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The first post under the title Aesthetics of Uncivilisation focused on responding to Charlotte Du Caan’s call for submissions for the Dark Mountain Project’s next publications and her reflection on Seeing through a glass darkly. She said,
The fact that civilisation holds us so tightly in its unkind embrace is not only because it controls what some call ‘industrialised storytelling’, but also because it manufactures the images that powerfully and unconsciously distract and misinform us, keep us endlessly looking at the shiny surfaces of what we feel is our cultural reality.
That essay responded to Charlotte’s examples of reconnecting with nature and highlighted the work of the Collins and Goto Studio and their projects The Forest is Moving and Plein Air; Liberate Tate’s performance Parts Per Million and Penny Clare’s photographs. Arguing that these represent aspects of an aesthetics which is also an ethics, an ethics of eco-cultural well-being, of the absurd performance of catastrophe, and of the possibility of an art of low energy, the essay suggested a wider conceptualisation of reconnecting with nature.
In this second essay another selection of examples have come to mind in response to watching The Grass Will Grow Over Your Cities (2010), Sophie Fiennes’ film exploring Anselm Keifer’s studio and landscape in Barjac in the South of France.
In this discussion we cannot overlook Dada and Surrealism. The artists now grouped under those ‘movements’ were responding to catastrophic human stupidity.
Perhaps the shaping document of the 20th Century has been Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909), calling as it did for the of the overturning of the heart of European culture, the washing away of the old, and celebrating speed and violence. The first few lines evoke this,
1. We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
2. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
3. Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggresive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
4. We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. ….
For all the other philosophising, this manifesto is what the 20th Century has lived up to: the headlong charge, the rabid consumption of energy, aggression and violence in magnificent proportions culminating in a weapon that can destroy all life on earth and the realisation that in any case we are affecting all life on earth, and not for the better – so much more than the authors could have imagined in their call for an overturning of a failed culture.
On the other hand, and less than ten years later, Dada and Surrealism were reactions to a civilisation which believed that art was about beauty and truth, but was able to wreak havoc and destruction on a generation. This year we will remember the start of the First World War – as someone recently said, the slaughter of the working classes in the name of European Imperialism. The poets, performers, writers and artists associated with Dada and Surrealism were met with anger and derision.
Dada threw out meaning and sense: it was anti-art. Surrealism opened up the unconscious, foregrounded our basest desires and fears. These are the aesthetics of a previous moment of fury at our civilisation. Dada enacted absurdity, and Surrealism refocused art on inner madness and fear. Both have deeply influenced art over the last century and remain important tropes for artists today (Christy Rupp‘s collages such as the Frack-me-not sequence and her felt sculptures; Joel Tauber‘s Seven Attempts to Make A Ritual films).
Sophie Fiennes’ film of Anselm Keifer’s studio and landscape at Barjac in the South of France is on the one hand precisely an articulation of an aesthetic of abandonment. Keifer has constructed a landscape of broken concrete, molten lead, burnt books and broken glass, a strange proto-archaeological site of desolation. But you cannot watch the film without becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the hubris and an extraordinary cost. Between the many assistants, the JCBs and cranes, and the cement mixers, this is on a scale not hugely dissimilar to Turrell’s Roden Crater. Keifer is creating a landscape of abandonment, a man-made version of landscapes which we can see around us in our cities and towns, but he is doing it by spending vast sums of money. It is a fable of the age.
Where Keifer is constructing a destroyed and abandoned landscape, in the 60s John Latham and Gustav Metzger were amongst a group of artists who again questioned civilisation. Metzger was one of the key figures in the Destruction in Art Symposium (1966), and as part of the symposium Latham experimented with his Skoob Towers. These towers of burning books have a close resonance with Keifer’s towers and burnt books. Latham was not afraid of destruction as an artistic process, but it was within a wider intellectual project.
Whilst Latham is often a reference point for art that is engaged with industry, bureaucracy, policy and society as well as being one of the most compelling demonstrations of the idea that “context is half the work,” other aspects of his art deeply expand the norms of social scope. There are three pieces which could be signal elements in this aesthetics: These three pieces question everything. The first represents experience and event through a reduction of drawing to a one second act. The second reframes the scale of our experience into a device which encompasses the quantum and the cosmological. The third provocatively suggests that there is a common truth which shines through the greatest books understood as cultural events. This was so provocative that the Tate Gallery refused to include it in their retrospective (2005).
John Latham One-Second Drawing (17″ 2002) (Time Signature 5:1) 1972
Latham’s One Second Drawing works of various dates are just a second of spray paint on paper. They allude to the limits of our perception as well as to the limits of beauty. The question the value of painting and express the briefness of life whilst reminding us of the cosmological. These works express with absolute simplicity his conception of the least event, demonstrating the simplest spatiality whilst embodying the shortest temporal experience.
Time-Base Roller with Graphic Score, 1987 (with Basic T Diagram on left). Canvas, electric motor operating metal bar, wood, graphite. Photo: Ken Adlard
Latham’s Time Base Roller (1972) is a much more complex and sophisticated evocation of his philosophy, enabling us to understand our experience of time as event in a spectrum. Using something as mundane as a domestic roller blind with an electric motor, he set out different scales of time through a along its length, from the cosmological to the quantum, “Light at one end, and at the other the longest cosmological extent” (1975). Events occur in front of us as the roller unfurls, past time being perceived only partially through the canvas against the wall. So our sense of the immediacy of events and our dim understanding of the scale of time, whether of the least moment or the longest duration, is manifest in an everyday object elegantly reimagined as a treatise on chronology. He describes it thus, “This Time-base Spectrum presents a universal filing device whereby all manifestations are comparable within the same co-ordinates.” (1975).
John Latham, God is Great.
Latham’s work God is Great of various dates takes the form of the three fundamental books of the Abrahamic tradition, the Talmud, the Bible and the Koran, and unites them with a sheet of glass which penetrates all three. The unifying device of a sheet of broken glass both signals a shared truth and notes the incompleteness of that truth in one moment. But the underlying point is the event structure of which these books are merely spatial manifestations. Latham said, “The belief system is a rock-bottom source of non-negotiable problems of the day”.
If one aesthetic of uncivilisation is to attempt to make art more or less useful in reconnecting us with nature, then another must be the absurd and the internal confrontation with death. In a blog for the New York Times (2013), the soldier and writer Roy Scranton spoke about coming to terms with dying in the Anthropocene. He says,
Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.
He goes on to say,
I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.”
To come to terms with dying, or collapse as the Dark Mountain project frames it, is to address the absurdity of life, to acknowledge our inner fears and nightmares, and also to understand our existence in relation to the quantum and the cosmological, to see the event rather than the thing.
Apollonio, Umbro, ed. 1973. Documents of 20th Century Art: Futurist Manifestos. Brain, Robert, R.W. Flint, J.C. Higgitt, and Caroline Tisdall, trans. New York: Viking Press, 19-24.
Du Caan, C. Seeing through a glass darkly: towards and aesthetics of uncivilisation. The Dark Mountain Project, The Dark Mountain Blog. http://dark-mountain.net/blog/seeing-through-a-glass-darkly-towards-an-aesthetic-of-uncivilisation/ accessed 8 January 2014
Latham, J. 1975 Time-base and determination in events in State of Mind, Düsseldorf: Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, revised reprint Edinburgh: R & R Clark
Scranton, R. 2013. Learning how to die in the anthropocene. New York Times. November 10, 2013. http://www.opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/learning-how-to-die-in-the-anthropocene/?_r=0&pagewanted=print accessed 12 November 2013
Smith, D. 2005. Artist hits at Tate ‘cowards’ over ban. The Guardian 25 September 2005.
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