Iterations or Something Different?

 

 

A thread of thoughts is like a gut that extends from air to air travelling through a body grown and developed around it, nourished by the ingestion, digestion and assimilation of ideas. The alimentary canal, symbolic and figurative appears in my work as such a thread.

The constraints of the surface to volume barrier to growth are dissolved by the gut. From the genesis of complex life onwards, it is the single structure that has enabled all the physical attributes of animal life that we have come to recognise as active autonomy. Regardless of nervous networks and the evolution of the mind, without its capability to furnish the organism that we are with energy, motility and subsequent life strategies would not have been possible. When we are born, our prime priority to it nurture this function while we nurture and help develop our other faculties.

I have subconsciously worked with this idea since Chaos Contained which is now set free, as an overt symbol in my project; a vehicle for the exploration of language, evolution and myth, as though I were moving within a metaphorical underground cavern complex. It collects ideas, like organs, that adhere to this single thread as the Indian rasa come together to form the elements of artistic expression. 

 

Amputation

 

 

An amputation is not something one would want. Sculptures have suffered amputations throughout the ages, some repaired, others restored and yet others left as they were found, This Herakles, Venus de Milo, the Belvedere Torso and so on. Limbs at times distract from the sense of form, many artists have known this, others have incorporated the limbs so that it merges into the body. 

I have had a problem in that I want to make large ceramic works but the kiln is only so large. I have a top loader 59 cm diameter and 69 cm high which needs to be wired in. This is not small but neither is it large enough. What to do? 

I had thought of jointing the pieces much as I did with the works in Chaos Contained. But this is not in keeping with the informal, organic sense of the works I am currently engaged with. Chaos contained was about symmetrical growth from within, an outward radiation. Now the works are internally generated, handled in a completely different way. 

 

 

So I looked at how I could make the pieces in parts to be put together later after firing. I came across the work of Giovanni Vetere who works with glazed ceramics. The pieces are much larger than would fit in a regular kiln. In addition they would be unstable and too fragile for firing in one piece. On closer inspection of his work I noticed that they are made in pieces using the glaze patterns to camouflage the joints.

 

 

I could try to hide the joints when installing but would there be a better way? To show the cut, a severance, a clean cut that must signify something. And it opens the way for future large works where the cut plays a part. It may even lead to being able to show a work in its pieces arranged meaningfully or at least aesthetically. 

 

 

What this does for my ongoing work is to provide a formal solution to having a kiln smaller than the fluid forms I want to make: the parts can be fitted together after firing. It also solves the problem of how to insert and remove sound equipment.  Conceptually, this technique offers the opportunity for representing vulnerability, fragility and reformation; perhaps also creating compositions, of parts that relate to one another and reconstituting them in different configurations.  

 

Psychological Voltage

Pen and ink study

 

Following from my previous post, ideas start to form as to how the two aspects of what I am working with, the raw and the refined can coexist. The transition from the radially symmetrical, ordered Chaos Contained  to the more poietic gut forms has been a journey from the external to the internal, searching for the internal world contained within the carapace. I have oscillated between one and the other and it seems that the symbolic reifications have been and still are gestators for what I am working on now. I see the possibility of the chaotic inner world nascent from, evolving and bursting out of the idealised concept of the type form. This may be too literal an interpretation of what I am thinking but in the working with the material is where the transformation can take place.

Plato thought that our world was a mere shadow of an ideal one, our backs turned to the light and all we see is a third hand puppet show – which makes me think of the shadow videos I have previously put together. Aristotle got his hands covered in the slime of dissections and the analysis of the literal world that we see and touch each day. He looked at it straight in the eye and tried to explain it.

These drawings are the first attempts at placing markers for the ideas that are forming in my head. From them I can develop and evolve these ideas, make them less… obvious; more about the struggle between knowledge and knowing, existence and experience, than biology.

 

Pen and ink study

 

In the first visualisation, the internal bursts forth from the carapace; in the second, the metamorphosis of form from raw compost to ideal form. (It reminds me in a way of the empathic climb in Philip K. Dick’s Mercianism.) Two ways of reconciling through transformation. This is where the strength of the myth lies, in the potential to transform mud and dust to a higher state. It is an idea that holds psychological voltage. 

 

Elusive Directions: Taxonomy and Mereology

Instrument of Gender in Porcelain (unfired)

I have been thinking about the direction of my work so far during this MA. It has been a period during which things have moved from one thing to another, a period for exploring ideas and dipping my toes into all kinds of areas. With the Research Statement in mind, I need to move things onto a more decisive footing in order for me to have the time to complete an ambitious project proposal next year. 

In the past I have written about my practice as a molecular construction from atomic elements giving way to a more poetic, informal modelling of material.  I have also written about a search to unify my disparate practice; something that has proved elusive. I remember what Will said about my Mid Point Review presentation, that he would like to see a whole room full of works which are not necessarily interconnected. He spoke spontaneously about something that I have continuously reiterated in everything I do. Collections and series, sequences and lines of descent have always fascinated me and heterogeneity has been constantly manifest. Dannii also hinted at another aspect which I have worked on previously, that of creating a legacy from a speculative world that is not necessarily ours. Some of my past exhibitions have touched on these aspects: Chaos Contained, An Artificial Natural History, Traces of Life, Sacred Places, Steel to name a few. These projects have contained an element of evolutionary repetition in a rational collection form. 

What I have largely done so far is attempt a synthesis through a taxonomic approach: seeing the whole as a collection of different elements and trying to connect them by defining their degree of connectedness or relatedness. This approach can work as a system of classification, atomising the properties and characteristics of a practice. This in turn is helpful as a means of combining and recombining things in novel ways. However, this approach can also be divisive creating boundaries and exclusion.

An analogy would be seeing all living organisms as somehow related and attempting to systematise this connectedness in a meaningful way. I feel that what I have done is akin to constructing a genetic tree of my own practice. In the case of biology this throws light on the mechanism of evolution and descent. However, evolution does not have foresight, it is not teleological. Artistic practice on the other hand, has a strong element of aiming for something, a goal or purpose be it wealth, influence, change, discovering or what have you. Taxonomy although useful, is an analytical tool that does not provide all the answers, it is not contextual. Another analogy would be that of taxonomy in biology only tells us about how related organisms are, but to find out more about how they interact, we need to look at their behaviour in their given environments, their ecology. I am not surprised that the Linnean system of classification predated by a considerable period the first ecological observations by Humbolt.

The shortcomings of taking a classification approach was highlighted in the two group sessions we had on Elusive Taxonomies. In short, taxonomy is only partially helpful in giving a synoptic view of a practice or in developing a methodological and philosophical synthesis. In order to get a fuller picture I need a different optic, invert things so that instead of looking at the relationship between areas of work, I look at how each component relates to a whole. Respective interaction then become predicated on inclusion, as part of the whole in which they participate. Each component then shares a parthood with every other component in relation to the whole. Connections are therefore a function of this parthood rather than a more reductive inclusion exclusion defining their place and function.

This is a subtly different way of thinking. Taxonomy is useful in seeing how things relate to one another; parthood, or mereology, helps to conceptually bring together things that might not appear related in the first place. With respect to my practice, looking at it mereologically, what brings together its different aspects would be things such intent, response, experience, circumstance. (There is one element, modality, that seems to straddle the two ways of thinking and presents and interesting conduit between the two.)

All this of course is an analysis of what arises out of intuitive thinking. It is also complicated by how my practice has changed over time. This introduces an evolutionary element which needs to be largely set aside for the moment: I need to concentrate on the now. However, it does highlight an important element that goes into the heterogeneous character of what I do, that I cannot endlessly repeat an idea or process. The reasons for this are for another time. 

To summarise: using taxonomy and mereology together is a powerful way of critically analysing my practice… after the fact. This analysis  influences but not necessarily directs what I do  in action . Taxonomy is a means of understanding the component parts and their interactions a way of building a framework; mereology on the other hand helps identify the context and reasons for my particular methodology.

Hermaphroditus

Hermes and Aphrodite bore a beautiful son. Hermaphroditus was raised in the caves of Mount Ida by fresh water naiads. Growing bored of his life he went walk about around the cities of Phrygia. One day, he wondered into the woods of the city of Caria near Halicarnassus where he was seen by the water nymph Salmacis. She at once fell in love and lusted after the handsome but still young boy pouncing on him in an attempt at seduction.1 Hermaphroditus rejected her attempts and on thinking she had gone, undressed and entered the pool to refresh himself. On doing so, Salmacis sprung on him and wrapped herself around the boy wishing by the gods never to be parted from him. Her wish was granted and the two blended together creating a creature of both sexes.

This tale, one of many told by the Roman poet Ovid in his book Metamorphoses came to mind as I made a new clay model. It is a blend of ideas from the Willendorf Venus to retro rockets; from Philippe Stark’s juicer to the Sputnik satellite, deep sea monster and nimble crustacean. Cult and functionality melded without overt reference to the human form for hermaphrodites abound in nature. 

The emergence of sexual reproduction long ago conferred greater plasticity to complex organisms enabling them to better adapt to different environments. Hermaphrodite animals have adopted this form of sexuality as a strategy for increasing fecundity, with respect to plants it is the norm. Only amongst the flowering plants do you find separate male and female individuals. These are dioecious plants such as the holly. Only female hollies bear fruit. In humans the sex organs begin to differentiate only after nine weeks but then sex is different to gender. The gendering of objects is deep rooted in culture. Ascribing a gender to a particular type of thing is common in many languages but not all languages assign the same gender to an object. I am always a little disconcerted when referring to a flower in Spanish and then Italian. In the former case it is la flor, whereas il fiore is the Italian masculine for the same word. Two romance languages with common roots, at what point in the linguistic womb did the two diverge? German also includes a neuter gender whereas English has pretty well lost all its grammatical genders other than for people, animals and a few other things such as ships (with a few dialectic exceptions).

A professor (who is no longer with us) said to me a few years ago that my work is gendered. I wondered what he meant at the time as I know that my intention in Chaos Contained was to move away from a binary representation of life. I was working in a neutral but fecund world full of life force transcending the cosmically parochial issue of gender. To this day I do not know to what audience he thought the works might relate to, if that was indeed what he was getting at. Ironically, the touring show of CC was managed, promoted and funded purely by women.

We are apt to see ourselves reflected in things and events including questions of gender. We live in times when questions of gender are being revised of their historical baggage. Whatever the case might be, it is so difficult to be objective about affective things. Emotions are at the heart of art practice and appreciation. That is why academic writing for an artist can be a stretch but it can open windows to new horizons through critical thinking. However, critical analysis has to be treated with an awareness of its implications for creativity.

  1. Salmacis was the only naiad that did not take part in the hunts of Artemis on account of her idleness and vanity. She preferred to wash her beautiful limbs and tend to her hair.  Ovid, Metamorphoses. Book IV, 306-312 []

A Seal and Its Significance

 

I know that anonymity is the ultimate fate of everyone; after all, what is in a name?

Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, gave up his life for glory so no one would forget his name but whoever he might have been, what we remember is the name, not the man. A name transcends a person and becomes their mythology, symbol or archetype. Film actors take on a screen name, their name supersedes them and their reality. But that is not the person, the name is a mask that may continue after death, subject to the twists and turns of fame or infamy. Why would anyone think that to be famous after their time means anything at all? Perhaps because like many other human characteristics such as, looking for pattern and meaning and finding probability counterintuitive, we are hardwired to do so: it is a survival strategy handed down through our genes.

What would be the corollary of not being programmed in this way? There are those that think that if we did not perceive pattern, we would not see the symmetrical tiger in the undergrowth or the round fruit in the trees. In short we would starve or be eaten, not a very good way for an organism to survive to reproductive age and pass on their genes. In the case of probability, that is more complex but it could be summed as, calculating the probability of something happening requires a developed use of mathematics and insight into empiricism: ask that of our innumerate ancestors. Certainty is not something we can count or calculate, we go by experience and experience is something that is learnt or is baked into our inherited make up by natural selection. This could go some way to explain superstitions such as not walking under a ladder which are often about perceiving danger. Such ideas come without a critical analysis of cause and effect but do have a certain logic. However it is good to remember in such cases the statisticians’ mantra, ‘correlation is not causation’. We would do well to remember this when discussing politics but I digress. 

Artist have not always signed their work. For much of history, and still today around the world, many makers leave what they do unmarked. During the Middle Ages in Europe, masons would carve a cryptic mark on the part of a building they were particularly proud of. These would have been recognised by only the very few in what was a form of professional branding and most remain undeciphered. It is not until the Renaissance that we see artist signing their work. Michelangelo famously signed the Pieta  but regretted his vanity and swore never to do so again. He was driven by the fact that the sculpture was being attributed to others such as Il Gobbo (Cristoforo Solàrio) from Milan. The reason for and spirit in which a work is signed or left anonymous varies from artist to artist. Van Gogh signed his paintings Vincent as a way of putting distance between his hard won freedom of expression and his earlier repressive family life that he sought to reason with in vain. Pablo Ruiz Picasso chose his mother’s maiden name to make himself independent of his father who had taught him in his early years. The reason for signing a work can be deeply personal or as we witness by the branding that takes place in many galleries, auctions houses and museums of today, an attempt at creating celebrity more often than not underpinned by a hardnosed commercial imperative.

Most, if not all, want to make a difference, to mark this earth with their tread whether in a small unseen way or visible to all. It is a desire that intimates a form of fleeting immortality. I have always found it difficult to sign my work with a name. I find it disruptive and intrusive of myself and the work. I have found myself doing it in an as inconspicuous way as possible. Initials seem less intrusive but are also more cryptic and far less specific, whereas marking a work with a seal is something else. It is closer to the masons mark. I adopted this practice not so long ago, every so often making a new seal when I have felt the time was right. By making this mark I feel comfortable to follow it with initials or a name and date. It is about saying, ‘I have changed this from what it was’, it is about me, not my name. And after all, a name is given whereas a mark is what you give yourself. Coming back to what I said earlier, perhaps this is why an actor is happy to assume a new identity, it is their identity as well as a way of separating their private from public life. 

The seal above is the latest carved for the period of the MA. The design was not predestined, it emerged as I worked with the tiny piece of boxwood. In fact, this was the fourth attempt; I had never cut curves on this scale using crude tools. I liken it to drawing with a mouse: the slight recalcitrance of the tools reduces control. The tension between what is sought for and the outcome opens a space where something else can arise. Neither before nor during its making, could I say what the design represented if anything. However, I sensed that it had some sort of meaning, following the radial symmetry of my previous work. There is little that cannot be given a meaning again coming back to an earlier point about pattern and meaning; working a priori to any thesis can give rise to hidden ideas when analysed later. In this case I find that the pattern generated speaks to me of different elements mixing, merging, assimilating, hybridising. This after all is what I am attempting during these two years. There is also a breaking from symmetry which continues something I began since Chaos Contained.

Where does this leave the signing of work and authorship in the digital sphere? This is a complex issue regarding a medium that is connective and infinitely distributable. It is changing the way we look at authorship and copyright. There are those that would place restrictive bounds on what can and cannot be accessed or used, there are others that open out all code to everyone. There are those that hard bake their mark in the code and there are others that realising the futility of practical ownership of digital information ask for accreditation and little more. Then there are artists who, in a time honoured tradition, restrict their output by creating limited editions and destroying the matrix. Putting a high price on these CDs, flash drives or what have you, and restricting access to these works is in my mind a mirage in the eyes of those that believe it to be a true representation of value, at least in the short term. With changing values and obsolescence only time will tell what happens to the way digital works are perceived. Perhaps they will become cyber archaeology, as anonymous as the vases, statues and artefacts we wonder at in museums. This brings to mind, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Liebovitz . This may be a topic I return to later as it has implications on what artists do today. 

 

Unseen Cause

In my last post I started to talk about the shadows projected by sculptures. I also talked about the shadows projected into the studio from the lime tree. It brings together many aspects of interest and this is the beginning of a project.

The shadows of objects in the studio are projected onto surfaces. They move as the light constantly changes by virtue of the movement of the leaves in the lime tree. The leaves move because of the wind. The wind is unseen. The shadows move yet the cause of their movement is unseen.

The leaves obscure the light and let the light through intermittently. This causes a change in the apparent direction of light altering the objects projected shadow. These changes superimpose one another in succession. The surface is set in motion, animated. The shadows moved by an unseen cause and I am set in motion and transported to another world for an unseen reason.

The projection from three dimensions onto two is a transformation of the world. I saw this in Chaos Contained, I see this everyday. The flattening creates multitudes in the mind with its own reduction. These multitudes inhabit the imagination and give rise to abstract thought. Shadows cannot be touched, smelt or heard. They cannot be walked around or picked up. They are only seen, ghosts of another world.

An unseen wind moves the shadows, what if Storm Callum recording were to be attached to such shadows? Next Post.

The Soul of a Shadow: Project Idea 2

Yesterday the lime tree that oversees our studio, keeps us cool in summer and accompanies us in the winter; the tree that invites birdsong and marks time in its slow arboreal way; this tree was trimmed. Cutting away dead wood and suckers, opened it out to sunlight, letting it flood past the leaves as they are pushed aside by the wind.  Shadows cast into the studio bring surfaces to life and everywhere a frantic dance is choreographed in light. To walk amongst these flickering pools is truly magical. 

The spectacle showed in many places was on the constant move. I videoed the vignettes, each one a jewel. As I did so, Armenian folk music played in the background. It was then I realised there was a connection. The music was as though synchronised with the visual movements, a dance that had a deeply hidden meaning. 

We perceive the world on our scale. From a fraction of a millimetre to several miles we can encompass its size and meter on our terms. Time is measured with the heartbeat and the seasons. It is these things by which music is made. Rhythm is not that of the fly’s or mountains’ but the beat of the heart. Pitch is not that of the bat, the whale or a galaxy but that which we can hear in the voices of those around us. Colour is not that of the infrared and ultraviolet and beyond but of what we need to know without confusion.

 

 

I saw the dancing, for that is what it was, of the shadows cast around and the meter and cadence of the dance matched that of the music. Music that draws from what is around it and nature, that is the essence of folk music. There was a synchronicity between the two and it seemed wondrous and yet natural: not a trick of coincidence but a natural consequence. It now seems as though the two are matched because what causes them is matched in scale and breadth. The wind, sunlight, perceived time and a mind that can see them as one. And if what I tell myself is only a confection, it seems as true as any other truth I can be sure of. 

What I shall do is build on these videos and they may add to the Sculpture Waiting for a Meaning or stand alone as projections. They are verbs to be placed in a sentence. All at the moment is latent and expectant.