Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Thought Experiment

It is a visibility of thought,
In which hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.

Wallace Stevens
[ from An Ordinary Evening in New Haven ]

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For quite some time, I have been wondering how we ended up with the art forms that we have and not any of the other infinite possibilities. What is special about painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, literature, etc.? Is there a common thread that links them? In particular, there exist art forms that engage each of our senses -- sight, hearing, smell/touch (culinary arts) -- except for touch. Why is the sense of touch ill-suited to conveying artistic ideas? Are there deep-seated taboos buried in our genes? Are the sensations too literal (i.e., they cannot be easily abstracted)? Is it somehow because the organ of touch (the skin) is distributed over the entire body rather than being localized in the head? I have tried to imagine what an art of touch would entail, but I couldn't devise anything original and authentic, only gimmicks that derived their meaning from external references (metadata). Perhaps this is one boundary of the realm of artistic expression.

In the last few weeks, I have been investigating another boundary: that between writing and visual art. My starting point was an armchair-anthropologist's conjecture that visual art and writing share the same origin, that they both began as crude drawings (like cave paintings) that were meant to communicate or map out some aspect of the physical world. At some point, these drawings branched off in two directions: on one path, they developed into the pictographs that form the basis of written language; on the other path, they acquired more and more refinement, becoming cultural objects and ends unto themselves. [Disclaimer: I'm just speculating and have not consulted any scholarship in this area.]

Of course, words also became a vehicle for art (literature, poetry), as did writing itself (calligraphy). However, verbal art and visual art produce fundamentally different effects in the viewer or reader. With visual art, the object itself is the focus; it is a springboard that launches our artistic experience. On the other hand, verbal art (especially poetry) reaches directly into the mind and acts on it in an intangible, non-linear way.

Nonetheless, verbal art is most commonly transmitted visually, on a page or a computer screen. What, then, is the connection between a poem and how it looks? Does a poem change when it is printed between narrower margins or in a different font? Some poetry is meant to be heard, and some is meant to be seen (e.g., e. e. cummings). If there can be visual poems, then surely there can also be poetic art. I don't mean art that invokes some vague notion of the "poetic spirit", but art that literally carries the same the flow and rhythm of poetry, that elicits the same abstract response. Art that is poetry.

The watching of mobiles, my chosen medium, also has an inherent temporal aspect much like the experience of poring over a poem. Poems appear as stationary blocks of text, but they are not static; their beauty unfolds gradually as their lines are read and reread (and not always in sequence). In the same way, a mobile drifts repeatedly over the same patch of air, never slicing it the same way twice. Instead of a cassette that marches at a fixed speed from beginning to end, mobiles and poems are like tape loops that can run backwards or forwards, fast or slow, even tail to head.

I envision a series of mobiles that probes visual art's linguistic origins by recasting the making of art as an act of writing. These mobiles would, like poems, be clouds of thought, wisps of ideas that defy concrete verbalization. To write a wordless poem, we might devise graphical abstractions of words. Or, more likely, it might require a new visual language altogether. Since the meanings of symbols depend on accepted conventions or on the reader's deductive powers, so, linguistic art would have to invite viewers to build their own understanding.

Poetry would not exist without language, but it is also more distilled and elevated than everyday utterances. Thus, a poem mobile would be divorced from its physical presence, blurring the boundary between verbal and visual art. It would reflect our age where communication is so voluminous that words are almost superfluous. It would be pre-linguistic, post-linguistic, and proto-linguistic all at the same time, as if it had something urgent to say but not the words with which to say it.

As it turns out, my two previous mobiles (here and here) explored this concept to some extent, albeit subconsciously. More recently, I made the sketch to the right specifically as a poem mobile. It consists of eight different shapes, six in one family and two in another. I had initially considered incorporating symbols from real alphabets (there's a fascinating compilation at, but I realized that that approach would be too open to abuse due to laziness and/or ignorance of the languages involved. Instead, I decided that each mobile would have its own alphabet to encompass its own world, free from pre-existing constructions. The shapes would be nonspecific -- either completely generic or suggestive of many things at once -- and they would be arranged into a wordless vocabulary, used to carry on internal conversations.

I have no illusions about the artistic merit of this concept per se, but I think it will at least be a guiding principle for my creative process. It will focus my compositions and provide them with an underlying reference point. And it will serve as a framework for creating variations on a basic shape, such as my latest mobiles have contained. My hope is that the resultant mobiles will not only be seen and watched but also read; that they will be like calligraphic inscriptions in the air, or like poems about nothing, dense with hidden meaning.


Gallow said...

This is incredible. When I read your words I remembered reading Houston Smith's book on "World Religions". In it he was describing people that have no written language. He stated that they found the written language strange, and a crutch for those who couldn't remember things very well. Much of their work was making sure the future generations got the story right. They took great pride in being able to recite long stories accurately.

I realize that language was just a small part of the much bigger story you are exploring, and all I can say is WOW!!! I think you're on to something big.

TheColorTree said...

Thanks for the positive feedback, Steve! You bring up another very interesting angle to think about -- the connection between writing and memory and the fact that "text" isn't necessarily something physical. I will have to check out that book.