Trying to Grasp the Irretrievable
To connect with the past through an atavist organic self, is to reconstruct not only events but the notion of sentience in another time. How can this be possible if the past is out of reach? Humans have grappled with this problem of creating an uninterrupted narrative in one way or another since people have wondered what it is to be. Ultimately, is it not about trying to explain the world as it is and how we got here, and perhaps by discovering some best explanation, for that is all it can be, have a glimpse of purpose, or if indeed there is one? Abductive reasoning is at the core of this, there is no certain conclusion, only evolving ideas that change as evidence accrues or new paradigms are installed as others are packed away.
Describing such a narrative is about filling the spaces between what we know to create mass. An uncertain substance yes, but it is something to hold on to, to shape our view of the world. Mass is a speculative place holder for something we can probably never come to know, experience for certain, only through projections and models that we build of the world, again as best fit explanations for their time. Knowledge is at best, one long sequential series of inferences that bring the world to life, a vision limited to our lives and senses in this four dimensional existence.
Personal memory, collective memory are acts of reconstruction, constantly discarding and reforming narratives in a dough constantly kneaded into shape. We sail in a ship of Theseus of the self, shedding and accreting thoughts that keep our sense of momentary self in some sort of integrity.
A medium is a metaphor, an analogue even of part of such mass, malleable, reformable. Clay is such a medium, however, the conversion of clay into ceramic stone, the alchemical process of firing, is the consolidation of an idea into what could be seen as a dogmatic shape, no longer responding of itself but only capable of being responded to. It is at this point that making ceases.
The process that gives rise to a work of art becomes translated into another behaviour. The work of art becomes more than the frozen embodiment of the intentions of its maker. It becomes an agent, a social agent not just of those aims and desires but a vessel accruing the actions and feelings of those that experience it. The work of art is kept alive in this sense, by the communion of the recipient. In that way the work leaves the hermit shell of the artist and grows into something else. Something undetermined but possibly significant. It is fed by the context it inhabits; living, dying, resurrecting as circumstances may change, paradigms shift, society attempt to reconstruct a narrative, a new narrative, so long as it survives the vicissitudes of history and nature.
I have given a preliminary look at Alfred Gell’s seminal work on art anthropology, Art and Agency. It is a continuation of Dewey’s idea of art as experience. Gell applies this to situations in which artefacts become objects of ritual, veneration and even fetishism. It is a fascinating area for me because it forms a way in which I can articulate some of what I am doing. This in turn has its origins in Sanders Peirce’s work on semiotics. It is a way of explaining the relationship between artwork and viewer when the viewer treats the object as a living entity. Caroline van Eck explains this dynamic in clear terms in her paper, Living Statues: Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency, Living Presence Response and the Sublime. It contextualises my practice in that domain, where the object is treated as living without the need to talk of it as a biological metabolic organism. This ties in with my paper on Evolutionary Space: Looking at Artistic Practice in a Disparate Art Ecology. It is about the transfer of information. And this transfer of information is not necessarily one in which free will or even action is required on behalf of the art object. The art object is the carrier of information in much the same way as a printed book or screen does. The container of information is a vehicle and its intrinsic value as art is perceived, just as a sacred rock is seen as such even though it is physically no different to any other rock. Both Gell and Eck extend the argument to looking at why an inanimate object should illicit a response of the kind that art objects and artefacts do, a living presence response. These texts are of course mainly written in the context of ritual anthropology and pre-contemporary art history. However, they can be useful in considering the function and affect of a contemporary artwork and how this might influence art practice. It certainly is not applicable to all forms of art but the future destiny of an artwork is often if not always beyond the grasp of the artist or their contemporaries.
I may write more about this as it enters into domains directly pertinent to my own interest but I need to study the texts further before doing so. these texts deal with salient aspects of my very first project proposal draft, A contract with the Ineffable, and may be useful in my explication of what I am currently doing. Eck concludes her paper pretty well where I began with my first draft project proposal, ‘[the] living presence response considered as an experience of the representation of the unrepresentable’.