Can Rhythm be a thing in ‘Static’ Visual Arts?

Immediately I think, are not all things perceived in time and since rhythm is a function of periodic patterns in time, is static a valid adjective? With sound and even moving images the question is self evidently answered with a yes. But when it comes to things which do not perceptively change in time such as paintings and non kinetic sculptures, how can this question be approached?

This came up with Janet and Florian yesterday in a conversation about audio illusions and how tone and rhythm are dual aspects of frequency. Janet has been reading Jason Geiger’s paper, Can a Painting Have Rhythm? This brought together considerations of sound and visual experience in an interesting way. When I look at a painting, I cannot focus on all elements at the same time. I move over the picture surface, labelling each element in some way in my mind over time. If there is repetition in the composition, the successive recognition of these similar elements will constitute a rhythm or periodic pattern hence rhythm. This is something that is intuitively used in design and composition and brings the idea of rhythm into the visual sphere. As with music, rhythm is a fundamental element of visual art. Its harmonious use or disruption can be used to create a multiplicity of experiences and meanings such as recession-proximity, reinforcement, continuity, surprise and so on. 

Language and Shape

Study in porcelain, unfired

 

I have referred to the central role language plays in my work. This role is not an overt one, I have not used text or words explicitly so far. However, in this blog journal I use words as a glue that binds together ideas in some way trying to make sense of what are at the outset subliminal responses to experience. In the Mid Point review I recently mentioned language as a principle theme in the project proposal as I did in the initial symposium back in October; the time has come to attempt at explaining this. 

Why is language important to me? Beyond emotions, physical responses and sensations, in order for me to think about the world around me in ways that build on experience and gain some understanding I need a more complex and flexible way of ordering thoughts. This way comes in the form of verbal language, spoken and then written. A word is an abstract entity that stands for something we encounter in the world. This label is made up of individual sounds or phonemes. Phonemes are recombined to form words, words form phrases and sentences and so on articulating complex thoughts. 

This correlates with how I work through sculpture. The basic building blocks, or ‘phonemes’ are shapes. Each shape raises a response in me just as the sonic values of phonemes carry with them an emotional-auditory response. This idea is used in poetry as in alliteration giving a sense beyond the abstract meaning of the words. In Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood’ the poet uses alliteration just for its sonic effects,

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,
courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the
sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

However, he also uses metaphor and rhythm to build a vivid sensual picture full of emotional as well as cognitive tension that goes beyond the semantic values of the words. It is a shaping of the world in words.

Sculpture can also work in poetic terms, the semantic-associative value of shapes when combined give rise to thoughts that go beyond the sphere, cone and rod, nose, finger and pear. I use shape as a response to thoughts and ideas; what emerges is not an ekphrastic embodiment but an intention towards a more poetic form. Sound too can be used to build ideas but its very essence conveys a deeply subjective emotional meaning, one that can be used to build emotional narratives that in turn can create associative responses. Words, sounds and shapes act on our senses and thoughts in different ways but they all bear a commonality in that their basic component units can be combined and recombined to create a complex language. Where they differ is in what they communicate and this is why combining, in my case sound and sculpture does present a valid case. 

This leads me to ask, should a sculpture be silent and sound disembodied? This purist idea is difficult to refute and has been the ground for a silent debate during modern European history. Perhaps in the end sculpture should remain silent. But then again, I can see that shaped sound could inhabit a sculpture and pulsate within its form, tracing its contours as it pushes against silence, forming a boundary of perception so that the very space around the sculpture is contiguous with it; a symbiotic intertwining of form and sound tracing reciprocal interactions between two modalities that go beyond the semantics of the words involved in explaining the relationship. 

The study in porcelain shown above is one form that challenges me to think how sound might correlate with form. Not this particular form, ostensibly it is part of another work, but as I am looking to bring together different works as part of the project proposal it does ring bells in my head. Is scale important? I think that viewing distance may play a part, perhaps sound responding to the placement of the receiver in relation to the form much as the visual is rewarded with different perceptions: long distance – overall structure and its relationship with the environment, intermediate distance – component parts and their interrelationships, close up – surface and texture. This is all of course separate to the associative meanings the form might bear. How can sound be distilled into this sort of relationship, frequency, pulse, detail? Can the same be applied to sound as to solid form, are their analogies or am I dealing with something different in kind? These are all questions I aim to explore…

 

Learning New Things

 

I have never done something like this before. I am finding it a challenge but not because I lack the skills of drawing, composing, digital or manual. It is more a case of sequencing and seeing how  detail fits with the overall. This might appear to me a matter of applying what I do in other domains to this, the graphic narrative or comic. However, the applicable principles are to be used in a completely different context; one in which the single image does not stand alone but is seen as part of a much larger narrative in images. In addition, the attention of the viewer has to be maintained throughout the process of sequential page turning: rhythm, sequencing (how one images corresponds to subsequent images), pacing of the script and consistency of vision are all part of the process. In short, it is about working with a carefully crafted script. Something I am going to have to do when working on the multiple screen video performance. So this is a way of introducing that process. 

Probably the way for me to break down what I have done is to look at the first page and see how the problems presented have necessitated shifts in how I view the overall work. The interesting part of the process is how the initial vision, feeling, has had to be changed in order to convey a more compelling narrative through visual means. 

I was fixated with a particular ‘look’, a simplicity that quite frankly was getting somewhat boring. I tried to reduce detail to focus on the narrative but found that this had the opposite effect. It is the detail surrounding the central character that conveys the story, after all, there is only so much that can be done with a single creature in a barren landscape. So what I have done is spend a while looking at the great many solutions that others have used for both comics and graphic novels. This has helped me in seeing how I could do something more affective.

So what have I done? The following is a list of the changes that I have sketched out in my mind and tried out, not shown above:

    •  

    • Change the geographical transitions to convey a sense of the psychological journey of the creature. I had maintained this constant with the result of convey nothing more than repetitive monotony. Although this was the initial intention, it did not seem to hold the attention or even convey the meaning I was hoping to impart. I worked with process but there came a point where an intervention to change direction was needed to increase the affectiveness of what I was doing.

 

    • Introduced minor characters which heighten the creature’s isolation much as a lost person would feel in a forest full of unfamiliar animals and plants. This also personalises the character with the viewer creating a conversation between parties. This is a more intuitive direction, after all, most people’s experience is not that of living alone on the Moon or Mars. 

 

    • Not repeating stances and views, keeping the pace of the storyline going while relating each vignette to the others. This can be done using colour, line, composition and tone as well as the particular characterisation of a given scene. The direction of sight needs to move in a sequential narrative and lines of tension, repetition, reflection and so on, are all devices that can be used to achieve this visual journey.

 

    • Most importantly, elaborate the script so it includes details that help create interest in and engagement with the character and its story. The script, to my surprise, is perhaps the most important thing. It does not have to be about speech, it is also description of the scene, emotions, details, incidental action, time, season, terrain. All these are important to compose in an abstract sense so that the drawing phase is not always starting from the beginning when an impasse is encountered.

 

    • Work with what I am familiar. This is important in creating a believable situation and characterisation. It is much easier to work with elements of which I have experience rather than trying to set events in locations that I cannot relate to. For this reason I have chosen the Venezuelan savanna, land of tebuys and Conan Doyle’s Lost World. An appropriate setting for the story that unfolds. 

     
    But what is this narrative about? I have been thinking if it was about loneliness, or perhaps the dark side of companionship; about a search or about the indomitable spirit of survival. In the light of what I have been exploring in the past few day there is something else, the emergence of predation, not in the sense of a literal figuration of the strategy filling an ecological niche. It is more of a metaphorical account. If examined carefully, again it is not so much about predation but competition, territoriality or even status. There are multiple inferences in the storyline, that is the point of it, ambiguity, and the ambivalence of what is loneliness and what is solitude. 

    There are also technical elements which are can be worked out in the process. One thing I have found though, although I have spent some time on the project, I am amazed at how little work I have actually done. I can see that I need to do much more ground work. But now I am clearer as to what is needed, I can move on at a more productive and energised pace. What relation does this have to the main project proposal? Everything is still up in the air but there is a strong correspondence with other elements I am working with, metamorphosis, culture and the deep past as a counterpart to the contemporary. 

     

The Ritual of Walking

 

Along the walk looking East at sunset, 10 December 2018

I have been going out for same walk at least once a week since the beginning of the term in October. I realise that this has become a ritual, one in which I meet with the sky and earth. I let the clouds bring in ideas from another place and the earth to ground me. Two scales: the untouchable above and the tiny world of the soil with its plants, beasts, fungi and detritus. I look up and I look down and see for three hundred and sixty degrees all around a horizon that changes with the weather and time of day, subject to what the clouds might bring from who knows where. I see beyond and see inside.

Ritual is an essential way of regulating the everyday into the long term. Rituals can govern how we respond to things. This is why it is important to know when something becomes a ritual, to understand its essence, its meaning, and how it affects us: whether a ritual is creative, constructive or damaging and subtractive. The walk takes time, but it is not time taken away from what I do but rather it allows what I do to come in and rearrange itself creatively, without me necessarily knowing. I may participate consciously in this process, or allow it to proceed independently while I engage in some other activity. I have already hinted at how the reshaping of content can happen subconsciously in an earlier post .

Today, the clouds in the East looked like mountains as they do on the edge of a plain. An illusory boundary which for an instant alters my view of the world: geography shapes who we are and how we respond to the vagaries of life. Humboldt observed this in how similar geographical locations gave rise to surprisingly similar ecosystems with comparable niches despite having completely different species. There are fundamental laws that govern every detail of existence and so it is with us whether we are aware of them or not. The role of the artist is to sense how we are moved by the unseen and make it visible, make it known in some way. 

Richard Long has made a public-private ritual of walking turning it into an art document, exposing the significance of a simple act. It is about the human rhythm that leaves a wake subject to the passing of time; leaving a trace waiting to be covered over by the waves of passing with only a resonating memory: a very human thing. I have come to see this current walk as a conscious act in my practice and I am documenting it photographically. As I do so what I see and observe, what I think and do, changes over time. My intention has not been for it to be an artwork, let alone part of the current project but to be part of the process. This may change over time but for now I see the record of these walks a possible collection of works which, however, run parallel to the project rather than a contiguous element. Why? Simply put, the paradigm by which I am recording the walks is, at least for now, inconsistent with the project proposal… but this may change.

 

A Foreign Land from Familiar Things

 

Distorted, by the unseen cause of its motion:
Cast down by light
Towards innocent surfaces,
Bearing the scars of altered perspectives,
Reasoned at distance
By the movement of multitudes
Whose affect is close,
So close;
It only looks down,
Away from where it has come
And in a small instant, vanishes,
Entwined with the light that gave it a shape,
It dares not look
At the source of its making
Hurtling, into the silence of its own darkness,
Its own darkness.


Posterior Cogitatio

28 October 2018

Shaping a poem is possibly the hardest thing for me when writing. Discussing this with Janet, we looked at how it could be positioned with the preceding video sketch Source of Motion . I came to the realisation that prose as in Ancestral is how I think. This may reflect the difficulty I have with rhythm. I am currently learning hand drumming, and it is quite challenging for me to follow movements which I would have expected to have come easily. Poetry is very much to do with rhythm, internal rhythm, whereas I am more tuned into the cadence and melody, the movement of ideas that flow in prose writing. In prose there is also rhythm but it is free and unencumbered by what I see as an externally imposed form.

This is the same poem written as I would perhaps have done had I not tried to write ‘verse’. (See Post Truth Hurtling)

 

Hurtling

Distorted, by the unseen cause of its motion: it is cast down by light towards innocent surfaces bearing the scars of altered perspectives, reasoned at distances by the movement of multitudes whose affect is close, so close. It only looks down and away from where it has come and in small instants vanishes entwined with the light that gave it shape. It dare not look at the source of its making as it hurtles into the silence of its own darkness.

 

The Bowerbird’s Creation

I had been writing about art and machines, all rather heavy stuff when for some reason, the family of bowerbirds came to mind: perhaps as a reaction to thinking about artificial intelligence. Distantly related to the crows probably means they are quite bright possessors of natural intelligence. They live in the islands of New Guinea and around Northern Australia where they have evolved rather elaborate courtship behaviours. I have in mind a particular bird, the satin bowerbird.

During the mating season, the male spends a great deal of time and energy collecting coloured and shiny objects from the forest such as petals, berries, leaves and the odd plastic bottle cap. These are assembled into glorious arrangements neatly arrayed in the shadow of an architectural grass chamber. The bird then expends more energy dancing an intricate and exhausting display which includes spreading feathers and stomping around in a repetitive, somewhat aggressive, rhythmic ritual. All this in the hope of attracting a rather dull looking female. But it is she who does the choosing, usually after three visits, although it is thought that she decides on her first.

For all intents and purposes, what the bowerbird does looks very much like art. Not the daubs of a chimpanzee in a primatologist’s hut, but something far more spectacular, albeit on the scale of a black bird. The whole installation includes sculpture, engineering, design and a choreographed performance in a complete show of avian creativity. It is aesthetic, has meaning, to the female bird at least, and requires skill and hard work.

But what is the bird’s prime aim, is it to create an aesthetic that gives pleasure and meaning beyond sex, to inspire bird thoughts and feelings such as, how tall and wonderful the trees are, or does it do it to attract a mate? The process might be rewarding in itself, why else would the bird put so much effort into such an endeavour without the certainty of successfully attracting a female. But the underlying purpose, the sought for outcome, is to mate and reproduce. We may perceive it as aesthetically wonderful, but is it art? I hope there are not too many artists out there for whom art is the sole way of getting a date.