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. 

Logos/Oracle – only when I do do I know

 

 

The component parts are completed before firing and assembled as evidence of work; each labelled in the mind for an ostensible function that has yet to be thought of. The real underlying reason for its making though, is separate from its illusory presence and is still a secret unfolding: the maquette becoming its own self and not the reason of another.

The guts, its interior are not yet formed, an embryo setting down the matrix from whence its inner working will emerge and the cry of life which is not yet rung. The pieces lie as repertory for a future as though laid in a museum.

My thoughts on it have turned and given rise to other musings.

 

Oracle Respoken: Large Scale Maquette

 

I have started a new maquette for ‘Oracle’. This is the stage where I start to confront the technical problems of material, making and installation.

‘Forgetting’ the former maquettes I started with a thumbnail sketch of a possible installation that incorporated some of the former arrangements…

..this moved on to a pen and ink rendering which came closer to a 3-dimensional representation of the eventual ceramic piece.

The pieces are maleable and fragile while the clay is wet. When fired they will be fixed in their final form. One of the challenges is maintaining the fluid, organic nature of the forms as they dry and harden; how to relate one piece to the others while the clay is wet and translating this to the fired forms. 

The forms leave their traces as I move them creating a drawn presence, a graphic imprint of their passing.

How they relate to words spoken is the challenge. And I must also make a support frame. 

The maquette is approximately 1:3 with the final piece standing around 2.4 metres not including support framework.

Oracle: Maquette 3 – End of a Phase

 

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm. From the maquette

 

When evolving an idea, there comes a time for leaving the process to the subconscious; to open it out to other influences and make new connections: this takes time. I remember when taking my physics A level at school, the best strategy for solving a particularly difficult problem was to read what was needed, identify the equations and methodology, understand the variables, try a few things out and then sleep on it. Perhaps the next day or a little later, the solution would present itself as though the most natural of outcomes. I am not saying that solving a physics question is comparable to producing a work of art. I only mention this because the mind continues working in the most wonderful ways while we are distracted elsewhere. By going to sleep on a problem, we dream and see things from different perspectives in different contexts. This enables solutions to arise that would otherwise be constrained by fixed thinking. My attention is now turning to sound, relics, shadows and other things. I leave this particular part of the project in a place where, of its own account, it can respond to different ideas and methodologies and await a refreshed return.  

 

 

Relic and Ritual

 

 

The first maquette for ‘Oracle’ dried and broke up. Removing the wire armature broke the pieces further. Recycling the remnants of the idea, composting them for future use is the usual way. Early humans buried their dead. Where lay the transition point from composting to burial? Humans have thought that somehow the preservation of the body allows it to transition to another domain and built myths and religions on this notion. The idea embodied by the maquette has moved on and evolved into something different. To ritually preserve its remnants is to keep the idea alive for transitioning. From clay to clay: each iteration encased may foster an evolution towards something else. 

The box is made carefully with attention to detail: it is imperfect, rough, not quite symmetrical; housing incompleteness, impermanence, transition, and the now absence of what was. Wabi sabi  is the embodiment of such ideas. Much of what I have done corresponds with this aesthetic principle, particularly in the case of small works. Subtlety and contemplation are rewarded with a sense of understanding the world in a profound way. The ritual of preserving the maquettes, time consuming, onerous, is a ritual that builds significance. The Confucian idea of ritual through deliberate action and repetition, turns the practical into symbolic action, into physical reality, back to idea into action. If an idea is conserved, it remains alive, if it is alive, it has potential, if it has potential, it can metamorphose. This is one way of my moving forward with what I consider an ambitious project. 

I can see how this approach is endlessly expandable and scalable. But would that go far enough in my view? I think not, it would be to alight on one of the first ideas and stay there. That is not the purpose of this exercise which is about deepening and connecting rather than producing in the first instance. However, having said that, I intend to make each stage a document in the journey towards new work.

Oracle: photos of maquette 2

 

Taken after I had completed the drawing. There are well over one hundred images and I have chosen nine, not for their aesthetic, formal content but for their ability to convey information and ideas that take me beyond considerations of the sculpture alone.

 

 

Oracle: Maquette 2

 

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm. From the maquette

Not everything has to have a reason. As I work, an internal dialogue continually debates, interrogates, plays the devil’s advocate: what is this for, is this more effective, where will you go from here? At times I need to cover my ears from these voices that stop me from travelling to, I do not know where. The place does not matter in the doing, but here lies the rub, how do I mark the path by which I have sleep-walked to this clearing in the fog of work? Experience follows me on the trail to a new place, it is she that leaves the marks on the walls of the maze I have wandered into. The journey made familiar, I can follow my way back without minding the why. I need to find my way back, because I cannot stay where I am and sometime I might want to return.

Not everything has to have a reason. Only on the return journey might I encounter the why of something I did. Moments after, or years, unencumbered by thoughts of purpose, ideas that once were awkward come together and show me a different place, the significance of peculiar details. Details in a myth built from once cloven thoughts rejoined. These maquettes are such confections, wrought to be returned to dust, their image grasped with camera and pencil as they dry and crack and crumble before me, they become the memory that builds the life of the idea. Accreting to one another their weight is felt inside me, and the work is done under their gravity, reflection having been done so that feeling and understanding cause the motion and my mind moves to the next place I do not know where or for what reason.

 

Oracle: Maquette 1

 

Studies: graphite on paper, 316 x 237 mm. From the maquette

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.

 

click on thumbnails to enlarge

Drawing Studies 3

Studies: graphite on paper, 237 x 316 mm

These rough sketches are a change of stance from the previous drawings, approaching the idea called for now ‘Oracle’. Exploring the inside and out of an imaginary prototype, I inhabit the space. This is not an aesthetic exercise in drawing, neither is it a testing ground for the work. It is more of an immersion into the idea, to understand where its physical form comes from. It lives in a landscape but is trapped in the context in which it is found: should be in a desert but it must sit in a room, an exhibit collected and appropriated from the imagination and displayed… for now. It is small yet pyramid-like in conception, is it to be simple or ornate? Is it a temple or a receptacle for sound; the Holy of Holies or a profane Pandora’s box; a landscape contained in the sounds that enters it, sounds processed and altered as a message must be arranged and packaged for its destination


It is now evening and having thought about the work’s geographical limitation, the idea has come to me that, although contained and relatively small, the sculpture can contain the world. Instead of the microphones collecting the sound being located within the same space, they could transmit from anywhere that they might be placed. The sculpture is then no longer limited to its location but it can encompass the world… or at least a greater part of it than before. 

Drawing Study 1: A Friend Revisited


Studies: graphite on paper, 237 x 316 mm

Yesterday I began drawing once again; I have not done so for its own sake for what seems a very long time. The pencil is so incisive and yet so gentle, like no other medium. Graphite slides off the point in response to my decisiveness, tentativeness, hesitation and insistence. It does not lie, it is an analytical instrument that exposes thoughts and my ability to portray them. Its limits are my own. Its freedom is my own. It veils and discloses, it explicates and it confounds. 

I shall draw continuously as a means of asking questions and finding answers. These preliminary sketches are the start of an exploration intended to bring forth ideas for some of the works I have in mind. Particularly what I call for now, Oracle and Sculpture Waiting for Meaning. But the story does not end there. Drawing opens up a world of meaning that is not there in writing. Both writing and drawing are means of externalising thoughts and feelings; they inhabit different realms limited by their own modes of expression and powers to imply. By drawing I recognise my own limitations and constraints which heightens a sense and understanding of freedom.

Tutorial 1: 01 November 2018. Jonathan Kearney

My first tutorial with Jonathan was a far ranging exploration of my practice and how to develop ideas currently in formation. It has taken me a while to assimilate the conversation and for the sake of my own clarity I have limited myself to the main points. I can see a framework starting to form that I can return to time and again. 

Jonathan’s key questions are paraphrased in italics.

1. Blog Journal: Role of

Writing the blog journal is emerging as an important element in my practice. It is possibly the sought for connective tissue between the different parts of my practice that I had mentioned at the start of the course. In the few weeks that have passed, the writing of posts has become less laboured and easier even though I have to focus on the content just as much.

Is this role for the writing due to the contrast between words and images or objects?.

I think that words are a good way of organising thoughts and ideas. Images and objects function in different ways. Words are regulated by syntax and grammar which enable complex ideas to be formed. I try to avoid jargon because I feel that when I do so, there may be an element of trying to cover up the fact that I do not fully understand what I am talking about. I have to scrutinise my thoughts and feelings and why I want to put them across and how. This process can lead to a clarity not possible with images and objects alone. These are more open to ambivalence and ambiguity.

Is that clarity for yourself or for another reader?

I always have a reader in mind. This is helping me to develop a voice which in turn allows writing to flow more easily. The voice can vary depending on the purpose of the writing. The reader I address takes two forms: an imaginary person and myself. Knowing that someone will probably read this during the MA, earths that imagined reader into a live entity and focuses my thoughts on clarity and above all authenticity. A problem, however,  that has arisen out of this facilitated writing is the growing amount I want to put down in words. Additionally, writing for an audience has also brought in the possibility of publishing which adds another level of responsibility in terms of clarity, interest and authenticity.

Do you feel you have to strike a balance between writing and making or are the two more integrated? 

I do make a distinction between the two process: writing is more analytical whereas making is more felt. However, by working in both modes I find they support and inform one another rather than being at odds. They function at different levels of affect and meaning in a reciprocal rather than reductive or divisive relationship. This runs counter to what I had initially thought might be the case.

2. Practice

With a clearly defined practice what do you hope the process will bring to it? 

What are your plans or dreams assuming you have those if not, what do you hope will happen?

I am still opened minded about this aspect of the course. More so than when I started. I thought I had all the works lined up and I could envisage the final show. I am not so certain now. Ideas are in constant flux and open to change. My current aim is for a collection of works that are bound together by an overt and or covert idea. For me the work itself is very important it has to stand on its own unsupported by text and explications. [In retrospect I could have answered in terms of galleries, further research, exhibitions, but for now I am living in the present with the work.]

How do you measure whether it stands on its own?

I would evaluate this in two ways: how am I and others affected and what inferences are made from it?

I would consider holistically how skilfully ideas, aesthetic considerations and the craft of handling the medium are embedded in the work’s making. How these elements are brought together and how effectively the ‘message(s)’ is encoded in the work. Each medium uses a different coded language which is expressed in a particular way. I look at how effective this coding is used in communicating without explication, how this unfolds and how it differs from when an explication is offered. The difference would be interesting and can point to how successful the work is in fulfilling my aims. 

I am becoming more interested in the politics of the work. Not so much as issues but rather in terms of existential concerns: the individual and the collective. The dynamics of both are very different. Politics tends to address the individual as part of a collective and disregards the sense of self other than as part of the group. This interest in human behaviour has brought me to consider an element of performance in my practice.

3. Proposed Projects

We discussed projects I have in mind, primarily two performance ideas and three installation based works. I see some of the ideas as thought experiments and Jonathan encouraged me to consider these as more than such. They are workable and could give rise to interesting and unexpected outcomes. I shall write more at length about these projects in the future. For now, I shall outline the salient points that were discussed for each one.

a) Scripted work involving video on what reality means in a digital environment. The work requires very precise timing, rehearsal and scripting. I thought that three levels of depth involving two screens and myself were the limit of what could be done. Jonathan suggested that if this were extended, the chaos that would ensue beyond the control of the script writer / artist yielding interesting results would be both intriguing and pertinent. 

b) Axis Mundi uses my physicality and sense of self in a ritual that involves maintaining a centeredness involving inertia, gravity and movement. It touches on ideas initiated by Poincare’s double pendulum. Two points arose from this conversation. The first regarding the reversal of point of view from the axis rod using a camera so that rather than my movement being evident, I appear and remain fixed while the world is in motion around me. This introduces two diametrically opposed view points of the same process. Secondly, what is the meaning of making the axis in bronze other than its weight and long making? We discussed the ritual implication of casting in bronze and a further subsequent conversation with Janet suggested that the lengthy process of casting in bronze itself is a ritual and part of the inertia of the work. What emerged was that there are many levels of meaning to uncover in the process which can all go towards making the work. 

We also discussed: c) Sculpture Waiting for Meaning or Shrine, d) Oracle, and e) Shadows. Jonathan pointed me to MAX MSP at cycling74.com as a way of real time processing sound for these projects which does not require coding but rather works as visual language programming. With regards to d) Oracle, Jonathan suggested that the final incoherent sound could then be fed into a translator or interpreter which would then try to make sense of the sound and it would be interesting to see what words would be formed from this. c) also brought to mind Plato’s cave are we talked about the merits and negative impact of Plato’s philosophy on the world over the past two thousand years. 

These ideas will no doubt change as the process of bringing them into being affects the ongoing outcomes. This relationship between process and outcome is analogous to that of observer and observed. 

4. On Motivation

Considering all the different ideas, what motivates you most out of all of them?

I had to think long and hard about this. I do not have a single overriding motivation in terms of the different ideas. The works all have different motivations. I have to break the answer down into principal and secondary motivations. Firstly, I am motivated by building a world, a place I can inhabit both actively and in the imagination and in so doing hope to interest others. I do need feedback but it is not my prime motivation, this is to make: I am compelled to do. Other motivations or rather impetuses, are derived from this. Affecting people, dialogue, admiration, shock, comment are derivatives. The point is that if there were to be no audience, I would still do what I do. To have feedback, an audience, is important and there is nothing like the joy of making a connection with someone else but in the end it is an impetus that comes from within and not externally located that has set things in motion. I am imprisoned by it.

Do you feel imprisoned by the work you have done so far, do you feel that is part of the world you have created?

I think so. The work overrides everyday matters to some extent. I started with the hubris of youth wanting to conquer the world, make money, be admired but I soon saw what that does to other artists. It alters the person and what they do and not always for the better. So many artists what they really want to do is go off and paint or make in some way: to have a primal connection with what they do. I do not feel so much imprisoned by but rather contained within an internal world. As an afterthought, I have always been interested in containers, boxes… could this have something to do with the sense of self imposed imprisonment, of trying to control the internal environment, order, or is it more to do with maintaining an axis mundi, keeping the self close by?

Jonathan encouraged me to work on all the projects even if only to the maquette stage not worrying too much about the finish. I guess it is about keeping a momentum and not getting entangled in the problems of achieving a perfect result. I shall certainly follow this through bearing in mind that the more I look at the overall shape of things, the details will resolve themselves as the process moves along.

The tutorial has given me both an overall direction in this new exploration and some detailed analysis of my work and practice. At the start of term I had prepared a Project Proposal. It was vague and open for which I am glad because it can accommodate being altered and brought more into focus with what I am doing. In fact, its flexibility now comes into play as a living document that can evolve and adapt.

5. What to do Now

The tutorial has helped clarify where I am currently. I can now plan more effectively for experimentation, research and development. Reflection on and in process can also be more relevant. I can now return to the tabula rasa and start using it as a palimpsest rather than have it sitting in the studio accusingly posing the question, what did you make me for?

Short Term Outline plan:

develop Project Proposal;

work on maquettes;

research MAX MSP;

develop writing skills – registering for Iowa University International Writing Programme MOOC ‘Writing and the Natural World’;

start planning and composing performance works.