I studied and worked as a structural engineer for fourteen years. It involves a way of thinking that is practical and safe. One considers an issue or problem and thinks it through, logically and deductively, to a conclusion. This conclusion must adhere to the laws of Nature, or more specifically, Physics, or more specifically again to the engineer’s Bible of empiricism – The British Standards. It is the practical application of Physics. It is a useful way of thinking; I was sick of it. Now I study fine art. I am interested in thinking in a different way.
Gilles Deleuze, in the 1960s, said: that it was important for an artist to become animal. Manuel De Landa – a Mexican artist and philosopher – examined this idea in a lecture he gave in 2006 to the European Graduate School, a lecture I watched, glamorously, on YouTube. I am no student of philosophy; I merely found this interpretation interesting. He looked at Deleuze’s notion of the artist becoming animal not in a metaphorical sense but from the point of view of the manner of thought being employed by physicists and mathematicians practising up to and around that time. He wanted to remove logic and language from his reckoning and embrace the purity of numbers and geometry – two geometries feature in this lecture in particular, Differential and Topological.*
De Landa introduced, into this presentation, the idea of the Phylum Cordata, which is a first principle blueprint of the skeletal structure of a mammal. This basic, vertebrate structure is: spine, four limbs, head. Topology is the stretching and shaping of something until it resembles something else, but without losing connectivity. It is an a-scalar and a-dimensional process, i.e. it does not use linear measurements. The famous example of this is the re-shaping of a doughnut to a cup – you have a hole and you have unbroken material around the hole. De Landa proposed that this topological geometry could be applied to the Phylum Cordata. The process would be that the human skeleton is folded, kneaded or shaped back to the first principle blueprint and from there it can be stretched, pulled and bent – through progressive differentiation – to the skeleton of, say, a giraffe, or a whale or a bat, et cetera; thus becoming animal. De Landa wanted to illustrate the point of potential from where a freedom of thought can evolve. He likened this progressive differentiation to that of the thought process of an artist acknowledging this fluidity. This is my, no doubt crude, understanding of his interpretation and lecture on Deleuze’s position.
At the start of the college year, I spent three weeks in Life Drawing class. I was introduced to the idea of chiarascuro. This is a Renaissance term and it describes a technique, in drawing and painting, of modelling from light to dark, that is, using a difference in tone to describe one surface from another instead of simply drawing a line to differentiate the two shapes. This was difficult for me to grasp, having drawn, for a number of years, with line only. I started looking differently at objects and how I re-represented them visually. My tutor, Laurence Riddell, a painter, summed it up to me when he said that he wasn’t telling me how to draw, but that this new way of approaching drawing was more similar to him saying: “go to the shop”, but not to go the usual route, down the hall, through the front door, et cetera – instead, go out the back window, through the roof, burrow. The notion being to recognise that there is a moment of potential, then to open yourself to the infinite influences and potential decisions you can make from that moment on. In essence, you could spend your whole life “going to the shop.”
I have learnt that there is a way of thinking logically (to a blinkered conclusion) and a manner of thinking where the fluidity of the process is most important.
I am a nobody in the Dublin art scene. I don’t like the idea of a scene and worse, being part of one. Dublin is a tiny speck in the international art market, a market I know very little about. I have a rudimentary knowledge of how things work in Dublin:
There are the national galleries: IMMA, The National Gallery and the Hugh Lane etc. There are commercial galleries: The Kerlin, The Rubicon, Green on Red, etc. They are effectively agents for Irish and international artists. They sell artists’ work in their galleries in Dublin and at Biennales in Venice and Basel and such like. They have about twelve exhibitions each year, and these show artists’ work from the point of view of selling them and raising the profiles of artists and galleries. It is a point of stability for an artist to be attached to a gallery. There are also small independent galleries which show work from up-and-coming artists – namely, recent graduates. These galleries exhibit work by young artists as an opportunity for showcasing their developing aesthetic and ideas. These galleries are earnest, energetic, scene-reliant and an utter vacuum for critique. I currently operate in these pools. These are the galleries I talk about as regards my exhibiting.
Most galleries have a call for submissions at some stage in the year. You put together and send off a proposal. If it is accepted, you pay a deposit for the space and get a date on which to show. Then you seek funding and, receiving the funding or not, complete your work to the point of it being, hopefully, a coherent visual experience.
It is at this point that I begin thinking, and making, from the kernel of the idea on which I based my initial proposal. I continue to research, read and hopefully make cognitive connections. I try and leave myself open to ideas from any source – art, (literary, visual or audio-based), human interaction, nature, science, it doesn’t matter. I also try to be open to the possibility of the visual delivery of the idea. Be it drawing, sculpture, video, whatever. An idea should grow and stem from other ideas, so it resembles a large weed of notions and half-baked images. Then I focus on a segment of this weed and try to work, on a particular element, to a coherent conclusion. This mix of intellectual rigour and physical response, and vice versa, helps keep this process fluid, alive, open and, most important of all, interesting for me. I feel that a reserve of delusion is also required throughout. If I am tired and going through the motions, the work will reflect this. If I am working within the constraints of certain materials, or an aesthetic that would make me recognisable, the work will appear contrived and, equally, staid. I try and choose the material or method of representation that works best for the idea only. I experiment, fail and learn.
I want things to dominate, so filling the thoughts of the hearer that he does not even remember the words. [Montaigne]
When writing, clarity and transparency are important. When producing a visual piece of work for a gallery, there should be space within the presented experience for the viewer to inhabit, and to bring their personality. It is important for such a space to exist.
The following is a broad and crude summation of the different types of visual art being practised today:
Some artists work with and push the visual language of art. For example they produce work that plays with scale, colour or texture, etc. Some work pushes the genre of the medium. There is performance art also; it is perhaps the most esoteric and least practiced of the visual arts. Other artists work conceptually. They use any medium open to them to express their idea as clearly as they think possible, without killing the essence of the idea.
I feel some conceptual artists hide in the space I have described above. They present work which is abstract, but with no Rosetta Stone of understanding, for viewers, in their work at the time of its presentation. They often return with an accompanying publication months after the exhibition, which further obfuscates their work; this chronology I do not trust. Perhaps it is my engineering background that cripples me. In any case, these publications are supposed to further feed the viewer as to the direction or thrust of the work. Instead the language in these publications (and most press releases for conceptual art in Ireland) is formulaic, wilfully vague and pretentious to the point of confusion. When you strip this language down you find that it referred to absolutely nothing. And often I may also completely miss the point.
When installing or hanging a show you would be given time to work with the room’s shape and lighting. I have very poor curatorial skills. Curation is an important art form unto itself. Whenever I have installed I have asked the help of people from different backgrounds. A press release is written. The press in general can be contacted, if you wish, to advertise your show – i.e., when and where it is on, how long it is on for and a blurb as to the nature of the show. The opening night involves socialising. Artists go to opening nights to be seen and to network. The work is not examined or thought about. If the work is for sale, this is the night it sells on. I go to openings, socialise, then I return later in the week to view the work. Opening nights are a husk and everyone knows it.
Once the opening night is over – in the case of an exhibition of mine – I return the next day and open up the gallery. I sit and wait. I talk to whomever may wander in and wish to talk about the work. Contemporary art is at the bottom of a massive, steaming pit of visual experiences open to the public in general. People, mostly, will watch a movie before they will go to a gallery. Fine art is not the domain of the upper or middle classes; the buying of it is. Art that I am interested in is class-less. It is exclusive, only to those that want to think about it – which, unfortunately, makes it very exclusive. Art is not the domain of artists or their peers. It is the domain of those who view work with patience and without malice or vanity. It is for the curious.
Your show ends, you document your work and take it down. Hopefully you have learnt something from it. If it has been reviewed, then that’s more exposure. If you were selling work – and it was bought – you send it onto the buyer. A lot of work today is digital, so storage is not an issue in this case. If your work was part of an evolving idea, then you keep it and work on it – that’s exciting. If it wasn’t, then it doesn’t matter, because now it is just more stuff.
*NOTE: Gauss, a German physicist and mathematician, over a hundred years before Deleuze had made this utterance, had introduced the idea of differential geometry. Up to this point there was one recognisable form of geometry – Euclidian geometry. It employed Cartesian coordinates, that is: x, y, z, as the notation of a position anywhere in the universe. Gauss proposed that this was too turgid a method of expression for positions in the universe. Where there are relatively massive gravitational pulls to be considered, a simple x, y, z is not representative – if we consider that light can be bent in these gravitational fields. Einstein went on to prove this (a hundred years later), making use of a wonderfully timed solar eclipse. The main point, as I understand it, that de Landa wanted to illustrate here was that: instead of the human mind simply considering the rigid x, y, z coordinate system, that now the Attractor – probable position of a possible state – of differential geometry was a more fluid and sympathetic ethos when considering a universal geometry.
This essay was first published in Some Blind Alleys | New Irish Writing and Visual Art.
Adrian Duncan is an artist and writer who lives in Dublin.