Unit 2: Future of the Mind – research

In approaching this grid work, I knew I ought to investigate minimalist works such as by Agnes Martin.

Untitled (1965) Agnes Martin

I listened to an episode of the Bow Down Women in Art podcast discussing her life and works. It was interesting to understand the influence of Zen Buddhism in her work, which emphasises the need for mindfulness and meditation, and a sense of oneness. Though her works are perhaps a little too minimalist for my tastes, this set me down an interesting path of research, when looking for her work in a compendium of women artists in modern art. I came across the works of Eva Hesse here for the first time. I was interested here in her use of repetition to reveal naturally-occurring difference and iteration. This implies a sense of change and time for me, and the use of organic forms and materials was also interesting here. Her works for me seem tactile and invite a human spectator.

Repetition Nineteen III (1968) Eva Hesse

In looking further at her work, I discovered an intriguing article about Performativity in the work of female Japanese artists 1950-60s and 1990s by Yuko Hasegawa. Here I was introduced more deeply to the works of Yayoi Kusama, and to the instructional works of Fluxus artists Yoko Ono and Mieko Shiomi (who are also influenced by Zen), which I think are all relevant to the line of inquiry I have pursued in this project.

While I had previously been aware of the reflective/mirror infinity rooms of Kusama, I had not previously understood the context of her fascination with infinity and the dots which also pervade her work. The infinity nets series is a direct catharsis of visual hallucinations that Kusama experiences, which she has been afflicted by since childhood. Here polka dots cover her visual world like net curtains. By engaging with repetitive pattern and action she is able to gain balance in what might otherwise be an overloading experience.

No. F (1959) Yayoi Kusama
Infinity Nets (1951) Yayoi Kusama

These infinite repetitions and patterns seem highly relevant to my grid cell pattern work, and it could be interesting for me to explore building up layered work in the way Kusama has done with the thick textural paint in her No. F. It’s fascinating to me that she would be experiencing visual hallucinations which sound so similar to these visual navigation patterns I have been imagining, and I could hypothesise that she is actually just seeing this secret/hidden way in which our visual field navigates the world!

She also has explored visual infinities of self, and sense of the alter ego, in terms of the interaction of either herself or the audience within mirrored spaces. The duplication but also obliteration of the body by making it become one with the environment itself -> achieving invisibility. This reminds me of the phenomenon whereby repeating a word endlessly removes its meaning and makes it sound just as a series of noises. I think this could have implications for my future self-portrait work (which I have not yet had chance to write about on my blog!)

Instructional works interest me, for meaning that the outcomes of the work are unpredictable and unprecedented, something not controlled by the artist. Yoko Ono’s work is intriguing for specifying the destruction of a canvas or painting by burning with a cigarette, with the smoke produced being a part of the work. In displaying the work she would have the instructions and then the outcomes themselves, which I think is very intriguing.

The Smoke Painting instruction, Yoko Ono

Instructions were also used to good effect by Shiomi. I am particularly interested in her Spatial Poems work, where she sent letters to 100 people over the course of 10 years, coordinating a network of simultaneous events to take place across the world.

Events from the Spatial Poems (Word Event) 1965-75, Mieko Shiomi

It could be interesting for me to develop a set of instructions for others to recreate the grid and perform an interaction with it in any space. This could allow for all sorts of iterations to be created and explored beyond my own control which would be interesting.

Unit 2 – Future of the Mind – Grid cell context/research

My research into AI and artificial minds took me into the latest developments of DeepMind, the research arm of Google. I was intrigued to learn in this article that the increasing sophistication of AI is in turn advancing our understanding of the human brain – specifically here in relation to how we navigate space. It particularly fascinated me this notion of there being cells specialised to certain sensations (a bit like the individual conscious agents that Hoffman mentioned in the interview I posted – the specialised cells all contributing to one seamless conscious experience of space) – one type acting as a ‘you are here’, one for the direction of your head, and another forming a grid for relative position/spacing.

This regular pattern of grid cells was especially intriguing for me – here it referenced a hexagon, though it could also be considered a tesselated pattern of triangles. It has previously been proven in rat brains, and only in the past few years have we seen early proofs it could too be present in humans.

I love this notion of a secret/hidden mental map that is created to help us navigate the world, that is underlying our visual interpretation of the world. I wondered too if there could be a future in which we could ‘hack’ this secret mental mapping system, to make familiar spaces that we are new to, or allow you to immediately understand the best route through a maze, for instance. Use of this regularised grid could help you to better predict or adjust to new situations, which of course the Future is the ultimate one.

This strikes me as similar to the dots used in motion capture technology – to help digital imaging ‘navigate’ an actor’s body/face in order to best map it to a 3D computer generated image.

That this should be in a hexagonal grid was also very intriguing for me. Instinctively, I imagine organic forms and shapes to be irregular, curved, amorphous, but hexagons are geometric, regular, straight edged. That said it is a form we do see in nature, for instance in honeycomb structure, or the basalt columns visible in places such as a the Giants Causeway. It is described as being the most ‘efficient’ shape, and hence why the cooling rock forms in this way. It is also described as the strongest shape – hence it’s use in the structure of the strongest known material, graphene.

Giants Causeway basalt columns

It was thus especially eery to come across this display in the Whitworth, just a day after reading of grid cells.

I was interested too to see what these grid cells might look like in reality. Unfortunately it does not seem there are specific electron microscope images of these in existence, so I instead looked to images of generic neurons.

These images, magnifying the molecular to amazing detail, show an intriguing textural quality, and complex intricacy of connection
I experimented recreating this texture using gummed tape and tissue paper, along with ink and paint. I could not quite achieve the level of intricacy I might have liked but it was an intriguing effect. I particularly liked using the gummed tape to make the 2D surface more structural
With another, less magnified image (the original here on the right), I found hexagonal areas within it and cut or drew over to indicate these, before overlaying it with a regularised pattern on tracing paper. I particularly like the effect this produced, the juxtaposition of the geometric and irregular, organic and structured.

Unit 2: Fine Art – Dérive (pt 3)

On one of my walks, I was interested in drawing, and drawing with, natural forms and materials. This began with an interest in the trace I was leaving through my action of walking, the impact I was leaving – my footprint.

I then proceeded to print my muddy footprint on pieces of paper that I had brought with me, using different types of mud that I found around me (varying in their viscosity). Here I prefer the clearest print – the one from the path itself – and I feel this most clearly represents the impact of my walk. I enjoyed using the surface on which I was walking as a material in itself and transposing this onto another surface. It felt a fitting way of capturing the moment. I chose then to experiment with drawing one of the leaves I had been stepping on in the mud, using the mud itself. I used a dipstick to achieve a linear sketch, and printed the leaf itself. I found it interesting how similar the linear structure of the leaf came out in the print and my sketch.

Top: Dipstick drawing with mud of leaf, Bottom: Mud print of leaf
I repeated this exercise using drawing ink back in the studio
I repeated this once more with the remains of a pine cone that I found at the base of a tree, which had been gnawed and deconstructed by a squirrel. To the left, I experimented using ink wash as well as drawing, and on the right I also used pencil to sketch the pine cone, to gain a more in-depth study of tonality and shade.

This exploration of structural forms in nature, and their linear form, is interesting to me. Most interesting for me in the printing is how it reveals hidden forms that might otherwise be missed by the eye – particularly in the pine cone above. It was also interesting to see the transition of the printed image from when saturated with ink to after several prints – the big contrast and interesting silhouetted shapes created in the saturated images are very abstracted and intriguing I think.

Henry Moore Gardens/studios – Research pt 2

Disregarding for now his somewhat problematic subject matter, it was interesting to explore his studios and the Perry Green estate to get an insight into the practice of this prolific artist.

What I found particularly interesting to discover was his incorporation of found objects (bone, stone, shells etc) in his experimental miniature casts that would then be scaled up in working models and final pieces. Knowing this now, and seeing the examples e.g. of whale vertebrae dotted around his various studios, I can now reflect on how the forms of these organic and geological objects informed his work. ‘The metamorphosis of natural objects into human forms’ is how they put this in the exhibition notes.

It was interesting too to get a greater understanding of the technical approach he took to sculpting, both carving and in plasterwork. That he would cover his working medium-sized plaster model in a grid system to enable it to be exactly scaled up and then cast in bronze at a foundry.

I was also surprised how natural light was important to his practice – something that I had only previously considered would be the case for colourwork – and gaining a sense of the environment. His use of scalable plastic temporary studios (a bit like greenhouses) was quite novel.

I visited 4 studios on the estate – the ‘top studio’ outside his Hoglands home, and the three in the top right of the map – the Bourne maquette studio, plastic studio and yellow brick studio.

Henry Moore Gardens/studio – Research pt 1

Following my research into Brancusi’s use of generalised forms, and Calder’s approach to drawing through sculpture and singular lines, I was keen to go along to the Henry Moore studios and gardens before they close for the winter season.

On this visit, I encountered several of his bronze cast sculptures dotted around the estate where he used to live and work for the majority of his career, as well as the various studios he had there. There was also an exhibition being shown cataloguing his approach to drawing and how their role in his artistic practice changed over the years.

I was excited to discover the sculpture after being encouraged to get ‘hands-on’ with the outdoor ones and feel their texture when purchasing my entry ticket.

I found it really engaging to be encountering sculpture at such scale and so personally – it seemed an artform made for human observation and interaction. Many of them I could step into, and touch, and peer around. They offered interesting changing forms when you looked at different angles, as you walked around it. The sculptures themselves bear the marks of their making – the above piece is smoothed but also deliberately etched into.

The above piece shows clearly defined grooves that I believe have been made by the artist’s own hands – running my hand along it felt as though I were running it through carved wet clay.

The above work had intriguingly distinct forms from different angles.

The pieces I found less intriguing were perhaps the ones he is best known for, the reclining figures.

I found some of the forms here interesting, but I couldn’t get past the fact that these were staging the female nude as object. The figure is uniformly passive, and static. She is reduced to her ‘primary function’ as childbearer. This could only make the contorted forms and exaggerations of fertile hips etc seem exploitative for me.

John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ was released in 1972, ahead of all but one of the sculptures shown above, and in episode/chapter 2 he dealt with the problematic obsession with the female nude in art history. This feminist perspective may not have been taken seriously by Moore etc however, with contemporary reviews in the industry literature dismissing Berger as ‘a committed leftist who poses as the antagonist to all received knowledge about the arts’ (J.A.Robinson writing in the Journal of Aesthetic Education Oct 1974) – with no direct mention of the feminist argument he had been making. Indeed the modern movement was less under scrutiny here than mass media imagery for Berger, but that the passive female nude and mystification as the Great Mother could be still so primary to an influential artist like Moore at this time suggests perhaps it should have been.

The 2nd episode of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which first considered the problem of the male gaze in the convention of female nudes in Western art (1972, BBC)

This episode was aired just at the start of a great feminist movement in art history, which was kickstarted by Linda Nochlin’s article from the year prior ‘Why are there no great women artists?’. I am interested to read more into this subject and hope to start with some writings by Griselda Pollock.

Typography: my work

In this workshop, we were introduced to the Adobe InDesign app, taught several basic functions within the app, completing various exercises to put these to practice, and then finally asked to create several typographical representations of a word given to us from a hat.

I found this brief especially interesting to read and so think I would like to explore typography in greater depth.

We were instructed to use Helvetica as a neutral font type, and asked to choose a letter to experiment with. I chose a capital R as I thought it had an interesting variety of form to play round with (straight, curved and wiggly).

First we experimented with duplicating and transforming the letter in dimension and orientation. Then too with opacity and layering. What’s interesting here (which I have only just noticed) is that unintentionally I arranged the page in the shape of the R I was using..!

Then, we experimented with colour fills, as well as gradients, and outlines with varying thickness and pattern.

Here, by masking certain elements of the letter by drawing a shape over it, we experimented with deconstructing the letters and marrying them to create new letters or abstractions. I enjoyed this especially, and testing how far the letter could be pushed and still recognised.

I was given the word ‘error’ to portray through type. This word for me has connotations of machinery and computing, as it’s synonymous with ‘error messaging’ in applications and computer systems. As such I knew I wanted my typograms to play on this.

I began by writing this as one word, and sought to experiment with one of the outlining functions which makes the edges angular/squared – to increase it’s artificiality. I arbitrarily drastically increased the size of this outline and it created an unforeseen interesting result, whereby it was obliterating the word itself. I liked the effect it gives, a bit like someone has viciously markered a piece of paper. Over the top of this, I included a small ‘error’ in a typeface that evokes typewriter or mechanical writing as a footnote of sorts. I chose a contrasting yellow to have this stand out, but also give a sense of alarm. Interestingly, when printed the strength of the black ink behind this yellow note means the type is almost imperceptible.

For my next page, I wanted to experiment instead with each letter in isolation. I chose to continue with the yellow/black palette for this piece as well. I knew I wanted to mix up the sizing, typeface and capitalisation of the letters to disrupt the reading of the word. I deconstructed my capital E which I find interesting since it remains identifiable despite the middle and bottom horizontal lines being disjointed.

The fact I had three rs in my word was interesting, since I had been working with this earlier. I chose to still have one capital R here but I enjoyed exploring the lower case r in this instance – particularly when duplicating and varying the opacity and making this overlap. This reminded me of an error that used to happen with Windows OS and that was featured in the opening credits of the IT Crowd tv show (which again reinforced this connotation of error).

For the O, I wanted to again play with the outlining feature, and again using an oversized one, I achieved an interesting effect which effectively multiplied the letter itself. By scaling this up and tilting it I realised it looked a little like the iconic Vertigo poster, and I liked the additional meaning this could convey, alongside the repeating r, of you falling into an endless error. I backgrounded this to highlight that sense of falling into it. [Here again, the vortex is appearing as a motif!]

I further subverted this work by ‘accidentally’ leaving one of the InDesign function windows on top of the design and screengrabbing it to create a further page – in a postmodern sort of way.

I also enjoyed seeing this message at the bottom of the application window and thought it could in itself ironically imply a paradox of both being and not being an error.

I enjoyed this 1/2 day workshop greatly, and would like to work to extend it as suggested at the end of the brief.

Photogram workshop

A test strip from my photogram workshop, with glass decanter stopper, lightbulb and tea strainer

Today I experienced my first dark room, and got the chance to experiment with photograms. I enjoyed learning the technique and producing my own images, though it seemed most of the time spent there was in waiting for and using the chemical trays, rather than the creation of the photograms themselves.

We had been briefed ahead to bring objects, and on some of the history of Moholy-Nagy who famously used this technique for what he would call ‘abstract seeing’ of the forms of objects themselves.

Here I made the mistake of not quite centering the paper beneath the light. It is an interesting mistake though in light of the Ooops text, and I quite enjoy the overall effect. This gave me the opportunity to reconsider the addition of the metal bracelet at the bottom right. I was really pleased with the effect of the netting here.
Here I am unsure if the composition is quite as successful but I am pleased by the effect of the exposure, where each object is well exposed. I am especially intrigued by the texture suggested by each object and the contrast between them.

On reflection, I wonder if the text here added anything, or if I could have produced a more interesting composition from something purely abstract (as Moholy-Nagy himself did). I had several comments from my peers that the typeface reminded them of book covers, which amuses me but wasn’t quite my intention!

Forms in Sculpture: Research

Constantin Brancusi

What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things

Constantin Brancusi

After my experience with the Gained in Translation task, I was interested to learn more about how sculptors have sought to capture the essence of an object in simplified or generalised forms. This seems to be of particular importance in considering the work of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

He paid great attention to the material with which he worked, coming from a crafts background. This means the artwork gives a sense of being formed quite naturally, not working against the fabric with which it has been created. The fluidity of metal, the roughness of stone, and the smooth flint of granite.

What is intriguing though in particular is his depiction of the subject. He has not sought for it to resemble the subject in a physical sense, but has imbued it with an abstract sort of resemblance. The Danaide conveys a serenity and composure of the subject; the bird in space, graceful dynamism; the fish streamlined movement that in a flash would disappear from view. In a sense here he has depicted the qualia of the subject (as philosophers might term it) – that is, he has relayed the experience of witnessing the subject within his artwork: the ‘what it means to see a fish’. This is beyond simple emotional expression and onto something quite more conceptual depth.

This too can be seen in the Endless column. He is giving us the illusion of a pattern, a motif, that could be repeated ad infinitum and conveying to us what it might be like to experience that.

That he would return to several of these motifs again and again, producing unique versions sometimes with only slight nuance, is perhaps less interesting to me. But the notion of repetition on a theme and meditation is perhaps something to consider.

I think it is also noteworthy that he mostly shied away from geometric design and instead focused on smooth rounded shapes and organic-like forms.

Play – Gained in Translation: research/my work

Our 2nd theme is related to Dada and Surrealism, and we will be exploring various elements of play and chance around this in the next few weeks.

In the first of our briefs, we were to seek to remove ourselves from the subject matter. This would be achieved by the subject not being direct interaction with an object itself but the description of that object by someone only feeling it with their hands from inside a bag (reminiscent of some parlour games I had played as a child). So the visual object was twice removed from the subject of the drawing we were to make initially, and three times removed from the eventual cardboard sculpture we would construct from the drawing. It was only once we had completed our sculpture that we would discover what that object really was. We were paired up and took it in turns to describe or draw a different object.

In this way we were exploring the idea of authorship and subject as done by Francis Alys – who briefs into two sign painters to create a triptych based on his own original painting.

Francis Alÿs, Untitled (in three parts), 1995-1996. Triptych, encaustic on linen. Collection of Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Gift of Stanley and Nancy Singer.

I found this task very interesting, and enjoyed the challenge of conceptualising the object in a new and different way. The fact that we were working from organic forms which would not usually be summarised by geometric shapes made this an interesting challenge. When describing the object for my partner, it was easiest to talk in comparison and simile, e.g. ‘it is curved inwards like a spoon or a shovel’, and to use gesture to help indicate the contorted forms and shapes in the air.

The object I described to my partner, her drawing of this description, and the cardboard sculpture she created of this, 09/2019

It was interesting to see the elements of my description that were picked up in her drawing, and what details were lost. The form was greatly simplified and generalised, but the crucial elements remain (of the broad curved planes and the twisted dimension). The finer detail and symmetry of the piece was lost, though these had been described they were perhaps less easily conceptualised by the non-viewer.

My drawing and sculpture, based on the object described to me by my partner, 09/2019

Here too the forms were simplified towards geometry. I drew tentatively, so that I could reshape and revisit the lines as the description progressed. She began describing the foot itself as a rectangle, before clarifying that it was in fact more sloping and curved. Other elements were depicted that were less visible, but tangible nonetheless, e.g. the seam of the plastic moulding of the foot.

When converting the drawing to a cardboard sculpture, I further generalised the forms, in light of the thick cardboard material we were given. The curved shapes and ‘lumps’ that ended up being the toes were details that were lost. After finding the gummed tape difficult to use as a fast adhesive for the structures I was seeking to achieve, I redesigned the foot to be formed from one piece to minimise the need of the tape. I used scoring to gain the bends that would be needed.

A failed foot attempt using two pieces, using gummed tape which made the cardboard itself soggy and unable to retain its shape

I enjoyed the conceptual challenges in this task, but am not overall happy with the artefacts produced. That said, the task was indeed to remove our own aesthetic preferences from the process, so in this sense I have been successful!!

What has interested me is this notion of reducing objects to their essential elements, or simplifying them. I am reminded of the notion of Plato’s Forms, which were the ideal essence of the objects we see in the world (i.e. that there is a Chair Form which all chairs in the world harken to and symbolize in some way, that we recognise). Perhaps this act of simplification gets us closer to the Form?

I am interested to learn more about the idea of form in sculpture, and plan to visit the Henry Moore studios to discover more.