Monday, February 25, 2013

Ambition Warned

An important thing: you may be great, and your art may be your life. But have something else in your life too. Do it on principle, do it even if you cannot make your gut believe in its necessity. Why? Here - here is one of my core fears, transcribed nearly perfectly in Greg Bear's City at the End of Time:

Friday, February 22, 2013

In Praise of the Bean: Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate," Millennium Park, Chicago

I haven't been back to Chicago since 1996.

Among the things I've missed was the creation of Millennium Park, and with it, of the Bean, a 100-ton stainless steal colossus completed years behind schedule in 2006. Who could be so hard of heart that they would go to Chicago and not want to see the Bean? Not I. So I'm back, and I went to see the Bean.

To think about the Bean, let's think about the architecture of Chicago. Chicago may or may not be a city of big shoulders, but it is definitely a city of big-shouldered skyscrapers. Its skyscrapers hulk, throwing weighty boxes above the city streets. There is a heaviness to Chicago School architecture which is specific to Chicago.

New York's 1916 Zoning Resolution imposed the pyramid on New York architecture, creating the tapering, balletic skyscrapers of Manhattan. When you think about it, the original World Trade Center towers were really Chicago towers; the new World Trade Center, a soaring glass needle, is much more New Yorkian.

Chicago's stolid towers create a sense of might: of labor, industry, and commerce. As a body of architecture, they are a glorious portrait and instance of the productive facet of the American character; one of our best facets.

For all that this concentrated strength is a heroic phenomenon, like most heroic phenomena, it carries a necessary flaw. José Ortega y Gasset described this flaw in his 1929 essay The Revolt of the Masses:

When in the early stages of the Empire some cultured provincial - Lucan or Seneca - arrived in Rome, and saw the magnificent imperial buildings, symbols of an enduring power, he felt his heart contract within him. Nothing new could now happen in the world. Rome was eternal.
p. 33

The very success of the principle of Chicago has a tendency to stifle the future of Chicago. We are no longer a child nation, as perhaps we were when Chicago burned in 1871; nor are we a vigorous young nation, as Edward Hopper depicted us at mid-century. Instead, we are a mature nation, prone to intimidation by our own past successes, tending toward sclerosis.

What is sclerosis, but the gradual choking of vitality by obstacles strong enough to impede and numb, but brittle enough to shatter and kill? In our maturity, it behooves us to guard against sclerosis, against that contracting of the heart which Ortega y Gasset describes.

It is to an anti-sclerotic campaign that the Bean brilliantly contributes.

The Bean has the uncanny perfection of a metaphysical object, of a digital effect circa Terminator 2. Approaching the Bean from the south, one sees only a distortion of space, an incredible inconsistency:

It is so perfect that it seems to have arrived from another planet. One sympathizes with Kapoor's distress at its premature unveiling in 2004, before construction was complete. Just as the Bean is perfect in space, it should be perfect in time as well: its polished surface is designed to erase its own origin.

Coming nearer, one sees that it has panoptic properties: its elliptic geometry replicates on its surface the entire visible city. But the city is not absorbed by the Bean without transformation. Here I am in Millennium Park, the city behind me:

Or, rather, here is the image of me in the mind of the Bean, joined to the image of the park and the image of the city. This is very much the impression one has, staring into the surface of the Bean - that the immense reflective surface is like a mind, in the sense that the mind observes the universe, and models it. Does the Bean have a mind? Come now, we are not idol worshippers here. We approach art not for worship but for catharsis; not to see something else, but to see ourselves.  We come to art to identify so intensely with it that when its heart breaks, when its brain breaks, we too are cracked open. So the pulsing, overwhelming mindfulness of the Bean is, in fact, our own mind, electrically shuddering as it consumes an entire city.

So what is this essential transformation which occurs as the Bean absorbs Chicago?

All of the straight lines curve. Witness the intrusion of another world into our own. In this world, mighty skyscrapers bend, steel and stone and glass shimmer and dance. The Bean allows us to see that Chicago-as-it-is is not eternal, that new things can happen in the world. The Bean returns to us the comprehension that things, be they never so great, can still be otherwise.

This is the tremendous, fundamental power of the Bean, its anti-sclerotic effect. The revival of youth, in men and nations alike, is not a matter of earrings punched in wrinkled ears, or thinning hair coaxed into ponytails. It is a matter of regaining that sense that things could be other than what they are. This deep sense underlies the creativity of children, the children who built our great cities. And Anish Kapoor has imported that sense back into Chicago, the most august of our cities.

This alone would be enough. But it is not all. The upper surface of the Bean, the one that reflects the city, has elliptic geometry - parallel lines converge. The backside, so to speak, of elliptic geometry is hyperbolic geometry, where parallel lines diverge:

Elliptic geometry is always very pretty; while hyperbolic geometry is a messy story.

L to R: very pretty, messy story

The Bean does not have an elliptic upper surface alone. It also has a hyperbolic lower surface. And it is a messy story.

Kapoor has even ensured that the tiles beneath the Bean form a cartesian grid, so that its distortions in the hyperbolic underside of the Bean are very explicit.

From the straight-lined real Chicago, one arrives in Millennium Park, and is charmed by the curving virtual Chicago. And then one enters into - what? What is this?

What is this madness?

This is, to me, Kapoor's full statement on childlike creativity. The elliptic Bean returns to us the world as visualized by our childlike selves: mutable, sparking with potential, fluid in form. But the hyperbolic Bean illustrates the childlike mind itself: an infolding maze, untraceable - frightening - shocking and alien.

I see the hyperbolic Bean as saying - "Yes, you may have back the abnormal inventiveness and vigor of your infancy; you may have back your imagination and your industry. But nothing is free. You cannot have these things you need, without giving up the things which comfort you. You cannot go on traveling your familiar roads, and mumbling your stock phrases, and conducting your affairs in a warm and sleepy haze. You can still make great things, but you must embrace danger to do it. The danger is the certainty that you will not remain yourself. You yourself will become the perfect thing which has arrived from another planet."

me in hyperbolic space

No doubt Kapoor was not, in fact, thinking these very things when he was designing the Bean. But consider how much easier it would have been just to give the goddamned thing a flat bottom. 100 tons of steel, balanced on two nimble feet instead of one fat ass.

Kapoor called it "Cloud Gate," and indeed one passes under it as through a gate. The gate might not mean what I see in it, but it means something. And the object has such terrific strangeness and force that it forces thoughtfulness upon you. This is my sketch of my own thoughts in confrontation with the Bean. But if the Bean has anything to say, it is that things could be otherwise. My idea is not your idea. I encourage you, when next you are in Chicago, to experience your own unique strain of liberation in the company of the Bean.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Art Is Not A Vector It Is A Field

Last time, we were discussing a particular piece, The Only Way Out is Up, by abstract sculptor Jesse Soodalter, and I had quite a lot to say about what I saw in the piece. This post will really only make sense if you head back and read it - it's the part of this post below the final graphic.

Soodalter, when she read it, liked it fairly well, but she had a couple of points of disagreement. Let's look at the piece again:

Jesse Soodalter, The Only Way Out is Up
found object (asphalt), gold-colored aluminum wire, paper, October 2012

Here's Soodalter's first disagreement:

...the two interventions that you describe, while I agree that conceptually they're independent or at least distinct, in actual act are one gesture. The object is literally sewn to the paper with wire, not wrapped and then affixed. As I say, it doesn't invalidate the distinctness of those two axes, but it is quite important to (my own vision of) the nature of the piece that the object is bound to the paper, and embellished in the binding, not decorated and then mounted. Does that make sense?

Yes, of course it makes sense. Thinking it over, I realized that my list of interventions was incomplete: I talked about 1. the wrapping of the object in wire, and 2. the fixing of the object to the paper. But there was a prior intervention, intervention 0: surveying a field of garbage, of rubble, Soodalter saw this object. This object spoke to her, and she spoke back to it. She pulled it from the trash, and said, "There is something important to this one." In one sense, this is really the only important intervention; everything else just pretties up that initial recognition.

Now here is Soodalter's second disagreement:

The wire is as much there to constrain as to exalt, there's a sharpness and a punitive edge that is very much intrinsic to the piece – and to all the wire work, really; the diametric polysemy of wire is a huge part of my obsession with it.

Polysemy, by the way, is linguistic-theory talk for something like the concept I'm pursuing with this blog post overall. It's a term for a sign that has multiple related meanings; Soodalter, as I understand her, and I could be wrong, uses the phrase "diametric polysemy" to suggest that wire means some things, and other related things which are actually opposites of the first things - in this instance, the pinioning cruelty she describes is opposed to the benedictive gentleness I described.

What it amounts to is that you could say I got my entire interpretation wrong - I misunderstood how Soodalter made the work, I misunderstood the significance of how the work was made, and also I took the meaning of the work for the opposite of what Soodalter thought it was about.

You could say I got my interpretation wrong; but this is not the best way to put it. Soodalter, after all, liked my version. She liked her version too, and her version contradicts my version, but she herself didn't reject my version. What does this mean? Does it mean that The Only Way Out is Up doesn't mean anything at all? Of course not. But what we are talking about by meaning in art is not, I think, the same as our normal impression of the idea of meaning. That's what I've been considering and why I'm writing to you today.

As you know, I will never propose a simple idea when a complicated one will do, or use two words instead of ten. Plus also I like math. So let's consider the difference between a vector and a vector field.

A vector is a mathematical construct which includes magnitude and direction:

a vector

They're very handy for representing things like forces. A force applied to a cart, for instance, gives it a push, a push with both magnitude and direction. A vector is well adapted for representing this situation.

Let's say instead of little Bobby pushing his Radio Flyer, though, we're talking about an electromagnet.

Like Bobby, an electromagnet produces force. Unlike Bobby, its force isn't a single vector tied to a single location in space (the handlebar of the cart). The electromagnet's force influences everything around it. For every point in space surrounding the electromagnet, a vector exists, waiting to act on amenable matter. This phenomenon is called a field. In this case, it is a vector field.

a simplified diagram of a vector field 
(simplified in the sense that not every point in the area has its vector illustrated)

The claim I am seeking to advance here is that the experience of art is more like a field than it is like a vector. Art itself is more like the electromagnet than it is like little Bobby. An adequate art object will mean the same thing to all viewers. A really impressive art object will mean many things to many viewers. Its purpose is not to create a single meaning, but to create a kind of aesthetic matrix which supports the discovery of meaning. Not just any meaning - but meaning of a sufficiently dense and profound variety to prove rewarding to the effort a viewer puts into looking at it.

My interpretation of Soodalter's sculpture was like one vector, and Soodalter's interpretation of her sculpture was like a second vector. They didn't match up at all because we were standing in different places relative to the work. The work was powerful enough to generate a vector field around itself, waiting for a viewer to wander into it. This vector field was of a quality sufficient to inspire thoughts which were important to me, and different thoughts which were important to Soodalter. It won't inspire thoughts in all people, just as not all matter can receive a push from the magnetic forces generated around an electromagnet. That's fine. We've talked before about different people having different tastes, and this is one way of phrasing that. It's using ten words to say "abstract art talks to some people and not to others." This distinction doesn't make anyone better, or worse, only different.