THE WAXING AND WANING OF SPACE/TIME

<<Is the universe contracting or expanding or is it still? For each artist the answer is unique, yet each addresses the “weak signals “from the “void”. >>

In blocks of text surrounded, as Robert Smithson puts it, “ultra mundane margins of indeterminate information and reproduced reproductions” I shall postulate a method for considering my own art as well as that of the past. A work of art, be it great, adequate or ridiculous, has at its germination point in the specific perception of the artist coupled with the hardwiring of our whole species. Each should be addressed, but in our overheated biography driven culture, the second aspect is ignored even though it is our shared heritage from which the most important ideas in art emerge.

The personal history of an artist, like the initial conditions of any complex system affect, the output enormously. “A butterfly flaps its wings in China and a hurricane forms in the Americas” has become a catch phrase. Okay so a butterfly in China changes everything, but which butterfly? Biographic details are fraught with danger. I am a bookworm and a card-carrying member of the Geek Nation. I bounce in social settings like a preschool Tigger. I come from technical education (I attended engineering school) for which I was never suited. My interest in math and science was and is aesthetic rather than practical. I love slapstick and South Park. As an artist, I only know I straddle two millennia and a myriad of divided aesthetic camps. I am a self-taught formalist with all that implies.

In college I studied perception in humans in order to learn how to design machines that could perceive. I discovered that humans don’t perceive any experience directly. We experience only the change. We don’t perceive temperature or sounds or smells or even sight but only its flux – its derivative. This is best explained by example. Have you ever noticed how scents both good and bad fade if you spend too long in a room? Or how if a wind blows the scent seems to return only to fade again? The scent was still there, but your nervous system was unable to perceive it. Or on an airplane when an engine sound changed, say during landing, have you realized that you hadn’t noticed the sound during the flight? Perhaps you did hear the engine the entire flight. If so, you listened for minute changes in the tone or intensity of sound. Clinical research is frightening and illuminating. If the eyes are held completely still for more than a few moments the subject goes temporarily blind. Your eyes are always in motion and can perceived objects in motion more clearly. Have you ever had the experience of looking at a still person in the distance only to recognize them as soon as the person moved? To paraphrase the I Ching nothing is constant for humans but change.

If we humans are the ultimate creatures of change, why are our deepest cultural and personal longings for the constant? Even the last quarter century obsession with the present is a desire to corral infinity. In The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, Kubler says “Actuality [the present] is … the interchronic pause between events” Smithson goes further, “Here one finds no illusion of duration but an interval without suggestion of life or death. This is the coherent portion of a hidden infinity. The future crisscrosses the past in an unobtainable present. Time vanishes into a perceptual sameness”. Smithson and Kubler’s method diverges but the motive would be familiar to any mystic. It is Gnostatis, the direct experience of the eternal, the unchanging underlying reality. Just like smells we no longer perceive directly except as memory, perhaps we each possess a faint memory from conception or birth of experiencing directly this universal constant. Then our very biology denies experiencing it again. It may explain why so many “believers” know without necessarily needing objective proof. It may explain that “weak signal” called creative inspiration. It is this weak signal, my own personal Platonic shadow theatre, which much of my own artwork attempts to reconstruct.

The artist is a detective to the vast crime scene of life. Each witness tells a different story but from the common features a mystery emerges from the clues. The evidence an artist finds is both visual (painting, sculpture, landscape art and architecture) verbal (music, magazines, advertisements, literature, science, philosophy) or multisensory (nature, music, movies, theatre, TV, dreams, chance encounters with friends and strangers). Humans are saturated by cultural and perceptual evidence that is constantly contaminated and illuminated by random chance. In this vast soup of information is the synchronistic weave of individual consciousness and taste. Taste is more than facile trendiness or social fascism. Taste is perception on steroids. It is our own personalized sieve for the ten thousand myriad things. Any artwork by any artist is an experimental solution to the unending puzzle. The artist is a detective yes, but the neat ending of a who-done-it is impossible when the creative act inself produces new mystery.

THE ANATOMY OF EXPRESSION

Over and over humans analyze their universe through the prism of the body. Even numbers, that safe house of rationalism, are arranged based on fingers. We tend, as a society, to think artists only use anatomy as some worn but useful Renaissance chart of musculature. But the body is the cabal through which the artist structures the medium and the message. Man is the Microcosm of the Macrocosm. An ideal body becomes a measuring stick. Advertisers parse aesthetic law to cynically manipulate the consumer with a dystopia of impossible photoshopped (wo)men and lifestyles. For all the art world’s pouty rejection of beauty once their monopoly was lost, the rest of humanity intuitively understands that beauty is raw power. Even the jaded respond like Pavlovian dogs. Humans are wired for beauty. Like snowflakes, beauty operates in a structured process that never repeats itself. Western culture’s mistake is to equate structure with rigid repetition.

How then can the body be the basis of art outside illusionistic realism, photography or digitally enhanced film? Outside of the Greco-Roman lineage, most cultures use the body as schematic from which artwork is constructed rather than as a direct copy. Art mimics man. Man mimics the cosmos. As above is as below, the law of similars runs through the fetishes of American Indians, Alchemy, temple and church design regardless of culture, tribal shamanism, pop culture and new age management gurus. The body is a stupa and a miniature universe. Even the Greeks based their sculpture on mathematical ideas rather than individuals. Each approach is akin to language and like language has a vast number of variations. But each analogy uses the homo sapiens form, which remains a physical constant, and by the body, human culture is unified.

TIME AND HISTORY AS OBJECTS

Man may be the measure of all things but is he the measure of time? It is worth noting that the oldest known number system, from the Fertile Crescent cultures that predates even Chinese and Egyptian, used base 6 discovered through astronautical calculation rather than base 10. It is telling that a 5,000+ year old vestige survives intact in our measurement of time [60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hours etc...] and time’s most universal symbol, the circle. [angles are calculated in subunits of 360] Time and its entourage are alone beyond the pale.

Time brings the discussion back full circle to the initial conditions of an artist working in 2000. Like every other poor soul, outside survivalists, I have listened and read and tried to ignore the recaps, the predictions, the Y2K infections and the best-dressed lists that have spouted continuously from multimedia Hydra of our Information Age for the last year. Time is vogue. In spite of myself, I, a 3-dimensional artist, ponder on that dimension 4. Albert Einstein said “The non-mathematician is seized by a mysterious shuttering when he hears of fourth dimensional things, by a feeling not unlike that awakened by thoughts of the occult. And yet there is no more common place statement than the world in which we live is a four dimensional space-time continuum.”

The long brilliant falling star of Modernism, which sought so quixotically to escape time, is itself now a historic style. Ironically the end result of Modernism’s rejection of history is that its artifacts require museums whose collections are determined largely by date. For example the Musée d’Orsay holds only the 19th century Modernist and the Pompidou holds the 20th century with just a touch of spillover of fin-de-siecle.

So where does that leave the creative artist today, that is the today that was, is, and will be the early 21st Century? To hit the reboot key to some neoclassical dream world is just as silly as to endlessly search for new mutant isms to explain “today’s art” long after the feeling is gone. The collateral damage of rejecting history is losing any faith in the future and self. It leads to a coolly cynical academic style. Its hidden agenda is at best a cowardly fear of risking of not being hip, or at worst just the sick jealousy that the future might bring better artists. A young or mid-career artist in 2000 can choose to appreciate the achievements of Modernism without necessarily buying its core prejudices. It is painfully clear that the avant guard can’t outrace time. The question of a generation might be, is there another answer besides running? Each human life exists in both time and space. The future whatever the date is coming, ready or not. Posturing won’t stop the clock. Accepting history is paradoxically liberating. When any present culture (be it the now that is and was early 21st century or some other future present) can accept and embrace from the past, it can stop repeating it.

This post is also available in: French