239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

Still from The Brain That Wouldn't Die

During her first chemistry lesson with Professor Allio, who has a huge angioma covering much of his face in a way that made it difficult to guess which was the birth mark and which was the unblemished skin; she learnt the transition of water in different phases.

The transition takes form between solid, liquid and gaseous states of matter, and in rare cases, plasma. Those different states of matter suggest the process of creativity typical of an artist, where ideas often start as blurry images and finish with a solid body of work.

This blurry image, roughly organic, can be compared to an intangible substance almost with the consistence of plasma,in terms of a unique condition of matter, which doesn’t have a definite shape or a definitive volume unless in a container.

In the paranormal field the ectoplasmic phenomena is associated with hauntings and it is understood that it has been a slime-like substance excreted by mediums during trances.

All those transformations from one matter to another could have several affinities with the gestation of an idea until its materialization: during the process of creativity, an artist passes through several complex stalemates: she gropes, she calls herself to question, she can get obsessed, she can switch back and forth between several ideas and she can get truly confused. Exactly during those transitions, the work starts to take form, even if it’s just a rough sketch. This itinerary, which fluctuates through several states of mind, gives an essential mobility to the concept.

Nevertheless each artist has her/his own way of experimentation and unfortunately, what it is visible is always the final stage and a final body of work rather than the uncertainty and the confusion. The backstage of most of the artist’s studio is hermetic and makes it almost impossible to deduce any linear theory about the experimentation. Can we therefore say that maybe artists and mediums have something in common because neither have any rational explication that can explain their conception?

Bruce Lee says “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Being shapeless means for her not being stuck on a fixed point, position or protocol but rather avoiding the safest places and resisting formalisation. Bruce Lee’s words makes her pensive. As an artist, she feels that she has in her hand a double-edged sword that sometimes she doesn’t know how to handle. She feels split between a certain free form daily life and the duty to follow a strict discipline. She knows that she needs some routine to progress in her work but at the same time she is afraid of unnecessary repetitions. Nevertheless she repeats in her mind, almost as a mantra, some statement in which she wants to believe: make mistakes, make risks happen, learn in a wrong way, be convertible, don’t care about ending points, use your non-knowledge as a starting point, use raw feelings and affirm you are an artist, even if people don’t truly trust you when you say that you are an artist without being a painter.

She wonders, are they the advantage points of not belonging to any pre-packaged society category? She wants to believe in this freedom in a conscious manner by cleaning up all stereotypes, a desire which recalls the opposition repeatedly mentioned between Scientific’s rationality and artist’s irrationality. When she is falling asleep this feeling becomes almost a vertigo, especially if she is sitting in a chair trying to resist sleep. When she is in this state, between being awake and falling asleep, she experiences a certain floating sensation that is like being physically in a place, which is notcompletely a real place. From her chair, her wall looks too aseptic, almost like that greenish tone typical colour of a waiting room. She feels strange, balancing like the bubble in the tube of a spirit level that is trying to stay straight.

This uncertain condition of reverie between a state of being and state of non-being, has been a crucial stage in the history of chemistry. In the early 1860s, the German organist chemist Friedrich Kekulé awoke suddenly being able to discern the ring structure of benzene because he dreamt of a snake swallowing its own tail. Similarly, Dimitri Mendeleev, chemist and inventor who created his own version of the periodic table of elements, after three days and three nights without sleep, fell into a profound slumber, from which he awoke eventually able to see the pattern in the form of a table of regular properties.

Valentina Pini, Stick, 2014,

Liquid, equilibrium and dream are three mysterious elements indirectly connected. A transparent liquid can hide a strong invisible power, a poison, a drug or a magic fluid. Equilibrium is highly related to our consciousness or awareness consider that in medical terminology we experience and talk about as labyrinthitis, an infection that can affect our physical equilibrium, which is in turn regulated by a special liquid in our ear. It is a mechanism that can be compared to the functioning of a spirit level. Dreams are dreams and they don’t have any limits, and it is interesting to remember that for a long time, alchemists speculated about what material dreams consisted of and without any evidence, they thought, “dreams were made out of some kind of gas, cloud, or superfine fluid, subject to rapid diffusion,but also capable, as is a gas, of gathering and lingering.”

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Jelly Reservoir), 2013. Strawberry jelly, concrete dust.

There are human instances in which we get quite close to understanding the language of materials.

There’s the hoe plunging into the soil: crumbly in its first inches, then more pliable as we reach the moist underneath, then almost solid in the fresh darkness of laborious earthworms. Tchak and the worm is two.

There’s the bundle that a wood seller makes with logs or sticks; the line-like tension of the rope that seconds ago was sleeping amorphously in his pocket.

Robert Cervera, Pink Nappe, 2013. Polyvinyl, cement.

There’s the moment in which you sillily slightly slice the skin of your hand and for a second you don’t know what the physical bill will be: a momentary white line, a surge of blood, anything in between.

There is sculpture in those things. And there is a chance those things may be in a sculpture. And the sound they make – a sound in your mind – sends us back, like a sonar, an image of the world.

Materiality and human agency talk to each other. Squeeze, slice, drench, chafe, wedge, pat. Haptic marvels. How things feel, what they make us feel.

Robert Cervera, Untitled (Theatre Bundle), 2013. Concrete, adhesive tape.

(No distinction can be made between humanity and materiality, Hegel and Bordieu would say. We humans are materials which create other materials which then redefine us. The things we make, make us.)

The unbounded nature of the universe comes into the discussion. Matter flowing, going everywhere, and us chasing it, telling it to go this or that way, to stay in line, to wait in groups of four, of sixteen, of sixty-four.

We try our best to make the uncountable countable, to mark limits and give shape. We end up frustrated and beguiled at once by its unruliness, charmed by its oozing.

Robert Cervera

(Is it possible that we contain matter in the paradoxical way some cage birds, to better admire their flight?)

I am fascinated by that and also by the unexpected occurrence, the providential blunder, which I take to be one more chapter of our ongoing dialogue with materiality.

Istanbul Moving Museum

Tropes: a significant or recurrent theme; a motif.

The moment is inevitable. You’re in your studio, you’re working on a piece and a certain uneasy feeling creeps over you: you’ve seen this before. Or otherwise, you’ve felt happily contented with a completed work, satiated in state of smug recline... until you scroll through that blog or walk into that exhibition space and come across another artist’s work that undermines any sense of originality you ever hoped to have.

But fear not! You are not alone.

Perhaps we should be grateful for our ability to tap into the ‘cloud’ and make amends with fears of falling into the derivative. After all, one could argue that art making is essentially a social act (what is the artwork without the other?) so we might feel comforted by our inclusion into a world of like-minded colleagues, rather than feel the paralysing fear of appropriating one of the many art world tropes.

See, you might almost find it's unavoidable:

1. Plants

Melani Bonajo, Gabriele Beveridge
Alejandro Almanza Pereda

2. Digital Material Goods

Mikkel Carl
Yves Scherer
David Jablonowski
Yuri Pattison

3. Foam

Folkert de Jong and Stacy Fisher
David Bade

4. The Neons

Sarkis and Cerith Wyn Evans
Claire Fontaine

5. Forever Gradients

Nicolas Deshayes and Alex da Corte
Adam Faramawy

6. Cool Steel

Alice Khalilova, Brian Dooley
Anne de Vries
7. Nonchalant Leaving of Clothing on Art
Tom Burr and Marie Lund

8. The Revival of the Classics

Oliver Laric and Charlie Billingham
Jamie Sneider

9. Marble Mania

Gabriele Beverdige and George Henry Longly
Pierre Clement

10. Home Decor

Ola Vasiljeva
Nairy Baghramian
marc camille chaimowicz

Once upon a time, in 1913, Kandinsky predicted an art of pure consciousness, where we would find ourselves dematerialised and, in a state of telepathy, exhibit our artworks spirit to spirit. We might not be there yet, but it seems our spirits often end up sourcing from the same fountain.

There you have it. Now don't worry, go out, make stuff.

Paper is vulnerable. Every form of contact with the world affects its condition. When you place a hand on it, it moves. A subtle bumpiness, a slight stain. Even if paper is lit by the sun, if water drops on it, if the wind lifts it up or if it hits the floor, it will preserve traces thereof.

Paper emblematises the power of victimhood. By itself it would never contrive to undertake anything, but it will remember and showcase everything it undergoes. Paper is passive but vigilant. Its strength lies in its capacity to take what comes and testify, to proclaim the transience of existence. As soon as the three-dimensional world collides with its two-dimensional membrane, the latter points this out.

No wonder paper is the quintessential disposable material. We wrap food in it, wipe our mouths, sex organs and arses clean with it. Paper desires to be tainted. It gives who fouled it a grateful sense of cleanliness, a proof of usage that cannot be disavowed. It requires minimal effort to appropriate this defenceless material. Paper lends its user a feeling of careless might.

All the more does it impress when paper is cherished: if it is framed behind glass, protected in a vitrine or a vault, if it is handled with little white gloves. Because it carries something that somebody wants to preserve: promises, inventions, signs of life from a bygone time. Precisely because of its flimsy brittleness can paper be endowed with unimaginable status. Is it a coincidence that our contracts and bank notes are made of paper? That the body of Christ is eaten in the shape of the host, a coin of consecrated edible paper? That a present does not receive its ceremonial value until it is wrapped in gift paper?

Blank paper is sometimes called ‘virgin’. Few materials can appear as immaculate as a fresh sheet of paper. Such a radiant, new surface can be a promise, but also pure intimidation. It is not for nothing that an empty paper is the symbol of writer’s block. The white is locked. As an unconquerable fortress, it waits. Bare and naked as an unploughed field. What should be sown? Once started, there is no way back.

There is a drawing that I often think of, even though I only know it through a description I read somewhere. It is a drawing by Bas Jan Ader. It consists of a piece of paper on which numerous attempts have been made at drawing, which have been erased again and again, until only an extremely thin film of paper remained. An ode to failing, to the vain endeavour of materialising a conception of the imagination. Although theoretically, all is possible on paper, in practise it mostly amounts to very little. Only the promise persists forever.

There are two antipoles among draughtsmen. There are the cautious perfectionists, who keep the paper around their drawn traces as pristinely white as possible, and the aficionados of stain and crease. Artist Rik Smit belongs to the first class. In his gigantic panoramas, drawn with impeccable precision and often from a bird’s eye perspective, the paper in between and around the lines is tight and gleams with sparkling white, as if no hand has ever touched it.

Rik Smits 2013

During the making of a large drawing Smit sometimes goes through as many as 12 rulers. If the plastic of the ruler becomes dirty from the graphite of the lines Smits draws with them, it starts to leave a haze on the paper. That means it is time for a new one. Smits uses about a hundred rulers a year. For the sake of convenience he usually buys the entire stock at Bruna.[1] If the weight of the hanging paper causes a dent in one of his enormous drawings, Smit steams and irons the paper until no traces remain. Kim Habers, in contrast, tears, creases and cuts her paper. Her sometimes space-filling drawing installations look like solidified disasters.

The work of Kim Habers

Johem van Tol made the sensitivity of paper itself the theme of his installation VEL. Etude # 5 for paper (2009). He hung a huge empty sheet of paper facing a line-up of lamps that were continuously changing in temperature. Under the influence of the heat, the paper starts to slowly expand and ripple, causing a constantly different, abstract image to emerge. Van Tol knows the kinetic properties of paper like no other. He even formulated a musical composition for paper, which he performs with his Paper Ensemble. During their concerts the Paper Ensemble make different kinds of paper crackle, whine, lisp and hoot.

One of the most beautiful qualities of paper is its capacity to propel the imagination at full force with minimal means. The song It’s Only a Paper Moon (1933), performed among others by Ella Fitzgerald and the Delta Rhythm Boys, allows itself to be listened to as if it is sung by a drawing itself:

Say, its only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
[LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndxAZfJxfy8].

Some people think that the age of paper draws to an end now that the world is digitalising. The digital animation Paper Age (2013) [LINK: http://www.kenottmann.com/2013/05/blog-paper-age-fur-deutschen-webvideopreis-2013-nominiert/] by Ken Ottmann shows how the powers of a dinosaur from folded newspaper collapse when, in the midst of a newspaper landscape, it encounters a huge tablet. It walks onto the screen, falls down, and dies. However pretty these images are, the paper fetishist mainly notices how fake the movements of the digital-paper dinosaur are. As it moves its programmed limbs, the elastic pixels bend back and forth most limberly, whereas real paper would fold and crumple. Thus the video unintentionally shows the opposite of what it wants to demonstrate. Precisely the fragility of paper is the secret of its magic. As long as we have bodies, we will long for materials that are as vulnerable as ourselves.

The Dinosaur from Paper Age

[1]Dutch franchise of stationeries, red.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Ladies and gentlemen, little artists!

When I was asked to speak to little artists today, I immediately thought of Wilhelm Reich. Rede an den Kleine Mann (Listen, Little Man!) leapt from the deep recesses of my memory. It had been years since I’d thought of this text, the heart-cry of a Polish-Austrian sex therapist. It wasn’t so much the starting point of the text (the little man suffering under the big man,) that made an impression on mebut rather its approach. By speaking directly, man-to-man, Reich ingrains into the little man that his trivial life of servitude is wholly self-inflicted.

Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist
Wilhelm Reich, sex therapist

Little man! Reich calls out, you close your eyes because you’re frightened to death of how small you are, you despise yourself and are most at ease in the role of the beloved slave. You’ll take what you’re given, but you, you only give what is demanded of you. The truth irritates you, and you dislike those who strive for freedom. Instead, you spend all day practicing life tactics. You don’t believe that anyone sat at your table could ever be capable of achieving greatness, yet you’ll believe what you read in the paper without scruples. If you were given the choice between a visit to the library or witnessing a fight, you’d choose to see the fight. And of the big men, you don’t see the truly big men, just the quasi-big who surround themselves a lot of little ones. “Rede an den Kleine Mann” continues on this tangent throughout the whole text. Reich empathises with the addressees because within him, too, resides the little man. However, he sees no worth in half-hearted methods and so he positions himself as a severe yet just father. And that’s just as well, because Rede an den Kleinen Mann thanks its quality to this strictness, despite it hardly being read anymore now that the little man is near extinction.

How different the situation is for the little artist is! The little artist truly is alive, and speeds himself to the auditorium when he hears of a talk especially for little artists.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artist! I call out, every dream of a becoming a grand artist will be met with a hundred cold showers! It’s far easier to rid yourself of the little man in you than the little artist. The little woman in you can be made into a hundred big ones, but the little artist in you won’t ever even be made into one big artist.

Do you remember, little artist what you said at that party, on the boat, after your graduation? “Now I’m an artist,” you said, with that strange combination of self-ridicule and pride. The relativity of your words was obvious, the realisation that this was only just the beginning, that the word artist was still too pretentious and that you only meant it in the sense of the comedian, the singer of songs, the actor in the cabaret. At the same time, you sounded so sure of yourself, as though you’d already moved on and only spoke in literally translated English sentences like “Now I’m an artist.” As if you’d mentally crossed the borders of this puny Dutch city-state, and were already well on your way to becoming a global artist.

This conflict you showed there, dear little artist, is not coincidental or only applicable to you; it seeps through all that is art. There’s the little art, the drudgeries that are mocked, cursed and hushed; and then there’s the big art, declared holy to the extent that it’s beyond reach. The no man’s land between the two is vast as an ocean and impossible to oversee in its totality. The one art is seen as absolutely worthless, and any investment in it seen as money wasted. And the other art is so costly that the even the largest fortune pales in comparison.

You, little artist, might try to cross that ocean in a rowboat. But even if paradise descends on Earth, you’ll still have to make do with what you have as a little artist. You’ll always be kept little with an iron fist without mercy, without sympathy. Herein lies the difference between the little artist and the little man. The little man stayed little because he was poor and powerless. He was able to climb up the ladder, pull himself together, and expand his power and market value. In this way, he could overcome the little man in him.

Alexander Pope, smallest poet ever

English poet and satirist, never grew beyond 4 ft 6 in (137 cm)

Little artists, on the other hand, will never be able to overpower the little artist in them. They'll stay little forever, because they have to start all over again with every new artwork.

True art is invented artwork by artwork. Art refuses to climb, is indifferent towards power, and refuses to pull itself together. Those little artists who think themselves capable of influencing their own market value are victims of the Great Postmodern Misunderstanding that claims artists to be tradesmen.

Not a hundred workshops in art management, nor a hundred networks, oh little arts, can exceed your market value past the size of a lottery ticket; only the lottery owner and the notary could influence it. Little artists who can't understand this haven't overcome the little man in them yet. The little man did useful things, these useful things could be magnified and used in transactions.Art, however, is of no use. Useful art is not art.

Nevertheless, from time to time, a little artist in his rowboat will unexpectedly arrive at the shores of the big art. After all, the prize money has to fall at some point on one out of every hundred thousand lottery tickets. But generally speaking, the little artist will have to rack himself just like the little man: he'll have to slave away, to sweat, and to toil. For eternity, because the little artist will never disappear. That's just the way it is, the little artist will suffer forever and ever. And all this suffering is no guarantee for great achievements, however much a pity this may be for the Tenacious Romantic Misunderstanding. The one that says that blood, sweat, and tears suffice to make an artwork regardless if no one sees it, understands it, or buys it.

Little artist! No life is more frustrating, thankless, yes, inhumane than yours! You're at the very bottom rung, holding on to the top and there's absolutely nothing in the space between. All that keeps you going is hope, "hope, the wings of all time," as the little poet says. But hope for what? Don't say you hope for greatness, dear little artist; or worse yet, that you hope for fame. You cannot strive to be great, greatness emerges all on its own. Instead of trying to defeat the little artist in you, you're probably better off dispelling the great, famous artist stuck inside your head.

All you can really want is to live for art, to work, to make something, then make something better, invent an artwork, and then invent another artwork. The only thing you have to want, is to want to know. Wanting to know, knowledge, the rest is irrelevant. The nature of that knowledge or where it comes from is irrelevant. There's as much to learn from a good fistfight as there is from the library.

The legendary world champion boxer, Muhammed Ali, once delivered a speech to the students of Harvard University. He said: 'In my own way, I've studied a whole lot. But that's not what people pay for, people pay for follies. The wise man can play a fool, but the fool can't play a wise man. I play a whole lot."

Please understand little artist, Muhammed Ali, he’s a great artist,..