History and Shape-shifting Across Time: Rethinking a Tutorial

 

What is history? Nobody gave a deeper answer than Hegel – Terry Pinkard | Aeon Essays

History, or at least the study of it, is in bad shape these days. Almost everyone agrees that knowing history is important, but in the United States, except at the most elite schools, the study of history is in freefall.

 

A very interesting take on the human condition. It touches on some of the things I spoke about with Jonathan in our tutorial.1

Pinkard opens with explaining how history is a process by which, ‘humanity experimentally seek[s] to understand itself in the myriad of ways in which it gives shape to itself in daily life, and also how historical change is intimately linked to changes in our basic self-understanding.’ As he puts it, shape-shifting ourselves across time. 

This is at the core of what I do across Big History. Seeing how we are indissolubly part of our origins and yet try to shake off the past, blindly, without realising that it (the past) clings onto us, embedded in our very flesh. 

In ‘What is the Difference’, the creatures shift shape as they rise the Babel-like tower, crude to refined, latent to defined, yet they bear a deep relationship woven into the fabric of life. 

Hegel’s first fundamental idea for his philosophical history, self-consciousness, corresponds to the microcosm of the act of reflection in action and the meditative holistic sense in making. His second idea corresponds with the notion of context and placement in a social space in which the first person viewpoint implies a dialectic. Further down the line, the I is separated from the individual ‘flesh-and-blood’ agent as it becomes the we in the accumulation of acts. This in itself reminds me of Buber’s philosophy of relations in ‘I and Thou’.

Hegel’s third idea refers to how circumstance largely dictates how things can go better or worse for an individual. We are all the offspring of history and constrained by the socio-familial-political and cultural environment. Although we are constrained by these factors, we also possess a greater or lesser amount of self determination, the ‘I’, that can set the way amongst the ‘we’.

All three ideas are contained within my work and the setting apart of directly human iconography is in some way the setting oneself apart from the ‘we’ whilst being in it. A toing-and-froing of the two forms which converge and diverge as do the Apollonian and Dionysian ways I spoke about in the tutorial. 

I constantly seek to reshape ideas as we do our lives, break with habits and reconcile others; shave off the animal in me whilst embracing it as my history and seeing how I cannot be without that part. 

The instability of things inherent in Hegel’s view of the world is reflected in the use of brittle, fragile material capable of resisting eons yet its form subject to catastrophic events. Porcelain is, as far as I am concerned, eternal, yet the form it is given is as fragile as the contingencies that surround it allow. 

Pinkard talks about new form of life emerging from the cultural rubble of an unbearable former one. So it is with the works I do, they look into a future as though they themselves are the past, with us absent from the scene yet we are here to witness it. This paradox, at the core of what I do, is the source of much of my difficulty in pinning down an essence. So I have reconciled with the evanescence of certainty, accepting the duality of things including my work.

Pinkard continues to talk about hierarchy and the Ancient Greek world’s moving beyond the freedom of a single person in society. This sense of democracy is implicit in what I am doing, all forms are equal and different without any containing an inherent authority over the others. They are all part of a great whole without which each would lose meaning with the loss of others.

This sense of freedom: does it pass onto me, and if I am free, am I independent? To proclaim oneself truly independent is to self-alienate, a social nothingness that negates an important function of the human self. Freedom does not lie in total independence but in the shape of agency that we assume in the context of one another and circumstance. A series of exchanges that at times result in a negative and at others a positive ‘balance sheet’. But in the end, it is the dialogue, the dialectic, that gives the ultimate fruit of synthesis and progression free from brut force, and art is only part of that but an essential component: in shaping tropes we shape ourselves; therein lies the power and danger of art.

  1. For the actual content see the conversation transcript. []

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

Grappling with the Angel

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.