Living Presence Response: A Description of the Ineffable?

 

 

This post was written before and subsequently posted after the previous one. This explains any anachronisms that appear in the text.

In my previous-but-one post, I started by describing how the reconstruction of a narrative by its very nature is at best an approximate endeavour. The description of a past reality in and of itself is in all probability a chimera made of many parts pieced together as best as one can with the sensory and intellectual tools at one’s disposal. This is the main thrust of Donald Hoffman’s thesis that proposes the impossibility to see the world as it really is. He explains that we experience reality in terms of ‘fitness payoff’ and that this evolutionary pressure has shaped the way we perceive things in terms of what is the best way for us to survive in the world, not the most accurate description of it. So is a narrative a question of convenience and advantage?

Hoffman’s shift in the way the age old problem of describing reality is approached is another example of how contemporary paradigms are shifting and being replaced at an ever increasing rate. Thanks to an increasing knowledge base ever more accessible, the ability to bring together disparate areas of interest in one place has stimulated holistic approaches to almost every area of study. Crossing disciplines is essential if new insights are sought.

Alfred Gell’s revision of how artworks might function in society, is another example of seeing things differently. His book, Art and Agency singles out precisely the mechanism by which viewers interact with art as though the latter were similar to living beings. Gell sees this in terms of agency, i.e. influencing viewers to behave as though they were engaging with something alive rather than inanimate. An artwork lies within a context, a social environment or art nexus, as van Eck calls it. Van Eck puts it rather well: 

[Gell] considers objects of art not in terms of their formal or aesthetic value or appreciation within the culture that produced them. Neither does [he] consider them as signs, visual codes to be deciphered or symbolic communications. Instead, Gell define[s] art objects in performative terms as systems of actions, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it. Art works thus considered are the equivalents of persons, more particularly social agents.

Gell identified one mechanism by which viewers can be influenced as technical virtuosity. This presents something made in a way that is hard to comprehend, functioning as a form of ideal or magic. The key is that this thing  is achieves what viewers try to do in other areas. This technical virtuosity can take many forms and is not confined to the skill of carving or painting. 

This view of art as a performative agent is at first sight somewhat at odds with Richard Anderson’s view of skilfully encoding culturally significant meaning in a sensuous affecting medium. The skill element is common to both as is the significant meaning. However, in Anderson, emphasis is placed on encoding meaning, whereas Gell’s hypothesis sees agency as the main function for the art work.

Anderson in his anthropological idea is trying to bring together very disparate areas of creativity. In his book Calliope’s Sisters his examples are taken from across very different societies some of which do not recognise the idea of art. Gell’s approach is more art historical. Both Anderson and Gell are trying to identify art and its function in a way that does not fall into Western artistic paradigms of aesthetics and semiotics. Anderson’s hypothesis focuses on the semiotic content of an art object whereas Gell’s focuses on the mechanism by which an art object exerts influence. Gell’s idea is closer to Bayles and Orlando’s proposition that art changes the world in that he states that the agency of the object [or event] consolidates or reforms a world view in a social setting. This is very much the case in sacred contexts but also in the way art is perceived and responded to in secular white cube spaces to mention just one of many possible examples.  

Gell borrows from Peircian semiotics and TAG analysis and replaces terms such as object, meaning, interpreter, sign, signifier etc with words that are more readily applicable to the arts. 

  • Agency: the power to influence the viewer, this is mediated by the
  • Index: the material object that elicits responses
  • Prototype: the thing the index is representing. 
  • Artist: the immediate cause or author of the existence of the index and its properties
  • Recipients: those affected by the work or intended to be by the index.

Semiotics, structuralism and post-structuralism originally resided in the literary and anthropological domains. What this does is to slim down the complexities that arise when analysing work in terms of their function in a humanities context. Focus is placed on the visual arts aspect without losing contact with the humanities.  Most significantly, the term meaning is exchanged with prototype. This reminds me of the Jungian idea of archetypes. But rather than presenting as a Platonic overarching concept, the prototype can be specific to the index in question.

Prototype is an important departure from meaning because it enables the representation of something ineffable. The living presence of the object is enhanced by, in many cases dependent on, its social context. So the art object becomes the explanation of the ineffable rather than ‘the problem to be explained’. 1 Because of the social nexus, in appropriately reinforcing circumstances, the effect becomes proofed against rational explanation. A response mechanism is created that is emotional and volitional rather than rational and cognitive. 

These taxonomies are useful when attempting to disentangle relationships and the role of each player in the social nexus in which they are enmeshed. This system of analysis may be a helpful tool in confirming putative or identifying actual causal relationships between the art object its social, anthropological and psychological effects. This form of analysis has been used primarily in art historical context but I can see how I can apply it to tease out aims and objectives from intentions in artistic practice.

I see aims and objectives as analytical descriptions of process. They are the functional and purposeful surface ideas that have to be worked out, arrived at and articulated through cognitive processes. Intentions on the other hand are more deeply rooted. They lie beneath reason, often unrevealed or tacit. To find one’s intention is like holding one’s beating heart. It can be dangerous or bring well being, we often keep intentions well hidden inside the mind; somewhere deep in the brain. Intentions are tinder waiting to be lit. They can give light and warmth or burn everything to ashes. 

  1. Van Eck,[]

Living Presence Response

 

 

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. 

 

Wolfgang Gil: Maleable Sound as Sculpture

 

Resonant Body I - Wolfgang Gil

 

Gareth Jones, in his essay, describes the historical changes in the relationship between sculpture and sound. This dichotomous tension is straddled by Gil’s work in Sonic Plasticity proposes the use of sound as a malleable material – one that can be stretched in all dimensions, encompassing height, width, and depth, with curves, edges, and changing geometries. His Aural Fields and Resonant Bodies combine physical structures set to vibrate, creating geometric fields of sound perceivable in space with edges and form.

This is an interesting field I am currently investigating with respect to the final proposal with respect to sculptures. I am not proposing to do the same sort of thing but Gil’s work does have correspondence with how I see sound as creating a physical entity in itself.

My idea is to counterpoise the readability and sensuality of the solid pieces with the pure perception and sensuality in another modality of sound. I am concerned about the cancelling out of one another: should solid sculpture reside in silence, should sound be disembodied? These are questions I intend to explore and aim to resolve in some way. The use of digital interactive devices is something I have been working with enabling an element of audience interaction. But then again, the work in silence also speaks of itself. This is an interesting area of empirical research which needs a trial and error, or heuristic, approach.

A Correspondence: Marguerite Humeau

Betty brought Marguerite Humeau to my attention during her feedback to my Mid Point Review. The artist works with similar ideas I work with, organic life, sound, the past and myths. It is interesting but I do find her installations somewhat too clinical and the sculptures lacking in depth. What I mean by this is that they do not have scales of vision: they are large and smooth and had all their interest sanded off them. The slickness lacks humanity and looks rather plastic and artificial which does not seem quite in keeping with her ideas. They look like reproductions of Blender renders in fibreglass or some similar material. In any case, I like that she works with mediums and ideas that I can identify with and is one of very few artists that is in my direct sphere of interest.

 

Art Now: Marguerite Humeau, Echoes, Tate Britain, November 2017

Low Residency 2019 Day 3: Morehshin Allahyaai

 

Warning: this post contains very subjective material.

After over six months I still remember one visit and one work in particular. At the Annka Kultys Gallery in the London City Island an exhibition of digital works was showing entitled Re-Figure-Ground.  Two things I remember, the video-game-like virtual reality goggle-based immersive 3D videos complete with kinetic controls with which to travel within the virtual world, and a simple 3D animation that did not do much with a spoken audio.

The VR works were interesting enough from the point of view of technology but quite honestly they left me underwhelmed on account of their lack of conveying any point to them other than showcasing the technical work. And to add, the resolution was so poor that it left me wondering whether I needed new glasses. This inconsistency between the vision and the actual vision left me somewhat frustrated. Claudia Hart’s augmented reality was like walking through a myopic fruit machine of social media icons along pointless corridors. The fact that she is examining the body, perception and nature ‘adapt[ing] the forms and software normally used to create 3D shooter games was no compensation for what was clearly meant to be a transformational experience. 

The Karst cave by Snow Yunxue Fu’s was, as she says, an attempt to embody the concept of Plato’s cave in a virtual realm. She then continues to say, ‘providing a contemplative environment for the visitor to wonder; walking and teleporting within the control of the wireframed virtual hands that are given to them’. Really, Plato’s cave? That is certainly not what Plato was on about when he described our secondhand manipulated perception of the world. Leave that bit of referencing and you are left with an enjoyable, if somewhat, again myopic trip fantastic.

 

 

The rest of the show I found cold but one work did stand out for me, and it was not the most accomplished technically. Morehshin Allahyari’s video installation She Who Sees the Unknown, Aisha Qandisha was a back projected video 1 of a 3D animated figure that did not do much other than turn around a bit and sit in some sort of digital sea. On its own it would have graced any number of album covers for some group or other singing about whatever. However, when combined with the narrative it became something else. It transported me to another world of magical realism in some ancient past which is very much present. 

The combination of powerful scripted content with a weird large image moving, now menacingly with the audio gave me the sense of a deity being displayed before its awestruck followers. This remains in my mind not only for the content but how something relatively simple in digital terms, can still have impact compared to more sophisticated presentations. 

Much of her earlier work does not do much for me. It is overtly political and lacks depth; mimicking the tired old tropes of various movements in previous years. Thankfully, she has developed a more personal voice that has moved her into a rich imaginative space. 

morehshin.com

  1. Onto a white acrylic sheet (transmits around the require 50% of light for a good back lighting as Jonathan explained to me) suspended from the ceiling and cleanly fitted onto the sheet by means probably of some sort of projection mapping[]

Art and Science

It has finally arrived, a beautiful collection of poetry. A few weeks ago, as is my habit, I woke up during the night and settled to listen to the radio. BBC 4 Extra was playing a programme about the life and works of Rebecca Elson. A cosmologist, equally known for her poetry who died tragically young. She wrote about life with as much insight as her work as a physicist. Her latter writings deal with her imminent death in an inspiring fusion of fact and vision. I was enthralled.

Elson brought science and art together in a way seldom done. When the two branches of knowledge come together, not as appropriation, comment or illustration but to speak in a single language of experience, empirical fact and authentic metaphor, something powerful is unleashed capable of prising open this world to reveal others as nestled together, ready to be felt and understood as though they were here. Ted Hughes does something similar but from a darker interior, a biblical horror as opposed to a cosmological creation. The beauty of both poets lies in the merger of nature and culture, with an insight and ability to move from the very small to the unimaginably large, to show the connectedness of all things and that existence is something greater than us.

 

Andrew Lord: A Case of Phusis

 

 

I mentioned in a recent post that I am now ready to look into a contemporary context for my work. This is not altogether easy as what I do is not centred on one idea or medium alone. I know that many artists today are cross disciplinary and work in various mediums; this makes contextual correspondences all the harder to find. I have to be careful not to mention every one and sundry that I like or identify with in some way. This sort of openness would only confuse and lead to a lack of direction. What would making a long list do, help in the project development, show my wide taste in things?

No, what I am looking for is work that directly contextualises mine in terms of contemporary ideas and environments. Andrew Lord, ten years my senior is one such practitioner. Although he would not like to be called a potter, his body of work very much centres on the idea of vessels and clay, something I also work with.

Lord’s central notion is an interesting one. It is an idea that many working in clay have followed for some time, that of ‘rescuing’ pottery from still life painting. As Mark del Vecchio lucidly points out in his book, Postmodern Ceramics:

From Pablo Picasso to Giorgio Morandi, Vincent Van Gogh, and George Braque, pottery has tended to be the visual anchor of most still-life compositions. Contemporary ceramists have begun to reverse the compliment and draw inspiration from the paintings in which these pots appear, returning them to the three-dimensional realm, but retaining some painterly associations. 

Looking for what is common between two and three dimensions is a process which also requires an awareness of what is lost in translation. Only in this way can an essence of the object be made manifest. 

Andrew Lord displays his work in such a way as to allude to the still life genre by placing objects on tables and plinths, carefully arranged in terms of light, time of day, space and so on. The arrangements often remind me of Morandi’s still lifes, treated as emerging from the material becoming objects felt in the making. He leaves overt traces of how the object is formed often to the point of caricatured. 

This work is consonant with elements of some of my work, playful and ‘rough modelled’ caressed into being aimed at a sense of Platonic idealism imperfectly fashion in and on (E)arth. 

It also interest for me to note that in some cases, vases are displayed just off the floor in a similar way to how I plan to show  H’s Play Things in the final show… with one twist. 

 


 

Much of this approach is consonant with what Heidegger says in his essay, The Origin of the Work of Art:

  1. The material (clay) is central and clearly evident in the work. 
  2. The clay is subservient to what is being portrayed yet it ‘shines forth’ 1.
  3. There is a struggle between the nature of the material and what it tries to portray, what it is formed into or as Heidegger would say, between the Earth and the World.
  4. The vessels are not the product of craft yet he uses, techne or mode of knowing, to bring out hidden Aletheia, or being.
  5. The being of the thing is not just made, it is brought forth and made evident. It is generated from within through phusis as though through natural law.

But what is the role of craft in this act of phusis? Heidegger does become confusing, or more likely confused unable to articulate a distinction between craft and art: he descends into subjective ideas of the mystical and the sublime and sacred to support his thesis. Perhaps a simple, if still elusive reply is that the impetus for a work of art comes from within an internal process of natural growth, whereas craft’s impetus is external to its growth. It is clear to me that this categorisation is false in many cases and can only be considered from piece to piece and not generically.

Having said all this, Heidegger does provide a useful way of thinking about art as a spontaneous act of emergence in the making also raising interesting questions regarding the relationship between what is ‘being creative’ and artistic practice. 

  1. Heidegger[]

Impromptu: Emperor at 2 Girls

 

 

Four digital prints I submitted to the 2 Girls Gallery ‘Impromptu’ show. They are mouse drawings. That means I drew them using an old mouse. I like this technique because of the difficulty of controlling the mouse as opposed to the ease of use of a pad and stylus. This friction creates a tension between what I want to draw and what is possible. The space that lies between the two tells me something of how striving for perfection is conditional to the means and circumstances. The analysis required is in contrast with the poietic maelstrom involved in working with sodden earth. It is where I can stand back and consider a different aspect of the source of what I do.

The technique of drawing with a mouse I see as embodying that continual striving for perfection by imperfect means that characterises humanity: by necessity flaws become the paradigm. And it is this process of turning one’s shortcomings into something of real affecting power where the magic of process lies.

I originally thought of presenting photographs which had been digitally altered, coloured. However, I was dissatisfied with the results. I have often found that combining digital marks with photographs whether analogue or not, does not give me a good sense. I am not talking about manipulating a photographic image or set of images in which case the material sources are of the same kind. This is exemplified in the work of an artist that Jonathan suggested I look at. Emily Allchurch creates imaginary landscapes based on old master paintings using a library of photographs she has compiled. She works with source material of the same kind and treats it in the same way: there is an inherent coherency here. I am rather referring to adding, superimposing, layering digital marks to photographic images: sources of a different kind. There is always something to be said for breaking rules and mish-mashing but I have found that this approach only works for me when what I am doing has a graphic design This I find only works when the sought after outcome is primarily one that resides in the area of graphic design… and then not always. This is something I would ordinarily leave to someone else who has affinity and experience in this domain. 

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 ountains, steaming in the morning
And he saw the sea,
Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils,
He saw the stars summing away into the black, mushrooms of the nothings 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.