] Mauro Lucco, “Le occasioni di Antonello,” in Antonello da Messina, l’opera completa (Milan: Silvana Editore, 2006), 21.

[4] Till-Holger Borchert, “Antonello da Messina e la pittura fiamminga,” in Antonello da Messina: l’opera completa (Milan: Silvana Editore, 2006), 27.

[5] Nick Baumann, “Too Fast to Fail: Is High-Speed Trading the Next Wall Street Disaster?” Mother Jones, January/February 2013.

[6] Benjamin H. Bratton, “Logistics of Habitable Circulation,” introduction to Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), 7.

[7] Jesuit missionary Guevara, on the Mocoví myth of how the Sun fell from the sky (1764), quoted in Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg, “An Introduction to the Great Meteorites of Campo Del Cielo,” accessed January 23rd, 2015,

[8] Wikipedia, s.v. “Asteroid belt,” accessed January 23rd, 2015,

[9] F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Apollonio, Umbro, ed., Documents of 20th Century Art: Futurist Manifestos, Robert Brain, R.W. Flint, J.C. Higgitt, and Caroline Tisdall, trans. (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 19–24, on, last updated 2014,

[10] Wikipedia, s.v. “Artistic inspiration,” accessed January 23rd 2015

[11] William Blake, “The Tyger,” in Songs of Experience (1794), here from The Poetry Foundation (website),