REVIEW: Manfred Mohr: Playing the Machine (2012)

*** First appeared on the creators project, December 2012 ***

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Manfred Mohr’s first solo exhibition in the UK, one and zero gathers together works from over forty years of the German-born, New York-based artist’s practice. Influenced early in his career by the philosopher Max Bense and his call for a “rational aesthetic”, Mohr abandoned the AbEx mania of the time, turning to an algorithmic painting process, using set rules and restrictions to make abstract geometries in stark black and white. These works from the late 1960s offer the appearance of rationality, but Mohr knew it was still his own subjectivity driving the aesthetic decisions. Rather than rational art, he says, he was painting “romantic geometry.” To satisfy Bense’s philosophy there had to be rationality in all areas of the artistic activity, from conception to reception, through production and execution, logic imbued in each part of the process.

Mohr began using early-computers and plotting machines to create intricate drawings, again based upon algorithms of his own devising. This technology was highly specialist at the time, expensive, unwieldy, and not available to the public, so Mohr struck a deal with the Meteorological Institute in Paris, allowing him to moonlight with their hardware outside of office hours. On these long nights a lifetime’s professional relationship began, and Manfred Mohr had found his medium.

The plotting machine, or plotter, interprets the algorithmic script as simple operating commands – place pen on paper, lift pen from paper, move pen from here to there – turning a mathematical proposition into a drawing, what Mohr calls a “visual result”; setting the machine in motion is the only way to test the proof and see the work. Sometimes he’ll tweak an algorithm to get a different outcome, applying an aesthete’s eye. Sometimes he’ll add a cadenza of sorts, freeing the procedure from deterministic predictability, giving space to chance within the limits of the proposition. What’s important is the visual result; the math and the machine are the means to that end. He invokes techno-sage Marshall McLuhan and the idea that machines are in our service, offering humanity a prosthetic extension of body and mind, making possible that which we cannot think or execute: “The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye; clothing an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.” Computer processing is an extension of mind function, and allows Mohr to explore somewhat virgin conceptual territory for a visual artist: in his words, that which is “inconceivable, but computable.”

The machine also produces a distinct visual quality, the plotter providing a character of line unlike print or human hand. There’s a regularity to the distribution of ink, a severe flatness to the finished plane; the lines are evidently drawn, but such is the precision and purpose of the mark, with no clear beginning or end, point of entry or departure, that it appears as a trick of instant becoming. This completeness within each work acts in harmony with the mathematical process behind their making: a set of finite functions with a fixed eventual end, by definition an algorithm is always complete within itself. Despite there being a visual similarity between many of the plotter drawings – and later pieces also – the works don’t allude to, or suggest, each other; it’s a relationship, not a dependence. At the heart of this relationship is the cube, the familiar geometric shape that has been the artist’s muse for the majority of his career.   

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A sax man in his youth, Mohr now refers to the cube as his “instrument”, the algorithm his means by which to “play” it, and the result “visual music”. Like a composer or player extemporizing upon a musical theme, he has expanded the materiality of his work, going back to painted canvas, using lacquered and painted laser cut steel, digital monitors and customized computers. While all the time, sculpting the script, finessing the code, adding aleatoric passages, making it meet his needs. One thinks of Steve Reich or Terry Riley, using tape loops and primitive electronics to explore rhythm and repetition, re-adopting traditional instruments when required, following the thought through the form. Over time, Manfred Mohr has followed the cube into six and eleven dimensions – what are termed hypercubes – interrogating their structures and systems, the resulting works two-dimensional expressions of these multi-dimensional objects.

To spend time in one and zero is really to spend time with the cube and its manifold aesthetic possibilities; to spend time with a philosophy that says art and expression can be converted into numerals and statistics – a philosophy Mohr has in many ways critiqued; and with the complex calculations that tie the two together. If anything, he has challenged the limits of objectivity, restoring some humanity to Bense’s original mandate, while avoiding the creator-genius-man-myth so rampant across art history. And beyond the rationalist philosophy and esoteric mathematics, are striking and seductive art objects, abstract geometric images on paper, canvas, metal, and monitor, warmer than LeWitt, more rigorous than Riley, distinct visions of discipline and delight.

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REVIEW: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) (2011)

*** First appeared in The Blue Notebook: Issue 10. April 2011 ***

In his 1941 short story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges creates a universe that is one vast sprawling library “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Within each of these galleries are an exact number of bookshelves (20) holding an exact number of identically formatted books (32), themselves containing 410 pages with 40 lines per page and “approximately 80 black letters” per line. The Library and the books held within it contain every single possible combination of 25 orthographic symbols (the 22 letters of the alphabet, the comma and the period). In short, everything that has ever, or ever will, exist, happen or be thought, is held within the Library; written in every language known, unknown or unknowable, in obscure code, or as “formless and chaotic” gibberish. “For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.” Also, the Library contains
everything false, everything that never has existed, happened, or been thought, and everything that never will. “In order for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible.”

The detailed schematic that Borges draws betrays the scientific leaning ingrained in his writing. Despite envisaging a universe whose power is held in literature (and that wonderfully unscientific folly: nonsense), it is literature limited by numbers and systems, by whatever mathematical equation it is which produces the finite number of books possible as its solution. Borges’ library is what cosmologists would call ‘finite but unbounded’ (that is: of a certain size, but without borders or end): “The Library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder – which repeated becomes order.” It is this scientific, often cosmic, quantity that comes to fore in Sean Kaye & Jenny West’s new work: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood); a book printed in an edition of 500, which acts as a translation of the Borges tale.

I have chosen the word translation as that seems most fitting, but many others are needed to fully explain the artistic gesture of the work. Kaye & West have re-written The Library of Babel as its inversion, as an indirect opposite. So the disciplined order of the Library is replaced by A Random Dispersal of Dust, and the librarians, regulators, custodians of this order, have become vacuum cleaners. The books are now specks, and the letters molecules. Most tellingly perhaps, writing is turned to sculpture. What was certain in the original is now variable, shifting or removed: “A Random Dispersal of Dust is a restless configuration whose approximate outer edge is every absent amorphous form and whose centre is attainable.” The clarity of voice in Borges’ prose is replaced by a buzz of narrative activity and a complex medley of tenses. a random dispersal of dust is not fully intelligible for the whole of its length and while it is never unreadable, some sections are confoundingly cryptic and suitably Babelian. The overall effect is one of a reverse movement: Borges’ library zooming continually outward while Kaye & West’s dust is almost falling in on itself: all numbers have become minus numbers at this subatomic level. Dust is an appropriate inversion of the Library; the universal and the molecular offer a visual and conceptual likeness and quantum mechanics is, after all, a branch of astrophysics. If The Library of Babel is unfathomable in its magnitude, a random dispersal of dust is equally unfathomable in its minutiae. Continuing this line, it can be said Kaye & West have produced the Library’s antiparticle: “a rare form of subatomic matter that is a mirror image of normal matter. The antiparticle corresponding to an elementary particle has the same mass as the particle but is opposite in all other properties.”

William Burroughs, the half-eaten laureate of the nomadic imagination, once made claim that the ‘cut-up’ novel was the writing art-form’s attempt to compete with the aesthetic dynamism of collage painting. The cut-up technique sees a traditionally coherent and formal text, chopped into pieces of different size and then reconfigured aleatorically to form a new text, often more nonsensical than the original but still constructed from the exact same parts; any intentional meaning now warped and secluded. Kaye & West have not left so much up to chance, but the results of their labour resemble collage and abstraction: layers of shapes, places, histories, facts and agendas, personalities and turns of phrase, appear scattered and then reformed into coherent coagulations. Where the language and grammar may fluctuate and occasionally test the reader’s logic, the mood of the piece remains steady throughout. Perhaps because there is a source text to provide a prominent structure, Kaye & West’s work never loses its way, never ambles too far into obscurity.

It helps that the conclusions the artists have reached in regard to what amounts to the ‘opposite’ or ‘reverse’ of the original story are, at the very least, reasonably logical: men changes to women; Man to God; solitude to fellowship; the future to the past. Sometimes the opposite phrase results in a meaning strangely adjacent to its original: an increasing number of suicides is turned into a fewer number of births; the writing of the word ‘infinite’ is instead the crossing out of the word ‘finite’. As a double negative becomes a positive, these actions and their reverse are conceptually, but not physically, alike. In this way, the new text flits between direct opposition and elaborate distortion of the original, weaving itself like a vine through trellis, sometimes snapping the support, sometimes mimicking its shape.

Kaye & West originally hoped to print the Borges story in the same volume as their own, with the two texts running concurrently on opposite pages. This would certainly have highlighted their interrelationship and made referring between the two far easier. Greater attention would be given to the numerous ingenious and genuinely poetic twists of language that occur throughout the piece: the Anatomy of Melancholy becomes the “Architecture of Euphoria”; pilgrimages become “strolls in the park that may evolve into summer fetes”; epidemics become “slow courtships”; mirrors – “minute casts which faithfully duplicate the debris”. Having the two texts side by side might also have made reading the work more fluid and given context to some of its more obfuscate sections. But the Borges estate did not agree to license the original and seeing how the work is now, with Juan Cruz’s well-written preface still mooring it to the Library, that format would have been needlessly prescriptive, cornering the work as a linguistic exercise rather than a text in its own right.

The printing of the book was set by hand and the formatting is somewhat unusual. It is about the size of a school exercise book, but the margins of the text are smaller, more the size of an average pulp paperback, and it is set toward the lower right hand corner of the page. The text becomes a block, framed above and to its left by an inch or two of empty white space. This not only parades a craftsmanship that digital printing does not (the work
is a lovely object), but also suggests another book within this one, one of significance but unseen and in hiding. There is a dust cover also (pun perhaps intended), of semi-transparent paper, coloured a rich vibrant orange. It recalls, to this viewer at least, the orange of a vagrant sun, the sun that brokers day and seals night, the temporal referential sun without which the passage of time would not be so clear. It is too, the orange of campfire confluence and lamplit perusals: a colour with such multiplicity of apt metaphorical purpose that it could, perhaps, cover all the books inside Borges’ Library of Babel. Indeed, as the artists themselves point out and Cruz acknowledges in the preface, a random dispersal of dust must already be sat, quiescent on a bookshelf someplace inside the Library; and what a startlingly articulate and stimulating discovery it would be in that setting, as it is in any.

a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) is available from Wild Pansy Press