TRANSEPT IN/BREAK ARTIST REFLECTION: Present to the here and now of the material world

[EDITOR’S NOTE:  In the next instalment of our series in which artists reflect on their creative process as they prepare pieces for the In/break exhibition, visual artist Daniel Drage raises some of the problems posed by a digital exhibition. His reflection explains how these obstacles have shaped his approach to the project, revealing how being deprived of a physical space to display art forces the artist to wrestle with unfamiliar philosophical conundrums, before describing how his final piece will, paradoxically, use a computer screen to invite the viewer to be ‘present to the here and now of the material world’.]

 

 01000001        01110010        01110100                                A                     r                      t

 

Our modern binary number system, according to Wikipedia (itself built out of ones and zeroes), is largely attributed to the seventeenth century Gottfried Liebnitz, who, in turn, was apparently inspired by the 9th c BCE I Ching.[1]

Wrestling at Penu’el

Where is the work of art?  Where, in the material world, does the actual ‘art’ reside? In a painting, say, is the artwork to be found in the oil and canvas, or rather in the image and surface colours?  This is an old question. Or does ‘art’ happen within the viewer, or between the viewer and the painting, perhaps aided by the frame, lighting and gallery space and cultural constructs?  These questions are worth asking, even when we don’t arrive at satisfactory answers.

In an online exhibition these questions do not go away, even if they involve different considerations.  How is a sculptor, an artist of material, to think about a digital format?  What might ‘installation art’ mean when the site of the work is online?  I confess these have been the problems for my work for this year’s Transept exhibition, even more than the show’s theme.  In past exhibitions with Transept I have suspended reeds from a church roof, and filled empty spaces in St Mary’s Quad with string; this year’s work gets no such site.  So, this article is written while my submission piece sits in various stages of half-baked in media res upon my laptop (more on that below).  Therefore, I am setting out here to share some of my process, both in making a piece for the virtual gallery space, and in the somewhat asymptotic work of connecting that piece to ideas around In/break.  So much of the work of art simply (and challengingly) comes down to creative problem-solving.  An artist friend of mine recently connected the work of making art to Jacob wrestling with God at Penu’el (Genesis 32).  The artists — or indeed any of us — who persevere in the struggle may leave the encounter with a blessing as well as a limp.

Designation

It is, admittedly, a rather postmodern conceit to trouble to make a piece of art which is not obscured by its matter but instead revels in it.  Before Duchamp’s Fountain first entered public awareness just over a century ago, artists could paint or sculpt a representation of something else without considering the possibility that meaning could come from the material itself.  Duchamp’s Readymades freed art (or at least sculpture) to be any thing, any designated thing.  This should have liberated the artist as well, yet one hundred and some-odd years on, I feel ironically fenced in by posts: post-modern, post-industrial, post-colonial, post-irony, now post-matter… Simply put, I cannot figure out how to make a work of art, snap a photo of it, upload it digitally, and display it online.  This is not a problem of technical know-how for me; it’s in the material where I get stuck.  What is the ‘thing’ in digital terms?

As best I can tell, a liquid crystal display, lit by a cleverly placed cold cathode fluorescent tube, is somehow presenting the images of each letter I’ve typed, or of photographs I’ve uploaded, to your eyes.  Where, materially, is the art?  For most of us, I believe, this appearance of images on our glassy screens is a type of magic; technical terms like ‘liquid crystal’ and ‘cold cathode’ only enhancing the effect (transmission of images and letters across time and space is another level of magic again, which I dare not meddle with here).  An image which emerges becomes exactly that: an effect.[2]  Perhaps, then, the computer screen is the natural Hegelian advancement from representational painting and photography: the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional moment.  Any value placed on the material of a painting has become, according to the late art critic and writer Thomas McEvilley, a sculptural value.  Could what McEvilley says of paint, that it ‘really has no function except the creation of illusions’, also be said of the computer screen?[3]  Is the screen a window—as McEvilley accuses painting of being—‘specially devised to facilitate avoidance of the here-and-now, a channel that leads only into some place and/or time other than the here and now’?[4]  If sculpture is ‘direct dealing with the material world’ unlike McEvilley’s albeit uncharitable estimation of painting as ‘escapist fantasy’, what am I to do with our exhibition’s digital parameters?

Epiphenomenon

The medium will be the screen, those liquid crystals and cold cathodes.  The word ‘medium’ itself, of course, carries meanings magical and mediocre.  The medium will also need to be the internet, the transmission, as well as the binary on-off elements within each device.  This is, as I’ve admitted, beyond my understanding, but if I am to deal directly with the material world, these details matter.  Once again, where is the work of art?

If the medium is the screen itself (and etc.), the site of the installation is where my piece connects with In/break.  Quite literally (Duchamp would be proud) my piece is on my laptop.  I have placed a cedar cone upon my keyboard (albeit removed whilst I type).  The details of cedar cone itself are not important for this; I could use instead a shell or toothbrush or banana.  What is important is that the placed thing is a material thing.

My intention, then, is this: I will use the light from the viewer’s screen to illuminate the cone (or the viewer’s own version of cone).  I will have chosen the colour and intensity of light which will appear on the viewer’s screen, causing the cone, in turn, to cast a shadow as a secondary effect— an epiphenomenon.  The viewer will thereby be invited to turn his/her screen away so as to gaze upon the viewer’s chosen material thing, now illuminated by the screen.  Thus, however crudely, the installation will take place in the viewer’s own room; the art will have broken in to the viewer’s own space.  In fact, the material thing will have become an agent by casting a shadow; the thing/shadow dyad becoming—inadvertently, ironically—a binary.  Yet the dyad is, more precisely, an antitype of binary, for such real-life things allow for greyscale, for in-between, for both-and.  This is the epiphenomenon.

Using light to create an atmosphere is not unique in contemporary art.  Olafur Eliason’s work, or before him James Turrell and Dan Flavin, to name a few, have employed various light sources to illuminate space.  Yet their works have existed in material space-time quite apart from digital representations of these works.  The piece I intend borrows more from Duchamp’s Readymades in that it asks the viewer to see the screen itself as an object.  McEvilley described these Readymades, be they a snow shovel or a bicycle wheel, as ‘objects that refused to represent anything outside themselves, but insisted on remaining simply and intransigently what they had been to begin with.’[5]  When the screen can be seen as an object rather than a window, my hope is that the viewer can be present to the here-and-now of the material world; that the screen can be seen alongside the shadow-casting cedar cone or toothbrush, inhabiting the same world within which we are all, gratefully, magically, uniquely, alive.

 

01000011      01101111      01101110      01100101                C          o        n        e

 

[1] Wikipedia, ‘Binary number’, accessed 9 February 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_number.

[2] I’m using the term ‘effect’ here both in the sense of an impression in the viewer’s mind, but also—potentially, as my piece will attempt—as in film or theatre lighting, adding to the very atmosphere of the space.

[3] Thomas McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt (New York: Allworth Press, 1999), 41.

[4] Ibid., 40.

[5] Ibid., 44.

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