MCP503 Final Research Paper
Research Advisor: Carolyn Guertin
Studio Advisor: Jean Marie Casbarian
The Intimate Nature of the Present Future: an investigation into solitude, breath and contemporary drawing.
What began as an investigation into time, connection, networks, and the posthuman Anthropocene have since been distilled into a single, simple, elusive and yet pervasive phenomena...Air.
I began this project with a clear vision: to have no vision and no definite direction. This seemed like the logical solution for following a path of research and open-minded blind faith as a way of seeing where it leads.
I was possibly inspired by the artistic development of Robert Irwin when he stated that “Maybe I was just gradually developing a trust in the act itself, that somehow, if it were pursued legitimately, the questions it would raise would be legitimate and the answers would have to exist somewhere, would be worth pursuing, and would be of consequence.”i
After much deliberation, reading, experimentation, investigation, contemplation, and procrastination all paths have led into thin air... that invisible presence that permeates our entire existence. The phenomenon that intimately connects us to everything beyond ourselves...it is the medium of creation, of life and of breath – we inhale to begin life and it will end with an exhale...breathing is the first and last thing we will ever do.
“We are what we are connected to,” ii (now more so than ever), and on the most fundamental level, we are permanently connected to air.
So why Air? How did this all begin?
My original inspiration was sparked by an accidental social experience that occurred during an exhibition in 2013. I was fascinated with how internal biological mechanism associated with time (heartbeats, breath, rhythms, and cycles) could play a collaborative role with technology. I created a series of interactive pods, that when held in the palm of your hand, responded to the pace and rhythm of your heartbeat. Initially, I was interested in simply externalising an internal biological system as a measure of time, however, what became fascinating for me was the intimacy between strangers that the act of play created. It was through play that I stumbled upon an even more interesting phenomenon. If two people hold hands their hearts begin to beat at the same time. Although I have since found out that this is common knowledge in the medical world, I became curious and wanted to understand how we as humans can be so intimately connected through interactions that exist purely in the external world?
I began by investigating the interconnected nature of human cohabitation. However, after attending the Art After the Anthropocene workshop in Berlin, the research broadened significantly and moved beyond the human-to-human connection to question our connection to the “whole.” How do we influence and mark our existence into the historical map of our world?
Value of Research to Practice
This research has become important for me in that the ideas I have uncovered seem vital at a time when we face the potential for systematic ecological breakdown, moving at an ever-increasing pace towards an irreparable point of no return. We can, at least at this very moment, potentially change the current trajectory. And re-establishing the mostly forgotten human connection to our environment seems like one of the most pressing issues of our time.
It has become important for me to pursue a creative practice that endeavors to reinstate the value of connection as a means of remembering our place within the living, breathing landscape.
In an attempt to understand this connection my research led into investigating the many different types of complex networks in which we exist (both manmade and natural). It was after much research that I realized the current social and political systems (and those leading it) are incapable (or unwilling perhaps) to address the ecological battle we currently face. We are so embedded within the complexity of multiple networks it seems almost impossible to navigate our way into a different mode of thinking, even for those who grasp the urgency of the problem. Through researching the Anthropocene I have realized that the most pressing challenge we face involves the manmade manipulation of complex bio-spherical networks that pervade every aspect of our natural planet and to which we humans have very little understanding. Pace and connected acceleration in all facets of networks are proving beyond the current political and social capabilities to manage.
“A financial crisis that seems to drag on endlessly... A historically expensive decade of war against terrorists that produces more terrorists. A global ecosystem that seems beyond repair. New pandemic diseases arriving like clockwork every year. Endless refugee waves. Domestic politics that have been transformed into shouting extremism...every one of these problems has exactly the same cause: networks.” iii
I am acutely aware that the current political climate operates within (or does it generate?) a divisive social climate that is fought between nostalgia and extreme pessimism on the one hand and a euphoric exaltation, individualistic win at all cost economic attitude (often perpetuated by the highly lucrative self-help industry) on the other. At this point, neither end of the spectrum is helping; however, both are highlighting the need for change to occur at a psychological level before anything else can be resolved.
I am not claiming that this project is able to find that solution, what I am aiming to do is highlight the psychological friction our current relationship with nature induces and to recall the deeply seeded awareness we all need to have of our place within the environment.
I am hoping that a considered investigation into one of the most intimate and yet complex networks we share (breathing) could potentially be a valuable pedagogical tool. As Nietzsche stated, “the more abstract the truth you wish to teach, the more you must allure the senses to it.” This raises the question of whether the knowledge harnessed from an investigation into the simple act of breathing (with the intention to comprehend the complexity of air) could be used as a means for grasping the complexity of the networks that pervade all other systems? Could the power of all networks be demystified by the simplicity of knowing the most intimate network – our breath?
“We experience power through networks now, as once we experienced it through brick-bound institutions...Networks don’t merely accelerate our markets, our news, and our innovation. They revolutionize the very nature of their power.” iv By understanding the power that networks have on every level of our world we then have the potential to develop the intuition required to conquer the downside of the accelerated connected entanglement we now find ourselves in.v
The word “network” has become a ubiquitous term for everything from financial systems, DNA databases, social media, artificial intelligence, and geopolitics to narcotic rings, mafias, and terrorist cells to name just a few. However, the commonly overlooked and yet equally complicated networks designed by nature are either ignored or exploited beyond repair with the common belief that these systems have been put in place purely to advance the human agenda.
In considering all of this, the following research question was established:
How do we carry the marks and nuances of our shared experience?
(The term shared in this context is used to question the markings of the human and non-human alike)
On the surface, this seemed like a relatively simple question and yet as the research progressed the underlying complexity became apparent.
In attempting to answer this question the research has taken me into fascinating and unexpected territory including the perplexing shadows of mysticism, creation theories, and cultural psychology as a way of trying to understand the human connection to our world through the breath. With this research, I am trying to see the significance of breath and connection through different cultural points of view and not purely through the dominant Eurocentric perspective.
Without wanting to romanticize the past or live in the grips of nostalgia, I also found it important to research scientific theories and the technology associated with psychology, neuroscience, and perception as a balanced way of interpreting the sensuous nature of our existence in Air.
Aim of Research
Through this research, I plan on developing an immersive drawing installation that creates a nonlinear experience...an almost mythical space that blurs the edges of perception. In what shape or form this space takes is still open for experimentation and further research.
What I hope to find out is whether a nonlinear experience in a space without edges makes it possible to remove (even temporarily) the imagined borders we have created between and around one another and between the self and the non-human world in which we exist? If so, how would we then carry the mark of that experience?
“Modern societies cannot be described without recognizing them as having a fibrous, thread-like, wiry, stringy, ropy, capillary character that is never captured by the notions of levels, layers, territories, spheres, categories, structure, systems. Familiar borders, like the ones dividing science and politics or military power and civilian safety, begin to erode when everything is linked (connected).”vi
Could drawing attention to the complex web of systems, networks and intricately woven connections we as humans and nonhumans share potentially lead to a re-evaluation of the human and nonhuman relationship? The aim is to move beyond the preconceived idea of 'us above them' and to transform this language into a nonlinear experience, one that distorts/changes our perception of what lies at the edges (surroundings).
Method of research
Scientific research into sensory perception, neuroscience and psychology and therefore understanding the human mind (both the ephemeral and tangible aspects) is at the core of human potential. The brain is yet another complex network that requires a level of understanding if we hope to progress and the breath has the potential to illuminate that understanding. How we perceive the world directly correlates to how we experience it and a change in perception is what is required at this point in human history if we hope to change the current path of ecological destruction.
My understanding of perception has been greatly enhanced by researching the art of James Turrell. “The greatest revelation borne by Turrell’s art is a deeper understanding of what it is to be a perceiving being and an awareness of how much our observation and experience is illuminated by the “inner light” of our perception.” vii
It is important to also consider here that this project is just as much about being immersed in space and the human emotional instincts that arise when encountering a space as it about scientific theories and technology.
Through researching James Turrell I was inspired by his interpretation of space. “...The quality of consciousness in space that occurs when you come into it when you realize it is like an eye in the same way a camera has an eye, and space is somehow seeing and has a way of seeing made by the subconsciousness.” viii
As a means of support for the practice based, experiential and hermeneutical research methodologies, an investigation into the art practice of James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Tacita Dean, Adrian Piper and William Kentridge has been considered.
The research for this project has been vast and as a means of simplification for the multifaceted nature of this topic I have created 3 categories of inquiry: Light (past), Air (present) and Solitude (future). Interestingly all three play a significant part in most versions of creation mythology.
1. LIGHT (past)
My studio practice, which has formed part of the research, began by experimenting with ways of drawing with light. I was initially investigating the question of 'what can a drawing potentially be?' Drawing (or mark making) was chosen as a practice based research tool because it is an activity made by the human and non human alike. Nothing exists without leaving a mark and this idea refers directly back to the research question. Drawing as a tool for communication, expression and story telling occurs across all cultures and social backgrounds starting with the earliest cave drawings up until the present day. Drawing is a creative tool that connects humans regardless of language, age and historical time.
The light drawing series of experiments investigated a way of using light as the medium with which to draw rather than light as a subject matter.
Most drawings focus on the relationship between the surface and the drawn mark. With this style of drawing, the reality of the world sits within the picture plane - light as reality, the world behind the page drawn into the surface.
This was the starting point for the light drawing experiments – perforated, punctured, wounded “paper like skin” (Zarina) ix – open pores that allow the paper to ‘breathe’.
The repetitive nature of this process created a meditative effect and as a result the influence of breath slowly crept into the project. Based on my previous fascination with biological rhythms, breath became the rhythm of choice for this series of drawings while light became the medium with which to draw.
What started to change with the development of the light drawings was the intention of breath. Each hole became a single breath...a deep inhale with intention...followed by a relaxed and natural exhale.
After reading the Robert Irwin biography, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, I found that aspects of his development as an artist was both inspiring and relevant. After studying Zen philosophy, Irwin talked about the energy that is inherent in an object. “There is a consistency to physical objects that somehow reads all the way through...you can see it without even picking it up. It’s absolutely essential that everything be done all the way through.”x
This statement was in reference to Irwin’s dot painting series in which he meticulously painted both sides of the canvas. “...Those paintings were finished both on the front and on the back, which...maybe from my exposure to Zen Pottery– the basic idea being that any gesture of idea, should read all the way through...I just had this conviction, that the sum total would be greater, even though that might not be definable in any causal, connected way...You only picked it up subliminally, this added energy.”xi
This statement has kept me on track during the infinitely slow process I am now using by linking each hole in the drawing to a single breath. Every time I am tempted to quicken the pace, with only myself accountable to the process, this statement reminds me to slow down, breathe and listen. No longer is this work about producing a finished drawing, it has become about a process from which the drawing is the byproduct embedded with the energy of intention and breath. I now wonder if that energy can be seen or felt in the way that Irwin describes?
Light has been an obsession for artists over the centuries; however, nobody has quit approached light in the same way as the artist James Turrell. Turrell understood the perception of light as an experience and as a medium to immerse the senses. Turrell explains it best when he stated that “light is the essence of seeing...what and how we know and feel is a function of the way we look at things; our desire to see and know also shapes what we see (and therefore how we perceive).” xii
Turrell and Irwin’s investigation into light and perceptual psychology is an area of research that is extremely interesting. Being inspired by two artists that have so successfully delved into this topic has led to the question of how to ensure this research doesn’t develop into a form of imitation. How do I now walk with this information and yet use my own language or more importantly ask my own questions? I believe that by focusing on the relationship between light and air through the act of breathing places the human back into the work and this then has the potential to lead into a different path of inquiry.
Light and Breath (air) are present together in the many versions of mythology associated with the dawn of time - never one without the other and consistently bound to our instinct for creation.
“Many accounts of (Navajo) creation commence with the misting upwards of light of various colors in the cardinal directions of the underworlds, these light mists being the loci of the Winds. Winds are said to have given the means of breath and life to the People of the underworlds and to provide them with guidance and leadership by speaking into their ears.” xiii
The psychology of light or more importantly the mythology of light as a medium in itself and not as a prop used to enhance the experience of a picture is what fascinates me about light as a potential material to work with for this project.
2. AIR (present)
“It is much easier for us to hide behind and reason in complex terms rather than yield (even submit) ourselves to an idea that is beautifully simple and direct...that the breath is the only vehicle we have for the transportation of human ideas and human spirit.” xiv
The breath is at the very heart of connection and after careful consideration, I realised that the mechanical process of breathing is, in fact, the catalyst for an even deeper investigation into the inherent potential in Air. “The power of breath lies not only in understanding how we breathe but perhaps more importantly, what we breathe.” xv
Of all the biological cycles that continue to sustain us for our experience on earth, this is the one that firmly grounds us to the earth, our breath is a mutual exchange the happens continuously between ourselves and our world. “What the plants are quietly breathing out, we animals are breathing in; what we breathe out the plants are breathing in. The air...is the soul of the visible landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment...it is the most intimate absence from whence the present presences, and thus a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.” xvi
Air is a mythical and invisible medium that we mostly ignore mainly because it’s pervasive presence is so absent. Many traditional and ancient cultures placed huge significance on the vitality of the air that circulates and vortexes around and inside us continuously.
“Aristotle describes the origin of breath as having its source within, either as a “function of the soul” or “soul” itself...for Aristotle, pulsation, breath, and soul are the fundamental principles interlinking the physical and the psychological experience of the body.” xvii
In a similar vein, for the Navajo people, air -with its capacity for awareness, thought and speech – has the same properties that modern European cultures attribute to an interior or individual 'mind' or 'psyche'. By attributing this abstract concept to air, the Navajo believe that what we attribute to the 'mind' does not belong to us but rather belongs to the all-encompassing environment in which we participate.xviii
For the Navajo people, the spirit is not an abstract entity or idea “...but a palpable phenomena – of the actual gusts, breezes, whirlwinds, eddies, storm fronts, cross currents, gales, whiffs, blasts and breaths that they perceive in the fluid medium that surrounds and flows through their bodies.”xix
Indigenous Australians tell a similar story and although there are significant and complex differences between the many varied indigenous cultures of Australia, there is a consistent understanding for the visible and invisible world around them. The visible world (rocks, plants, people, animals) is a type of crystallization of conscious awareness (born out of the Dreaming). Whereas the invisible medium that moves in between such entities is “the creative but unseen realm from which such conscious forms arise...that implicit realm of dreamlike happenings from whence the hills and landforms of the surrounding terrain, but also in the invisible depths of the air itself, in the thickness of the very medium that flows within us and all around us.”xx For unlike other creation stories, the Dreaming is not a past event, it’s a continuous process of creation, “...the perpetual emerging of the world from an incipient, indeterminate state into full, waking reality, from invisibility to visibility, from the secret depths of silence into articulate song and speech.”xxi The creative power of the invisible led the indigenous Australians to place huge significance on atmospheric phenomena such as storms and lightening which were considered important and yet violent messages from the depths of the Dreaming.xxii
Air gives power to communication. It gives a voice to your thoughts – try saying something without exhaling any air? People take it for granted...the continuous rhythmical inhale and exhale... with very little consideration for the potential held in the air we breathe.
“Spoken words are structured breath that take their communicative power from this invisible medium that moves between us...the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous people construe awareness, or “mind,” not as a power that resides inside their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of.” xxiii
This concept is not so foreign to early European beliefs also, with a number of ancient languages having an identical association between the mind, soul and breath:
Psyche (as in psychology; psychiatry and psychotherapy) is derived from the Greek word psychê meaning both soul or mind and also breath or gust of wind. Psyche is derived from the Greek verb psychein meaning to breathe.
Pneuma was the ancient Greek word for air, wind and breath and also signified what we would now call in English spirit.
Anima (as in animal, animation, animism and unanimous (being of one mind or soul) is the Latin word for soul and was also a signifier for air and breath.
Atman (as in atmosphere) has ancestral ties to Sanskrit, meaning both soul and air or breath. xxiv
There are 2 artists that, for me, capture the transient, ephemeral nature of air, and both use drawing as a medium to capture it. Tacita Dean’s Fatigues series are immense blackboard drawings documenting the melting snow from Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains. By using chalk on blackboard, Dean’s drawings capture the state of constant flux between the drawn, the redrawn, the erased and the ghostly remains of what came before it in a process that imitates exactly how air (wind) draws on the surface of snow capped mountains. The chalk itself is also subject to the movement of air, creating a temporality to this work. These drawings are a quiet meditation on time, disappearance and obsolescence. Most of Dean’s practice sits in the realm of meditation and patience.xxv
Labour intensive work is common throughout Dean’s practice and these particular drawings took nearly a month to complete. It was refreshing for me to find this out about her practice as artists are often criticized as not being spontaneous if they take this approach. It is a common thread that Dean shares with the artist William Kentridge.
After researching William Kentridge’s practice, I developed an even greater respect for his art. His use of political content never feels dogmatic or opinionated, it is simply stated as it occurs. His work is an intelligent observation of world around him. “The personal concerns have to be interesting as thoughts outside in the world, and what I contemplate in the world has to have resonance in the studio: there has to be something to make or draw. I work through inversions and transformations.” xxvi
I am particularly interested in Kentridge’s use of movement, sound and projection with drawing. His drawings in this format create an experience of being enmeshed in the drawn space rather than just as a passive viewer.
After researching Kentridge I was intrigued to find out that it is the conceptual ideas imbedded in his drawings that resonate strongly with the ideas I am also discussing. “Kentridge is interested in how humanity is layered over nature, in how our perceptions are determined by ourselves rather than by their objects.” xxvii
Through connecting film and drawing Kentridge creates a form of animation. The drawings are constantly assembled and then disassembled with the film as the only evidence that these drawings ever existed. What I found most fascinating about Kentridge is that he considers the walking between the drawing and the camera as being a part of the process, a kind of walking meditation and documentation.
"Kentridge has said that the palimpsests in his films and drawings originally seemed to him a grave misfortune, the result of imperfect erasing - and then a friend remarked that it was the most interesting thing about the work. The pentimento of his first imaginings haunts the image that is preserved. There is no present tense in Kentridge's work that is not mottled by the past.” xxvii
This statement makes me question my fascination with the potential for the future. And if the idea of visible erasing speaks of the past, could it be inverted to create drawings that somehow glimpse into the potential of the future?
3. SOLITUDE (future)
Through this path of inquiry I came to the realisation that solitude is important for the development of this project – isolation in space and silence as a meditation on air and contemporary drawing. To be completely immersed in a vast and empty landscape, as a way of connecting to the ideas and potential in air is something I feel instinctively committed to. I hope to find the mental silence required to breathe life into this project – to be as far removed from the familiar as I can. For the second half of my MFA project I plan on attending a residency either in Iceland or the desert here in Australia as an immersive experience in silence and connection to an isolated landscape (space).
I have been inspired by the artists, Robert Irwin and Adrian Piper, who both chose a period of self-imposed isolation at different points of their practice. Adrian Piper intentionally created a space of vulnerability, fasting and social deprivation as a private, autobiographical investigation into understanding the human mind through the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant. This resulted in the project, Food for Spirit (1971).
I really appreciate the level of dedication and honesty Adrian Piper put into this project, to immerse herself in the process so completely that it overpowered all other aspects of her life.
Robert Irwin on the other hand fortuitously found himself in a situation of self-imposed isolation. His account of this event appears to have infiltrated every aspect of his art practice ever since. He spent 8 months in a secluded part of Ibiza, Spain, without any books or tools to remain occupied (completely unplugged as he put it). He could not speak the local language and had no way of communicating outside of the local area.
After a conversation with Robert Irwin, Lawrence Weschler recounts the experience:
“He thought about less and less. Finally, he just thought about thinking. No longer calibrating his thoughts in terms of a social reality... he almost stopped thinking in terms of language. There was a slow purification of thinking...When you peel all those layers away and you arrive at just the qualities of the ideas themselves, it becomes very clear and very simple...” xxviii
Isolation, space, and silence are all integrated into a single idea for this project. Both the desert and mid winter Icelandic landscape are void of physical entities and full of invisible potential. Especially if we are to consider the idea that air fills all space devoid of such entities and air as the medium of creation fills these landscapes of silence and isolation.
Tacita Dean also has a close connection to the concept of silence (her name, Tacita is taken from the Roman word ‘Tacitus’ meaning silence).xxix Dean also wrote her thesis on silence as a reflection on Cy Twombly. In addition, Dean keeps an archive of silence – the ‘silence file’ filled with poetry, writing and ideas around silence: “His [Socrates] whole life led only to the edge of silence, where the heartbeats of the gods are heard.” - From the writing of Marguerite Yourcenar archived in Tacita Dean’s ‘silence file’.xxx
While delving into the research on different indigenous and ancient cultural beliefs about human connection to the landscape, I found so many consistent threads and ideas that transcend boarders, continents and time. One of which is the profound value of periods of isolation were often the shaman/ mystic/elder lived in the periphery of the community. Acting “...as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field...they ensure that the relationship between the human society and the larger society of the nonhuman is balanced...”xxxi Artists are often perceived as being on the periphery of society possibly as a means of tapping into the creative silence that potentially lies at this periphery. Away from the social chatter and distraction of the populous center lies the potential in solitude and silence.
note: I was given permission by my research advisor to write over the word limit and to investigate the art practice of more than 3 artists – provided it was relevant and imperative to the research process.
- i Weschler, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, 89.
- ii Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense, loc. 409.
- iii Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense, loc. 86.
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- ix Pesenti, Zarina: Paper Like Skin, 1.
- x Weschler, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, 63.
- xi Weschler, Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, 93-94.
- xii Govan, James Turrell, 275.
- xiii McNeley, Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy, 13.
- xiv Jordan, The Musician’s Breath, loc. 135.
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- xvi Abraham, The Spell of the Sensuous, 226.
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- xviii Abraham, The Spell of the Sensuous, 237.
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