Hinting at a silhouette, a shape of reality defined through relationships (Part 1 of 3)
I think there is tremendous value in developing a consciousness of the dynamic and interconnected nature of things. In this essay I will talk about how my experimentation with depicting change in my art has influenced this idea and guided my artmaking. I draw inspiration form disciplines such as Art, Science, History and Philosophy, each providing a unique set of tools and language to think about and describe change. James Burke, Naomi Klein, Robert M. Pirsig, Lynn White and Alfred North Whitehead are some of the people whose ideas have had a significant impact on the work I will present. I am posting this essay in three parts with the first part referencing works between 2011 and 2017.
Key words: Change, Perception, Value, Environment, Process Philosophy, Systems Thinking, Art, Fluidity, Reality
Consider the interplay between the shifting states of water (vapour, liquid and crystal) as it forms a block of ice. Considering that the formation process is continuous and interwoven with its surroundings, oscillating between freezing, sublimation and melting, how does one define the boundaries, form and presence of the block? Would you include the puddle that forms underneath the ice block into its form as it seeps into the ground to be absorbed by the root system of a plant? Is the boundary between the ice and vapour a sharp divide separating the two? How far can we stretch their connection if we imagine the vapour blending into a breath of a living being or participating in the cycle of erosion by liquefying in a granite fissure — persistently reducing a mountain into sand?
Years ago I had no second thoughts about representing a block of ice as a series of lines, creating a sense of static three-dimensionality within a composition of other separate and static elements. In doing so my drawing would reinforce a quark of perception which denies the inherent dynamic interconnectivity and changeable nature of reality. Our mind excels at taking the novelty and complexity of every moment and flattening it out into something static which we can carry with us into the present moment in a false but comforting feeling of knowing. It wasn’t until my work and research focused on environmental issues, when terms like Interconnectivity, Feedback Loops, Persistence through a Food-chain, brought into question the static and outline-driven visual language I was used to, in conveying ideas.
1. Fluid Shape of Reality
In a 2011 crayon series “Liquid Dodalism” I abstracted together psychological, sensual and visual experiences of places in Toronto into Fluid (-like) Shapes. This body of work transitioned from a decade of experimentation capturing the experience of being through stream of consciousness scribbling, which I called Dodalism (‘o’ should be underlined) into a ‘colour and representation-centred’ approach. Here the landscape emerges from the currents of multicolour shapes moving through space. To paraphrase Zygmund Bauman, landscape solidity dissolved into the page and what forms are present, arise from and dissolve into it. Solidity is an assumption made at the moment of perception but no sooner than our perception wanders the forms dissolve into the totality, a shimmering of atoms and quarks ever-expending outward.
Applying the fluid shape abstraction, to a series of portraiture paintings led me to use silhouetting and negative space as an integral part of the work. I liked how the image could shift in interpretation depending on what I focused my attention on. This was especially evident at the time of making the work when I would switch the projector on and off jumping between the composition and its abstraction throughout each of the 9 works. The ambiguity of the silhouette felt dynamic representing something in a process of change.
Drawing on ideas from Alfred North Whitehead’s book “Process and Reality” I created a watercolour installation series “Fluidity: Actual Entities & Occasions of Experience.” Here people are portrayed as emergent events whose definition arises from continually redefined relationships between internal and external processes abstracted as streaming fluid shapes. These streams represent subtle processes like the formation of an ethical consciousness of a society or the transition from a child to a teenager; perceptible ones like the well-being a smile can bring or the movement of stormy weather across the land; and processes as profound as light becoming plant protein or the constant outward cellular growth of our bodies. Subtle interactions between processes reveal multiple characters performing actions throughout the compositions. Figures definition emerges from a network of interconnected relationships, our perception being one of them. Each figure at each moment is an event produced by countless other events flowing ever forward. Like currents in a river which are at once unique and inseparable from the totality of flowing water, people are presented as unique spatial clusters that are at the same time inseparable from the totality of paper’s white space.
By hinting at the content which would traditionally be a painted representation of a body, clothing, etc. the reality I am portraying is not a point in space but a moving convergence through it, inseparable from a symphony of other movements. In this sense, a person can be thought of as a water droplet running down a window during a storm. As the droplet moves down, its content and direction are a product of a series of interactions with other water droplets, the wind, surface of the glass, etc., its being is defined by its becoming. If we apply this analogy to the paintings, the silhouettes are a kind of a wake, a gap in-between a breath in and a breath out, temporally ambiguous as something occurring and passing, an echo of a being becoming.
The reduction of a person to a hint of a silhouette also highlighted for me the abstraction we engage in at every turn, filtering our surroundings through sets of ideas, beliefs and experiences we accumulated in the world. From this point of view it is possible to imagine that by becoming aware of said filters we can adjust and shape our view of the world which would have an effect on how we interact with it. These were my initial thoughts in connection to the possible role art could play in creating a paradigm shift in how we see our place in nature, a concept I came across in my research, most notably in “This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein and Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.”
2. Nature: a Space of Flows
In a search for ways of connecting my art to my research into environmental degradation, I travelled in 2016 to the Un poco del Chocó biological reserve in the cloud forest of Ecuador and Esperanza Verde, a wildlife rescue centre in the Peruvian Amazon basin. While painting a river valley zigzagging through the biological reserve, I recognized patterns of growth in the forest canopy. Looking at its different stages of growth I could guess where landslides occurred, where trees had fallen, and where people burned away the forest to make room for pasture. In “Fluidity: Actual Entities & Occasions of Experience” the processes I was abstracting as fluid shapes were largely metaphysical and ephemeral in nature. Looking at the forest around me presented multiple tangible examples of the process driven nature of reality, the physical manifestation of a landscape taking shape. I started documenting examples of human presence (e.g. road, trail, cattle, garbage) and natural processes like primary and secondary succession (e.g. landslides, fallen trees), thinking about how they interacted and shaped the land on which I stood. My focus shifted away from degradation, realizing that it was only a chapter in a larger story I was trying to understand and convey.
Painting from my photographs, I chose to represent a portion of the composition in silhouette so as to highlight particular natural or human processes. My hope was that, for example, a silhouette of a fallen tree would represent a transitional space of secondary succession, and in the same sense a road in silhouette would signify the process of urbanization. As the series “Nature: a space of flows” evolved I became less reliant on abstraction in favour of using landscape painting to communicate interconnectivity and change. I was drawn to how an object in silhouette defined by its surroundings communicated interconnectivity. At the same time its absence spoke to change. I was encouraged that the silhouette made me think about the place and function of the shape in the environment. Happy with the emotional and visual language of the work I would continue by exploring ways the medium of watercolours can be used to communicate specific relationships between human and natural processes shaping the environment. What I wanted to achieve was to present landscape as not simply there but, like the people in my previous work, as something creative and novel at each moment.
Thinking about landscape as ‘becoming’ made me think about the agency land has in shaping itself, and human/personal agency in shaping the landscape. How those processes interacted and the outcomes of those interactions was something I would continue to think about and discuss at LABVERDE “a multidisciplinary platform for the development of nature and ecology critical thinking” alongside a group of international artists and scientists. (to be continued…)