Elusive Directions: Taxonomy and Mereology


Instrument of Gender in Porcelain (unfired)


I have been thinking about the direction of my work so far during this MA. It has been a period during which things have moved from one thing to another, a period for exploring ideas and dipping my toes into all kinds of areas. With the Research Statement in mind, I need to move things onto a more decisive footing in order for me to have the time to complete an ambitious project proposal next year. 

In the past I have written about my practice as a molecular construction from atomic elements giving way to a more poetic, informal modelling of material.  I have also written about a search to unify my disparate practice; something that has proved elusive. I remember what Will said about my Mid Point Review presentation, that he would like to see a whole room full of works which are not necessarily interconnected. He spoke spontaneously about something that I have continuously reiterated in everything I do. Collections and series, sequences and lines of descent have always fascinated me and heterogeneity has been constantly manifest. Dannii also hinted at another aspect which I have worked on previously, that of creating a legacy from a speculative world that is not necessarily ours. Some of my past exhibitions have touched on these aspects: Chaos Contained, An Artificial Natural History, Traces of Life, Sacred Places, Steel to name a few. These projects have contained an element of evolutionary repetition in a rational collection form. 

What I have largely done so far is attempt a synthesis through a taxonomic approach: seeing the whole as a collection of different elements and trying to connect them by defining their degree of connectedness or relatedness. This approach can work as a system of classification, atomising the properties and characteristics of a practice. This in turn is helpful as a means of combining and recombining things in novel ways. However, this approach can also be divisive creating boundaries and exclusion.



An analogy would be seeing all living organisms as somehow related and attempting to systematise this connectedness in a meaningful way. I feel that what I have done is akin to constructing a genetic tree of my own practice. In the case of biology this throws light on the mechanism of evolution and descent. However, evolution does not have foresight, it is not teleological. Artistic practice on the other hand, has a strong element of aiming for something, a goal or purpose be it wealth, influence, change, discovering or what have you. Taxonomy although useful, is an analytical tool that does not provide all the answers, it is not contextual. Another analogy would be that of taxonomy in biology only tells us about how related organisms are, but to find out more about how they interact, we need to look at their behaviour in their given environments, their ecology. I am not surprised that the Linnean system of classification predated by a considerable period the first ecological observations by Humbolt.

The shortcomings of taking a classification approach was highlighted in the two group sessions we had on Elusive Taxonomies. In short, taxonomy is only partially helpful in giving a synoptic view of a practice or in developing a methodological and philosophical synthesis. In order to get a fuller picture I need a different optic, invert things so that instead of looking at the relationship between areas of work, I look at how each component relates to a whole. Respective interaction then become predicated on inclusion, as part of the whole in which they participate. Each component then shares a parthood with every other component in relation to the whole. Connections are therefore a function of this parthood rather than a more reductive inclusion exclusion defining their place and function.

This is a subtly different way of thinking. Taxonomy is useful in seeing how things relate to one another; parthood, or mereology, helps to conceptually bring together things that might not appear related in the first place. With respect to my practice, looking at it mereologically, what brings together its different aspects would be things such intent, response, experience, circumstance. (There is one element, modality, that seems to straddle the two ways of thinking and presents and interesting conduit between the two.)

All this of course is an analysis of what arises out of intuitive thinking. It is also complicated by how my practice has changed over time. This introduces an evolutionary element which needs to be largely set aside for the moment: I need to concentrate on the now. However, it does highlight an important element that goes into the heterogeneous character of what I do, that I cannot endlessly repeat an idea or process. The reasons for this are for another time. To summarise: using taxonomy and mereology together is a powerful way of critically analysing my practice… after the fact. This analysis  influences but not necessarily directs what I do  in action . Taxonomy is a means of understanding the component parts and their interactions a way of building a framework; mereology on the other hand helps identify the context and reasons for my particular methodology.


Language and Shape


Study in porcelain, unfired


I have referred to the central role language plays in my work. This role is not an overt one, I have not used text or words explicitly so far. However, in this blog journal I use words as a glue that binds together ideas in some way trying to make sense of what are at the outset subliminal responses to experience. In the Mid Point review I recently mentioned language as a principle theme in the project proposal as I did in the initial symposium back in October; the time has come to attempt at explaining this. 

Why is language important to me? Beyond emotions, physical responses and sensations, in order for me to think about the world around me in ways that build on experience and gain some understanding I need a more complex and flexible way of ordering thoughts. This way comes in the form of verbal language, spoken and then written. A word is an abstract entity that stands for something we encounter in the world. This label is made up of individual sounds or phonemes. Phonemes are recombined to form words, words form phrases and sentences and so on articulating complex thoughts. 

This correlates with how I work through sculpture. The basic building blocks, or ‘phonemes’ are shapes. Each shape raises a response in me just as the sonic values of phonemes carry with them an emotional-auditory response. This idea is used in poetry as in alliteration giving a sense beyond the abstract meaning of the words. In Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood’ the poet uses alliteration just for its sonic effects,

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

However, he also uses metaphor and rhythm to build a vivid sensual picture full of emotional as well as cognitive tension that goes beyond the semantic values of the words. It is a shaping of the world in words.

Sculpture can also work in poetic terms, the semantic-associative value of shapes when combined give rise to thoughts that go beyond the sphere, cone and rod, nose, finger and pear. I use shape as a response to thoughts and ideas; what emerges is not an ekphrastic embodiment but an intention towards a more poetic form. Sound too can be used to build ideas but its very essence conveys a deeply subjective emotional meaning, one that can be used to build emotional narratives that in turn can create associative responses. Words, sounds and shapes act on our senses and thoughts in different ways but they all bear a commonality in that their basic component units can be combined and recombined to create a complex language. Where they differ is in what they communicate and this is why combining, in my case sound and sculpture does present a valid case. 

This leads me to ask, should a sculpture be silent and sound disembodied? This purist idea is difficult to refute and has been the ground for a silent debate during modern European history. Perhaps in the end sculpture should remain silent. But then again, I can see that shaped sound could inhabit a sculpture and pulsate within its form, tracing its contours as it pushes against silence, forming a boundary of perception so that the very space around the sculpture is contiguous with it; a symbiotic intertwining of form and sound tracing reciprocal interactions between two modalities that go beyond the semantics of the words involved in explaining the relationship. 

The study in porcelain shown above is one form that challenges me to think how sound might correlate with form. Not this particular form, ostensibly it is part of another work, but as I am looking to bring together different works as part of the project proposal it does ring bells in my head. Is scale important? I think that viewing distance may play a part, perhaps sound responding to the placement of the receiver in relation to the form much as the visual is rewarded with different perceptions: long distance – overall structure and its relationship with the environment, intermediate distance – component parts and their interrelationships, close up – surface and texture. This is all of course separate to the associative meanings the form might bear. How can sound be distilled into this sort of relationship, frequency, pulse, detail? Can the same be applied to sound as to solid form, are their analogies or am I dealing with something different in kind? These are all questions I aim to explore…


A Decision Made



Unconcerned curves hide the sharp pricks that bleed me in your making. Without remorse. Deep from within the surface of your smile again you bear your self determination, one of Gorgon’s tresses fallen with pride glinting as juice that trickles from rotting fruit; dry as husks in autumn scattered in a storm… yet you are the start of something not quite new but close enough. The indecision of the surface skin broken into pieces and made clear in the late Winter sunlight. I see now that things must be all things and I must double my response as you reflect your shadows in a dancing pair. Light does not come from one source alone; I cannot be one but many. My thoughts are not wedded to a single species but a whole kingdom, writhing, wrestling with life and loyalty rests only with the sense that there is nothing that cannot be. 

I have thought hard about which way to go in terms of the aesthetics of the project: surfaces, forms, degree of working, colour, details and so on. I mentioned in an earlier post about the tension between unity of style and variety of content. My nature is such that there is no answer but to encompass all ways and let the underlying algorithms of my mind make the connections and trust that these rise to the surface of what people see: the Mid Point Review has been a great affirmer of what I thought.

I now have a clear way forward; to allow crazy variety, if that is what happens, to manifest itself. The works themselves must be all they can be and not constrained by some overall sense of stylistic cohesion: the world manifests itself in wonderous variety. So now I must work and test, experiment, and reach and grasp outcomes that inform what is to come and trust the process I have gone through. There is much to do in the given time so from now on I shall gather what I have made in my mind and build with it the steps to another world grounded in this one. The above is an image of a porcelain piece in progress accompanied by a written impression of how the process of deciding within one piece affects me. 

NB: The surface skin refers to the outer aesthetics of the finish.


Grappling with the Angel


Jacob Wrestling with the Angel: Jacob Epstein, alabaster (in Tate Britain)


The Jacob of Genesis wrestled with the angel, some say with God, taming a vengeful angry deity and forging a new relationship between humankind and divinity. I see this divinity as the all encompassing material universe made flesh in a dream as Malakh. 

After completing the Mid Point Review I woke to a new realisation, that of grappling with a multitude of ideas trying to reduce them to a single point with a focused coherence of some sort. It did go through my mind to do the Tantra thing and make a painting symbolic of this synthesis into a whole: a point for meditation. However, my nature would not allow me to settle on such a solution. You see, I view the world as a continuum panning vertically from the infinite to the infinitesimal and horizontally across the fastness of time and space. The world is a whole simple single entity and it is a complex of interrelated elements divisible and united. Reality is smooth and simultaneous, granular and causal. This duality is not a matter of indecision but of phenomenological understanding. 

So the problem I was wrestling with can be summed up as, do I present a single work that tries to represent a multitude, issues, subjects, material solutions and approaches, a symbolic sign or do I present, what I call in the MPR, a compendium of interrelated works, each able to stand on its own? The former requires a silencing-out of ideas, the latter risking to appear disordered and confused. If I am to be honest, the minimalist approach does not satisfy my nature however elegant it might appear. I am a mongrel of ideas and influences, philosophically and genetically heterozygous .

In an attempt to resolve this problem I am lead to ask of myself, what is the glue that would bind the works if I were to take the second path? I have already gone over this in a much earlier post. I also hinted at the answer in the MPR where I have written, words are the labels of my thoughts. This is at least partially true. I am not a good speaker but I enjoy the act of putting ideas into words the semantics of language and their syntax. Much of my understanding of the world is worked out with labels, shuffled and shunted in my mind until they fall into place only to be moved again and again. I am talking semiotics here; touched on in the previous post Significance and Meaning.

Having settled on my general direction and that is not to have to create a single work, however holistic it might be, and that words are the narrative glue that binds their content, I start to think about the relationships between the works. In so doing, they start to take shape in my mind, decisions have a rational and an intuitive element: working with Dionysian impulse and Apollonian restraint towards a balancing and rebalancing a weaving of interrelations, invisible lines of tension that burgeon into some physical form in each part.

But do I explain these relationship in words or should they be left to be uncovered, discovered, debated and vulnerable to misunderstanding. I must leave this to the receiver but the trick is to leave sufficient breadcrumbs for way into the wood to be made accesible. A catalogue or a statement, a performance or poetry, for now that question can be left unanswered, there is time for that to develop and mature.

Now for some content. The very provisional titles with which I refer to each principle work, yes there are also small morsels I plan to sow in the interstices, are significant as monikers for the links being forged. Hermaphroditus deals with gender, language and religion through the channel of myth. Logos/Oracle again inspired by the myths deals, as logos alludes, with the disruption of language and understanding through biological and geological metaphors of the gut and the cavern: the devouring of reason and dissemination of ambiguity and ambivalence. Language links these two works but the third installation is unspoken, the absence of word. Shadowland translates the three-dimensional world into two dimensions, constantly reiterating in analogue and digital means the simplification of form, altering its meaning. Whereas Hermaphroditus unfolds and Logos confounds, Shadowlands simplifies and in so doing creates another narrative. 

The trilogy of unfolding, confounding and simplification represents in some way how I see this project. An attempt to simplify and synthesise entanglements through unfolding. The nature of interpretation and mutation of meaning links the works and suggest further works. Is this not the essence of myth? As I write I start to draw together the elements I outlined in the project proposal and as I do so other considerations start to fall in place, considerations such as the aesthetics of each piece. This starts to look less important and somewhat superficial. However, it is still important as a means of conveying a sense defined by the thoughts that go into the work. 

Finally, there is the fourth element, the antecedent to all three which for now must remain undisclosed lest I should abandon its making and disappoint myself. It is a relic of times past and gives context within my own practice, what you might make of it is not for me to say. 

I now feel renewed, on the threshold of a dawn having wrestled the angel. Like in a dream I did not realise I was in quite such a struggle. This realisation has come with the Low Residency and the MPR. There is much planning and preparation, experimentation and workings out. The projects are ambitious in meaning and in making and I cannot afford to leave things to sort themselves out. I cleared a path but it is yet to be trodden and tested. It is now time to take the next step… and keep writing. 


Significance and Meaning and the Mid Point Review


Having completed my Mid Point Review video, I sat back and thought about it, what does it communicate, how would it be seen by my peers? The video touches on some of my current research and development, nothing concrete as yet, no final work(s) to show or indicate their latent presence. Ideas and thoughts strung together, loosely milling in my brain taking up positions, making connections, only to be shaken up again. 

I was struck by the coherency of the other presentations, how singular and linear, how focused on a single target. In Michelle’s video, she talks about the small history, not found in books, encapsulated in conversations and daily actions. This made me think that I deal with large history, quite a different proposition. But at a point the two must meet. Where does the individual become society and vice versa? This is something I think about a lot; the tension between the small and the large. I would be interested in following this line of thinking further in my work. 

Held in all that is said and done lie two things, meaning and significance. These are words often used synonymously. Both convey information but in subtly, or perhaps not, different ways. They can convey roughly the same information with very different implications. Meaning is about the information contained within something and how it is represented, it is symbolic. What is the meaning of, ‘a thirst for knowledge’? The desire to know more about things. Significance on the other hand is more about the relevance or importance of the contained meaning, its impact or consequences: your thirst for knowledge in this research is significant to what you might find. 

Both ideas work with information but in different ways, symbolic versus causal.  What I am saying here is that my work deals with both the symbolism, the semantics of something and its consequence. Another example arises out of the question, what is the meaning of your work, what is it about?  I have plenty of answers to this but are they significant, will they affect the person or just switch them off. This ties in with the conversation had with Pav during the group presentations on the second day of the Residency. I have to be interested in the meaning, it is one of the things that sustains my interest in what I do. However, it is more relevant to be talking about the significance of the work: how does it affect the receiver. And for this, a conversation needs to open and remain open. I cannot tell what the significance of a work will be. I can work with significant matter, but how it affects someone else, that needs to be part of an exchange.  

This brings back to mind Anderson’s idea of art, ‘culturally significance meaning, skilfully encoded in a sensuous, affecting medium’. It is ‘significant’ that he deliberately uses the two words in his anthropological summation. The meaning is encoded through a medium that both affects and is perceived phenomenologically, not just semantically. The skill lies in how effective the artist is in doing this. The point then becomes, how significant is the meaning and all that is done with it, to others?

I have some ideas as with Hermaphroditus and Logos.


Mid Point Review


The Mid Point Review is a moment for revision and evaluation of what I have done so far and give some sort of indication as to where I am going. I do not intend for the MPR to be a literal description of how I work but rather a summation of my philosophical approach and how it has developed during this period. I see it more as a document of inspiration, an indication of where I am heading. Five minutes would not be enough to unpack the lineage of the activities, their provenance, let alone the detailed methods, materials and so on, these reside in the blog itself and elsewhere.

A transcript of the video is included below and can also be found here





I started this course asking myself, how I might bring together the disparate areas of my practice.

Previously I had dealt with this concern by accepting the variety and differences between outcomes while focusing on core ideas which I expressed and connected but not necessarily in overt ways.

Since October, I have engaged in a period of research and reflection; evolving and synthesising,  deepening roots through a series of sequential stages as well as more intuitive, simultaneous orchestrations of video, photography, drawing, sound, sculpture, illustration and text.

The different means of expression and transformation I employ, affect facets of my practice in different ways addressing interests that lie in the domains of natural and human activity, science and the humanities, domains which are normally separated but which are nonetheless deeply connected.

The blog itself plays a critical role in the elaboration and synthesis of ideas and solutions as well as serving as a document for retrospection.

Each path I take articulates a different way of seeing. I embrace this multiplicity as I do the complexity of human society which in turn I see as a reflection of the natural world.

David Wengrow furnishes an insight into how composite cultural ideas and forms arise from the plurality of evolved societies. As a society becomes increasingly complex, with a multiplicity of world views, religions, writing, trade and so on, the idea of composites such as imaginary creatures and complex works of art proliferates.

An analogy can be made between this cultural phenomenon and nature’s way of  ‘experimenting’ with body plans and life strategies in new and changing environments, as it did during the Cambrian explosion about 5 00 million years ago.

Navigating this ecology of ideas where relationships are often assimilated, sublated and hidden behind a chaotic order, I look for correlations between natural and cultural processes and how new rules of engagement emerge and overlay preceding ones.

This emergence happens when thresholds of complexity are crossed. Thresholds such as the origin of life, the emergence of consciousness and now the digital symbiosis that appears to be encroaching on us.

I am particularly interested in the poetic possibilities of cross-fertilising modalities    such as the relationship between sound and sculpture and how meaning and nuance in language can be variously disrupted and manipulated.

These are not only responses to and a way of reconciling with what Ted Hughes called ‘the horror of creation’ but also a rejoicing in the wonder of life and existence underwritten by the question, why is there anything at all?

I see an evolutionary universe in which being becomes becoming, impermanence discloses change, and the desire for permanence and stability becomes a quest for understanding the nature of continuity and time.

For now, I envisage the final show as a compendium in which interrelated themes from different domains are expressed as on the connected faces of a solid, looking outwards, yet out of one another’s sight. A whole in which the existence of a continuity of relationships is inferred from a unity of form.

These outcomes are not set but may include: sound and sculpture installations, a series of videos and a graphic book… maybe even a performance.

The idea of inversion of methodology  is one example of how I am currently approaching work. Where previously I embedded sound in sculpture from whence it subsequently emanated, now I am looking at ways of collecting externally sourced sounds within a body where they can resonate and sublate into a transformed essence.

The low residency period has been a transformative time for recontextualised reflection away from daily life. It has brought challenges that have facilitated a clarification of questions posed by the many directions which any one work might take.

It has sharpened my awareness of the need to wield clarity and control with as light a touch as is within my grasp, and that context and experience should ebb and flow through the permeability of the self; filtered and selected to allow the beating core of what I do to sound its own rhythm, be the principle impetus.  In all this, my relationship with the external world can be taken as a given, I am immersed in it, self evidently unseparated from it.

I look forward to the next fifteen months, always transforming, always evolving, continually finding the vulnerable protean soft body inside an ordered and constrained carapace.