Tutorial 3: Jonathan Kearney – 17 June 2019

 

We spent most of the time talking around one recent post, Critique on Latest Study.

This summary is taken from our Conversation.

 

We discussed the ebb and flow between refined and crude thinking and handling during making and how a maquette is a condensation and clarification of this process before embarking on a large-scale project. How two approaches are kept in harmony: of keeping the dynamism of the sketch and the clarity of further finishing. That visibly incorporating both can give a sense of the kinetic essence of the process of making.

We also discussed the sense of something arising out of the material and the struggle involved. That this maelstrom of life, with crowded entities entering and exiting a surface is a metaphor of life and how this can also speak about aspects of humanity. How humans are part of and not separate from nature.

The forms represent individually more or less formal approaches and that this duality is emblematic of how I work, between the emotionally literal and the rational artificial, ritual and representational.

We discussed a variety of ideas for larger scale work: the evolutionary ideas and the mythology that arises from them leads to the whole created using modular units, interchangeable and capable of fitting together in various ways.

We discussed the central notion of seeing life in a non-anthropocentric way and how alluding to humanity in this way can be a powerful way of raising questions about our place.

The various responses to my work raised the question of whether the works are related to the idea of monsters, something we do not quite understand. Monsters are harmful, I do not see my works as monsters but rather as inhabiting a parallel world, asking the question what if we were not here?

This led to a discussion about the Anthropocene and how my work is an expression of my relationship with the world and view of human relationships, particularly the nature of individual vs individual and individual vs group dynamics.

Language is part of this argument and the image of the Tower of Babel, used in a post on my Research Paper was discussed as bearing a variety of conceptual meanings as a metaphor for difference and variety.

We continued to talk about the study as a means of opening out different elements. The sense of the emotional and rational, the Apollonian and the Dionysian and where I might place my work in relation to these paradigms. The balance appears to be constantly shifting between the material and the idea: how the two exchange during the process of making, what the trigger points might be and how they coexist in a final work. I think that this unresolved internal dialogue becomes resolved as a conversation between two works.

The material itself is neutral and whether the rational or irrational predominates is a function of how it is approached. Which predominates is part of the selection process as it is difficult to treat the material of clay with the same philosophies at the same time. It might be possible, but my personal structure prefers to oscillate between the two. The balance between the rational and irrational in a single work could be seen, as being created during the making process by alternating the two approaches. However, as I said earlier, the resolution of the two is expressed as a conversation between works rather than within a single work.

What I appear to be doing is exploring the referencing of ideas through my visual language having created a vocabulary over time. Time during which I have transitioned from working with ideas at a distance to breaking open the carapace of rationality, found in earlier works, to dig deeper beneath the surface to find what lies underneath. And if it is sound, authentic, it might ring a bell in someone else.

At his point we started to talk about how I might lead someone into the work, particularly as the current artist environment is very much centred on the overtly societal and human anthropocentric.

Jonathan sees my work as presenting an ambiguity that encourages investigation. However, a lot of visual culture exemplified by Instagram, with its dangerous description of the world, works against pausing, waiting, taking time. He thinks that sadly, most people will not engage but those that do will be richly rewarded.

I asked Jonathan how explicit does one have to be before becoming didactic (not a good thing) to open out a deeper conversation, how does one signpost possibilities? Is it not our gift to do so and alas a task for the viewer? We agreed this is an impossible question to answer but explored some ways of answering this.

We looked at how the time for ‘demystifying art’ has hopefully passed and how confusion in a gallery is a way of catalysing a conversation in a gallery. We then looked at the importance of titles. Jonathan sees what I do as emotional and the title is the rational companion to it, a balance of the emotional and the rational. This is a very interesting idea and one I have often considered but not quite in this way. A title can be seen, as an entry into the work, a poetic entry. However, there is a caveat: not to overburden the work with a title that closes-down its meaning with the choice of words. Reducing the space for its meaning can damage it as well. Questions such as, ‘What is the Difference’, are good.

This led to the question of Jargon and how it can cover a multitude of misunderstandings and how having simplified my language, I have been able to express complex ideas more clearly. Jonathan suggested that writing about the work, not necessarily explicitly for the reasoned discussed above but as another layer could be an interesting and effective way of rewarding further investigation. I have been thinking of ways to do this. The important thing is not to close the work down with words but rather say, ‘this is my offering to you as to what I was thinking but actually there is a space for you’.

Finally, we looked at how I am planning my work and how there is still plenty of time although my methodology requires careful planning ahead.

Critique on Latest Study

Porcelain high relief in drying box 18 x 19 x 11cm

This study has led me to reflect on what I am currently doing both in terms of work and conceptual content. Working small on a large scale idea is not always easy. It is different in the way one part relates to another, everything is seen at a glance rather than experiencing a gradual discovery as an informal circular dance is choreographed around the work. Viewing distances are bodily contract towards immobility as I end up very close to the work, without glasses, in an attempt to restore a large scale visual relationship.

In this work my thoughts have focused on a particular set of notions and shifted from an Apollonian ideal found in the Studies for H to a more Dionysian sense of things. The subjects remain the same and the methodology similar but with its content altered in someway. As always a dichotomy is expressing itself like night and day. 

The study has been difficult to accept in terms of its composition but I have learnt a great deal in how I could approach a more ambitious work. This would be many times larger which itself presents a number of technical issues of drying out and weight. I may have to construct a specific humidity box to maintain the necessary moisture content over a prolonged period. Then again covering may be the only thing necessary since the mass of material will keep its moisture content more readily due to the reduced evaporation caused by a decreased surface to volume ratio.

Its implied motion suggests to me an animation in the form of a ‘dance’ that traces ideas underlying the work. In addition it is in high relief whereas what I envisage as a finished work extends in height and may be on a circular base: perhaps a subliminal allusion to old master depictions of the Tower of Babel: an icon of chaos and the hubris of man (and women?).

 

 

But what is it I am doing, evoking the weight of generations, the struggle for life, are these metaphors for humanity? This latter question refers to my previous post title, ‘What is the Difference’. This is not a de-humanisation but rather a de-centering of the anthropic view of things. We are part of the whole and not separated from it, a view that has proliferated during the Anthropocene. We are as subject to the same blind and dispassionate forces that brought us about as any other part of nature… with one difference. We have a heightened capacity to change our behaviour. But the individual dynamic is not the same as that of the group and this creates an inertia which naturally tends towards conserving the status quo. Which way things will go is still in the balance; a race against time for the majority of future humans. Extinction is unlikely to be total but annihilation of a large number if not majority of people is certainly a clear possibility.  

 


 

It has just occurred to me, why am I writing all this down, I have never done such a thing, why post so much since I hold all these thoughts in my mind as I work? One, it provides a contemporary document that may prove valuable in the future: the memory plays tricks and history is constantly retold in the light of the present. Two, writing practice has enabled me to move more rapidly through ideas, build on them, alter them and articulate them more clearly

Mea Culpa Leads to a Unification

This piece was the one that exploded in the kiln and caused the damage. I am now reaching the end of its reconstruction and there are two more well on their way. This small project is running parallel to the main project proposal. It is a reconnection with clay and the organic. However, it is not a caprice, as I reflect on what I am doing, pertinent ideas come to mind: composites, contingency, deep past and cultural transitions, modular thinking, dialysis and synthesis, destruction and construction. The list is endless and endlessly layered. What might be the locus of the Research Paper begins to come into view.

What is emerging is a synthesis of ideas that have so far only existed as a coherent ensemble by virtue of my imaginings and feelings that they are in some way connected. I also begin to see how they relate to present day concerns in articulable form.

Patterns exist at all levels and scales of existence, repeating cyclically, each iteration different but nonetheless containing within itself a core that binds them together. Contingent events can cause large ruptures in systems, nothing is certain or inevitable but seen with hindsight, they appear inevitable and progressive, even predestined. This latter fallacy is a function of how we think, as though things have an aim or purpose. Algorithms are dispassionate and impartial. Disparate life processes, their repeating patterns throughout the planet’s history and from early civilisations to today’s society all bear the imprint of algorithms that might provide one with a glimpse of the future. But this vision cannot be discerned in detail but rather a direction of travel, subject to contingent events, the unpredictable.

What I am sensing is the repetition of patterns within patterns, fractals of fractals; that the history of life, human culture, and the future, are iterations subject to principles that become evident in different ways according to circumstance. The word I have identified as emblematic of what I might explore in the R.S. is metamorphosis. But this does not tell the whole story. Things come together to form more complex, sometimes simpler more efficient systems. Whether they be societies, organisms or ideas. All these things are subject to common laws, the same principles that defy entropy and sometimes succumb to it. Another word close to metamorphosis is emergence, the result of a traversal, a change in kind as from simple chemical reactions to ‘self interested’ replicating molecules or at a higher level of complexity, from sentience to consciousness.

The whole is not made of separate things but we perceive it as such by our own modularity in thinking which in turn could be postulated to be reflection of how consciousness emerged from simpler, chaotic but ordered, causal processes. Time is the function of such changes. We measure time by the rate of change in things whether while looking at a second hand moving across a clock face or our own faces in the mirror as we age. However, time is a flexible construct. It is not uniform or fixed in the physical world; the mind is inconsistent in how it perceives time. The notion of time of itself is meaningless.

But what on earth am I talking about? Whether I am talking about societies, organisms, consciousness or an artwork, the way these things are built is piece by piece, each component interacting with other components in reciprocal feedback relationships. Components group to form units at a higher level of organisation. Levels ‘talk’ across boundaries of complexity and with the outside world. It is a wondrous web of regulated processes of ‘communication’, regulated if that term can be used, by blind, impartial algorithms. Daniel Dennett talks about the nature of algorithms at length in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. By their very nature, algorithms are independent of substrate which means they can apply to different systems whether chemical, physical, biological, ecological, linguistic or cultural.

I am seeing how what happened during the Cambrian explosion as an analogue to the rise of complex urban societies: new ecologies, innovative strategies all based on modularity. The modularity of body plans and their genetic control and modularity of thinking fostered by the coming together of disparate modes of living encoded in art, religion and writing respectively. And if one looks close enough one might see a common thread made evident in the evolution or building of new blueprints whether they be organic or behavioural. And the drive for these changes may differ, whether it is an increase in oxygen levels in the atmosphere hundreds of millions of years ago, the increase in meat eating (and therefore scarce fat) helping an increase in brain activity many tens of thousands of years ago or more recently the retreat of glaciers a mere twelve thousand years ago. Changes in the environment give rise to changes in life: a thought well worth pondering on with respect to human induced climate change in the Anthropocene.

Can equivalences be made between world events? Can we infer sufficiently accurately to postulate what might happen in the future given certain conditions? And what of contingent events, is human unpredictability that difficult to allow for or are there only a few variables on a large scale? The scale at which something is looked at can alter conclusions. It is hard to predict the behaviour of one single item in the midst of the countless, but the whole will follow a pattern much easier to understand. What is the link between the two, between the individual and the collective? 

Our ability to alter the planet surface gives us power over our future but can we learn from the past to avoid the inevitable or are we condemned to repeat a pattern which, while different in broad details, is the same at a higher level? This may be where the digital revolution might have a decisive role for the better or the worst. If we want a degree of stability, we cannot leave the future to the contingencies of human behaviour. But is human behaviour contingent or predictable? It seems more and more the case that it is the latter but does this reconcile with individual freedom, if such a thing actually exists? To what extent are we free to decide as individuals and more importantly as collectives? Is it enough to say that the collective is made up of countless individuals or is some new paradigm needed? How dangerous could this be? Social engineering is not a new thing.

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.