Gifts of compensation
I´m not sure what an artwork is. A sympathetic viewer may hold that an artwork is an item in a class of objects that we have agreed to contemplate in a privileged way, experience freely and discuss openly. A more hostile viewer may argue that an artwork is a commodity that promises to satisfy certain contrived and mystified needs. Both views are relevant, and hardly contradict each other, since they share an emphasis on the social function of artworks. What I´d like an artwork to be – as someone who makes visual images – is probably a shapehifter, a gestalt switch-machine or the transformative meeting-place of interacting living forces. An object that functions like a catalyst, an Alkahest, Prospero´s wand, an internal combustion engine. But more often than not, the concept of art and the category of artworks, as social constructions, are a hindrance or a nuisance to me, or something like an inheritance that must be spent in order to permit these rawer and more subtle qualities to shine through.
It can never be sufficient to make art. One must start somewhere else. What I experience in making images is being two instances in a continuum; both giver and reciever, or creator and spectator. Therefore I tend to expect that the given transfer from one state of mind to another is what also occurs in the transfer of an image from one person to another. Or in the case of artworks: what should have effect. So by pursuing this effect, I drift away from art, and get back to art, without settling. This movement may also represent two states of mind to reconcile, like dreaming and waking life.
What the giver and reciever see in the artwork before and after the change is interesting in itself. But what they experience in the mind-state that they fleetingly share in the change is what really matters to me. ”My” mind is usually unable to contain such a shift, so instead a temporary body or a new and specialized organ is developed: the particular artwork. The change the artwork makes can perhaps most bluntly be described as offering a vehicle for the transportation of unconscious aspects into conscious reflection. Still, the experience is not particularly mine. The personal ”art coefficient” of the giver is, with Duchamp´s words, ”like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed”. We need at least two minds or mind-states to perform that equation.
Sometimes the vehicle is secondary, while the difference or discrepancy between states of mind and how they can join means everything. Waking up and falling asleep are the mysteries that that point to this. Vast amounts of poetic insight into this liminality is being sacrificed because vehicles were not jotted down on a sketch pad or in a note book. No need to regret the loss though, since hypnagogic, hypnapomic and alike states (lucid dreams, not the least) let us assume that the point of transfer may unfold itself as a place in its own right, like a hovering non-euclidean domain in the very act of cognition, more or less continually, and certainly in areas outside of art-appreciation.
Consider for example what happens when we step into new psychic atmospheres by way of some unforeseen arrangement, like the sun passing behind a cloud at the exact moment of a crow´s caw on one´s walk through a forest. Whether such passages happen by chance or are created willfully as artistic devices, in both cases the effect is that a gap between what´s previously experienced as on the one hans natural processes and on the other hand personal efforts is bridged. Hereby micro-reenchantments of the world are instilled, that may lie close to superstition. Artworks then can perhaps be seen as teachers that contribute to the progress of the attention necessary for reenchantments to happen, without a need for superstitious rationalization. They may have personality and be original, like spiritual entities, but all they do is point and mimic. They may grasp your attention through their authority or their charisma, but they never actually rely solely on authority and charisma.
That artists really follow hints from nature´s hidden form-creating principles was clearly understood in ancient times. In Aitareya Brahmana, a Vedic text from roughly between 1700–1100 BC, we can read: ”Works of art created by humans are an imitation of divine forms; by utilizing their rhythms, a restructuring of the vibrational rate of the limited human personality is effected.”
Although ”a restructuring of the vibrational rate of the limited human personality” in my view can correspond to the above described dynamic of the relation between giver and reciever, my imagination may not be plastic enough to recognize divine forms as such. But, by taking a hint from cognitive linguists Lakoff and Johnson´s “embodiment hypothesis”, I call these lucky arrangements metaphorical situations or metaphorical objects. Lakoff and Johnson´s research suggest that the laws of thought are metaphorical rather than logical and that truth is a metaphorical construction rather than an attribute of objective reality. They suggest that the ontology of our lifeworld is given from metaphors drawn from our experience of having a body, not from the physical sciences or from coherent metaphysical systems. This means that our understanding of one idea, or one ”conceptual domain”, is informed by the terms of another (e.g.: understanding quantity in terms of directionality, like “prices are rising”).
By recognizing metaphor as an epistomological principle one of course arrives in the domain of poetry. Owen Barfield, in Poetic diction, has this to say about the poetic process: ”Seeking for material in which to incarnate its last inspiration, imagination seizes on a suitable word or phrase, uses it as a metaphor, and creates a meaning. The progress is from meaning, through inspiration to imagination, through metaphor, to meaning; inspiration grasping the hitherto unapprehended, and imagination relating it to the already known.”
In view of conceptual metaphors it makes sense to me that I, as a figurative artist, am not sure what the difference between an artistic object and a situation is. Or should be sure. For in decisive ways, an artwork can not be an object of knowledge; it reveals too many loose ends stretching into the world of imagination and into the imaginations that make up the world. What I can do, is to try to grasp artistic objects through the situations they evoke, regardless of whether these situations are depicted or imaginary. To me, captivating ideas appear like symbolic mise-en-scenes, filmic stills or picture-poems, that may or may not want to be further objectivized. Making ”sense” of them is to explore the general relationality of their life in thought. And laying out the frozen pattern of divine rhythm, merging the known with the unknown in visual metaphor, is the ongoing self-reflection or epistemological feedback of the body-mind.
In fact, visual and linguistic representations are very close, if not sometimes interchangeable. Once while fever-sick, in a hypnagogic revery, I constructed a series of written situations / objects to make my thoughts about the ontology of artworks clearer to myself: that the ”objectivity” of the world is corporeal and poetical rather than physical and conventional. The following phrases can be seen as ”vehicled” language-counterparts to how I approach and create images. I quote these situations here, with brief explications:
“Her eyebrows are adjacent to outer space, the yellow dress takes her away from the beach.”
This image suggested itself as an expression of the feeling-essence or singularity of an astronaut leaving the mothership, floating in space attached only by a rope. But by decoding the situation thus the sign-function of the image takes precedence. So the point here is to forget the astronaut, the information. There were and will be astronauts before and after astronauts, so to speak.
“On a day of overcast weather his goalie hat attracts sunlight to his eyes.”
A simple everyday magic act is a reliable starting-idea. An idea (putting on a goalie cap for shade) magically attracts a desired situation (sun). Semiotically speaking, a concept is displaced or moved from one logical context to another.
“When the rattling door closes, the area is filled up with the barn´s silence.”
Atmospheres are essential. Tangible weather or change of weather is nature´s way of creating them. They also thrive on stillness and the dynamic of presence and absence. The silence of composition.
“His hands have grown out of apples, he can spit the seeds out of a glass of water.”
Imagination can be kick-started by pursuing reversed causality, simultaneity, or spontaneously renegotiated object-relationships.
Through these modes of thinking I try to postpone or delay discursive information in favor of the image´s purely sensual clues. An artwork to me is therefore at best initially in some way repulsive or resistant against a certain type of decision-prone curiosity. And vis-a-vis expectations preferrably to some extent incomprehensible.That an image may be saturated with precise thought and still delay enough information to benefit communication on the levels of emotion, intuition and imagination is the possibility I favor. The real power of Prospero was not in his wand but in his books, that is: less in someone having the power to decide what something is than in something being given as potentially available to everyone. That an artwork remains ”nothing but sensual clues” is something worth pursuing, I think, even to the point of trying to convey (subconscious) thoughts that are ”more real than perceptions”. So: corporeal thoughts.
The artistic object may then resemble the ”Frog Prince” from the Grimm brothers´ fairy-tale. Like the frog who´s not yet transformed to a prince, the artwork presents itself as something that either has a fixed or a dual identity, depending on if you ”know the story” or not. Knowing the story of an artwork is nothing complicated, but it is as easy to forget as it is to learn, and in my view Magritte expressed it most succinctly with the phrase ”Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Or as I like to understand his phrase here: the artwork represents nohing in the world other than your own understanding of the particular arrangement you´re viewing. An understanding that is on the move away from the well-grounded opinion or that is expanding beyond ”my” perspective.
And, again in comparison with the frog-prince, the artwork is something whose ”true essence” depends upon the engaged faculties of the reciever to become living, meaningful, engaging, beautiful. There is of course no ”true essence” corresponding to one correct interpretation, at least not in any expressible way. In one way, the artwork functions as a veil we move through on our way to another veil. This movement seems very real to us, since it has a feeling-tone, since it awakens an emotional response and since it has a specific character or momentum. But the visions themselves which we sometimes mistake it for are illusory. Plato said: the image moves toward the objects and away from them, with a ”tone of desire”. Artistic freedom, as it seems to me, lies in moving with one´s desire and in the understanding of how images merge with physical objects on the ”as if”-condition. Therefore I remain suspicious against art that seems too stuck in the art world, fulfilling a concept of art, for the same reasons that I´m wary of art that depends too much on naturalism.
At the same time – and this often feels like a paradox – the artwork is unusually concrete, material and objective. In the lacunae of thoughts, when the passage between veils is permitted by the spectator, its ”thereness” may be overwhelming. In the artist´s hands the artistic object remains in a raw state, which the spectator has to accept in order to, again with Duchamp´s words, ”determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.” The reciever is the one who has to permit the transmutation, which is ultimately not representable by words, by computer screens or by brains. It demands not only a shift of consciousness, but also a thoughtless confrontation, akin to the moment of ”the princess kissing the frog”. It is the overwhelming sense of nearness to the truth, which keeps one going “back from bark to bark to the white-hot kernel” (Breton) without being overcome with or stopped by the inherent absurdity of thought activity.
Making image after image, without this feeling of nearness to truth would be absurd. A world without dusky meaning, without secret signs, is a life acquainted with shadows only. The artist is one such shadow. Empedocles proposed the sign, that if you´re reborn as a poet, a prince or a healer you may have arrived at your last incarnation. The artwork then, to paraphrase the philosopher, is never nearer to us than when it´s neither frog nor prince, but embodies the moment in between.
Frog-poets, frog-princes and frog-healers are all in the making of the change.