Collected these treasures on a beach in the South of France the day before yesterday. Janet picked up the biofacts and mineral objects. I was drawn to the glass worn by the incessant wave action. What would our distant, and perhaps not so distant ancestors have given for these coloured jewels? They would have certainly used them to adorn themselves and decorate their most precious possessions; traded them inland and held them as symbols of status, wealth and beauty. The irony is that these are today’s waste cast into the sea, transformed and neglected in the sands of a affluent watering hole.
What will our descendants think of the pebbles and algae washed up on shore? The pebbles will always be there, or somewhere else. The algae, who knows. All too often, the natural environment is entangled with plastic and other detritus from our ‘evolved’ world. How will clean, natural things be seen in the future?
Janet and I collected different things, One the natural historian, the other the archaeologist. The two go hand in hand, and we did not ‘fight’ over any particular object. The truth is, that we helped each other to find the objects we sought. A meaningful juxtaposition arising out of a collaborative exploration on a modest scale.
Images taken on the East Coast of England. I took them without people. This was a deliberate choice: focussing on formal elements and wanting to give a sense of isolation both geographically and socially. The locations are both Skegness and Cleethorpes off-season, East England coastal holiday towns that have seen better times. As I was doing this, it came to me that removing the people does not remove the human element. What it does is it turns the immediately anthropological to a latent archaeology. What I mean by this is simply that, anthropology is the study of living populations, archaeology the study of what is left after they are no longer present. Both fields try to throw light on how people behave and the causes for that behaviour. The pictures give me the sense of something that has been left behind with the potential to form a future archaeology even if only in images.
I was struck by this relationship between what is present and what is gone while focussing on the structures and environment: the correspondences between the visitors, the infrastructure and their respective purposes and their provenances. The two seaside resorts were built up as holiday destinations for the workers of the industrial Midlands and South Yorkshire. They are places of fun and relaxation yet, the very structures that were built to fulfil this functions reflect the machinery and structures of heavy and manufacturing industries: steel, coal, mechanised production lines in the rows and rows of penny arcades, roller coasters and helter skelters, ferris wheels and paddle boats, Even the restaurants and cafe’s are reminiscent of factory canteens. This is the industrialisation of leisure that followed the rise of the urban industrial society and catalysed by the mass transport of the railways in the C19th. Productive industry was directed to leisure using the same tools and knowhow.
It is ironic that as such industries have declined over the decades, so too have the resort towns; and what were once bustling rail links have either disappeared, in the case of Skegness, or reduced to light traffic to Cleethorpes. The infrastructures of leisure and fun, entertainment and distraction engender in me a sense of an almost lost civilisation: settlements reduced largely as refuges for the less fortunate pushed to the margins of society and day trippers often intent on doing what they would not do elsewhere.
I know this seems a bleak view of the areas but they do possess a poignant beauty rich in life where the sea meets the land, the future the past, and an indomitable desire to create a fantasy land still persists in the midst of struggle. And facing all this, growing legions of wind turbines, sentinels of new technology and power generation; replacing the old… at a distance both physical and metaphorical.
Bronze Man and wounded Centaur, mid 8th century BCE
Having started to read The Origin of Monsters: Image and Cognition in the First Age of Mechanical Reproduction by David Wengrow, many ideas are forming in my head relating to the way I work, metamorphosis and modularity.
The basic idea behind the book is that the assemblage of imaginary creatures comprising body parts from different species including human, is a construct that became established and spread primarily out of the urban way of thinking during pre-Bronze Age civilisations in regions such as the Indus and Mesopotamia. Wengrow invokes contemporary cognitive research positing that the creation of such creatures conforms to our modular way of thinking and our cognitive understanding of the world from a non mono-causal complex mix of social, technological and moral processes. The most culturally stable composite creatures are those that can function ‘normally’ in the world, breathing, eating, moving, seeing, hearing. They are the most enduring and widespread being the least counterintuitive, least fantastic and most believable, such as dragons, griffins and centaurs. This way of thinking was fostered by and proliferated in early urban societies where the codification of a variety of ideas in the state, organised religions, and writing in particular, promoted modular thinking or as I would say, synthetic poietic thinking. In such environments, counterintuitive views made of composite elements reflected the complexity of city life and intercommunal communication. Represented in object and pictorial form, and propagated and ‘reproduced’ through literature, they became culturally significant and widespread, their metastasis fostered by trade and commerce. Before the bronze age, composite creatures appear much less frequently in the artistic output of cultures, a correlation that Wengrow uses to support his thesis. The one question that is outside the scope of the book is the actual genesis of composite creatures in the imagination. The thesis simply states that the establishment and proliferation of these composites is an emergent property of our way of thinking combined with cultural transitions. Wengrow admits that this is a mid-range study, however, it is rich in imagination and fosters further imaginings.
This idea of modularity relating to cognition and composite creatures brings to mind the non-teleological evolutionary processes that gave rise to the Cambrian explosion, the advent of metamerism, predation and nature’s ‘experimentation’ of body plans. In order for body plans to be transformable and parts to be interchangeable, a form of modularity is required. Multicellularity is not enough, it is inconceivable that the simple, relatively loose agglomeration of specialised cells in, say a hydra, could be recombined to give rise to a new body plan, only another version of the same. There is a problem in creating a variety of body plans without a form of modularity. During the Cambrian this problem was resolved with the emergence of metamerism or segmentation. If an organism is made up of segments, the genetic regulation of each segment’s respective development becomes much simpler. Each segment can bear relation to the others and yet develop to accomplish different functions such as the head, limbs and tail. We know that HOX were critical in metazoan evolution regulating cell differentiation and thereby the morphogenesis of plants and animals. Modular segmentation allows for a high degree of interchangeability of body parts through genetic recombination without necessarily causing disruptions that would make any change unviable. One can imagine that this modularity reaches right down to the fundamentals of multicellularity including the brain itself. It is not too far a reach to think that the our thinking reflects that modularity and that that in turn reflects our way of thinking and the imagination. Ray Kurzeil, describes how complex mammalian brains function in a hierarchical modular fashion and how workers in artificial intelligence are trying to create homologues of this architecture. (Kurweil posits a future, in which a traverse in human development occurs through hybrid thinking: simply put, the downloading of network information into the brain, accessing the combined computing power of the web, or similar structure. An interesting idea in which our intelligence can be enhanced by means of ‘plugging in’ to an artificial neural net capable of far faster computations than we are.)
Artist’s impression of Anomalocaris, approx. 500 M yrs ago
The flexibility in body plans meant that complex ecologies could arise with the important and transformative emergence of predation. The new relationship between predator and prey brought about the necessity, probably synchronously, for movement, vision, an alimentary canal and a form of awareness of direction. Vision, to see your prey or attacker; movement to catch and evade; a head to distinguish direction of movement. With all these new perceptive and locomotary abilities, the sense organs and mouth would be best placed at the anterior end of the body or head: the first part of an organism that meets the approaching environment when moving forward.
The alimentary canal is an important part of this new development in survival strategies and must have developed very early on in segmented animals. It is essential for motile organisms, enabling them to ingest, digest and assimilate food on the move. This allowed animal life to expand into environments that would have been otherwise out of bounds. A homologue to the alimentary canal features in many of my works. It is of primal function with a great number of metaphorical connotations. Not only is it of biological and evolutionary significance, the gut from mouth to anus is also the prime organ of the deadly sin of gluttony; it is an internal boundary with the outside world that we share symbiotically with a diverse, and for each one of us, unique flora; the gut is recognised as being in close and complex communication with the brain via the vagus nerve, one of the longest in the human body; and we figuratively make decisions using our gut instinct.
Organic form in as yet unfired porcelain: length 590 mm
The project proposal at the moment features metamorphosis as one of its main themes. I work modularly: when thinking critically about something I break the whole into components which can be loosened and rearranged into new configurations. This is the nature of metamorphosis from within, dialysis followed by synthesis: as a caterpillar digests itself within the chrysalis, it keeps structures known as imaginal discs for each body part as proto-building blocks around which the future butterfly will form. In my case, the soup is as the negative capability from which creative thinking is shaped; the imaginal discs, the prior knowledge applied to give shape to abductive notions. Call this intuition if you wish, but this belies the formal structures that underlie what appear to be informal processes. And so my project proposal continues by harvesting, selecting, distilling and assimilating and intoxicating ‘soup’.
I am still forming, synthesising, juxtaposing and assessing. It is a long slow process that must fail before it can succeed. As in the case of the Creature narrative I am currently working on. More on this in a later post…
I have many ideas, often all at the same time. I aim to rationalise the documentation of these ideas using this blog. But I do not wish to hamper the processes of openness by which these ideas come about with a restrictive system. However, I realise that by placing them in some ordered way, I can access, integrate and develop these ideas as I move forwards with other more conceptual and text-based elements currently in progress. It is a balancing act.
This first project idea is one that naturally follows from what I have done so far. Until now, I have taken sound and embedded it into the body of the sculpture so that the sound emanates from it. What if the sound were brought in from outside and were somehow processed within the sculpture’s body
Ceramic shrines are common to many cultures, the pre-Columbian America, The Middle East, India, are all places where these form part of the archaeological heritage. They sometime have the effigy of some deity held within, but at other times they are quite empty. This is the case for early Middle eastern cultic miniature shrines. Made of stone or clay, they are plain or decorated but always found empty.
I first thought of calling this project shrine but that presumes knowing what its use is and maybe even its content. I have no idea what it might contain at this point. I have many possibilities, and they change with every moment. Even the idea of feeding sound from its surroundings and concentrating them in the space held within the enclosure leaves open the question as to what sounds.
It is clear to me now that this is a sculpture that is waiting for its meaning. It is a structure with a latent destiny. And that is what I find interesting. There are of course aesthetic considerations: how much detail or no detail at all; what materials to use and its size and proportions. These are all things that can be developed as context is refined and intention clarified. Perhaps it could be made of small bricks, each brick imprinted with a significant mark… there are so many things that can accrete. At the moment it is a latent idea. One that can move and alter with time; one that can be integrated with other projects, assimilate them or move to one side.