A Seal and Its Significance


I know that anonymity is the ultimate fate of everyone; after all, what is in a name?

Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, gave up his life for glory so no one would forget his name but whoever he might have been, what we remember is the name, not the man. A name transcends a person and becomes their mythology, symbol or archetype. Film actors take on a screen name, their name supersedes them and their reality. But that is not the person, the name is a mask that may continue after death, subject to the twists and turns of fame or infamy. Why would anyone think that to be famous after their time means anything at all? Perhaps because like many other human characteristics such as, looking for pattern and meaning and finding probability counterintuitive, we are hardwired to do so: it is a survival strategy handed down through our genes.

What would be the corollary of not being programmed in this way? There are those that think that if we did not perceive pattern, we would not see the symmetrical tiger in the undergrowth or the round fruit in the trees. In short we would starve or be eaten, not a very good way for an organism to survive to reproductive age and pass on their genes. In the case of probability, that is more complex but it could be summed as, calculating the probability of something happening requires a developed use of mathematics and insight into empiricism: ask that of our innumerate ancestors. Certainty is not something we can count or calculate, we go by experience and experience is something that is learnt or is baked into our inherited make up by natural selection. This could go some way to explain superstitions such as not walking under a ladder which are often about perceiving danger. Such ideas come without a critical analysis of cause and effect but do have a certain logic. However it is good to remember in such cases the statisticians’ mantra, ‘correlation is not causation’. We would do well to remember this when discussing politics but I digress. 

Artist have not always signed their work. For much of history, and still today around the world, many makers leave what they do unmarked. During the Middle Ages in Europe, masons would carve a cryptic mark on the part of a building they were particularly proud of. These would have been recognised by only the very few in what was a form of professional branding and most remain undeciphered. It is not until the Renaissance that we see artist signing their work. Michelangelo famously signed the Pieta  but regretted his vanity and swore never to do so again. He was driven by the fact that the sculpture was being attributed to others such as Il Gobbo (Cristoforo Solari) from Milan. The reason for and spirit in which a work is signed or left anonymous varies from artist to artist. Van Gogh signed his paintings Vincent as a way of putting distance between his hard won freedom of expression and his earlier repressive family life that he sought to reason with in vain. Pablo Ruiz Picasso chose his mother’s maiden name to make himself independent of his father who had taught him in his early years. The reason for signing a work can be deeply personal or as we witness by the branding that takes place in many galleries, auctions houses and museums of today, an attempt at creating celebrity more often than not underpinned by a hardnosed commercial imperative.

Most, if not all, want to make a difference, to mark this earth with their tread whether in a small unseen way or visible to all. It is a desire that intimates a form of fleeting immortality. I have always found it difficult to sign my work with a name. I find it disruptive and intrusive of myself and the work. I have found myself doing it in an as inconspicuous way as possible. Initials seem less intrusive but are also more cryptic and far less specific, whereas marking a work with a seal is something else. It is closer to the masons mark. I adopted this practice not so long ago, every so often making a new seal when I have felt the time was right. By making this mark I feel comfortable to follow it with initials or a name and date. It is about saying, ‘I have changed this from what it was’, it is about me, not my name. And after all, a name is given whereas a mark is what you give yourself. Coming back to what I said earlier, perhaps this is why an actor is happy to assume a new identity, it is their identity as well as a way of separating their private from public life. 

The seal above is the latest carved for the period of the MA. The design was not predestined, it emerged as I worked with the tiny piece of boxwood. In fact, this was the fourth attempt; I had never cut curves on this scale using crude tools. I liken it to drawing with a mouse: the slight recalcitrance of the tools reduces control. The tension between what is sought for and the outcome opens a space where something else can arise. Neither before nor during its making, could I say what the design represented if anything. However, I sensed that it had some sort of meaning, following the radial symmetry of my previous work. There is little that cannot be given a meaning again coming back to an earlier point about pattern and meaning; working a priori to any thesis can give rise to hidden ideas when analysed later. In this case I find that the pattern generated speaks to me of different elements mixing, merging, assimilating, hybridising. This after all is what I am attempting during these two years. There is also a breaking from symmetry which continues something I began since Chaos Contained.

Where does this leave the signing of work and authorship in the digital sphere? This is a complex issue regarding a medium that is connective and infinitely distributable. It is changing the way we look at authorship and copyright. There are those that would place restrictive bounds on what can and cannot be accessed or used, there are others that open out all code to everyone. There are those that hard bake their mark in the code and there are others that realising the futility of practical ownership of digital information ask for accreditation and little more. Then there are artists who, in a time honoured tradition, restrict their output by creating limited editions and destroying the matrix. Putting a high price on these CDs, flash drives or what have you, and restricting access to these works is in my mind a mirage in the eyes of those that believe it to be a true representation of value, at least in the short term. With changing values and obsolescence only time will tell what happens to the way digital works are perceived. Perhaps they will become cyber archaeology, as anonymous as the vases, statues and artefacts we wonder at in museums. This brings to mind, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Liebovitz . This may be a topic I return to later as it has implications on what artists do today. 



The Bowerbird’s Creation

I had been writing about art and machines, all rather heavy stuff when for some reason, the family of bowerbirds came to mind: perhaps as a reaction to thinking about artificial intelligence. Distantly related to the crows probably means they are quite bright possessors of natural intelligence. They live in the islands of New Guinea and around Northern Australia where they have evolved rather elaborate courtship behaviours. I have in mind a particular bird, the satin bowerbird.

During the mating season, the male spends a great deal of time and energy collecting coloured and shiny objects from the forest such as petals, berries, leaves and the odd plastic bottle cap. These are assembled into glorious arrangements neatly arrayed in the shadow of an architectural grass chamber. The bird then expends more energy dancing an intricate and exhausting display which includes spreading feathers and stomping around in a repetitive, somewhat aggressive, rhythmic ritual. All this in the hope of attracting a rather dull looking female. But it is she who does the choosing, usually after three visits, although it is thought that she decides on her first.

For all intents and purposes, what the bowerbird does looks very much like art. Not the daubs of a chimpanzee in a primatologist’s hut, but something far more spectacular, albeit on the scale of a black bird. The whole installation includes sculpture, engineering, design and a choreographed performance in a complete show of avian creativity. It is aesthetic, has meaning, to the female bird at least, and requires skill and hard work.

But what is the bird’s prime aim, is it to create an aesthetic that gives pleasure and meaning beyond sex, to inspire bird thoughts and feelings such as, how tall and wonderful the trees are, or does it do it to attract a mate? The process might be rewarding in itself, why else would the bird put so much effort into such an endeavour without the certainty of successfully attracting a female. But the underlying purpose, the sought for outcome, is to mate and reproduce. We may perceive it as aesthetically wonderful, but is it art? I hope there are not too many artists out there for whom art is the sole way of getting a date.