Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blue, colour of the imagination

Blue is a mysterious colour, hue of illness and nobility, the rarest colour in nature.It is the colour of ambiguous depth, of the heavens and of the abyss at once… of the blue movie…of anode plates, royalty at Rome, smoke, distant hills, Georgian silver, thin milk and hardened steel  – Matthias Ostermann, The New Maiolica

Blue is tout court, the colour of imagination – James Hillman
Yes Klein Monochrome

Do you think about blue? We are awash in it: the skies above us, the seas beneath us, which has everything to do with light of course, but it’s paradoxically rare in nature - which may account for its lack of lexical attribution in many languages. Cultivating blue roses and tulips is a horticultural grail which promises fame and reward.

Blue marks merit and distinction: cordon bleu, blue chip, blue blood. Blue diamonds are very valuable and lapis lazuli was once prized above diamonds. The old masters used ultramarine to paint the robes of revered subjects like the Madonna and Christ and the more saturated the colour, the greater its symbolical and actual value since ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli.
Few artists tackle blue. Picasso, Chagall, Anish Kapoor but most notably Yves Klein have all used it with striking effect. For Kapoor  "…blue reinforces a sense of freedom… The immense inspires us all. Eyes wide open if you like." And then there’s the dizzying breathtaking must-be-experienced saturation of International Klein blue (ultramarine pigment suspended in resin): "From a phenomenological point of view your eyes can't quite focus on blue." For Klein monochrome painting was also an "open window to freedom," and blue held the power to reveal the indefinable, the unknown. His famous symbolic gesture of signing the sky maybe says it all.

Mystics hold that seeing a tiny blue light in meditation is to experience the goal of human life. The throat chakra, symbolising communication, is blue, and the third eye chakra referred to as the gate which leads to higher consciousness, is indigo. The medicine Buddha is translucent blue and certain Hindu gods have blue skins.

In short, the Smurfs are in good company... and if you're feeling blue, there is nothing like a shot of Yves Klein (even on your computer screen) to notch you up!

For a compelling academic essay on blue, also referencing her own work, see Virginia Mackenny’s Blue – a shifting horizon (posted with permission) below.

Void - Anish Kapoor

ADDENDUM 30.12.2011:
Male blue-eyed satin bower birds decorate the inside of their nests with blue bits: feathers, candy wrappers, flowers, glass fragments, bus tickets, ribbons, bottle tops - to attract females who respond to blue.

Photo: R. Major © Australian Museum

PS A must view: Ali Smith - 'The truth about Green'

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blue - a shifting horizon. Virginia Mackenny

Blue - A Shifting Horizon

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The depression cul-de-sac

              They want production to be limited to useful things but they forget that the
              production of too many useful things results in too many useless people - Marx

             Creators...infuse the colours and music of their souls into the structures of
             existence  - Tagore

We all know it’s depressing to live in a society that enshrines excess, expenditure and  material possession, where the ubiquitous lure of commodities  replaces the call to matins and vespers, and where ‘enough’ has almost lost all meaning. We know ‘progress’ just means more and more things and that consumerism derails a host of human qualities, a very important one being creativity.

But if we assign creativity only to artists whose work is enshrined in exhibition spaces or played out on stages, we’re missing the point.  All you have to do is observe a child at play to know that human beings are naturally creative, curious, intellectually playful, and complex. And seen through a Schumacher lens, the loss may lie in small acts of creativity which we seem to express less and less in our homes, in our daily lives; diminished creativity on an intimate level.

In short, we no longer make many things for our personal use. If you knit, crochet, sew, bake, make pottery or do carpentry these days you’re not someone simply going about your daily life and you're not like everybody else; you may even have a shop or a website, or are at least be contracted to a home industry. My readymade, about-to-break, soon-to-be-replaced item looks exactly like yours; the best I can do is put a spin on the selections I make. Less originating involvement in what we’re surrounded by and live with means fewer opportunities to imbue our lives with personal meaning and joy derived from the tactile engagement with handmade products.

Contrast the palpable joy felt by those who do attend classes like pottery, carpentry, decoupage, cooking. The point is, there’s little left for us to do in our homes: everything we eat, wear and use is a dollar away. Is it surprising that global depression levels are high? What satisfaction is there in being a consumer first and foremost, for a creature who is a maker of things? How do you derive self-worth from a cul-de-sac of  repetitive consumption?

I watched my grandmother  make, mend and cherish things. I learnt from her that we love what we labour for and labour for what we love. I understand that Marx’s loss of savoir-faire leads to  loss of   savoir-vivre.  Bronowski pins the ascent of man on the first handmade flint axes. We may be paying dearly for passive hands.


                                                           Source: Needlenthread


Monday, November 21, 2011

Euclidian lace - Christina Bryer

“My work is geometry. I do the work.”

Aperiodic blooms, merit award, 7th International Ceramic Competition 2011, Japan

       I have been a privileged witness to the development of Christina Bryer’s tile installations and porcelain mandalas over many years. Their deception is fabulous. Beyond the superficial embellishment these fragile objects reminiscent of frozen lace or French patisserie are solidly grounded in mathematics

Her starting point is a fascination with aperiodic tiling and Roger Penrose. In periodic tiling you can trace a piece of a pattern as in the example below, and recreate it by infinite repetition in either direction. In other words, the pattern can fit into a lattice.

Aperiodic tiling lacks this simple translational symmetry. If you trace a piece of this pattern, you have to rotate it to find a match:

Pentaplexity (Graphics: C.Bryer)
Penrose's infinite aperiodic tiling is generated by pentagons with the help of his famous ‘kites’ and ‘darts’, plus thin and fat rhombuses (or diamond shapes). Bryer likes using the pentagons themselves rather than the kites and darts, and the five-, three- and one-point star patterns which unfold in the pattern.

                                                                                                    Daisy field

Additional inspiration comes from repetitive patterns contiguous with infinity in the Alhambra mosaics for example, as well as nature’s tendency to construct complex geometries on micro and macro levels such as unicellular organisms, DNA strands, and stellar configurations. Bryer avoids the term ‘sacred geometry’ but this is of course how mathematical laws in natural forms are popularly referred to.

The implicit link with metaphysics is ineluctable. Even if you don’t subscribe to assumptions held by philosophers from Descartes to Kant to Frege, that Euclidean geometry is a paradigm of epistemic certainty, or the idea in platonism that mathematical truths are discovered, not invented, I invite you to pay attention to the multiple layers and complex overlaps in Bryer’s UpDown below. Patterns within patterns, shifting substrata, stars and pentagons, dazzlingly cohesive, move and loop without upsetting the overall harmony - making it easy to entertain  notions of absolute principles and Islamic ‘hidden one-ness’. 

       Digital 2D UpDown
The strict discipline involved in crafting the patterns evokes a meditative state of mind (we tend to forget in how many cultures the artist, monk and mathematician are often the same person), and Bryer doesn't control the unfolding of the pattern but follows  a “quest into the unfathomable depths of the web of aperiodicity from which straight lines, circles, rhythms and scaling emerge by themselves.” Contrary perhaps to expectation, she notes that “starting with the absolute of the grid frees you to work with infinite possibilities.”

  Tanit tile murat, Ibiza 1995
www                    ce


Bryer’s work forms part of a long discourse that goes back to  Renaissance parquetry and marquetry. Vasarely (1930s) and Agam gave us 3D kinetic effects through repetitive elements in painting. Escher (1930s to 1960s) introduced a 4D timeline in his bird/fish transformations. Nowadays there’s talk of 5D hyperspace and in A New Kind of Science Wolfram posits that “all processes, whether they are produced by human effort or occur spontaneously in nature, can be viewed as computations.”

Bryer will tell you that the centres are fractal, which Mandelbrot explains as being able to split into parts, each of which is a reduced-size copy of the whole; and that depending on the decisions you make, recognisable ‘seed patterns’ unfold in the infinite tilings namely ‘stars’, ‘cartwheels’ and ‘suns’ –which she prefers to call exploding or yin stars, cartwheels, and contracting or yang stars.

                                       Star                                Sun                                 Cartwheel

Anyway, Bryer has to contain or ‘stop’ the patterns from their tendency to infinity and gives them a border. The choice of a circular (plate) presentation with soft edges immediately places the patterns in the arena of women’s craft and art and the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the 70s. Artists  like Judy Chicago, Sonia Delauney, Miriam Shapiro and Joyce Kozloff come to mind. And when Bryer meticulously ‘cuts’ into the clay to allow an interplay of shadow and light, she claims the patterns. They are no longer digital, but gestural and plastic.

The silent earth
I see the fact that these mathematical ‘truths’ are comfortably situated in the discourse of female craft of doilies, swatches, flounces, and indigo designs, as an ingenious (although not intended as such) infiltration. They innocently decorate walls in homes like tiles in temples while hinting at  a much bigger picture.

PS See Christina's beatiful after the rain close-ups on Hartbron, Montagu.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Exquisite pursuit - Willem Boshoff

If it were up to me Willem Boshoff would be declared a living treasure. Not only is he enchanted with words, and deeply examines our taxonomies and lexicons, he constantly flags, in a prodigious body of ecology aesthetics, our destructive presence on the planet.  In the words of Natalie Souchon*, “He is not working with the image[s] of plants, but with the hopeless memory, where words become gardens of remembrance. The memory is what grows, not the plants themselves.” Keywords, for me, through which to read his work are numinosity, silencepatienceexquisitus negotium (I looked up the Latin for the title of this piece because Latin features among Boshoff’s  projects of remembrance).

Over the years Boshoff has taken it upon himself to memorise the names of thousands of extinct flower species. In the spirit of transmitting cultural history through vocal utterance in oral traditions, remembering equals preserving. In an e.mail Boshoff writes: "I do not include the names of plants in my artworks Gardens of Words I, II and III if I had not actually encountered them and if I had not tried to fix their names in my memory; only real experiences count. That does not mean that I do not look at plants in books and on the internet. I do that all the time, but I only consider the ‘face-to-face’ experience as relevant for the artworks." And: "For my sins I become endlessly and boringly philosophical about memorising existing plant species. I refer to my head as a ‘garden’ and my activities of writing of dictionaries and compiling plant lists and other notes as ‘gardening in my mind.’ The trouble with this garden in my head is that, like any other garden, it needs constant care and attention. I need to repeat what I remember of the 20,000 plant names on my list of encountered plants often and for good reason, or else those plants die of neglect. The GARDENS OF WORDS projects and all other efforts are there to help the plants in my head not to become extinct. As I get older, I get a very real experience of what it means for words and names to become extinct by simply forgetting them."

The thousands of ‘flowers’ in Garden of Words III are made of white cloths folded into red holding cups and both the botanical and vernacular names of the flowers are printed on the cloths – rendering these elegiac conceptual representations of the living plants both epitaphs and mnemonics.
                                                          Garden of Words III, 2006 (Source: Art South Africa)

This is not the place to even begin to explore Boshoff’s philosophical concerns, which are rich and deep, but I want to pay tribute to his cranial garden and the way in which his work of preservation is 'never ending', that is, can only end when he dies. In a culture that marginalises invisibles and forgets all too easily, we need custodians like Boshoff. His meticulous pursuits remind one of Bacon’s identification of 'exhilarated despair…[that] painful yet lyrical disturbance felt by all those who, living in these times of horror spangled with enchantment, can contemplate them with lucidity.'
 When Boshoff dies, we lose a chunk of living history.

*Dissertation: Repositioning Marianne North and Botanical Art, 1999

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Romance in the 21st century - sloppy linguistics

I have a problem with Victorian vulgarisms as the mainstay of intimate discourse.
Foucault makes a distinction between ars erotica (erotic art), mostly an Eastern approach, and scientia sexualis (the science of sexuality) which frames the Western approach. The former encourages imaginative expression, the latter not. To quote James Hillman:

Listen to the marvelous language of foreign erotica: jade stalk, palace gates, ambrosia. Compare with ...... prick, gash, bush, frog etc. A Chinese plum is to be ..... enjoyed; our cherries are .... taken, popped, broken….Our Puritan prose is impoverished; it cannot encompass the sexual imagination to which great temples have been built in India. Our imagination reinforces the image of lovemaking as a heroic performance, the hard-rock fantasy of sex….performance heroism makes impotence threatening, and inevitable….this hard language makes us ignore ..... times of lassitude and gentle reluctance......

What would it take to move away from sloppy linguistics and reinvest words like ‘exquisite’, ‘savour’, and ‘delay’ with currency?  Are we moving too fast? It doesn’t take rocket science to see that courtship is embedded in a very different linguistic landscape from speed dating. Anticipation, nuance and texture, courtesy and civility don’t find expression in four letter action words.

So if we’ve moved beyond chivalry, knighthood, courtly love, castles, Lancelot and Guinevere - and Hollywood schlock and schmaltz aside, where does romance reside these days?  The young people I know eschew the word. Yet I’m sure a yearning for the impossible (like blue roses) still lurks in hearts. How else do we account for the popularity of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with its fabulously restrained eroticism?

Some slow movements offer hope. In Leisure: The Basis of Culture Joseph Pieper invokes Aristotle: ‘the first principle of action is leisure.’ In The Importance of Living Lin Yutang celebrates the elegant philosophy of half-action and half-non-action. You may also be interested to know that Carl HonorĂ©’s In Praise of Slowness has been translated into 30 languages. Implicit in slowness is a different way of relating to others.

And the great love stories? Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Isolde, Heloise and Abelard, and Paolo and Francesca seem to have had this in common: a good deal of prohibition, forbidden contact, transgression and secrecy. More often than not, the threat of death dangled. Are these necessary conditions for romance/eros? Maybe not although Bataille for one would say so: "...renunciation enhances the value of the thing renounced…. [i]t complements eroticism which heightens the value of the object of desire. Without the counterbalance of the respect for forbidden objects of value there would be no eroticism…."  (Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo).

Maybe permissiveness is the other problem? Where nothing is risked and everything is permitted, imagination is rendered redundant. Why walk through the forest when you can fly over it?
But romance is alive in gestures and actions if not everyday our language.  The beautiful roof of Elena Rocchi’s  Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona, only “visible to God” to quote her, is a deeply romantic idea.

Source: Superstock Photos

Stone roses. The Sartorialist  finds beauty, quirkiness, originality and style on street corners, in obscure nooks, and under our noses. The Zen movements of my gardener where there are no observers. For my friend D: (i) the colour black and darkness (including dusk); waves and wavy (undulating, flying [like a flag or long hair]) things (even -- why not? -- anemone): things in which there is a certain hiddenness -- in the case of waves, I suppose this means that the source of life, of activity and movement, is evident, but not in itself and only in what it makes happen or move (ii) Beautiful eyes; Ursula Andress rising like Venus from the waves (!) in Dr. No.

What do you think?