Monday, June 28, 2010

Piercing the Veneer of Outside Things

by Drew Martin
I have previously written about John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. It is a book about what people experience when they are alone, with very little environmental stimulation. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the leader of arguably the most wayward expedition ever, summarized his own experience:

"We had pierced the veneer of outside things...we had reached the naked soul of man"

The delusional, psychological behavior of many isolated survivors is explained physiologically in the book:

Under extreme stress and in monotonous environments, the dominant left hemisphere of the brain becomes less dominant, which he (Peter Suedfeld) said reduces "the preponderance of logical, linear, reality-oriented thinking." The right hemisphere, which (to put it simplistically) governs creative, imaginative, not-linear cognition, assumes a greater role than usual.

That stress is said to be produced "when boredom or monotony are combined with a need to maintain a high level of alertness."

I read this book at the same time I was reading another book, much better written and more insightful, about the artist Robert Irwin, who championed the issues of boredom and monotony. The book, (recommended and made available to me by the painter John Coburn) is Lawrence Weschler's Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin.

On boredom, Irwin remarks:

"Boredom is a very good tool. Because whenever you play creative games, what you normally do is you bring to the situation all your aspirations, all your assumptions, all your ambitions - all your stuff. And then you pile up on your painting, reading into the painting all the things you want it to be. I'm sure it's the same with writing; you load it up with all your illusions about what it is. Boredom's a great way to break that. You do the same thing over and over again, until you're bored stiff with it. Then all your illusions, aspirations, everything just drains off. And now what you see is what you get. Nothing more. A is A and B is B. A is not plus plus plus all these other things. It's just A. And suddenly you've got something showing you all its threadbare reality, its lack of structure, its lack of meaning."

This idea of boredom is a much richer experience than he initially suggests. It is later explained that this absence of something is less about waiting for it to have such an affect as it is about initiating it and surrendering oneself:

He (Irwin) became convinced that if he could give himself over to the canvas, if he devoted the time, that instead of his telling it what was correct, it would tell him. "Renaissance man tells the world what he finds interesting about it and then tries to control it. I took to waiting for the world to tell me so I could respond. Intuition replaced logic. I just attended to the circumstances, and after weeks and weeks of observation, of hairline readjustments, the right solution would presently announce itself."

It is from this perspective that Irwin created works that were not about the intellect but about perception. He replaced the visual with the subliminal. While artists such as Frank Stella made paintings that 'bit' into the surrounding walls, Irwin was making his dissolve.

"I could maximize the energy or the physicality of the situation and minimize the identity or idea or imagery of the situation."

The art-object for Irwin was simply a placeholder that sat in the museum, awaiting the viewer to experience it. Opposing Marshall McLuhan's mantra 'the medium is the message,' Irwin insists that "the art is what has happened to the viewer."

"One of the things about looking at those paintings," he continues, "is that they have no existence beyond your participation. They are not abstractable in that sense...When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention..."

Irwin's efforts to be understood were not only with the viewing public but with the institutions of museums as well as with other artists, especially the New York scene that opposed his fetish finishes. I found a nice response to this in the Third Man book:

Openness to experience distinguishes imaginative, independent individuals from unimaginative conformists, and is based on a person's willingness to explore, consider, and tolerate new and familiar experiences, ideas, and feelings. Some contempt for bodily comfort and a need for stimuli derived from exploration are parts of everybody's makeup, but these characteristics are most strongly associated with individuals who rate highly on measures of openness. People with this characteristic typically are full of ideas, quick to understand things, have unconventional values, aesthetic sensitivity, and a need for variety. Openness is seen in the breadth, depth, and permeability of consciousness, and in the recurrent need to enlarge and examine experience.

Finally, Irwin offers:

"All I try to do for people is to reinvoke the sheer wonder that they perceive anything at all!"