Mythopoeia I: post-truth-hurtling



The first term has ended and with it comes the continuation of what has gone before. I do not see it as the completion of a phase but rather as the beginning of what is to come. The term has been a time orientation, revisiting and rebeginning, looking at things afresh: all I do seems to ascend in a cycle.

A popup exhibition entitled Virtual Particles has been organised at Camberwell and rather than making a completely new piece, I decided to work on post-truth-hurtling, the kernel of a sketch done earlier in October and take it a little further. With the direction for the mid-term coming into clearer focus through the elaboration of the project proposal, I thought I would try to reflect this in the work. In so doing, I discovered that which I had suspected. That the themes that have emerged, were embedded within the process only to be unveiled by the elaboration of the project proposal. The title tells me everything I need to know; it encodes a number of elements that I had identified in the PP as my way forward for now:

  1. Mythopoeia – the making of a myth.
  2. I – that this is only a beginning of a cycle
  3. post-truth – dealing with current socio-political concerns
  4. hurtling – my sense of physical things and time being expressed in many different ways, hurtling being one of them

Combining elements of my research in one piece I turned the video sketch into something more layered. The sound track incorporates elements other that Storm Callum . I have begun compiling a fresh archive of sound files and engineered tracks that will serve me in the future. This follows my thoughts in the recent post, Breakthrough from the Simplest Source. It also ties in with what I will talk about in a latter post relevant to my process: that of making a ritual of the recordings.

The video incorporates shadows and moving light sources giving which initiates an idea I have had for a while. Animation, of sorts, in an installation that I would grudgingly call for now, Plato’s Cave. My difficulty with this name, although convenient as a temporary place holder, is that Plato’s metaphysical explanation for the illusion of reality was based on people not seeing the true actors and props but only their projections. My idea, on the other hand, is to have three layers of perception in which the actual scenario that creates the illusion is clearly visible and exposed and perhaps even open to interaction. 

The text in the video, is a reworking of the original, a selection, distillation, concentration. I aimed at something more incisive and yet ambivalent by taking out the superfluous. As the video unfolds, each word or phrase subsequent to the preceding ones changes the overall inferences. I want the words to remain maleable. Only at the end is the context alluded to.


The Lime Tree that looks over the studio: one of the elementals contributing to the making of the video


The elemental characters that went into the making of the video remind me of creation myths in an almost Miltonian sense. I avoid icons of or references to the human world. All that I leave is a sense of imputed volition. It is my way of saying that anthropomorphism is a emergent property of who and what we are, seeing the world in our own image. This is a key element of creation myths in contrast with evolutionary theory. Even in the case of the latter, scientists use teleological language as shortcuts for what would otherwise be very lengthy explanations. A simple example is the phrase, ‘evolving towards’. This assumes a direction or goal, something that is counter to the contingent nature of evolutionary processes; a trap we fall into when describing non goal orientated natural phenomena, because we see things with hind sight as though they were leading to some predetermined goal.

Another notion I wanted to imbue the video with is the sense of things continuing ad infinitum even when one is no longer there: an intimation of eternity. This is something I may work on in the future although it has been done numerous times in different ways. The relentlessness I wanted to give the work is part of its possibly dark interpretation; the soundtrack plays an important role in this. At the end I counterpoise this sense of unrelenting descent with the partial revealing of the context at the end: the open, fresh, natural phenomena used to create spontaneously a dark vision. Sun, wind, tree, clay and water: elements often appearing in creation myths conspiring to weave the ‘horror of creation’, as Ted Hughes might put it, or the dissolution of paradise in a Miltonian world where truth is subverted by lies. 1

  1. from Crow Alights[]

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. 



Mythopoiea and Metamorphosis


Emperor and Four Ways of Being Inspired


Mythopoeia is the act of making myths. Today it takes its meaning from the title of a poem from J. R. R. Tolkien in his book the Tree and Leaf. His work takes from many strands and weaves them into his epic sagas, something I can relate to. The word today takes its contemporary meaning from his work as a genre of fiction that merges archetypes with traditional mythological themes.

My proposal is the beginnings of a myth expressed in primarily visual and sonic form. As I hinted in What is the Character of a Myth, I am not looking to create character and plot based narratives like the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. These are tightly composed works. My idea is more open in interpretation and focuses on mechanisms. 

It has taken a term to get to the point where I have finally found the overarching theme of the project proposal. With hindsight, I was heading this way all along but things are rarely that obvious when attempting to elaborate something new, that is cohesive, within a complex ecology of ideas. In the group session earlier this week, Jonathan introduced the idea of mixing, merging, hybridising, editing, scripting and scoring. This is pretty well what I have been doing as well as filtering, curating, and amplifying disparate ideas which somehow held together in my mind. 

In the post What is the Character of a Myth I looked at myth, not as characterisation but process. This led me to focus on underlying processes which are applicable to a variety of narratives. What underlies all creation myths and cosmogonies is change. This change can be gradual or catastrophic. For example, punctuated evolution proposes long periods of relative stasis in species evolution punctuated by brief periods of radical change, as opposed to the gradual changes that occur in classical Darwinism. Equally, the Garden of Eden in Genesis is a story of catastrophic change, with the expulsion of Adam and Eve and the disappearance of Eden things change radically after which things slow down, gradually moving towards a society, in which Jehovah destroys the world in a cataclysmic flood in readiness for a new beginning. 

There may be little in common between these two timelines, but one thing is shared by both, change. It is fundamental in all cosmogonies whether scientific or faith-based. And what is the nature of this change? Metamorphosis. This may be a transformation of form, relationship, organisation or, as in many myths, from the divine to the mortal after which we enter into the territory of folklore.

Metamorphosis can be intra-organismal within a single lifetime, as in the case of the frog or the butterfly or over longer periods of time in the evolution of species. Metamorphosis can be the process of making a mortal eternal, as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or whole belief systems can undergo fundamental change, as described by Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. History shows us how metamorphoses within societies, revolution, war, disease, commerce, technology, and everyday politics, leading to radical changes in the way people live. Metamorphosis is the essence of existence, process.

What I find interesting is that metamorphosis is a concept that applies to so many of the ideas that interest me and is at the core of artistic transformations: taking matter or concept and altering its properties to give rise to something new: from the metamorphosis of clay into fired stone to that of manipulated sound, to the evolution of ideas. I can see this as a rich seam beginning to be uncovered for mining when it comes to the Research Statement. 

And what is the relevance to the contemporary world? We live in a world undergoing great change at all levels of society and in the very fabric of our environment. This time of great change now called the Anthropocene, has profound implications for us all and more so for future generations. Expressing them in ways that connect with origins and their past transformations gives continuity to our world and meaning to the future, reminding us of what is at stake.


What is the Character of a Myth?


Theriomorph. fired clay, height 94 mm

I have been thinking for some time about the fact that mythical protagonists are almost always animal, human or both. At times, natural phenomena may come together to give rise to cyclopean offspring as in early Greek mythology or Polynesian tales. These unions tend to occur at the beginning of time after which, almost invariably the main characters behave in a human-like fashion whatever they might be. Much has been written about what stands for what and how, whether crossing between the spiritual and real world, creating the world or giving rise to what takes place in ordinary life. However, what about the mechanisms? These are often left to the explanation, the reading of the myth, the hermeneutics of scholars. Take the garden of Eden for instance, it has been given many meanings, from a literal reading of the Genesis text to cultural transitioning to psychoanalytical interpretations. Whatever the case might be, it is difficult to get away from focusing on the characterisation of ideas through theriomorphism or anthropomorphism.

But what if I were to focus, not on characters but mechanisms? Even in Big History, a contemporary explanation – some would say a modern myth – for how the world came to be and how life emerged on this planet, we are compelled to look at the ancestral fossil record and visualise evolution as a series of animal and plant transformations. But there are deeper principles at work than, as in this case, hyperlapses from one body form to another. I feel that to solely concentrate on characterisation might be somewhat trite and predictable; what if I were to explore the mechanisms that drive myths? What if I were to create works that act as representations, metaphors, analogies or some other trope of these mechanisms? This would free me from the usual narratives, from having to contextualise in a forced manner, from fixing the ideas in a temporal locus. These ideas are timeless, without boundaries; they are not confined to any given period. By releasing my thinking from structuralist or post-structuralist constraints, from period context, from contemporary fashions, the relevance of the ideas embodied in myths might become self-evidently natural rather than contrivance. 

This is not an easy thing to do. It is a way of creating an alchemical admixture of ideas and material form: I hope not too obscure. I shall not speak of these mechanism yet. I need to think more clearly, allowing the idea to walk hand in hand with the making: the concept with the affect and aesthetic.


Breakthrough from the Simplest Source


Today I started working on another branch of my project using old sound files I have recorded over the years. This proved rather frustrating and the results were disappointing. I took a walk with Janet where we discussed this temporary impasse. The problem seems to come down to using pre-existing files for new work. It is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, to use an overused metaphor. But why should this be? Perhaps it is because the old files were created in different contexts and with end points in mind that do not correspond with my current aims. These two reasons seem true enough. However, I also felt that what I was doing was tiresome, jaded. It emerges that simply put, the sound files are not fresh. They have to be recorded or made in process, why? Because that way I am close to the source, in its own environment, sensible to its meaning, affected by what I see, hear, smell, feel and touch. 

I recorded a sample from a simple domestic source and low and behold, I was able to work effortlessly, manipulate the sound waves, and create with the utmost simplicity something that I can work with. The result is something I can build on; create an archive of sounds with which to compose. There is also another important principle at work here that is relevant to the project. From simple, everyday phenomena, readily at hand, an entire world can be created without sophisticated processes. Myths are created not just from the unusual and spectacular but from the everyday, humble things that surround us. So this is what I will be working on over the next few days amongst other things: build a narrative in sound that runs parallel with the more tactile and visual processes. Whether the two modalities come together is still an open question. This I suspect will be the direction of the Research Statement assignment later next year: the relationship between sound and sculpture.


A Cyclic Return

Two days ago I received a copy of Ted Hughes Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow together with a copy of Lupercal, an earlier set of poems. Last night I read an essay about Crow  by Danny O’Connor and it all came flooding back. Years ago I completed a cycle of paintings called Traces of Life. shown in Italy and in London and one of the paintings entitled The Horror of Creation was inspired by Hawk Alights, particularly the following words:

Crow saw the herded mountains, steaming in the morning.
And he saw the sea
Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils,
He saw the stars, fuming away into the black, mushrooms of the nothing forest, clouding their spores, the virus of god

And he shivered with the horror of Creation.

The Crow cycle of poems is an ambitious text that rewrites the Creation in Genesis and places the eponymous Crow at the centre as a trickster prefiguring Satan and Christ. Crow, observes, frustrates and subverts a God’s less than omnipotent and omniscient attempts at making and intervening in the world. Hughe’s challenges the concept of God portrayed in the Abrahamic religions and how this creation has gone awry. Like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poetry is full of allusions that are magisterially crafted in such a way that the deep seated meaning is clear but needing careful unveiling. However, Hughes’ at times fragmented narrative is reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd and comic strip characterisation – comics together with folk tales were a great influence on Hughes together with the grim realities of farm life in the North of England. The logic is hard to understand on first reading, and here is where this great work distinguishes itself, it contains a deep logic and understanding of what the poet is doing notwithstanding its apparent absurdness. However, Unlike Milton, Hughes’ is not an interpretation of the sacred text but rather a critique and extension of the holy narrative fuelled by what he experiences and sees all around him. 

Reading Crow brings together once again, many of the strands that run through my work: the separation of the human psyche from nature, the arrogance of anthropocentrism, the denial of the animal part of being human, our origins in and our continuation of a long cycle of transformation and traversal from microbe to what we are now, how language has been used to control knowledge and manipulate behaviour. Could humanity have become the trickster, deceiving itself from the reality of who we are and what we are? Many of these ideas are explored in Robert Graves, The White Goddess, and Kraft Von Maltzahn’s, Nature as Landscape, studies in the history of poetry and science respectively. Both books review cultural transformations through the ages, not always progressive in terms of quality of life.  This does not mean that I would have preferred (as if I had had a choice) to have lived in another time. There are countless things about our age that shine as outstanding human achievements. However, the Twentieth Century also looms as a dark cloud over our history both in scale and wanton stupidity, something the trickster, be he man, be she woman, be we the mass of humans, is only too happy to help forget any lessons that have arisen. 

So where does this put me with respect to my current work and project proposal? I can see how what I have thought and done so far fit together and more importantly, how plans and conjectures can now change trajectory. There is a central core that is gradually being defined, creating a gravitational pull towards it. A path is being cleared towards something more encompassing, relevant and consistent. Creation myths from around the world also come into the picture for their differences as well as their similarities to one another. Another aspect of interest is the relationship between the linear and circular chronologies of Western and Asian beliefs; there is a little bit of each in both.

Oracle: Maquette 2

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm. From the maquette

Not everything has to have a reason. As I work, an internal dialogue continually debates, interrogates, plays the devil’s advocate: what is this for, is this more effective, where will you go from here? At times I need to cover my ears from these voices that stop me from travelling to, I do not know where. The place does not matter in the doing, but here lies the rub, how do I mark the path by which I have sleep-walked to this clearing in the fog of work? Experience follows me on the trail to a new place, it is she that leaves the marks on the walls of the maze I have wandered into. The journey made familiar, I can follow my way back without minding the why. I need to find my way back, because I cannot stay where I am and sometime I might want to return.

Not everything has to have a reason. Only on the return journey might I encounter the why of something I did. Moments after, or years, unencumbered by thoughts of purpose, ideas that once were awkward come together and show me a different place, the significance of peculiar details. Details in a myth built from once cloven thoughts rejoined. These maquettes are such confections, wrought to be returned to dust, their image grasped with camera and pencil as they dry and crack and crumble before me, they become the memory that builds the life of the idea. Accreting to one another their weight is felt inside me, and the work is done under their gravity, reflection having been done so that feeling and understanding cause the motion and my mind moves to the next place I do not know where or for what reason.

Oracle: Maquette 1

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm. From the maquette

Today I made the first maquette for the work I am currently calling Oracle.  It is a continuation of the sketches in Drawings 1 and Drawings 2 in unfired clay and metal wires. Although the final intention is quite the reverse, I am thinking about how language is digested and deconstructed through the alimentary canal of human behaviour. Starting as incoherent noises a comprehensible message emerges at the other end. The Oracles of ancient Greece and Rome worked on this principle and functioned as political spin, from the personal and local to the national and imperial, ambivalence and ambiguity almost always the mode of interpretation. Has it ever been any different for those in power, regarding today’s politics? Is this not what religions do when interpreting the numinous in a bid to acquire and keep hold of power? Take an unexplained phenomenon and make of it what you will.

However, as I mentioned at the start, this work is intended to reverse the process: converting a comprehensible message into an incomprehensible babble in real time. Words are deconstructed as in a form of Chinese whispers from the initial utterance to a final noise. Along the way different iterations of this deconstruction are audible adding to the confusion… all in real time. Is this not what happens to what is said as it passes down and away from its source? This is at the heart of the process of collective assimilation of individual attempts to communicate. 

The maquette is already cracking and breaking up. It disintegrates as do so many thoughts that need be transcribed into a more durable form for retrospection and reflection. This disintegration is part of the cycle of things… I envisage the sculpture being held up by iron rods and suspended from above with iron wires. I can use other materials as I look into different configurations while I research the sonic component. But the things is to always start with what is at hand: plaster, air drying clay, paper mache, metal, stone are all considerations. Eventually I shall make a more permanent scale model to resolve difficulties in making and installation; I am sure that new ideas and solutions will meet me along the way. And as I work on this I will consider it holistically with the other works in mind. Language, myth, ritual, group, self, absence, disintegration, unification, permanence, transience…

As the maquette disintegrates, its container is made: the rests of an idea.

Drawing 5: Ennoia

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm

I am drawing as a way of originating an idea. The word idea has its roots in the Greek Ennoia which literally means “act of thinking” as well as “form” and “the look of a thing”. Related to this is idein, Ancient Greek for “seeing in a creative manner”. How fitting it is that a drawing should be a creative way of seeing an idea: a visible manifestation of thinking. This is such a powerful tool for origination.

Images and words are starting to merge; not as equivalents but as different expressions of an emerging idea. My use of words follows drawing, as reflection on the act follows reflection in the action. This process is leading to ideas related to what I said at the start, that I see my practice as a stage on which a play of sorts is enacted. 

The narrative I alluded to in a previous post, started to emerge in drawing 4 and these sketches have crystallised this a little more, particularly in the context of drawing 3. I do not want to say too much at this stage; to keep the revealing in motion and not cut the process prematurely. The creature stands as I, on the threshold of something broad and unknown. Through this metaphor I have seen a glimpse of a transformative process leading to a collection of existential works. It is the origination of a personal mythology.