Thursday, September 23, 2010

Windows, Peepholes, and Meaning

“There are many windows through
which we can look out into the
world, searching for meaning ...

... Most of us, when we ponder on the
meaning of our existence,
peer through but one of these
windows onto the world.
And even that one is often misted over
by the breath of our finite humanity.

We clear a tiny peephole and stare through.

No wonder we are confused by the
tiny fraction of a whole that we see.

It is, after all, like trying to
comprehend the panorama of the
desert or the sea through
a rolled-up newspaper.”

Jane Goodall
Primatologist/Anthropologist (1924- )

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Memories, Dreams, and Perceptions

"Our whole past store of memories floats
beyond its margin, ready at a touch to come in;
and the entire mass of residual powers, impulses,
and knowledges that constitute our empirical
self stretches continuously beyond it.

So vaguely drawn are the outlines
between what is actual and
what is only potential at any
moment of our conscious life,
that it is always hard to say of
certain mental elements
whether we are conscious of them or not."

William James (1842-1910)
The Varieties of Religious Experience

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Yves Klein, Arbitrary Labels, and the "Meta" Art of Displaying Art

This will likely read as an even more rambling blog entry than usual ;-) but there is simply no easier way to fuse the three ostensibly unrelated themes posited in the title than by the words I'm about to type into my iPad stream of consciousness style. So here goes...

Last week, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing the Yves Klein exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC (for those of you with iPhones, iTunes has a wonderful app to allow you to experience the exhibit "virtually" on your iPhone). Yves Klein was a French "artist" born in Nice in 1928 and died, tragically young, of a heart attack in 1962. I put the word "artist" in quotes because Klein's "art" was - and is - notoriously difficult to pin down; he used so many different techniques and produced such a diverse oeuvre, that the word "artist" hardly does justice to what Klein really was (and for which I have no ready "label"). Even in describing his more "conventional" works - in which pigment is applied to a canvas - one wonders whether an asterisk (even a question mark!) should not accompany any description (see below). His works are all equal parts object and concept (or philosophy). Klein's works are best appreciated as transient artifacts - as snapshots in time - of a ceaseless process of creative exploration, unconfined to a single genre or single means of expression. Klein was in many ways the physical embodiment of an incorporeal creative force. His life was art, much more so - on a fundamental level - than any of the art works he had time to create.

Which brings us to the second theme of this blog entry, the arbitrariness of labels... One of the techniques Klein employed (often as a public performance to the delight of invited guests) was to have two or three nude women cover themselves with paint - typically a special "spiritually charged" hue of blue ...
"Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not.. ..All colors arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract." - Yves Klein (lecture at the Sorbonne, 1959)
...and proceed to "paint" canvases with their bodies. Sometimes the "painting" would be directed by Klein; sometimes it would be left up to the "body brushes" themselves. But in either case, Klein himself was but the creative fire behind a process that, once set in motion and because of the womens' active participation, was not entirely under his control. Which brings up a not so easy to answer question: in what sense can one say that the "finished artwork" (many fine examples of which are shown at the Hirshhorn exhibit, including a few wall-size videos of the process itself) is Klein's alone?

Klein also experimented with the use of fire as paint, was a photographer, and sometimes used the windshield of his car as an "abstract canvas" to capture the dynamic imprints of twigs and insects as the car careened on winding stormy roads.
"I dash out to the banks of the river ... and find myself amongst the rushes and the reeds. I grind some pigment over all this and the wind makes their slender stalks bend and appliqués them with precision and delicacy on to my canvas, which I thus offer to quivering nature: I obtain a vegetal mark. Then it starts to rain; a fine spring rain: I expose my canvas to the rain… …and I have the mark of the rain! – a mark of an atmospheric event." - Yves Klein
My wife (an art major in college) astutely asked whether the same question might be posed of Jackson Pollack, whose art also arguably depended at least in part on the vagaries of paint-globule-trajectories not under his control; or, indeed, of any artist whose works depend on processes not under their direct control (see Chance Aesthetics by Meredith Malone).

Language can be both surgically precise and woefully ambiguous (and sometimes, simultaneously both!) The labels we apply to things and processes are - as often as not - arbitrary, and are rarely more than simple caricatures of the real things and processes they are used to represent. This is never more true than when we apply labels to artists and the works they create. Certainly (?) Klein and Pollack (and Kandinsky, and Picasso, and my dad, Sam Ilachinski) are all "artists." But what does the label convey, apart from the fact that whatever it is their souls and activities share probably has little to do with building particle colliders (though this too is arguably an "artform" so that the overlap may not be as "small" as one first suspects... but we'll leave that discussion to a later time ;-) ? Is a "body art" painting by Klein a "painting by Klein"? Is it a "collaborative work of art" created partly by Klein and partly by his cadre of "body brushes"? Is Klein merely one "creative force" behind a painting that owes its existence (and meaning?) to multiple creative forces (in the case of his body art in particular, Klein is arguably the more passive of the many creative forces at work; or is he)? To what extent does the word "artist" signify what Klein really was (which, even from the brief sketch I've given above, it should be obvious that Klein was not your "typical" artist)? And for that matter, how many - ever more precise (?) - "labels" do we need to begin to capture "Klein as Klein" (and can that even really be done)?

In truth, the best we can do to represent - or to label - Klein, or any other artist (if we're honest), is to append to any symbolic signifier of Klein (a picture of him shortly before his death, say, or merely the word "Klein") Klein's complete creative oevre, from first doodles as a baby-Klein to the last half-completed sketch before his fatal heart attack at 34. Of course, even this is at best an incomplete record, since there are likely to be many more works that Klein had kept to himself, or destroyed, than exposed to public view (I know this to be a fact regarding my dad's lifework); but, certainly, the label "Klein" followed by a catalog of reproductions of his life's work better represent the "artist" Klein than the word "artist" alone.

Alas, even here there is a snag. For even if we managed to reproduce a complete record, we would still have to contend with the nontrivial problem of how to interpret - how to derive meaning - from the record in the manner in which it was constructed and displayed (which adds yet another layer of ambiguity and arbitrariness). Is a linear time-line "better" or "worse" than organizing according to theme and process? While creative works surely accrue in a "linear" fashion (for our hands can create only one work at a time), artists - especially "artists" like Klein - rarely work on a single project at a time, mentally and creatively juggling multiple simultaneous works. How can that complex dynamic inner process be captured in any static "record"? And yet, if it is not - and cannot - be captured, to what degree can any record of any artist's oeuvre truly capture the "artist"? Surely the way in which an artist's oeuvre is interpreted - and therefore how the "artist" is understood through his oeuvre - owes as much to how the oeuvre is organized - usually by someone other than the artist (though the same would be true even in the case where the artist organizes his or her own life's work) - as what is "in" it. Interpretation cannot proceed without both content and context (to which we must also add the context - and current state-of-mind - of the viewer!)

Which brings us to the third theme of this blog entry, the meta-art of displaying art...though we are dangerously close to encroaching on the formal study of semiotics - i.e., the study of signs and symbols (see Handbook of Semiotics by Winfried Noth), I will confine my musings to an observation my wife and I made at the Yves Klein exhibit. In one hall of the exhibit, the curators had beautifully arranged about 25 or 30 of Klein's smaller blue sculptures. It is a large semicircular room (following the circular contour of the Hirshhorn building), brightly lit, and painted a solid white from floor to ceiling. Each work rests on its own modest pedestal, ranging from about two to four feet in height, and relatively positioned in a more or less grid-like configuration, with bases extending from the floor at varying depths (as the main "base" of the exhibit is itself positioned at a slight incline). The effect is mesmerizing, as the roomful of small blue objects reveals itself as you step into this part of the exhibit. The arrangement is both inviting - as a whole - and seductive in compelling one to linger and admire the individual works. The question that immediately presents itself - on the meta-level - is the degree to which the artful arrangement of Klein's works colors and/or defines how one interprets them. Certainly, the effect - and subsequent interpretation - would have been dramatically different had my wife and I stepped into a room in which all of Klein's works were "arranged" in a disorganized pile in one corner. But what if the arrangement had been just as "artful" (why do we so seldom pay homage to the curator's meta-art of arranging other artists' "art"?), but had different lighting? Or a different relative positioning? Or a slightly different choice had been made as to what individual works to include from the exhibit? All of these particular choices would give the exhibit a different feel, and - more importantly - compel viewers to interpret "Klein the artist" in different ways.

However, lest one conclude from all of this that the best, and only, way to "know" an artist is to become the artist (much as Borges describes how a fictional Pierre Menard becomes Cervantes in order to be able to write Cervantes' Don Quixote), remember that the artist's own struggles to create - and which leave a trace of artifacts that others use to "understand" the artist - are also the artist's attempt to understand herself! So who knows the "real" artist?
"The essential of painting is that something, that 'ethereal glue,' that intermediary product which the artist secrets with all his creative being and which he has the power to place, to encrust, to impregnate into the pictorial stuff of the painting." - Yves Klein
Additional Reading. (1) Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers; (2) Yves Klein: Fire at the Heart of the Void; (3) Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium.

Postscript #1. One more thought on the meta-art of displaying art. Suppose one decides to curate an exhibit of the meta-art of curating. That is, to exhibit not the works of an artist, but the meta-art of a curator. How can such an exhibit to be organized? Does the curator (whose meta-art is going to be on display) do the curating? But then it's not so much an exhibit, as just "another day on the job" for the curator. Perhaps some other curator displays the first curator's exhibit. In which case, how might the viewer of the exhibit tell their "artworks" apart? And, for that matter, what actual physical "artwork" ought be displayed (certainly not the curator's, since the curator has no physically manifest "art" to display)? Or would there - in practice - be little difference between an exhibit of an "artist" and an exhibit of a "curator"? For example, take the roomful of 30 Klein-artworks. This room can be interpreted as both a Klein exhibit (as billed by the Hirshhorn) and as a Curator exhibit (who remains, sadly, unbilled). What if the artist is also a curator of her own art? And what of the architect - and lighting engineer, and floorboard installer, and... - who all play an important part in setting the mood...? Ambiguitity upon ambiguity ad infinitum ;-)

Postscript #2. As an example of "bad" - or "misrepresentational" - curatorship, consider the display of one of Klein's "participatory sculptures" at the Hirshhorn exhibit. The "sculpture" is actually invisible (indeed, neither my wife nor I "saw" it), since it was deliberately designed by Klein to be enclosed within a solid white box (on a stand, about at chest-level), with holes poked in the sides so that the viewer can feel the sculpture with her fingers after extending her arms through the holes. What was amusing is that the Hirshhorn's exhibit includes a sign expressly forbidding any touching. Viewers may admire the outside of Klein's "participatory sculpture," but are not allowed to "see" the sculpture with their fingers as Klein had intended. If all art is an artifact of the creative process, then this particular artifact of Klein's art was, at best, an artifact of an artifact. I suspect that Klein would not have reacted positively to such an "exhibit" of his art!