Thursday, 25 January 2018

Drawing to an end

From 'Flood Story' Gerald Davies 

The flower of the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) is shaped as an idea of what a female bee would look like to a male bee. However most of these orchids are now self pollinating because the bee population that used to pollinate them has now died out. The flower is now a memory of an extinct bee, the image of which is nature's own vanitas painting, a momento mori for an easily forgotten small event. The art of memory being something that is perhaps not just the preserve of humans. 
In recent posts I have begun to reframe drawing as something that is as much the provenance of nature as of human beings, and in this case we have a drawing of a bee shape that could have taken millions of years to produce. Millions of small touches or marks are made as one flower received more visits than another from a certain bee, until the day when one particular orchid had the perfect flower to attract a male bee and so became the template for many more to follow. 

Ophrys apifera

Rudolf Steiner predicted the demise of the bees in his 1923 lectures. Steiner was a philosopher who wanted us to see how important our perceptive imagination, inspiration and intuition were to the future of both humanity and the world. His philosophy of 'anthroposophy' asks us to look at science as something allied to spirituality rather than being its polar opposite and his drawings, often done to support his lectures on these subjects were very influential on Joseph Beuys. 

Rudolf Steiner: drawing done during bee lecture

In opening out drawing's definition, I'm more and more aware that as a species we have drawn doodles all over the planet Earth. It feels moreover as if we have scribbled all over it, like some sort of manic lunatic, who draws obsessive spirals over and over again until their pencil or pen begins to break through the surface of the paper and begins to rip it apart. We have rubbed out jungles and forests, sliced down into the rocks to extract our precious minerals, blacked out vast stretches of once fertile land by polluting it with our love for carbon. Eleven billion of us will be making our mark on the planet soon, and wether we like it or not, such a huge number is totally unsustainable. "Less is more" used to be a Modernist mantra, but I think we ought to resuscitate the phrase as the slogan for our coming times. The only way we will revive the dying ecosystems of the world will be if we can leave them alone to regenerate and if we keep our numbers expanding at the same rate there will be no room for this, no room for anything else except some sort of self induced asphyxiation. Climate change is forcing mass migration and tensions rise as the Earth fights back. It may be that the fast arising redundancy of antibiotics is a sign that nature is developing its own cure for the problem and that one of Earth's oldest lifeforms, bacteria, are evolving to the point that there will be a new terraforming, just as there was when cyanobacteria released the oxygen locked up in water molecules, to enable life to evolve on Earth as we now know it.   
The graphite drawings that go to make up the exhibition 'Flood Story' by Gerald Davies use speculative thinking about global warming and rising sea levels, to imagine environments of the future. Davies' drawings are like blueprints for the future, in them towns and cities are smashed and flooded, the details of devastation prevail, his drawings operating as some form of archaeological map for future fossil hunters, whatever species they may be. 

From 'Flood Story' Gerald Davies 

Davies is very aware of what possible futures we may be setting up for ourselves and his drawings reflect this. The Earth will though be making its own drawings of the events and as it does, hopefully it will still include us in the picture. 

For a much more in-depth article on the work of Gerald Davies click this link

For more Steiner drawings

Kate Raworth's Donut economics (including the power of drawing to visualise what is happening) 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Notes on the conference: Joseph Beuys and Europe: Crossing Borders, Bridging Histories

Yesterday I was at a conference on Joseph Beuys at the Leeds City Art Gallery. The gallery has an artist's room exhibition of Beuys' work on at the moment and his drawings form an important aspect of his practice, so I was interested to see what Beuys scholars were saying about him. 
I wont pick out the presentations by individual presenters who were all professors, or PhDs or people working towards PhDs, because I was selfishly only really there to listen to Richard de Marco give his presentation. I had met him years ago and together with Patrick Oliver and Penny Cooper (who was an old friend of de Marco's), when he visited Leeds back in the 1980s we went up onto the art college roof in Vernon Street and after looking at all the architectural domes we could see, decided that Leeds was essentially a female city. He was an engaging speaker and full of energy and enthusiasm for life, so I was expecting something special from him. I sat through everyone else’s presentations and took notes and had ideas in relation to their papers, but, and this is something I’m becoming worried about, every speaker, except Richard de Marco, read from a pre-written paper. Over the years this has become more and more the accepted conference standard and perhaps it’s my age, but I can’t see the point of it. If I want to read a paper, I can just read it, so why not give out copies. Because most of the speakers are not trained actors, their voices trail off, they don’t use microphones properly or they just mutter. This means that large chunks of what they are reading out are lost, one presenter in particular was totally inaudible. Richard de Marco in contrast performed. He has a strong voice, didn’t need to refer to notes and spoke to us about what was on his mind, asserting that Beuys was for him still alive. He spoke powerfully about his belief in art and memories and experiences of Beuys. It was a fascinating and memorable talk, one that was constructed live for a live audience and it was so different from all the academic speakers who I felt operated as if they were more like vultures picking the last flesh from the dry bones of a long dead artist, and I wanted them to be translators channeling his ideas to a new audience.

However before I turn to what Richard de Marco had to say, there were some issues I picked out from all that dry academic talk, so perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad as I’ve painted. Someone mentioned the principle of resurrection as a driver behind certain art forms. Someone else, it was an audience member if I remember rightly also highlighted the importance of Christianity to Beuys’ ideas and there was mention of the wound and how Beuys set out to heal the world. The Judeo/Christian heritage was referred to several times and I was reminded that concepts like democracy, socialism and a caring society are rooted in this heritage, one that Beuys would have been keenly aware of.  This background was linked to Beuys’ interest in other cultures, such as the cultures on the far edges of Europe, from the Celtic fringes, to the frozen edges of Nordic Scandinavia, Lapland and Inuit territories via the Russian steppes. The European fringe cultures were in Beuys’ mind also in conversation with Eastern cultures, the wisdom of the other, either from the past, such as the Wyrd or from religions such as Zen Buddhism or Tao, all entangled in Beuys’ mind. I began thinking again of the journeys taken by many migrants, often beginning on the borders of Europe, then working their way through the European heartland and finally to the edges of that old kingdom that once was Angleland and which is now a Brexit fixated island of little Englanders. Beuys would have hated the idea of Brexit, he thought in long historical lines, worked across national boundaries and was aware of geology being more important than history. When you think of his work with dead hares, you also think of Durer and his famous painted image of a hare and the fact that Durer’s self portrait included a hare fur collar; when you think of Beuys' use of reindeer images, you know he is also thinking of the pre-historic drinking reindeer of Les Combarelles in the Dordogne

Beuys: Reindeer

Drinking reindeer: Les Combarelles Dordogne

Beuys set out to heal the wounds of the world, he wanted to bring people together, he wanted to teach people about the interconnectedness of things, he also wanted an art that would highlight the connections and similarities between cultures. His was not an art of aesthetic formal invention; it was an art of shamanic transformation. Material languages were central to his ideas, fat, felt and rich brown paint, each applied as a mark or register of a Beuysien sensibility.  I was reminded as Demarco spoke of how wonderful the idea of Beuys was at the time. Of how exciting the possibilities seemed. Art could change things, art could have some sort of relevance and it was a way of educating people about alternative truths.

I have been thinking about material languages again and Beuys had a very personal set of these, his invented stories of being saved by Siberian Tartar tribesmen, helping him to construct an authentic language of fat and felt. He was concerned to communicate in mythic terms, how the damage done by politics might be transfigured. The Nazi party had engineered its own myths and appropriated older ones, poisoning what should have been a nourishing set of beliefs and threatening to make all mankind lose touch with proper nourishing myths of life and its entanglements.  
I do worry about things though, and something was niggling away at me, something about the idea of the art star. Beuys’ screen-print by Warhol perhaps being the image that was unsettling me, it suggested that like Warhol himself, Beuys was now something to be commoditised, his piles of fat no longer working as psychic energy batteries but as securities and hedge funds for the super rich. Beuys’ association with de Marco was already compromised when I met Beuys, who came along to the college with Anthony D’Offay, a man who collected up everything that Beuys did when he was with us, who wouldn’t let any of Beuys’s scribbled diagrams of possibilities get out into the public domain because they were too precious, too full of cultural capital to be allowed out.

Warhol: Joseph Beuys

But back to Richard de Marco, he was still at the age of 87 positive and excited by the legacy of Beuys and his enthusiasm was a necessary cure for my cynicism.
De Marco still sees the work of Joseph Beuys as a legacy that creates hope for the future of art and its role in society. The language of politicians and politics is too poor and impoverished to be of any real use, and only the language of great artists like Shakespeare, T S Elliot and of course Beuys can open out for us the true possibilities of what it is to be human. These languages of art go beyond logic, their creators live on in our languages; artists in reshaping the material of words and physical forms leave us a continuing legacy of possibilities.

Two weeks before Beuys died he gave a lecture, he began, “I would like to thank my teacher Wilhelm Lehmbruck…” A timely reminder that Beuys was a sculptor and that artists are also concerned with the art of their predecessors, but perhaps even more importantly that Beuys regarded teaching as being the most important thing. De Marco stated that all of Beuys’ work could be regarded as teaching tools; his lectures in particular and writings and drawings on blackboards produced as illustrations to his thinking, clearly point to these pedagogic issues in his practice. “Every single manifestation of his work was as a teacher”.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

De Marco went on to remind us of the dangers of ‘tourism’ making a joke about George Bush’s pronunciation of “terrorism” which he first misheard as “tourism”. He reminded us of the importance of small magazines like ‘Pages’ that existed simply to promote and deepen an awareness of art’s possibilities. He railed against of the rise of art as ‘entertainment’, of art as an adjunct of the tourist industry, pointing to Damien Hirst’s latest Venice exhibition 'Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ as a sad reminder that Hirst was once seen as a possible inheritor of Beuys’ mantle.

De Marco sees universities as now being simply machines for making money and reminded us that there should be no separation between art and science as ways of understanding the world.  He wanted us to think about what is the proper use of art colleges and asserted that if we could get that right they would be central to the future of civilization. Art colleges should be looking at how to face the reality of global warming, Beuys’ ‘The Pack’ produced in the 1960s being a reminder that he was already thinking about these issues even then.

The Pack

Beuys saw other artists of the past as belonging to a ‘communion of souls’ that you as an artist should aspire to belong to, this communion being essential to the way that artists think and that this world is far too important to be sucked into the world of entertainment.

The Museum Sztuki in Łódź (pronounced like ‘watch’ with an ‘o’) has one of the most important collections of Beuys’ work. Beuys was drawn to Poland because he wanted to heal the wounds left over from the 2nd World War. I was reminded as de Marco spoke of a wonderful performance by the Slovenian Sister Scipion Theatre that he put on in Edinburgh, in 1986; holes had been cut into the floor so that heads could pop up randomly and begin speaking as you walked through the space. The whole ‘feel’ of performances like this or the Kantor productions that de Marco also put on was gripping, they had a gritty reality and somehow otherworldliness that moved you into totally new spaces for thinking.

Kantor theatre production

For de Marco both Kantor and Beuys are still alive. 
At the end of his exhilarating presentation he suggested that a good book to read that would be a useful salve if feeling crushed under the weight of Capitalism and the fact that the art world appears to simply exist as a playground for the super rich would be ‘Reclaiming art in the age of artifice’ by J F Martel and finally that he has an archive that is accessible to everyone. 
Joseph Beuys: Felt action:1963


Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Patternings, ties, entanglements and knots

A cat's cradle

Drawings can sometimes be thought of as living diagrams that demonstrate how things are connected. A cat's cradle can be used to tell stories. A verbal story and the forms made by the moving fingers and loop of string are woven together as one new form, symbiotically connected not just to each other but to the audience that is watching and listening. 
This is how an old Alaskan children's tale was told.

Begin by looping the string over both thumbs and spread your hands apart.

A woman sat weaving one day and as she did so, she began to hear a buzzing noise. It went like this…bbbuuzzzzzz

Twist your left hand to make the string wrap around the back of the hand.

The woman looked up and saw nothing, she looked to the left and to the right and saw nothing, so she went back to her weaving, in and out, in and out.

Swivel your right hand so that the string is not twisted, but do not have it wrapped around the back as you did with the left hand.

The buzzing noise now grew louder…BBBBBUUUUZZZZZZZ and the woman looked around again, she looked up and she looked to the left and to the right but she could see nothing, so she went back to her weaving.

Bring your right little finger over to left hand and use it to hook both strands of string running between your left thumb and your index finger. Pull right your hand back and make the string taut.

The woman carried on with her weaving; in and out, backwards and forwards, in and out, backwards and forwards, and she began to hum a sound of her weaving, in and out…hum, hum…up and around…hum, hum…

Bend your left hand toward your body and use your left little finger to hook both strands of string in the middle of your right palm. Your hands will not be able to move far apart at this point.

Suddenly the buzzing grew very loud. The woman looked down at her weaving and was surprised to see a giant mosquito right in the middle of it.

Use your right thumb and index finger to grab string wrapped around back of left hand. Lift it over all 4 fingers on left hand and let go. (Don't let go of string wrapped on your left little finger!) Now spread your hands apart quickly.

The mosquito was now flying around the woman’s head, it began to buzz even louder. It flew down and buzzed into her ears and under her chin. It flew past her eyes and the tip of her nose. It buzzed in her hair and flew down past her cheek, it was driving her crazy!

Move your arms up and down and wiggle your thumbs and little fingers to make the mosquito fly.

"I am going to catch that mosquito," said the woman. She waited and waited until the mosquito flew right in front of her. Then she clapped her hands over it, and when she did the mosquito went quiet and all was silence.

Hold your hands together for a while, and then when you open your hands, relax your little fingers so that the string will slide off of them. Do this quickly and spread your hands apart to show that the mosquito has gone.

 The New Hebrides (Vanuatu) sand drawing tradition is similar in many ways. 

New Hebrides (Vanuatu) sand drawing

Vanuatu sand drawings are made up of geometric patterns and just as in the Alaskan story, as the drawings are constructed stories are told, in this case the stories might involve mythology, history, kinship, old song cycles and even farming techniques. The ritual of the drawing is also an art of memory, for instance a story about the rotation of vegetables when planting, to ensure their continuing health and to curtail the spread of plant diseases, is embedded into a pattern that both visualises how to move the planting and provides a calendar in the mind for when to do this. Some stories are about everyday events, but in their telling the ritual of patterning begins to transform the everyday into the mythic. Consider a story about a husband and wife who have had an argument and who are now not talking to each other. In a pattern they can be shown as separate, their journey lines far away from each other. The husband goes off into the bush and catches two chickens. He brings the chickens home tied to either end of a long pole. The symmetry of the two chickens and their hanging from the pole, is again embedded within a growing pattern. The man approaches his wife and entreats her to cook both of the chickens, knowing full well that she only has one oven. In the pattern the lifeline of the man and of the woman begin to be drawn together around the single point of the oven. The wife begins to explain to her husband why she can’t cook both chickens and in doing so they once more begin to talk together, the man using the chickens as a peace offering and the sand drawing now weaving their lifelines back together.
When I was a young boy Rolf Harris was often on the TV. He would have a large canvas set up and would gradually paint a scene, usually a picture that had something to do with an Australian aboriginal story. He would always make the image in such a way that you could never see what the picture was going to be until the last minute when he completed the story. He would constantly ask, "Can you tell what it is yet?". Now of course discredited because of indecent assault charges, his early career left a lasting impression of how an image and a story could be woven together.  

Rolf Harris painting and telling a story

‘How the kangaroo got her pouch’ was one story told by Harris, this is an old story he would have taken from an aboriginal dreamtime tale.  The Dreamtime is oral, visual, acoustic, the land itself, the creatures that inhabit it, the customs of the tribes and all that happens in both dreams and waking, everything locked together as a whole, in something that is called the Dreaming. Harris took elements from this culture and like a colonial invader stealing artefacts, presented his stories to a far off alien culture, to children wanting to be entertained and distracted. But in doing so he sowed a seed, and however tenuously linked a thread of the Dreamtime to my own imagined landscapes. 

String figures rely on likeness to work. Look at how the Navajo story below comes alive as you see the heads of the two coyotes facing each other, their tails caught around forefingers and their legs around thumbs. As Harris would say, "Can you tell what it is yet?". 

Navajo string figures: Coyotes running opposite ways

The complexity of possible connections that could be made is huge, Lillian Hsu's print below being an example of what happens when your strings get tangled and your stories get confused. 

Lillian Hsu String drawing

Perhaps Hsu's print is more like life though, the way we are directed to look at knots as topographical thinking tools, is very attractive, but often unrealistic. Knots though are an important element in this story, so although for the moment I don't want to open up another strand, I will leave a couple of images as a reminder that at some point I shall develop a post on them. 


Compare the clarity of the knotted forms above to the work of the Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota. Her installation 'The Key in the Hand' was a wonderful experience to walk into, when you entered you became totally lost in a mazy haze of thousands of red threads, and when you got closer to the centre of the installation you realised all these threads were connected to a boat, as if it was caught in a spider's web. 

Chiharu Shiota 'The Key in the Hand' 

Chiharu Shiota 'Uncertain journey' 

Shiota's 'Uncertain journey', a more recent installation is less immersive but still provides a very good illustration of how intricately connected things are. 

When I worked at the steelworks, we used to use chalk lines to mark out where large sheets of metal needed to be cut. A taut string covered in chalk, is a much easier thing to make than a straight edged ruler, you need no other technology than an ability to pull a string between two attached points and be able to use a piece of chalk or some ground up chalk dust to coat the string with powder. I suspect most of Euclid's geometric proofs were drawn in this way.  His definition of a straight line being the shortest distance between two points, would have been so much easier to arrive at if he was pulling a string taut. 

Snapping a chalk line

String is deeply embedded into geometric thinking when it is in its most practical form. The image on the cigarette card below is a crude demonstration of how to draw a curve from two fixed points and as a boy I well remember practicing drawing circles and especially ellipses, using a couple of drawing pins, a pencil and some string. I strongly suspect that all early geometry began with the making of string structures and if so, the stories and tales associated with cat's cradle type string structures would have been still hanging around and not separated out as a different type of thinking. Things would have been much more interconnected.  

An early Islamic diagram by Al-Biruni of the phases of the moon. 

If you look at the ancient diagram above you can almost see the 'stringing' and the text that sits alongside the drawn lines could represent the story. Modern science is little different, the image below being almost a cliched sign for scientific thinking, a type of thinking that requires a close interrelationship between mathematics and geometry. All it needs is the story around which all that abstract thinking is developed. 

When Daina Taimina developed a physical way of modelling hyperbolic space, she used crochet. What was interesting about her work was that she realised that we need to touch things in order to really grasp what they actually are. Her understanding of geometry was developed using crochet so that it was much easier to understand how a line, generated by a fold, could operate in hyperbolic space. You can watch her talking about how this came about in this video. Drawing, as in geometry is vital to this understanding, but in this case it becomes clear that without the type of drawing we associate with drawing threads, she would not have been able to develop the idea. 

I was again reminded of the myth of Theseus, in particular the part where Ariadne gives Theseus a ball of thread to unroll as he penetrates the labyrinth so that he will be able to find his way back out again. It is as if the thread allows him to drop down deep into his subconscious and return enlightened after defeating the minotaur. Taimina uses her thread to reveal the mysteries of hyperbolic space in a similar way. Daedalus the architect of the labyrinth, is often regarded as a prototype of the scientist inventor, the complexity of his thinking being something others could not fathom. However the implications of complex mathematics that we associate with scientific thinking can sometimes be clearly demonstrated by visualising processes, the key one being of course drawing. This PDF is downloadable and sets out the relationship between the mathematics of hyperbolic spaces and how these can be visualised using crochet.

The changing curvature of surfaces is something as artists we all have to deal with when drawing objects. See this earlier post. The mathematics of Gaussian curvature is a way of thinking about gravity affected spaces and the way that these are visualised relies heavily on the experience of artists visualising 3D form. 
The saddle: An example of negative Gaussian curvature

Various possibilities of Gaussian curvature

You can see from the illustrations above why the idea of crochet was so useful when trying to make sense of these types of spaces. Crochet can also be thought of as a type of net and a net is a flexible grid; so I seem to have come full circle again, perhaps time to end this post and snip this thread and start a new one.


See also: