Perception. Chaos. Ritual. Language. These are some of the concerns explored by A Third Thing, Richard Clements’ upcoming show at BAF Gallery. The enigmatic sculptures, which the artist describes as being architectural without mimicking larger buildings, reference spiritual structures such as the altar, grave, or ziggurat.
For this instalment of In Conversation, we spoke to Clements about the complex vision behind this new body of work. Originally from London, England, Clements holds a BFA in sculpture from the Alberta College of Art and Design and an MFA from Goldsmith’s College in his home city. Clements has exhibited throughout Europe and Canada. He works primarily in sculpture and is also an accomplished writer.
Burrard Arts Foundation: This show seems to hinge on a central dichotomy: between organized meaning, established through language; and chaos, mystery and magic, or the raw, unprocessed state of the world before we filter it through our consciousness and give structure to it through our speech. Could you attempt to explain to our audience how the works in A Third Thing begin to address this binary?
Richard Clements: William James called an infant’s experience of the world a “blooming, buzzing confusion”. This is due to a gestalt field of undivided sensorial data, and, as we are in the world more, our ability to represent becomes more sophisticated. We begin to demarcate edges and establish differences; identifying the self and the other, recognizing objects, abstracting ideas through language etc. James also acknowledged that – to borrow a term from David Bohm – that levating any object from a gestalt field involves discrimination: that in paying attention to one aspect of an object ultimately makes others withdraw into that field.
Owen Barfield uses the terms Alpha and Beta to distinguish between ways of thinking about phenomenological appearance. Alpha thinking is “a system of thought which only interests itself in phenomena to the extent that they can be grasped as independent of consciousness”. Philosophically this is akin to naïve realism, or what some people call “common sense.” According to Barfield, alpha thinking, when left to its own devices result in idolatry: the acceptance of a self-sustained other. Alpha thinking is our day-to-day way of being in the world and is passive. Beta thinking is mode of thought where we understand that “a large part of the represented world is to be found within ourselves.” – Beta thinking is active.
For example, picture the focus of a child learning to walk, or later, tying their shoes: their attention is undivided towards what is an incredibly complicated activity. Over time, through practice and discipline, the child becomes accustomed to these activities and these activities become, so to speak, “invisible”. This “invisibility” is achieved when, through enacted and embodied discipline, external information is subsumed and holistically integrated to the self. In regards to perception this is when we begin to believe that things exist independently from our perception – this is Barfield’s alpha thinking. This is how the child, first through speech, then through reading and writing learns – via the disclosive nature of language – to “see” the world.
Your usage of the terms “chaos”, “mystery”, and “magic” are all very particular terms. “Chaos” implies an unstructured reality that precedes codification, or perhaps, a reality that cannot be fully subsumed. “Mystery” implies something undisclosed, something inaccessible by conventional methods – it implies esoteric applications. “Magic” implies miraculous appearance, or perhaps, as Wittgenstein says, that seeing – existence – is the first miracle. “Magic”, in a contemporary sense of “magic tricks”, functions as a type of duplicity; that what is disclosed is perhaps not what it seems to be. Magical tricks function on two methods of misdirection that are, more than often, used in tandem with each other. The first method is Optical misdirection. This is the lesser form of magic and can be defined as distraction; essentially this is when the magician makes you look in the wrong place whilst he does something else in another place. For example, within the close up magic classic the sponge ball routine, a magician might tell the audience to look at his right hand while at the same time withdrawing a ball from his pocket with his left hand. The second method is Representational misdirection. This is the greater form of magic and can be defined as deceptive similitude. Unlike sensorial misdirection where you are looking in the wrong place, in representational misdirection you are in fact looking in the right place but in the wrong way; it is incorrect aspect seeing. A clear example here is the sleight of hand technique called the Coin Palm Drop. This type of “drop” is when a magician, holding a coin in one hand and showing it to the audience, takes the coin with his other hand, then upon opening the hand that took the coin, reveals that it empty. The explanation is, of course, that the coin seems to go into the other hand, but actually stays in the hand that was originally presenting the coin. A Coin Palm Drop is perfected when the motions of the hands are visually identical when either the magician actually takes the coin from one hand into the other or “drops” it into the original hand: essentially if the hand gestures optically appear to be identical.
This, is akin to Wittgenstein’s aspect seeing. Popularized with his “duck-rabbit” image, aspect seeing is defined as the ability to see one thing in multiple ways. What is important here is that this “one thing”, unlike the Coin Palm Drop, does not itself physically change; it is our linguistic organizing principles that establish these transformations. Henri Bortoft, a Goethean scientist, would say, “There is more to seeing than meets the eye”; essentially that seeing is not just light bouncing into our eyes.
Perception under this methodology is not merely passively receptive (looking), but in fact continually active, giving form and shape to our phenomenological world (seeing). We habitually remain unconscious to these organizing principles, assuming the independent existence of an objectively sustained world.
Many writers have described Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit image an “optical illusion”, and in a sense it is, as optical illusions induce uncommon moments in perception. But we must try and see it the other way around: optical illusions are the most easily achieved and evident examples of the exceptional reciprocity of everyday perception. If we, momentarily, make the duck-rabbit a rabbit then, we are also making cups cups and trees trees. If you can switch between the duck and rabbit with ease then try to see a real rabbit not as a rabbit at all. This almost impossible feat show us how bound we are to specific ways of seeing.
Within my practice I initially seek to catch seeing in the act of figuration and reveal seeing as representational, rather than innocently presentational. Language is the primary arbiter of aspect seeing. Our general tendency is to think that words come after the visible; that we label things, but really the assimilating aspects of language discloses the visible. Wittgenstein’s notion of aspect seeing affirms that even though we can apprehend objects that are not themselves a product of language, we can only grasp them by virtue of a linguistic schema: language establishes borders and difference in perception. Here, the dialectic of ‘language’ and ‘the world’ is replaced by the study of ‘appearance’ through the ‘language-world’.
Within my work I attempt to sustain these moments of figuration, to keep seeing and thinking in perpetual flux. I do this by creating dynamic systems of sculptural propositions; each of which is identified through aspect seeing. These propositions can be of many different orders. For example, they can be adverbs: wood being through, upon, and inside the plaster concurrently. They can be verbs: wood supporting glass, or glass encasing wood. They can be nouns: designating plaster as a representation wood, or glass as a representation of water. My sculpted objects hold gradient positions between being models and non-representation sculptures in having conflicting senses of internal scales and representational ability. Some works challenge an assumed chronology of process; for example, the plaster being cast around the wood, rather than having the wood inserted into the plaster. When we see something within the work by virtue of aspect seeing, be it – for example – a verb or material procedure, we designate a momentary hierarchy and subservience: under/over, before/after, within/without. What is important for each work – and the total selection of works for an exhibition – is that they continually disturb any fixed hierarchical or subservient designation – that the sculptures themselves undermine their own sculptural propositions in order to keep figuration in flux. The aim is not to merely discombobulate, but within each work, to create detailed rhythms, patterns, and associations within that flux that ignite something esoterically specific. The work becomes active within the participant who enters the meaning of the work by looking at it.
BAF: Something discussed in the writing around this body of work is how religion can bridge these opposing realities, acting as a portal between the pedestrian and ritual modes of experience. Indeed, the works in this show seem to reconfigure and riff upon the Christian cross, as well as other spiritual structures such as the altar, grave or ziggurat. Have you always recognized these structures as agents of this type of transcendence? Did they appear as an integral part of your interest in this subject matter, or develop as a way to explore it?
RC: Religions are, in a sense, ways of understanding how seemingly opposing dualisms make sense together, and some, through rites, rituals and exercises offer moments of transition or harmony between the physical and the metaphysical. You used the term “portal” and this is pertinent, as the Church portale – a space of transition – acted as a voluntary relinquishing of the cacophonous everyday in order to turn inwards, towards a space mediated by something that transcends those particulars. The transition between Barfield’s alpha and beta thinking is akin to this.
My entire work is founded within the notion that not only does language organize perception, but that the structures that mediate the ‘appearance of the world’ are themselves the foundations of metaphysical doctrine. Metaphysical doctrine is consequently understood as an externalized, and codified, manifestation of the oft-ignored structures of perception. This is not an analogous comparison, I seek to explore that the complications between the physical and metaphysical, or language and phenomenology, in perception are the complications between transcendence and immanence in theology.
I have consistently asked the same question: how does the Hermetic Principle, “All that is above is also below”, apply to our assumed dualities of mind and matter, perception and language, and the symbolic and the real, essentially the physical and the metaphysical? Can there be distinction without separation? In what manner are they enfolded within each other? How did their distinctions arise? How am I participating in their appearance and difference? In following the principle “All that is above is also below”, sculpture – due to its immediately present and non-animate physicality – becomes the perfect vehicle to reveal (and not merely describe) that which is termed the “transcendent”.
The symbol of the cross within my work is utilized by numerous religions. It transcends specific doctrine and contains deep symbolic meaning in its relation to body, earth and the divine. Different configurations used in varying religions reflect diverse ontological relationships between these three facets. My work is focused upon the Christian “extended” cross which, in its relation to the body, is reflective of Western theological dualisms: divisions between mind and matter; the “real” and the “transcendent”. The spatial modifications of the cross within my sculpture serve initially to eliminate its lesser interpretations (the cross as crucifying object and therefore as a mere sign) and to disrupt its dualistic symbolism in order to create comparisons that excite my primary concern: to seat transcendence within the visible. For example, within the work no single cross is “upright”, rather they lay horizontally, eradicating any connection between metaphysical ascension and physical (vertical) movement. This serves to eliminate the idea of abstract transcendent “space” that can be physically occupied (i.e. heaven), thus situating the work firmly in the corporeal realm of thought and perception.
I was always drawn to spiritual architecture of all kinds. I can’t definitively say that I explicitly or rationally understood the effect of these constructions on me, and I can’t say that I do now. Be it Mayan ziggurats, Egyptian burial Chambers, Ancient Jewish Mikvah, the Lalibela churches of Ethiopia, Jain Temples in India, or the Sahns and Mihrabs of Mosques – I was drawn to a type of holism between functional structure and spiritual utility, and again, how they were reflected and integral to one another. Wittgenstein said that the human body was the best image of the human soul – there is something in this regarding these constructions. It wasn’t until I read the works of Oswald Spengler and R.A Schwaller de Lubicz did I begin to see why. Spengler, in speaking about ascension and descension in Egyptian tombs, wrote that because the ancient Egyptians had a lived in a world of undivided symbol of the world, their architecture was a language that summoned vital forces rather than merely describing them. R.A Schwaller de Lubicz, in a similar sense, understood ancient architecture as images of the body that detailed intuitive states of consciousness. It was in these writers descriptions that I understood how visual and physical reception of a site or object could induce or summon something latent within the viewer, and that this something didn’t have to be a “mystery”.
I understand that this sounds very “occult”, but what is important is to understand the frame of thinking that espouses these logics. Firstly, as mentioned before, most occult thought functions on a holistic state, where everything perceived – in both a waking and sleeping state – is understood as a visible manifestation of God: being is God. In the Hermetica, God states “There is nothing between the world and me”. This is very different from our post-Enlightenment self. This is also not the medieval understanding of theophany, in the sense that the world is a symbolic picturing of the divine, but rather both its reality and existence. This worldview sees the universe as a single, unbroken whole. Everything is one substance, including mind and matter. The appearance of the world to humans is facilitated and negotiated by both God, and us, which again are not differentiated. The human is a microcosmic appearance of the macrocosm: that everything in the universe, both physical and metaphysical, is within the individual: God is enfolded within man. This microcosm must not be understood as a secondary, subservient representation of the macrocosm, but rather an actualized appearance of it. This defies a materialistic understanding of the world because we think of ourselves as lesser parts within the greater whole of the universe. Occult thought believes that the whole is fully revealed and manifested in the part and that dormant within us is ancient information and the infinite wisdom of nature. It states: the world as you know it, as mediated by language and the mind, is of one subjective reality, one aspect, but there are objective truths within us that can be summoned – be it through ritual, rites, etc. This definition allows an interesting method to understand spiritual architecture – again constructions are no longer ‘symbols of’, or ‘descriptions of’ but rather ‘occurrences of’ and “manifestations of”.
When I started with these objects my focus was more upon the complications of hierarchy and subservience within my sculptural propositions working in tandem with metaphysical doctrine – using sequence, order, placement, material association, etc. – in attempt to actuate things I had felt in my life. Over time some of these things looked like pre-existing structures and architecture. For example, in one work I was interested in how horizontal extension could potentially result in vertical ascension (complicating the cross). This resulted in requiring a plaster structure that turned out to resemble a Mayan Ball Court. In other cases, I perhaps started with specific source material – say an ancient baptismal font – and then worked to understand, through sculptural manipulation, why it was of interest to me in regards to the aforementioned Hermetic Principle. What is crucial to me is that no sculpture is merely a model of something in the world, while at the same time, no sculpture falls under the rubric of non-representational modernism. They hold no definite internal scale and sit in a place where they are concurrently presentational and representational; again, creating a self-reflexive state about the complications of aspect seeing – and seeing in general – as participatory and not passive.
BAF: You’ve also cited archaeology as an influence on the ideas that led to these new works, and referred specifically to the idea of an archaeological dig as an inversion of the spiritual architectures described above. How, and at what point in your process, did archaeology enter into your greater thesis for the show?
RC: During making this body of work I was reading about archaeology and books by archaeologists on specific cultures and sites, but I can’t say that archaeology was an explicit reference for me at the onset. After making about 20 of these works (in a body of 60+) I realized that the negative cavities and concave areas in my work were not only appearing as pools, pits, and graves but also as sites of unearthing, of digging something back up that had been buried before. Whilst the former, associated with transcendence and death, are the initial acts of breaking ground, the latter comes after, and is met with a desire to retrieve lost information. I started to understand that these spaces were these things concurrently.
This strain of research began by first looking at the physical structures of archaeological dig sites. But perhaps here it is important to make a digression to the beginnings of this work. I travelled to Romania in 2008, spending a month driving around, particularly in the northern Maramures region. In rural areas almost everything is fabricated from wood, and as wood is a degradable material, the whole area seems in a constant state of renewal, constantly refurbishing itself. In the town of Sapanta there is a cemetery called “The Merry Cemetery” where all the “grave stones” are made of wood, colorfully painted, and, in some, have illustrative depictions of how the person beneath the grave-marker had died; it is quite an exceptional space. Near the cemetery were new wooden churches being built, and next to those was a railroad. Next to that that railroad were skidways: large framed ramps made of timber that functioned to unload large piece of timber from the railway carriages. I was interested in the dual function of wood: the skidway, a subservient piece of technology and the “product”: the wood used for both the church and the cemetery – one material: wood, but with multiple functions. This for me not only alluded to aspect seeing but also the Heidegger’s notion of “ready-to-hand” and “present-to-hand”. Both of these ideas negotiate that which is visible and not visible within perception and become vital appearances of concepts within theology. This is why all of the works are titled SKIDWAYS, because they started with these thoughts in Romania.
Now, in returning to archaeology. In looking at the physical dig sites I not only looked at where the archaeologists themselves were placing their attention; but at the whole site itself. This means their furniture, their tools, and their methods of digging, how people placed themselves in and around the dig site: essentially the whole site as cultural phenomena. This method came from David Bohm, who within his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, details, in discussing quantum theory, that how we analyze our subject (meaning what method) is how that subject appears to us. This essentially means that the reciprocal symmetry in perception is also to be found within scientific research, and, in addition, it suggests that we are not learning about our studied subject as much as we are learning about how we are seeing it and compartmentalizing it. Because of this the act of the archaeological dig became a fertile site to understand the contemporary subject; the diggers themselves rather than the civilizations they were trying to unearth. Through further research, especially through the work of P.V Glob and David Lewis-Williams, I became interested in the latent theological desire within the dig-site.
Archaeology, as a discipline, began during the Renaissance and was codified during the Enlightenment. The former, based upon humanist principles, placed mankind, as the primary subject of study whilst the latter, based upon scientific principles, extolled a materialist and mechanical world-view. In establishing the physical/psychic self as a new center, the divine was extricated from consciousness and being; now relegated as some phantasmic “other” and banished to the periphery of a stable, self-sustained world. Funnily enough, I believe that the Enlightenment enacted an exorcism of sorts. It is my assertion that the rise of archaeology, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, was, in essence, of a theological yearning: to essentially unearth, revive and learn from our spiritual past and to reinstate the divine as the arbitrator between mind and matter. Spatially this has inverted our invocations: we no longer see ascent as a functional theological method, but rather descent: archaeological excavation and digging. In addition, this descent, with the interior psychic self as the new center, is also of a psychoanalytical nature: digging within ones subconscious. Be it through archaeology or psychoanalysis, the process of unearthing yearns to give insight into our spiritual nature. In my work this is sculpturally echoed between the relationship between positive and negative space, for example: if we take the negative space of the concentric square holes often employed in archeological dig sites and invert them we get a ziggurat. My employment of cast plaster as my “foundational” material, rather than carved stone, is to highlight the affinities between the negative space as the descent of archaeology with the positive space as the ascent of “spiritual architecture”. Simply stated if I pour plaster over an altar, I get a grave and vice versa; the only exception to thisinversion of life and death as positive and negative space is within the ramp and the staircase; these, in being structures of transition between the “above” and “below”, are spatially identical in both their positive and negative iterations.
The inclusion of any archaeological references within a sculpture was always met with the following thoughts: can we not see our own contemporary activities, such as archaeology, as methods of ontological research that are the same as that of the Myans or the Egyptians? Just because we think of ourselves as different does that make it so? Is our Post-enlightenment, rational, empirical method of research more truthful or reliable than other methods of studying our own humanity? Bad archaeologists and anthropologists, whenever a building or object they are studying defies an instant designation of function or purpose, relegate it to a bin named “For Ritualistic Purposes”; a vague and unambitious title. They do this without realizing that they are also partaking in ritual – one under the guise of science. In looking back this strain of thought began with a lecture I delivered in 2011 comparing Stonehenge with the Large Hadron Collider through Barfield’s method of evolving consciousness.
BAF: You have chosen to work in glass, plaster, and wood. What symbolic role do these materials play in the topics you’re exploring, if any?
I had worked with all three materials in previous work, particularly in my 2010 exhibition at Fold Gallery, and, at the time, was beginning to create a very specific lexicon that satisfied my interests and process. Before I enter into each particular material I must make clear that my priority as a sculptor in regards to materiality is not to utilize “symbolisms” in a unidirectional, linguistic way. This means that materials do not “represent ideas of…” or “illustrate concepts towards….”, but rather are, in the theophanic sense, “manifestations of…” or “occurrences of…”. Essentially I don’t deem them signs or designators, bur rather actualizations. I try to be careful not to hold my materials hostage within preconceived linguistic constructs. That being said, the choice of my materials began with physical manipulation and playing. In a sense, following Bohm’s holistic attention towards study, I tried to learn from materials, to follow – through an immersive phenomenological model – what they did to me. My materials are things before they are deemed to represent things.
Looking back, I believe glass entered my practice while visiting the Royal Pavilion in Brighton; U.K. Inside there was a highly decorative ceramic vase on a plinth behind a stanchion. Nestled in the mouth of that vase was a circular disk of clear glass. I asked the nearest guard what is was and he told me that it was just there so that dust didn’t get in the vase. I loved the idea that something physically present was meant to be invisible. In this case that “something” functioned to bracket our present reality in favour of proposing one of an eternal, static past. When we looked through the glass we were transported back to the late 1700’s when the pavilion was constructed, which in turn was already a reconstruction of a distorted “orientalist” desire. When we looked at the glass this theatrical fiction was quelled; it elicited an awareness of the mechanics of representation of the whole environment as theatre.
Glass is a voyeuristic material; it presents but conceals – it is a museological condition of viewing. It hermetically seals and encloses and artificially creates desire by establishing distance. It claims that the material behind it or within in, within museums and capitalist displays for example, is somehow different or superior to “common” materials. Glass is both optically absent and physically present; it is invisible but can cut you. As a material within sculptural history it has been employed to discuss displacement, the subconscious, the immaterial, the mythical, the museological etc. Within this body of work I am using glass, through a disturbance and redistribution of its referential aspects, to elicit specific esoteric evocations.
Plaster, the quintessential “art school material”, in turning from liquid to solid, speaks of calcification and death; like terra firma it is arrested motion. It can be thought of as a transitional, secondary and disposable material, a subservient one, coming after clay, but before bronze. It is an echo – filling negatives voids – it is the positive absence and negative presence of plaster which continues to hold my attention, specifically in relation to the Hermetic principle “All that is above is also below”, and its applications to perception. Its whiteness is startling and holds the complexities spoken about in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Moby Dick – both pure light and dry bone. It is the white-cube, the museum, and the morgue – a desaturated, decontextualized material: holding a strange anonymity and elusiveness. In a strange way it seems veiled with its own materiality. In my work it sometimes is cast first and the glass of wood placed on after but other times the plaster is poured around the glass or wood, encasing them. It is this disruption to order or causality that is additionally of interest.
Lastly, the wood, all cut at 1″ by 1″, is positioned both as tool and non-tool – as subservient structures or desired and elevated object. Unlike plaster, which is formed passively in subservience to gravity – wood grows against gravity and forms its own limits. It is positive and warm of colour. The word matter is derived from the Latin “materia” or “hyle”, meaning wood – it is our most used plastic building material. Unlike plaster it is self- replenishing and ever-present. It is verdurous growth rather than calcified death. Within the built world wood holds a position of being physically present but continually in process. An appropriate joke: A street sweeper says he has had his broom for over 25 years and has only had to change the brush twice and handle six times. Here, perhaps like plaster, trees are versions of themselves.
Additionally, when we see ancient architecture and objects we are usually left with the stone and metal; the materials that last through time. Wood rots and is replaced, but, again, is our most abundantly used material. For example, there was an archaeologist who believed that Stonehenge had a wooden roof on it, and others who believed that the giant stones were actually woven inside giant wicker baskets and gently rolled from Wales to the south of England. The permanence of the plaster within my work propels a reading of the woods absence; of something functional, now gone. Also, I’ve always liked petrified wood as an example: when trees become petrified they calcify like plaster; and in a sense, are cast from the inside out; every soft-organic cell saturated with mineral rich liquid, dries up and replaced with stone. This stone, in turn, when treated with great heat becomes glass.
BAF: To what degree is A Third Thing an organic extension of your previous body of work? Does this show represent a new direction for you, or a development of existing ideas?
This body of work began, in a sense, with a series of abstract decisions in relation to previous ways of working. I had tired of making sculpture where I had an exhibition on the horizon. I felt I was partially satisfying the terms of a projected exhibition and not necessarily myself. The social function of art was becoming increasingly less important to me, I wanted my practice to be where the sole act of making satisfied all of my existential desires (including the helpful presence of doubt). I spent 5 years in my studio without a single studio visit (other than family), and without publically exhibiting the work.
My first decision was to make sure that I could make the entirety of my new work within the studio – never having to go to other workshops or outsource industrial processes. I wanted to be able to spend full days within the studio without any interference and without having to leave. This meant a simplification of certain material processes: no welding, no sandblasting, no milling etc. I also knew, in desiring solitude, that I had to be able to move the works on my own; I didn’t want to have to call someone up to help me; hence the size of the pieces These perhaps are the functional reasons, but are so intrinsic to how the works create meaning.
Additionally, I wanted to create a system in the studio where I could, at any point, satisfy any type of work: thinking, making, cleaning etc. Due to conflicting drying, absorption, and expansion rates of these materials I had to develop a strict system of drying, waxing, and sealing which stopped cracking, mold, and vapor lock. From this time sensitive process, I then developed a pattern of production where there were at least 8 sculptures being produced at any time, but each at different stages of their production. This meant that at any point in my studio I could be drawing, casting, re-casting, sanding, waxing, or sealing completed sculptures. I also was constantly surrounded by finished and partially finished works, drawings of work, the negative molds for the plaster, and large amount of raw materials. This nexus demanded a self-reflexivity towards this body of work. The pattern of labor maintained a healthy rhythm between abstract thought and physical production and was consciously established to enact one of my conceptual tenants to this series, the Hermetic Principle: “All that is above is also below”. I wanted to work within the rhythmic pulse of the leminscate: between the physical and the metaphysical, with no points of static rest.
This, I had felt, was somewhat of a problem in my previous work. There were long periods of thought met with shorter periods of making; a type of back-and-forth between being a thinker and being a maker. Previous to this body of work almost every single sculpture I had produced was of a singular logic, singular materials, and singular processes. The possibilities of sculpture in the expanded field are endless: you can use any material, any thing, in any way. The seemingly infinite plurality of the sculptor’s toolbox is both exciting and existentially terrifying. This concept places the sculptor at the center of a circle in which material possibilities circumnavigate them; where elements are brought into the center that satisfy their concerns. My reaction to my previous work was two-fold. Firstly, I felt that, due to the plurality of material and process in previous work, that my conceptual sensibilities permeated the work more than the immediacy of the materials or processes speaking. This, I felt, relegated my previous works to that of a quotidian footnotes: work acting as examples of ideas or principles – and the materially sensuality, although being important, was somewhat tangential to the idea. This also was propelled by a seemingly linear way of making, from conception to fabrication. Although this method functions well in it echoing conceptual/minimalist sentiments of the metaphysical apprehension of structure; it is not conducive to staying within the phenomenological reception of the work to allow meaning to emerge. A lot of contemporary art end up meaning something and looking good, but their aesthetics gain their validity and power from fields outside of its realm of meaning. I had always fought against this problem, and, in addition, I didn’t want my works to be subservient to my position of the author: acting on my behalf. So, in much way, this body of work was engineered to be distinct to my previous work both in process and reception.
But, perhaps like looking at the totality of the archaeological dig, I looked back to all of my previous work and attempted to understand what principles were reoccurring. I wanted to stop placing repetitious poeticisms out into the world; I wanted to tighten things up and get closer to the bottom of why I was drawn to sculpture. I initially asked myself, “Where are the meaningful sculptural decisions that are not immediately evident within previous work?” Essentially I was looking for things I had previously done but without conscious knowledge of their mechanics; trying not necessarily to master them, but at least try to identify them. Met with this process was a desire to not only get closer to understanding them, but to, in turn, try and exhaust them; to see if I could, through consistent making, reveal them as facile, meaningless, or shallow. This happened to many of the principles identified in previous work. Others principles retained their interest to me. Some previously occurring principles, of which their mechanics I was conscious of, were confidently carried over with minor reassessment and reconfigurations. I wanted to explore the grammar of my sculptural lexicon in the hope that I could write meaningful – sculptural – sentences. I wanted to limit my aesthetic arena – in the fashion of the phenomenological eidetic reduction – in order to explore the complexities of how the sculptural propositions spoke. Essentially I wanted to replace breadth study with depth study. My self imposed material and size limitations also reduced the possibility of materiality novelty and seduction through “newness”. I said to myself “If you can’t make an interesting work out of plaster, wood, and glass that fits on your work tables you might as well stop being a sculptor”. I also said to myself “If you get bored with these three materials it means that you are boring”. The early sculptures were just blocks of plaster housing wood, no convex or concave sections. The next 6 months was figuring out how to get them not to crack, yellow or grow mould in the sealed, interior spaces. I made many sculptures that I threw away. For 6 months I was more of a material engineer. This was considerably disappointing at the time, but in retrospect allowed me time to think over the work while my hands kept busy.
I had originally intended on making 5 of these pieces, but as I made them my desire to explore their possibilities grew. I see each work as an autonomous sculpture; they stand on their own. Showing them together ensues a difficult process of selection. It is very easy for the works to be seen as cold, mathematical permutations and combinations; which they are not. But something does happen when they are shown together. I liken this process to playing cards: every card in its own right is functional, and to some extent, potentially autonomous, and, as in games like rummy, there are ‘good hands’ and ‘bad hands’. A ‘good hand” within an exhibition is one in which each sculpture is understood as a singular work while the dynamism between the pieces exists foremost in more abstract metaphysical connections through language rather than immediately repeating physical elements; this latter point is important so that the works, again, aren’t deemed to be merely quantitative permutations and combinations (which would constitute a “bad hand”) – this would align them with the sterility of conceptual-minimalism (i.e. Sol Lewitt) which although might assist in a metaphysical connective principle, it ultimately stops there. Although this moment of recognizing the organizing principle within permutations is somewhat akin to acknowledging the reciprocity within perception, it has little ability to use that understanding to speak of anything external to itself (within the world) if employed exclusively within the mathematical.
Saying all this there are, again, continual threads within many of my sculptures: things being under and over other things, things going through things, things representing other things, things holding and being held by things, things altering and being altered by other things etc. In all of these systems or sentences there has been one important aspect: the self-awareness of the individual sculptural elements physically acknowledging each other in some way and to some extent. This creates each work as a moment of active reception of its own constituent parts; and, importantly, where the parts become appearances of the gesture of the whole work. They become analogous to the complex and diverse moments within a subject/object relation. I sometimes talk of two people sleepwalking; meeting, perhaps through touch, in a dark hallway. To some extent they are aware of each other – like plants growing around a garden pike – they are feeling their way as they progress without a total knowledge of how to progress or a total picture of the other to adapt to. This appears in much of my work.
BAF: You’ve cited a diverse group of thinkers as pivotal in the formation of this show, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Goethe, and Carl Jung. Likewise, you were inspired by periods from Ancient Egypt to the Enlightenment. Can you name a few ways these writings and ideas led to your works?
RC: There are a number of books which have been incredibly influential in my thinking – or perhaps better stated – books that verified that the things that I was already thinking were as real as the other real things in my life and, in time, that gave names to those things in order that I could see them more clearly, and in time, learn to work with them.
Carl Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflection, showed me that the things I thought were valid by virtue of Jung talking about his interior world as valid. Jung shows that our “interior” selves can contain information that is supra subjective rather than merely subjective. Within Jung’s writings our consciousness’s are not “locked-up” inside out heads, but in the world. I felt that Jung soberly recognized the existence of occult possibility, and this, in turn, allowed me to pursue the things that I felt were magical in my life.
If Jung was, in a sense, a permission giver – it was Rudolf Steiner who I first connected with. I didn’t read much at all until I read Steiner, and after reading his books I subsequently found fields of thinkers that I connected with: Burckhardt, Guenon, Barfield, Schwaller de Lubicz, Lehrs, Bohm, Teilhard de Chardin, and many others. Regarding Steiner: I don’t subscribe to everything he writes of course (Atlantean floating vehicles for example), but his books The Science of Knowing, The Boundaries of Natural Science, and The Origins of Natural Science, are foundational. His main thesis is that the problematic dualistic nature of our being in the world can be circumvented through a studied and exercised recognition of the unity of thinking and perception. Steiner believes that if we can recognize the architecture of how we process the raw information of, what he terms, the “given”, we won’t be lost in dualistic illusions, and in turn, can explore super-sensible realities. This sounds all very occult (which it is), but essentially is saying that due to alpha thinking – which relies on a strict subject/object distinction – our ways of subsuming the world are not immediately present to us. Like using a tool, it’s existence recedes from us when being utilized. He states that if we make these mechanics present to us, through exercises, we can begin to see the latent intelligence of the world that facilitates “the given”. Much of Steiner’s belief in these occult realms actually started with his study of geometry, and how mathematical logic, mostly divorced from the senses, could be accessed through thought alone. Steiner’s thought pervades all of my work, and is, in a sense, my base method: to study perception as thought and thought as perception. There is a particularly great Steiner exercise: sit in front of a plant and look at it for 15 minutes; trying to look at every part. Then, close your eyes for 15 minutes and try to reconstruct that plant in your “mind”. Do that over and over again, daily, for a month. What you start to realize is the holistic unity of both abstracted thought and perception – how they are integrated. In going back and forth you then begin to see that the dynamism between these supposedly separate poles has character. Your interior envisioning subsequently details how you will see it next and how you have seen it will detail how you imagine it. Again, you will realize at the end that both are equal pictures. Imagine spinning a top with two colours, say blue and yellow, when it spins you see green where no green is actually present: this is the same, but here the green is an esoteric evocation.
These particular works with A THIRD THING are essentially little training grounds to evoke something latent through participation – in looking at them you are brought into a particular set of exercises that detail particular evocations of how all that is above is also below.
The title, A THIRD THING, was chosen because ‘threeness’ applies to many things regarding the work – but, speaking in generalities, It speaks to me interest in the Occult/Esoteric qualitative understanding of the number 3, and in addition, it as a metaphor for perception/thinking. Our minds work usually in binaric fashion when thinking – we move between points. The number three, therefore, acts metaphorically as both the act of thinking itself (the verb) and the possibilities of something being left out of the binaric thought structure. In terms of perception we conceive of the world existing independently from us, and that we passively see it – I am interested in the “third thing” here; this being the act of looking and figuration itself – the space between the subject and object as a place of negotiation and active participation. Within the Hermetica, God states “There is nothing between myself and the world” – this is not the case with humans.
R.A Schwaller de Lubicz often mentions an old Chinese proverb that translates to: “Where there is one there is three” or “With one comes three”. Let us think about this in terms of subject/object relations. Crowley states that 2 is the first number: in order for things to be we need that which is counted and one who counts: a counter. But in this relationship we have forgotten about something – namely the act of counting: the metaphysical component that binds the two together; the “relations” in the subject/object relations.
Most of Steiner’s thought comes from the fact that he was a major editor of Goethe at a young age. It could be argued that Steiner took Goethe’s main thesis and applied it – in a creative sense – to the lived world in the forms of art, dance, agriculture, education etc. Goethe, known primarily as a writer/poet, dedicated most of his life to science, particularly in optics, colour theory and botany. Goethe’s main thesis was that the human being, not external scientific tools, was the most exact physical apparatus that can exist, and in it evolving with the world, we are, in turn, constituted by and saturated with its intelligence that slumbers within us. While empirical science can only produce technology, he believed that his anthroposophical science could produce knowledge. He functioned within a holistic mode of consciousness in order to explore the phenomenal world – one that recognized the participatory nature of perception and understood that how something appeared is part of how it speaks, rather than some type of Kantian abstractive aberration.
When Schiller dismissed Goethe’s Urpflanze, the archetypal plant, as being merely an idea, Goethe responded, “Then I may rejoice knowing that I have ideas without knowing it and can even see them with my own eyes”. Most important is Goethe’s notion of unity without unification. Rather than, through empiricism, to reduce phenomena to order with an intellectual onlooker position – Goethe saw that seemingly disparate phenomena could coalesce within intuitive insight. Within this show I would like people to look at my sculptures in same the way they might look at different kinds of flowers, and I think this came from Goethe.
My desired way of making meaning stems from Goethe and Steiner, and, within the sculptural field, is concerned with the exploration of a distinction between notions of “knowledge” and “knowing”. I define “knowledge” within sculpture as the “positing of meaning”; the muting, obscuring and sensually irresponsible coalescence of disparate and discordant information through the medium of a sculptural body. This leaves sculpture as a hollow trope, a Frankensteinian “counterfeit-whole” that is enslaved by its allusion to the fragments of information within its’ constitution; an amnesic orphan. When sculpture is made under this method it will continually recede from the possibility of being in the world. “Knowing”, according to Goethe, on the other hand is gained through the heuristic process and understanding of the ‘emergence’ of meaning within an indivisible whole. Attention is given to the motivations behind the levation of a particular entity from the gestalt environment. I believe it is within the very schema or limits of sculpture as a specific activity, one that aspires to an inextricableness between thought and action, that it attains its ultimate symbolism.
Wittgenstein shares a lot with both Steiner and Goethe, although it isn’t talked about much because Wittgenstein is considered a philosopher and Steiner and Goethe are deemed to be strange esoteric scientists – but I see little difference in their basic methods. Wittgenstein, for example, wrote Remarks on Colour after reading Goethe’s colour theory. Fundamentally Wittgenstein functions on two principles: the tautological aspects of science, language, mathematics, philosophy etc, which results in a self-sustained meaning making but discloses nothing about the world, and the second, that we must look at the structure of how we employ language itself, particularly as the root of all philosophical problems. I am drawn to both the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus for his transcendent mysticism (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”), and to the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations for getting his hands dirty and treading through the murky swamps of language- they balance each other out, in a sense. The later Wittgenstein, is – if Merleau-Ponty was a phenomenologist – a phenomenologist of how things appear to mind; dissecting how things make sense and why through language. He talks about language as a game where words have a plurality of applications – and, within his writing, tries to understand the rules of each particular game. If language facilitates appearance and, as Wittgenstein says, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, then we must look at language to see the limits of our perception.
My work is, in a sense, a series of language games that seek to disturb any fixed designation or aspect that are revealed through language’s limitations, again, not for the sake of discombobulating myself or the viewer, but to attune to the patterns which govern seeing. Goethe, Steiner and Wittgenstein all closely studied the mechanics that negotiate representational appearance, be it through light or language. And perhaps we can now understand these two things as the same.
My interest in different historical civilizations came through Owen Barfield who, in his book Saving the Appearances, talks about different modes of consciousness throughout history, and how different civilizations saw the world differently due to different notions of the self and the world. For example, Barfield describes that in the Post-Enlightenment world man pictures himself as a finite object upon a Cartesian grid: we have our thoughts inside our heads and understand symbols as plural designators. Medieval man, contrarily, saw the world as a cloak he wore as he lived in a theophanic state: for them, for example, it would be ludicrous to think that physical matter produces mental activity. He gives the example that in eighteenth and nineteenth century depictions of angels they seem to wear an “unearthly” type of costume – often rather like a nightgown. But in Medieval times there was nothing incongruous in using garments of the “everyday”. He states that it might seem tasteless to a Christian, for example, to attached wings to a person wearing our contemporary clothes. In that example the important aspect to understand is why we deem our clothes “prosaic” and medieval man did not. Medieval man did not have the same divisions between the literal and the symbolic approaches we have. For example; the words “physical” and “literal” were not what the “physical” and “literal” are to us today, rather they carried the sort of multiple significance that we today find only in our symbols.
We must begin by being empathetic that our contemporary divide between “symbols” and “reality” is very much a symptom of post-Enlightenment, “rational” thinking. We cannot prescribe this “enlightened” physical/metaphysical divide to our ancient ancestors: to talk of difference between the symbolic and the real to Neolithic man or ancient Egyptian would bear no fruit as this distinction was not present. A great example is the “progression” of perspectival methods within historical art. These are intrinsically related to the symbolic, and more specifically to the levels of integration and synthesis of the symbolic within “reality” – essentially how theological models negotiate our sense of being and place in the world. Within this methodology we have a lineage, beginning with the world as undivided symbol as seen in Neolithic art, moving towards the world as vital language as seen in Egyptian art, then towards an immersive theophany within medieval work and then to a world that God made and subsequently left with the analytical perspective of the Renaissance. This is important to me because the way we think about the world is the way we see it, and in turn, the way that we make representations of it. I like thinking about historical cultures because it reminds me that the way I subsume the world is particular and not of the world. There perhaps is a desire to commune with other forms of thinking – to see the world through different ontological glasses. Within the work there are multiple evocations of ancient rites, rituals and structures – all which aim to destabilize our fixed notions of the contemporary self.
BAF: Many of your points of reference seem to share one thing in common: death. To me, it seems like religion, archaeology and the act of attaching meaning to experience are all ways in which humans process or interact with mortality, whether by processing our own deaths or interacting with the leftovers of a civilization long since gone. Where does death fit into this body of work, if indeed it does?
As I was just talking about him I will start with a quote from Wittgenstein:
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”
I am very interested in the idea that if death itself is, in a sense, unexperienced, then it falls into the same category as distant alien life forms or Kant’s “thing-in-itself” – something only speculated about but never experienced. Because so much of my research is concerned with study of the phenomenological immediacy then to speak about death is impossible as we have no content there at all; we have an awareness of deaths existence but no understanding of its qualities, and even to use the word “qualities” is nonsensical because a pre-condition of the word is that-which-can-be-experienced (perhaps death has no qualities at all?) There is absolutely no access to the space of death itself, if there even is a “space”. From here all the rites, rituals, and objects we have made over thousands of years become a representation of the projected space of death from the mind a living subject. Because of this there must be much of the qualities of life in the speculated space of death. Wittgenstein’s above quote has much in common with the Hermetic principle “All that is above is also below”. Wittgenstein is making a comparison here, saying that our representation of the eternity credited to death is actually a representation of perception outside of the organizing principle of temporality – that we, in moments, have experienced the eternity attributed to death in our waking lives. I see our understandings of death as projections of things that happen in our lives, but that we perhaps do not understand, witness, or completely digest. This is matched by my belief that all theological doctrines are born from the oft-ignored intricacies of perceptual activity; essentially that our lives are all we have ever had, and all we will ever have, to draw from. If the mechanics of our being in and reception of the world are infinitely complex, but mostly invisible, then perhaps we unknowingly process them by externalizing them. Jung said that we have a deep-seated desire for myth – can our myths of the space of death be allegorical descriptions of the indefinite complexity of perception? Can’t the term “resurrection” apply to a moment where we see two different things and call them both “birds?” Can’t the term “death” apply to what happens to the duck when we are looking at the rabbit? Isn’t “transubstantiation” the miraculous act of turning the gestalt world into separate things – to have a table with cups, flowers and keys on it? Can’t the “spirit” be the apparatus that allows us to hold an ellipse in our minds? What I am essentially saying is the only reason we desire the external mysterious space of death and the other is that we fail to see the limitless mystery within the immediacy of being. That being said, people do die, and what is shocking about death is only the profound absence of the other. It is the absence of others that I believe also demands these spaces of representation, but again they speak not of the space of death; only the absence that the living subject apprehends.
In starting with the concept that the spaces of death that civilizations create are in fact models of “invisible” perception, we can begin to analyze them very differently. The coffin becomes an image of the enclosed interiority of the living subjects head and the ziggurat can be an embodied description of moving between alpha and beta thinking. These objects are not for the dead, but for the living. Again, in looking at the Hermetic principle – death, in it’s seemingly antonymic relation to life – is the perfect site to learn more about the living subject. I don’t speculate about the space of death, but I am interested in how people think about it: how it appears and how it is being modeled because it ultimately reveals something about how the subject thinks of their own constitutions. We live in a world of representations and death is only one. I have always been drawn to the architecture and objects of lost or dead civilizations; primarily as potential entrance points to mode of historical consciousness that would allow me to see my present world differently; that the physical object could summon something within our own evolved constitution. I see the fabricated spaces of death as portals into new types of life; new ways of being.
Steiner says that when we are awake we are conscious animals, when we dream we search and move like trees, and when we are asleep but are not dreaming we are rocks. As a child I remember seeing gisants in St. Paul’s Cathedral that had their faces cut off and thought that they must be sleeping so deeply that we couldn’t even see their faces. This is probably because when I am asleep I cannot see my own face.
Richard Clements’ upcoming show A Third Thing will be exhibited from May 25th – June 24th at BAF Gallery, 108 E Broadway. Join us for the opening reception from 7-10PM on Thursday, May 25th.