Essay about my collection for Evolve show:
Time, The Timeless and Our Time
To evolve implies a gradual transition from an earlier state to a later state, such that something remains recognisable from one to the other. To have an “earlier” and “later” we must have time, that elusive dimension, which is both continuously sensed in subjective experience yet feels so much more mysterious than the three spatial dimensions.
Nature, natural phenomena, the world, our lives, are unified by continuously going from an earlier and towards a later - everything shifting, dancing around our consciousness (as a Buddhist might put it). Even at rest, a natural form, such as a branch or leg, as we look along the length from trunk to termination, continuously tapers, modulating and spiraling, sheafing mass into mass, surface stretched around lignified branching point or bones of the ankle, tapering to the final delicate punctuation of leaves or toes. Add to this the transition of a tree’s growth and decay over decades, or its whipping back and forth in cyclonic winds. Now we have movement in time, kinetic energy. Both these movements - the form shaped by growth, and kinetic movement - can be gathered, in a way, into a static image - into a nexus point of the key frame that seems to bind the past and future to a single present moment holding both, to an intention of action. And in intentionality we have an echo of the question of how free our will actually is: are we, like the tree, shaped and driven forward by nothing more than the combination of the inevitable programming or our genetics and the chaotic winds of the external world - or is there a place for personal responsibility, for effort, for striving? Subjectively it feels to me that I am the actor - at least, and perhaps more importantly, it feels as though I must believe that I am the actor in order to continue to strive. And the striving itself, to fling the brightness of our will into the darkness, seems to be all that really counts.
The sense of gesture in drawing, whether a sense of the intention of the human will, or the unifying intentionality of natural forces through growth or movement, has been a fascination for me for a long time, cultivated over nearly twenty years of the regular discipline of drawing the life model. In the representation of gesture in a drawing, painting or sculpture, we have in fact a static record of a series of marks made sequentially, over time. If felt by the artist deeply and executed at a high level of intensity, these static marks can transmit to the viewer something of the firsthand experience, the artist’s empathising into the tensions and intentions of the model. Perhaps even something deeper than that: if the empathy of the viewer is engaged with the marks, it is possible to connect to a set of elusive abstractions that pierce the surface and contemplate the skeleton of a movement, and by implication, of time itself: the flux of moments dying one into the next.
Despite the vast changes of recent millennia that have made our ancestors into us, there seem to be points of consistency, and we see these points gathered, shuffled and reshuffled into mythologies across time and between cultures - that capture the human imagination because of some essential truth of the human experience. These universal stories, like a gestural calligraphy that sees past the surface details of the human body, are part of what some have referred to as “the timeless”, which is to say that these are not stories dependent on knowing who is currently in the White House (thankfully), or even what the White House represents in our society and our historical narratives. Say we could sit down with the artists of the cave paintings of Chauvet around a campfire 30,000 years ago, and say we could find a way to communicate, I feel sure that Homer’s Odyssey, or the myth of Orpheus, or the sacred moment of the Annunciation, (all stories from the cave painters’ deep future) would speak to them through some fundamental anxiety or longing that more or less matches our own.
To look back to the mythologies contained in the arts of the past is to look at ourselves without iPhones and intercontinental flight, without our current customs of law courts, art museums and email etiquette. Arguably the real things that excited, delighted and terrified the artists of Chauvet cave are more or less the same as those for us: the utterly horrifying realisation of mortality, and then the wonderfully perverse way in which this mortality can be embraced and felt to increase the dramatic richness of being alive. And then, that exhilaration, felt occasionally and unexpectedly, of being alive now. And I am sure they would relate to the strangeness of romantic feelings that scream deep parts of our animal physiology while singing to the transcendental. These among other things. Should the artist therefore ignore contemporary events and focus on the timeless human condition?
Edgar Degas wrote “It requires courage to make a frontal attack on nature through the broad planes and the large lines and it is cowardly to do it by the facets and details.” Perhaps the large lines, in terms of the truth of the human experience, have already been sketched, millennia ago, and therefore to look to the future, to see ourselves as part of some vast, accelerating evolution of humanity is foolish and arrogant. To do so is to get caught up in details that are ultimately unimportant since nothing essential will change after all. Yet each of us find ourselves at sea in our own Odyssey, in the early 21st century, with a landscape in our peripheral vision that seems to be making the very issues that concerned our ancestors more sharply delineated.
Questions of the nature of consciousness have left the contemplations of mystics and philosophers and have entered the labs of Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence research to be made solid in stunningly weird demonstrations. Descartes’ “Evil Demon” is eerily dramatised as we put on a VR headset - perhaps even more so as we take it off and realise how convinced we were. The Internet is now in the nascence of what seems to be its inevitable role as central nervous system to our entire planet and species. Even with only around half of the 7 billion people on earth currently connected, the Internet is intertwining with our individual psyches, and interweaving us as individuals, making us into, as it were, the neurons of a vast brain. We seem to scarcely notice as this is happening and can scarcely imagine where it will lead. The flood that seems inevitable is now trickling into our lives through 3D scanning, digital design, 3D printing, AR and VR, and self-driving everything. Through biotechnology it seems unlikely that our bodies will escape the storm. The realm of imagination and intention has just begun to fluctuate in and out of physical existence more directly, softening the rigidity of physical reality, making it more plastic and dreamlike - as though the cave walls swimming with worlds of imagination had come to life in a psychedelic MTV video. At the same time that our species is more powerful, and hence potentially more destructive, than ever before, we see readership of poets such as Rumi and Rilke increasing dramatically, record museum attendance and widespread care and yearning for the natural world. We are haunted and lured by the same ancient Gods, and the longing for some elusive meaning, for something sacred - even if we call ourselves Atheists.
I find myself being drawn towards the awkward interface of the timeless, universal myths of our history (including the mystery of conscious experience) with the bizarre, terrifying and exhilarating developments of our own moment in time. To remix T.S. Elliot: we stand, on this night of the 11th August 2017, at the still point of the turning world, between an inescapable time past and deeply uncertain time future. And our world is turning faster.
Scott Breton, August 2017