I was watching a video featuring the blue ringed octopus, a poisonous creature that warns would-be predators by the appearance of iridescent blue rings as part of a rapid colour change. Unusually bright colours in animals and plants are often protective warning signs that they are poisonous, a strategy used advantageously by innocuous opportunistic mimics. Equally, bright colours can also attract as part of courtship and mating in many animals as well as a means of plants encouraging the ingestion and subsequent dissemination of their seed. Animals respond to such cues just as we are attracted or repelled by colours, movement, smells and sounds. This raises the question, is there a correlation between the living presence response elicited by artworks and the way we respond to the natural world?
Gell, van Eck and others have looked at the phenomenon of living presence response from an art historical stance but it seems to me that a lot can be learnt from observing our responses to the natural world. Van Eck in Particular talks about the role of the sublime. The sublime as a topos has been written about copiously since the enlightenment, however, this is as much an area for behavioural and evolutionary psychologists as it is for those interested in art history and theory. Responses of awe, terror, pleasure and overwhelming presence have been used by artists ever since people have been making things. Authors and facilitators have employed notions of scale, beauty and technical virtuosity to great effect. These are amongst a number of properties found in nature and religion. What could be more sublime than an idyllic landscape or an all encompassing deity whose beauty is such that it cannot be imagined let alone looked upon, maker of all the world?
Authors and enablers of art have often been motivated by the desire to possess at least a small piece of the cause for awe, sublimity, beauty and power through the facilitating and making of great works. And we raise such things to mythical heights, from the Sistine Chapel to the Pyramids. It is this close relationship between our emotional response to natural things and art objects that interests me: the reason we look upon certain art as though it were alive despite knowing it to be inanimate. We speak of such works as speaking to us, living, and we respond to them with emotions and thoughts that are close to those with which we react to animals, plants and indeed other human beings. We treasure them, often above other humans, and we make pilgrimages to see them in the hope of experiencing their purported transformative properties. Centres of power have long recognised this as self evident.
Religious icons, large painting cycles, marble statues, tribal carvings and video installations vary in the way they create responses but all hold in common the desire for us to engage with them beyond cognitive interactions. The aim in such cases. to engender a gut reaction, a psychological jolt that brings us into an emotional-volitional nexus with it. This entanglement is most often set in a social context. The art object gives rise to a dialectic and perhaps consensus of its meaning and function. There is a toing and froing between the art object and the viewers of response, inference and rule making. In this way, the art work’s agency could be seen as not only being defined by social conventions and interactions but its characteristics which are then assimilated into the social nexus and become part of the way in which it is viewed.
How this agency is created is largely the role of the artist. The artist’s charge is to imbue the work with sufficient information for the work to act with agency in its respective social setting. However, this of itself is not enough. The social setting must be receptive either by prior knowledge of the domain in which the art object functions or be informed of the aims or function of the art object so that the viewers can be guided in their response by a set of rules of reaction.
The skill of the artist is to enable this nexus of meaning and function. The artist can employ many strategies and tactics to do so, but for the work to elicit the living presence response, he or she much be aware of the context and receptivity of its audience.
NB: the terms I have used so far could be replaced with Gell’s. This would make the writing and reading of the text much simpler as in my previous post, namely: artist, index, prototype, recipient, agency.
I have not mentioned examples as this sort of post is more of a place holder for a fuller text.
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.
The final restored Graven Image. One of a series of contingent caprices foretelling the shadow world that follows. A world that encompasses some of what I talked about in the last tutorial with Jonathan; contingent because their restoration and rebirth arose out of an unpredictable and calamitous event that in part, catalysed the shadow world.
What am I doing here? I am experimenting much as early civilisations onwards experimented with composite creatures: an exploration of the imagination facilitated by the social juxtaposition of different life strategies in one concentrated space. Caprices, perhaps not, rather an expression of a deep seated modularity found in religion, science fiction, and myth. Here the myth is both biological and psychological; how could it be otherwise.
I wrote the following as part of the previous post on writing. When revising what I had written it seemed a bit of a non-sequitur. It was more about creating a context for linking writing about science with writing about art. The ideas I touch on here need expanding but I think it serves as a note-to-self for the future.
The scientist has to assume, indeed believe in the uniformity of the universe, otherwise no finding would have applicable value elsewhere, everything would be relative. What this means is that the laws of physics apply equally wherever you are located in the universe, there is no place where the laws might be different or behave in some other way. This is not to be confused with the theory of relativity and its stated relationship between mass, energy, time and space which is always the same, with the speculative exception of black holes or the very beginning of the universe when the ‘Big Bang’ occurred. If the universe were not uniform regarding to the laws of physics, there would be no possibility of confirming scientific theories or indeed refuting them, for there would be no basis for predicting outcomes according to a hypothesis, phenomena would be subject to local laws only. This assumption is one of the basic principles of the scientific method and experimental philosophy and so far has not been refuted.
The religious person must also believe in uniformity regarding god or gods, otherwise there could not be an ultimate authority for morality and therefore behaviour could not be regulated. Religions rely on a uniformity of consequence, justice, compassion, love, etc. as a central tenet to their universality. Correspondences and conflicts between religions come down to what they have in common as well as how they differ in their universal applicability as much as ritual practices, credos and the like. Likewise, an artist has to trust that there are universals that when applied, bring thought and people together rather than divide them. These universal ideas or the search for them create the possibility for a coherent vision on which to base a philosophy and practice.
In all three cases, these deep level ideas, simple in themselves are nevertheless hard to demonstrate. As for proof, for now they must remain elusive paradigms, ideals, questions of faith. There also appears to be an increase in fragmentation regarding the nature of uniformity. By this I mean that scientific philosophy requires there to be what is known as the doctrine of uniformitarianism applying to all branches of science and technology. The doctrine remains the same for all practitioners whether one is talking about medicine, chemistry, biology or physics. 1 With religion on the other hand, the nature of uniformity can change according to belief. The divine agency and its effects differ or agree from one religion to another. The plurality is directly proportional to the number of practitioners that adhere to one particular belief or another. When it comes to art, the situation becomes even more fragmented. The variety and number of different paradigms is a function of the countless movements, groups and individual artists that work and have worked to a particular vision across all societies.
In science, there is a constant search for the consistency of the laws of the universe or perhaps better put, for any inconsistencies that might be observed which in turn, could lead to revised, refuted or new theories which would nevertheless still be based on the assumption of universal uniformity. The spiritual believer is ever racked with doubt about the justice of things, questioning the purpose or reason for the world behaving as it does; asking why justice, redemption and even punishment take the shape they do. Recourse is made to faith in the divine as the pillar on which the belief structure is supported. And the artist has to be authentic in themselves, find what is at the core of their being in order to make sense of things and synthesise them into something that creates a commons with others.
Uncertainty, Time and Distance
Each one of these persons must trust in a different kind of uniformity but this is not static. It is a concept implicitly embedded in the idea of change. The implication being that the same change would occur under the same conditions wherever and whenever they occur. The key here is, under the same conditions. Conditions change and so do outcomes, but an outcome is not as a result of different laws acting. The outcome is the result of the same laws acting on a different ‘mix’ of elements. This means that the laws are reliable but not necessarily predictable. Quantum mechanics has shown us that the predictable world is an illusion created by the averaged sum of an inherently unstable and unpredictable fundamental substrate. However, reliability is the knowledge gained from experience and a belief in universal uniformality, including the unpredictable quantum microcosm.
When it comes to art the matter is somewhat more subtle because art is contextual. Context is an elusive characteristic of complex circumstances or conditions. At first sight, the ‘doctrine’ of uniformitarianism might appear to fall apart but this is an illusion. An illusion created on the surface of things due to context being a chaotic complex of influences and forces, relationships and interactions that provide ‘unique’ conditions resulting in the individuality of artistic visions and production. However, there is no reason why the forces acting on each and every artist are not the same, only altered by circumstance, genetic and cultural predisposition, historical antecedents and so on. The outcomes may differ due to different causes but the underlying laws remain invariant. The result is that although they may appear vastly different to us, there are commonalities which when averaged out produce the sum of human culture. And the wider the sweep of observation across societies and periods in history, the fewer the global correspondences giving rise to the difficulty in defining what art is.
An example of outcomes being vastly different but the laws at work remaining the same, would be the existence of life. Life exists on Earth, no other life has been yet found anywhere else in the solar system. Yet, the abundant, exuberant ecology of our planet is subject to the same fundamental laws found anywhere else in space. The differences are due to local conditions and which laws apply or not and in what proportion. For example, life on Earth is very much dependent on the planet’s distance from the Sun, its magnetic field, age and so on.
The interesting thing though, is that the fundamental laws acting on say, the Moon are the than those acting on Earth: yet nothing much changes on the Moon except for a few parameters, conditions are much simpler. The planet Venus on the other hand has a complex active surface, more complex than the Moon’s with an atmosphere and geological activity, yet it is much simpler than Earth’ surface. On Earth, once life emerged, perhaps as long ago as nearly four billion years, a different set of laws arose. A traversal takes place with the emergence of an ecology which in turn gives rise to evolutionary processes. New laws come into play, sub-laws which are nevertheless subject to the fundamental laws that existed before and continue to do so such as, the laws of thermodynamics. However, these new laws are also different in kind because they act on different kinds of systems such as living organisms (in which case reverse entropy). Could the same be said about consciousness, that once consciousness emerges, a new set of laws comes into action?
Art is a product of our consciousness and part of human culture. Art emerges relatively late on in our evolution, it took some time for art, religion and science to emerge in human culture despite humans appearing in their modern form long before. Could there have been a hidden mutation that caused a leap in human activity, or was time needed for new proceeses to emerge out our consciousness and interactions with the world? And if so, are these processes subject to the same laws acting on new conditions or are the laws a new emergence from consciousness? Or put another way, are there correspondences between the processes that govern society and culture and those that govern other forms of life? If so what are they? If not, what is special about cultural laws?
My hunch is that there are correspondences, as stated by Dawkins in his idea of the cultural meme acting as a selfish gene; also, crudely put, Malthusian-like forces acting on how populations react to conditions. Research into free will is throwing light on how free we actual are, whether it is an illusion or partial illusion and what the forces are that act on us to make us behave and perceive in a certain way. But my intuition also tells me that there are some elements of human activity that have produced unique rules. Whether these are inherent in the domain, such as mathematics and aesthetics or universal and stand outside the need for human presence, is a matter of constant debate.
For the very reason that uniformity is masked by differences in local conditions, the forces at work are often not self evident. They would go against experience and be counterintuitive. To begin to understand them requires prior knowledge or experience, at least familiarity with the field. You cannot understand a scientific theory without the antecedent knowledge that goes to make it up. In a similar way, to understand or appreciate a ‘piece of art’ an experience connecting one with it in some way helps. Whether it be by association, familiarity or knowledge of the field, as Dewey might have said, context creates the artwork in the receiver’s mind.
Perhaps these are intuitive thoughts trying to deal with counterintuitive ideas, such as probability (which is why quantum mechanics is such a difficult field to grasp and accept)â€¦ and certain forms of art. But why does art produce such strong emotions when debated? Art in particular divides opinion far beyond its apparent effect on everyday life with opinions being expressed in ways they would not about other matters even to the point of causing offence more readily than in other situations. I think that the effect of art runs much deeper than one might realise. People in power or seeking power have known this since early times. Art can be used to mould opinions, beliefs and allegiances from politics to economics, from status and fashion to the expression of wealth, social and philosophical ideals. Art can even persuade people to be kind, generous and cooperative or cruel and violent. Art is at the root of religion, fashion, status, politics, all complex human activity. Whether it is a simple bead necklace from the Kalahari or Michelangelo’s PietÃ¡, whether a feature film or Homer’s Iliad, they are all expressions of human interactions between themselves and the world. The anthropologist R. L. Anderson suggests that art is:
culturally significant meaning, skilfully encoded in an affective, sensuous medium.
I am talking here of the doctrine regarding the laws of physics and causality, not the more specific reference to early geological ideas which were proposed in opposition to catastrophism[↩]
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.