Explorations > Sea-gherkins! . . . Freshwater swabs! . . . Ectoplasms! . . . Bashi-bazouks! By Michael Archer

Sea-gherkins! . . . Freshwater swabs! . . . Ectoplasms! . . . Bashi-bazouks! By Michael Archer

Blue marble. The top part of it looks like one of those old fashioned diving helmets fed with air pumped through a rubber tube by someone on the deck of the ship above. But for the fact that it is so spotless and beautifully machined you would think of Tintin looking for Red Rackham’s treasure, perhaps, or a tense scene in a black and white action film just before the baddy cut the air line. It is a metal sphere with a number of circular portholes through which you can peer to see that there is nothing inside. There are some other valve holes, and from their presence we infer that the object might be put to use in some process involving the feeding into and exhausting from the chamber of various fluids. But these are all sealed with metal caps, so it remains isolated from everything apart from the base to which it is attached. The sphere sits on top of a brushed metal cabinet inside which, its low hum tells us, there is something going on. But as there are no dials, no displays no gauges, no meters, exactly what is happening remains obscure.

Keith Tyson has done something a little like this before with his The Thinker. Made in 2001, the fabled year of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, it was a tall, black monolith akin to the one featured in the film. Implacable and inscrutable, the only evidence that it contained more than it was letting on was the emission of a continuous low hum from the computers housed within. The problem they were working on was not vouchsafed, one knew simply that there was a problem otherwise they would not be working on it. With a title like The Thinker, we must see the work as a self-conscious allusion to Rodin and, through him, to the Renaissance tradition he was re-examining, albeit that such a tradition arrives at Tyson having been filtered through Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise. Rodin’s own works following from his Thinker moved, in William Tucker’s words, ‘in the direction of an increasing abstractness, towards the frank acknowledgement of an internal, sculptural order which evoked rather than represented the figure’.[1] When we stand in front of this sphere, though, the parameters have changed. We cannot possibly be dealing with anything like an internal, sculptural order, because we can see right inside the object, and there’s nothing there.

fig 1

fig 1: The Thinker (Part of Seven Wonders of the World), 2001 Enamel sprayed aluminium, steel, computers and software, 300 x 125 x 110 cm Collection Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner, New York

There is a title, though – Solar Powered Vacuum – and this does offer a clue. An explanation of the set-up tells us that there is an array of solar panels placed on the roof of the gallery. Power generated in these cells is fed to the pump housed inside the cabinet, which works to create a vacuum inside the sphere. The vacuum is intense, equivalent to that found in interstellar space, but of course you have no way of verifying that. All you can see when you look through the porthole is an empty spherical chamber, and maybe the face of someone else as they look in from the other side. If the day is cloudy it might also be that the panels are unable to generate sufficient power to maintain the vacuum at the required level, so it is perfectly possible that you are not looking at a vacuum at all. You have to trust that it is so, and recognise that if the weather is fine and the machine is working properly what you are looking at is nothing, and if the weather is poor, then you are most likely just looking at a metal sphere with a bit of air in it. That is, you are looking at something. It is art when there’s nothing.

Solar Powered Vacuum is just one of a large number of works in Tyson’s Geno/Pheno series. As the overall title implies, the two part structure of each one comprises a genotype containing something akin to the ‘genetic material’ or the ‘coding’ of the work, and a phenotype that constitutes the expression or working out of that material in physical, apprehendable form. The exact relationship between the two parts varies from piece to piece, but in each instance there is a double nature. In the case of the sculptures, this largely means that there is an object on a supporting plinth, the plinth being the ‘genotype’ and the object the ‘phenotype’, while the paintings are diptychs in which the left hand panel provides the genotype. The cabinet for Solar Powered Vacuum with its attendant power-harnessing array is thus its genotype, an arrangement of technologies that works to initiate the evacuation of the sphere on top. This having been said, though, it might be more accurate to say that there are not merely two, but three parts to each work. Inevitably, the phenotype as a working out of the genotype’s potential will be understood to reflect back upon the genotype from which it stems, illuminating more fully its fundamental nature.

I have said that the phenotype is an expression of the genotype, and this is so, but that does not mean that the process is one shaped by an emotional response. It is, rather, much more like the way one speaks of a gene being expressed in the colour of a person’s eyes and is somewhat akin to the manner in which Spinoza conceives the relationship between a substance and its attributes. Gilles Deleuze describes this relationship thus:

Expression presents us with a triad. In it we must distinguish substance, attributes and essence. Substance expresses itself, attributes are expressions, and essence is expressed. … The originality of the concept of expression shows itself here: essence, insofar as it has existence, has no existence outside the attribute in which it is expressed; and yet, as essence, it relates only to substance.[2]

In Tyson’s case, in other words, the genotype expresses itself in the phenotype, which in its turn expresses the essence of the genotype. The sun produces the vacuum that reproduces the cosmic conditions in which interstellar dust gathers and fuses to form a new star (and possibly an accompanying solar system), that could in its turn produce the vacuum that …

Solar Powered Vacuum generates many connections across art’s territory, but there is one that I think is particularly significant. In both its form, and in the degree to which the viewer is confronted by the need to make a leap of faith in order to acknowledge it as a work of art, it resonates with Jeff Koons’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, and with other works he made in the mid-1980s – the bronze cast of the aqualung, the chromium-plated Bunny, the Jim Beam decanter train that remains a work of art only so long as you don’t break the seal and consume the drink inside. One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank makes a wealth of allusions – it celebrates the wondrous aspects of human capability in the way that it evokes Michael Jordan’s apparent ability to hang in the air, it points up the extent to which we perceive the world filtered and enhanced by the media in the way it ‘freezes’ the ball just as TV would in order to let us see details of a basketball play more clearly, and it goes far beyond this to address more broadly how we understand the limits of our humanity. The basketball is the world, and we insistently question our place in, and relation to that world now that technological advancement has allowed us to see it, from the outside, as nothing more than a ‘blue marble’ afloat in a sea of nothingness.

Solar Powered Vacuum picks up this question and runs with it. What is it to be human? What can assist us in attempting a definition in a world where the events, discoveries and technological developments of the passing days serve only to render hitherto firmly held beliefs as so much evidence of delusion and ignorance? What safeguards could there be in an environment that, on the face of it, becomes more unstable with each passing year? Curiously, it is that blue marble image of the earth that strikes us as more certain than most things. The photograph, AS17-148-22727, was taken from Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon, on December 7, 1972 at a distance of 45,000 kilometres from the earth.[3] In the 33 years since then, no human has been in a position to take a similar whole-earth picture, yet it continues to shape consciousness, if only as a reminder that what we see with our eyes and in our imaginations is never just brute earth but always a world.

 (6.6256±0.0005)×10-34 Joules seconds. One of the questions Tyson addresses is that of style. Is there some external force – issuing from, say, the market, or a dealer, or a critical consensus – exerting pressure on the artist to adopt one identifiable style and to stick to it? It wouldn’t matter what that style was, just as long as it was consistently realised in work after work. Over and above their shared bi-partite structure, however, this is not the case for the works in the Geno/Pheno series any more than it has been for Tyson’s other work. On his own admission he has a great affinity for a radical simplicity deriving from his interest in conceptualism. We could imagine a show in which, say, Solar Powered Vacuum sat on its own in the centre of an otherwise empty gallery. Since it is about everything and nothing it could conceivably be thought to encompass all the world’s possibilities. But even if that were so, it would only be one embodiment of the fact of those possibilities, which presents us with a choice. Either we agree with the idea that this is the best, and perhaps only, way to express the limitless possibilities of the world, in which case it will suffice, or we decide that it is only one way among many others in which such breadth of possibility might be addressed. For Tyson, each work is something like a model of the way things are or might or could be. None of them is to be thought of as more significant or as being closer to some transcendent truth than any other. They are of equal status as models. And since Solar Powered Vacuum is not the grand unified artistic statement that trumps all possible others, since it is only one model among an infinity of possible others, one wants to set up, as it were, some kind of hypertext link to an infinity of other essays. To …

 … an essay on quack diets, especially the efficacy of eating nothing but peas. As Echoes Distort a Fortress is a citadel on a rock, suspended upside down above a reflective surface across which ripples radiate on account of its having been lightly touched by the tip of the church spire. This essay would as likely as not recall the location in which Büchner’s Woyzeck is set – a small town by a still pond. The establishing shot in Herzog’s film of the play shows the town perfectly reflected in the surface. It would undoubtedly include something on Paul Celan’s ‘Meridian’ speech, given on the occasion of his receiving the Büchner Preis, and in which he discusses not only Woyzeck, but also Danton’s Death and the Lenz fragment. Lenz was, Celan quotes, sometimes bothered ‘that he could not walk on his head’. A man who can do that, he observes, would see the sky beneath his feet as an abyss.[4] This essay, as Celan’s does, would need to address the nature and function of art. Two common alternatives are outlined in ‘The Meridian’: either art as a Medusa’s head, which freezes life for our perusal, or art as an automaton or marionette, which apes life’s actions. The point, Celan says, is not to ‘enlarge’ art through either of these methods, which is to say, simply to add to the stock of works, but to ‘take art with you into your innermost narrowness. And set yourself free’.[5]

… an essay on economic forecasting and futurology considering various models for predicting shifts in production patterns, market parameters, consumer demands, and so on. It would focus on Chameleon, a plinth whose surfaces are offered for rent as advertising sites. It would spend a lot of time trying not to dwell on the most famous section of Benjamin’s One Way Street­ – the one that says that advertising defeats criticism. There would be more interest in speculating how, say, global warming, or a steep rise in the price of oil might affect the economy, and how this would become evident in the changes among those institutions willing and able to buy the space for a period.

… an essay on things that, it can predict, will happen anyway; just as Slothrop’s erections indicated the locations of forthcoming V2 attacks in Gravity’s Rainbow. Synaesthetic Turbine, with its tangle of Medusa’s head serpents and roller-coaster track loops will be mentioned later in the essay you are reading now, but it would be interesting in this other essay that you will not read to pitch the cultural logic of the iPod shuffle facility against Schoenberg’s contribution to that bible of synaesthesia, Kandinsky and Marc’s Blaue Reiter Almanac, and to add in Adorno’s championing of the Viennese composer in his Philosophy of Music and the essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and Regression in Listening’.

… an essay in which everything would try its best to be black and white, like 7776+1 (Cutting the Fungal Cord), which is black and white. It would be called ‘(hg)2’ on account of the detailing on the frame to the mini bandstand-cum-monster jardinière that houses the mushroom over the inky black pool from which a marble-white Tyson emerges. This all sits on a hexagonal, stepped black plinth, on every rising face of which is a phrase. A selection from these phrases provides the logic for the sculpture’s narrative. The frame looks a bit like the art nouveau metalwork of the Paris Métro entrances, and a bit like material from the set of an Alien movie – Hector Guimard and HR Giger. So, try as it might, it wouldn’t be black and white, it would be both/and instead of either/or. It would be fundamentally ambiguous. It would be mercurial, Hg, and it would convey the weightiness of its subject matter – g, gravity – with the lightest and most economical of means – h, Planck’s constant, the elementary quantum of action.

… an essay on all these things and more – on ambiguity, on art as something much more important than production for its own sake, on the abyss and a deft lightness of touch. The Inertia of Desire (Worthless Fat Fuck with Nullifiers) is a large stomach. It’s not even a torso; no back, no indication of limbs or neck, just a blobby, unappealing gut. Considerably larger than life size, it is nonetheless convincingly life-like in its degree of verisimilitude. It is a monstrously hypertrophied Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad, only more so. Too large, its bloated, overweight form lies on a carpet, spreading under the pull of gravity and surrounded by evidence of the sad, unhealthy excess that has got it to this state. Beer cans, and a half-eaten candy bar tell of drunken nights on which the only sustenance taken has been anything but a solid meal. Two band-aids stuck on the stomach tell of yet more unhealthiness, and hint at notions of puncturing and deflation. Being so heavy, it clearly smothers the carpet beneath, making sure that it won’t fly: no imagination, no spirit, no transcendence, just a deliberate, despairing march into oblivion. The whole thing is a grandiose statement of the artist’s perennial depressive nightmare that combines a frightening absence of ideas about what to make with the conviction that, even were one to think of something, it would be no more than an exercise in hubris to attempt its realisation.

But the beer cans and the candy bar, like the stomach, are marvellously well made. As well as Mueck, and a Kippenberger (self-) portrait, one thinks of Robert Gober’s body parts and simulated objects, or of Elizabeth Wright and Simon Starling among other UK artists who have, in recent years, set a benchmark in such out-of-scale things that is being superseded here. And the beer cans and sweet wrapper are just the exact same shade of blue as you can see in the patterning of the carpet, and the weak flesh pink of the stomach, which tells of a lack of sunlight and exercise, matches the warm, rose-tinted cream that you find there too. Furthermore, the shape of the stomach distantly echoes those works of Richard Deacon which seem to hover in status between sculpture and plinth, though in Inertia of Desire the inter-dependence of carpet and stomach is now becoming clearer. The carpet is the plinth, but one that carries within itself the seeds of that which it supports.

While it may be that none of these many references are intentional in the sense of having been deliberately introduced during the work’s planning and inception, they nevertheless constitute features in the cultural landscape in which we encounter it. Indeed, that they were not intentional allows us to see that the work, in its mix of maudlin self-pity, compensatory braggadocio and genuine reflection on the depths to which our fragile egos can plummet, is itself thoroughly intended. Far from being a gesture of abjection, The Inertia of Desire demonstrates, in Blanchot’s phrase, that ‘art is the consciousness of unhappiness, not its compensation’.[6] Blanchot cautions us against misinterpreting Nietzsche’s famous line, ‘We have art so as not to go under on account of truth’. It does not mean that art preserves us from the harshness of truth but, rather, that the abyss is the domain of art. Art’s depth might be an ‘absence of profundity’ or the possibility of a foundation, but it is also always both of those things at one and the same time and this is its essential ambiguity.[7] The Inertia of Desire, in the play between its precise formal niceties and its description of incontinent social irrelevance and mental hopelessness, holds that ambiguity before us.

Homage to modernity. The left panel of Journey to the Centre of the Earth has a white background crossed by a number of coloured lines. The paint is smeared, Richter-like, in that way that makes you want to say that the image looks out of focus at the same time as it leads you to question the applicability of such a judgement. How can paint be out of focus? Even through this visual vagueness, though, the image is immediately recognisable as the central portion of the London tube map. Probably more now than the old-style policeman’s helmet, or the Routemaster bus that is all but gone from its streets, or the bright red phone boxes that are pretty well obsolete, the tube map is the most commonly recognised image of the city. This is so not least because its topological design, borrowed by transportation systems throughout the world, presents an image of the entire space of the city, rather than merely offering a symbol of it. Tyson’s drawings, paintings and other works frequently make use of maps and diagrams, but this one is especially potent, deriving as it originally did from a wiring diagram.

The right panel of Journey … has what at first sight appears to be a jumble of imagery laid over a scrubby patchwork of painted areas, marks and dribbles. There’s a bunny girl, a lighthouse, a chess piece, a laughing man in a chef’s hat, a pithed frog, a looping string of gloop into which several glass marbles have been stuck, and a lot more. One recalls Tyson’s earlier Primordial Soup works, one of which also contained a snatch of Harry Beck’s famous design in its mix, but a little inspection reveals that the layout here is far from random. It is in fact a kind of rebus: the bunny girl is Warren Street station, the chess piece is King’s Cross, not only because the piece is the king, but also because it signals itself as the king by the cross on its top. In a gesture whose obviousness makes it almost perversely obscurantist, the chef is Baker Street. The gloop is Marble Arch, an arch of marbles, the lighthouse, Great Portland Street, because of the lighthouse at Portland Bill on the Dorset coast, the frog, Finchley Road and Frognal, and so on. And once you see this, it is clear that the placement of each image on the canvas corresponds to their topological relationship on the tube map, which in turn approximates their actual location within the geography of the capital.

Things appear over-determined. The bunny girl for instance is a light visual pun on the word ‘warren’, but in the association of such figures with the faded, seedy glamour of the playboy lifestyle and its related activities, it connects with Tyson’s interest in gambling, number systems and patterns of randomness. (‘Random is the new order’, runs the tag line for Apple’s shuffle, a feature that Tyson has used in Synaesthetic Turbine, a sculptural rendition of the emotional moods dictated by three iPods.[8]) It also provides a temporal marker, locating the work in 2005 Britain, in that the somewhat outmoded symbol of the Hefner empire has recently re-entered the visual mix of British cultural life in a quite different guise. You can now buy notebooks, pencil cases and other items of school stationery all bearing the bunny logo, demonstrating that in much the same way that the formerly posh and exclusive Burberry plaid has now become ubiquitously visible on all manner of down-market accessories, the logo that once spoke of the questionable freedoms of the decidedly single adult male has now entered the fluffy desire space of the pre-pubescent girl. The sign detaches itself from its referent and floats free, waiting to be fished out and reapplied in some other context. Such a process echoes one of the chief features of the Geno/Pheno series in that the relation between generative genotype and generated phenotype quickly ceases to be one of dependence. There is no hierarchy or order of significance, no priority – either temporal or semantic – of one element over another. As soon as the phenotype is generated as an expression of the information contained in the genotype, it asserts its autonomous existence, folding back onto its generator in such a way as to render uncertain the relative status of the two.

We might have expected a man in a deerstalker hat with a Meerschaum pipe to do duty for Baker Street, as indeed he does on the tiles that decorate the platforms of the actual station, but Sherlock Holmes was a detective, not a baker, so his presence would skew the method of associative word-play that is in use in the work as a whole. While the final piece may end up looking highly complex, this is not as the outcome of a hugely differentiated set of decision-making procedures. Within each work, the generative method involved is always quite straightforward. Fractal Dice, for example, is an almost impossibly complicated object, a feverish concatenation of rectilinear forms resembling the aftermath of a protracted session of play with a box of oversize nursery building blocks designed by members of De Stijl. In fact it is generated by rolling a normal dice and applying a simple formula regarding how much its surfaces should project or indent according to which numbers are showing on the five visible faces. The resulting form is then ‘rolled’ again and the formula reapplied. The final piece is arrived at after only three rolls of the dice, and this underlying simplicity of procedure strengthens the appropriateness of the Geno/Pheno nomenclature.

John Gribbin explains that the common habit of referring to DNA as a ‘blueprint’ for the making of the human body is rather misleading. A blueprint gives detailed information on every individual part of a complex machine or structure, whereas DNA works quite differently. The better analogy, Gribbin suggests, is with something like a recipe:

The recipe for baking a cake … doesn’t tell you what the final cake will look like (let alone the precise location of every raisin in the finished cake) but says ‘take the following ingredients, mix well and bake for this number of minutes at that temperature’. Such a recipe is like one step in the chaos game. It is hard to see how even the wealth of DNA contained in a single cell that develops to become a human being, or a pine tree or whatever, can contain a literal blueprint for all the complex structures involved in the final adult form. But it is much easier to see how that DNA might contain a few simple instructions along the lines of ‘double in size for n steps, then divide in two, and repeat in each branch’.[9]

A further joke with Journey … is that there is already a very well known link between the tube map and contemporary art. One of Tate’s best selling lines is the poster of Simon Patterson’s Great Bear, a reproduction of the ‘Journey Planner’ map found on every platform throughout the Underground network but with all the station names changed. While this would not have formed any part of the thinking during the making of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the connection is, once again, one that Tyson is happy to recognise as an element contributing to the work’s context. We should not doubt, either, that Tyson is aware of conceptualist works such as Daniel Buren’s contribution to the ‘18 Paris IV 70’ exhibition, in which he pasted a blue and white striped poster in the upper right hand corner of the entertainments information billboard in each Métro station. Buren’s text accompanying the photographic documentation of this work reads in part:

These pasted pieces of striped paper were and still must be considered as part of a work which began, was carried on and is still in process outside and beyond the place and time of this particular proposal. The photo-album is here a partial re-presentation of the work as it stands, each individual presentation being unique but always considered as a fragment of the entire work as it stands.[10]

In other words, the work is not an object, but a process unfolding through time. Just as Wittgenstein rejects the idea that a system of thought is a point of departure from which one proceeds towards the outcome of a verifiable proposition, the work should not be seen as the realisation of an abstract idea. In Deleuzian terms it is, instead, a case of a potentiality, which is virtual, being actualised. It is never a case of something’s becoming real since both the virtual and the actual are part of reality. As Daniel Delanda puts it, ‘the virtual leaves behind traces of itself in the intensive processes it animates’.[11] Tyson’s Geno/Pheno works are just such traces.

Forwards and backwards. In My Mum, My Son, and the Space Between the Sea and the Sky a little boy peers through a knot hole in a wooden fence. We cannot see what he is looking at, but on the gallery wall his line of sight leads us to the adjacent canvas on which is painted a reproduction of a black and white photograph of a woman reclining on a hillside. The style of her dress and hat, the implied quality and colour tone of the photograph, and the fact that it is a black and white image, place it somewhere around the late 1950s or early 1960s. It is indeed a photo of Tyson’s mother when she was young. The boy looks at his grandmother across a narrow gap in which Tyson himself invisibly resides, both as a link in the genetic chain binding the two figures together, and as the artist-ringmaster marshalling his performers to do his bidding. Yet this position is far from being a comfortable one if we admit that the photograph is, in Barthes’ words, a ‘distortion between certainty and oblivion’ that brings a ‘detective anguish’[12]: ‘All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of Death … Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.’[13] The pairing of grandson and grandmother reminds us with a shudder that the space of the title, which of course in some important sense does not actually exist, is always already prefigured, even for a child. It can never be Rilke’s ‘Open’, that space which lies outside and in front of all creatures except ourselves. We are condemned to approach the future while forever looking backwards:

All eyes, the creatures of the World look out

into the open. But our human eyes,

as if turned right around and glaring in,

encircle them; prohibiting their passing.

What lies outside, their faces plainly show us.

Yet we compel even our youngest; force

each child always to stare behind, at what’s

already manifest, and not to see

that openness which lies so deep within

the gaze of animals. Death leaves beasts free.

Only we foreknow it. …[14]

 In his commentary on how Heidegger takes Rilke’s notion of the ‘Open’ and turns it to his own purposes, Giorgio Agamben remarks that the philosopher was perhaps ‘the last to believe … that the anthropological machine, which each time decides upon and recomposes the conflict between man and animal, between the open and the not-open, could still produce history and destiny for a people’.[15] But as Walter Benjamin had already recognised, whereas man’s development as a species may well have been accomplished some thousands of years ago, mankind’s was still only just beginning:

In technology a physis is being organised through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on incalculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or on the shores of southern seas.[16]

We have been used to thinking of what we grandly term ‘nature’ as what there is within and around us that needs dissecting and explaining, but this is too restricted a view of what awaits examination.

Covert Polyhedron seems a misnomer, since what is presumably the eponymous polyhedral form sits openly on top of its steel plinth. But where it is ‘covert’ is in the plinth, the genotype. A number of points were randomly marked on the surfaces of this plinth, measurements of their positions were taken, and used as the angles in a notional geometrical figure contained ‘within’ the plinth that would join them all up. This is a high-tech piece of work and will have required the use of computer software in order to model the co-ordinates of the polyhedron needed to instruct the fabricators. Nonetheless, it is plainly conscious of its affinity with the captives Michelangelo began to carve for one of his versions of Pope Julius II’s tomb, and which remain partially held within their marble blocks in the Florence Academia. It knows of Richard Serra’s work, and of Ulrich Rückriem’s two-part stone pieces, one part left rough from the quarry, the other dressed to reveal the optimum smooth slab available within the dimensions of the block. It is aware, too, of the geometric sculptures of Tony Smith, and especially of his 6’ x 6’ x 6’ Die that has become a key work in the history of minimalism.

In their writings about what we now call minimalism both Robert Morris and Michael Fried referred to Die and to Smith’s contention that in making it the size it is he was consciously avoiding any chance of it becoming either a monument or an object. ‘One way of describing what Smith was making might be something like a surrogate person – that is, a kind of statue,’ wrote Fried.[17] Die does not sit directly on the ground, but is raised slightly above it, so that it is understood to be a sculptural form, not a plinth. Smith thought a purely abstract form to be unachievable since reference, association and allusion of some kind is always unavoidable.[18] As Smith’s intentions for the sculpture indicate, it is quite reasonable for us to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man contained within the cube’s dimensions. And such an idea seems even more appropriate if we also recall that in 1966 Smith had an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum. There was a pool in the exhibition space in which was set a sculpture of Venus Attended by a Nymph and a Satyr. Since this could not be moved, he made Fixture, a grey-painted wooden sculpture conceived specifically to cover this feature.[19]

Following this train of associations should make clear that the geno/pheno pairing is itself far from simple in relation to any one work. For sure, the polyhedron is a form containable within the cuboid volume of the plinth, and is indicated as being so by the points marked on the plinth’s surfaces; but it can now be seen that it makes as much sense to think of minimalism as the genotype, the set of coded information that finds its subsequent expression in the work of succeeding artists including Tyson. And that the expression in the phenotype cannot be predetermined is shown by the fact that in Covert Polyhedron Tyson has revisited something like Tucker’s ‘internal, sculptural form’.

Both canvases of Dick Dastardly’s DNA are filled with horizontal lines of paint squeezed from the tube. They are, as near as this might be achievable by such a crude method, mirror images of one another. Is it a mitotic image, or a meiotic one? Is it one art work dividing to form two art works, or is it art work as stem cell, dividing its chromosomal pairs to leave two gametes? And what is the genealogical line to follow: the artistic one – Richter again, this time crossed with Morris Louis perhaps, and with a meditation on Barnett Newman’s efforts to defeat symmetry – or the cartoon one? Dick Dastardly first appeared in the 1967 Wacky Races cartoon series, always attempting to triumph by thwarting his adversaries’ ambition of winning the bizarre road race in which they were all entered.[20] Endlessly unsuccessful, his sidekick Muttley remained perversely faithful to him and yet gleeful at his repeated failure. The following year he and Muttley appeared in their own spin-off cartoon, this time as the leaders of a nefarious squadron of flyers out to nobble a carrier pigeon. Where Wacky Races had been inspired by the 1965 Jack Lemmon/Tony Curtis/Natalie Wood film, The Great Race, Dastardly’s own series drew its scenario from another slapstick ensemble piece from the same year, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, whose ne’er-do-well was played by the greatest of all British comedy film cads, Terry-Thomas. (Dastardly is, as it happens, a dead ringer for Terry-Thomas.) A year later still, in 1969, another character from the Wacky Races, Penelope Pitstop, got her own series, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. As both the title and the drawing style of the cartoon made plain, this time the model was silent film’s The Perils of Pauline. The gene line stretches in both directions, though this two-way traffic cannot be mapped simply onto historical time, since Blake Edwards’ The Great Race was itself a homage to silent film slapstick. Forwards and backwards.

Tragic yearning. To the right is a faithful copy of a canvas showing the head, shoulders and upper torso of an old, bearded man. His eyes are closed, but his pose is alert so one supposes that he is blind rather than asleep. The composition is dreadful. His hat fills the entire upper half of the canvas, and its underside is painted so indistinctly that it appears to hover in a completely different space to that occupied by the figure below. His head sits too frontally for the orientation of the hat, but there’s no suspicion that this has been done deliberately, in the manner, say, of the perspectival disjunctions in Picasso’s immediately pre-cubist portraits of himself and Gertrude Stein. The man’s left arm is bent, allowing his hand to appear at the bottom of the canvas, but this hand is badly out of proportion and far too small for the rest of the figure. It is as if the artist began at the top and found himself constantly having to revise the scale of things as he worked down the canvas. A further incongruity is that, minuscule though it is, the old man’s hand has six fingers. Is this an accurate rendition from the life, or is it yet more evidence of the incompetence of the painter, a man so engrossed in what he is doing that he is unable to concentrate? (I am saying he, conscious of the possibility that I may be mistaken.) Sometimes, we know, this can work, as in David Hockney’s 1961 Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style, a shaped canvas bearing a picture of a Ty-Phoo tea packet on whose side he has distractedly painted TAE. In the case of Six Fingered Salute we are faced with a choice between options, neither of which is terribly flattering. Either the artist made a mistake, or the sitter really did have an extra digit on his left hand. If the latter is true, then the attempt to capture and give due weight to this feature has been unsuccessful since it is so squashed and under-size.

To the left of the old man, the geno panel carries the text of a story. We can only read the beginning and conclusion due to a large black splodge in the rough shape of a comic strip speech bubble that covers much of the central portion of the canvas – Sean Landers or Raymond Pettibon, perhaps, after an accident with an ink pot. Or maybe one of those letters that Yossarian was forced to censor while he malingered in hospital in a desperate attempt to avoid flying more bombing raids:

It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. After the first day he had no curiosity at all. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of very letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. … One time he blacked out all but the salutation ‘Dear Mary’ from a letter, and at the bottom he wrote, ‘I yearn for you tragically. R.O. Shipman, Chaplain, U.S. Army’.[21]

In fact, though, it seems that the salient features of the tale are readable. Thirty years ago, Tyson was watching ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ with his blind grandfather, when the expert spoke to an old woman with an apparently nondescript painting. Learning that it was worth £20,000, Tyson’s grandfather got him to look at the picture of the blind old man hanging in their hallway to see if that, too, might not be worth something. Young Keith’s conclusion was that it was not, not least because the man had six fingers. Though they laughed about it, the grandfather insisted that one day it really would be valuable. Now, of course, it is, because it has been copied into a work by Keith Tyson, for whose output, as we know, there is an established market.

Virtual and actual. A shelf full of books contains a broad selection of volumes, the great majority of which will be familiar to the viewer. Even if he or she has not yet got around to reading them all, their names will strike a chord. Taken altogether they suggest one of those lists compiled by a consultant for a client who didn’t have the time to explore literature on their own, but who wanted to gain the appearance of a good understanding. There is some heavyweight stuff – Swann’s Way, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, but also some more light-hearted material – a PG Wodehouse, and even a nod towards populism in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. There are 100 books, one published in each year of the past century, and arranged in the chronological order of their issue. A hole has been cut through the centre of the books and the resulting cylinder of page fragments treated as a sort of core sample providing information on the changing cultural nature of the century. Like a cross between an ice core and a slice through a tree trunk, whose layers and rings respectively reveal climatic and atmospheric data across a time period, the sentence fragments on the paper discs contain imagery, terminology and phrasing that is both specific to and characteristic of the moment of their production. Sparked by some of these fragments, various small sculptures hang from the shelf, their form, style and material consonant with their location within the century.

There are, of course, earlier instances of the kind of textual interpolation and manipulation that is occurring in Tyson’s Dendrochronological Library. One thinks of the chance operations of Dada, such as Tristan Tzara’s recipe for writing a poem, or of William Burroughs’ use of the cut-up technique, or of John Cage’s mesostics. All are relevant, both as antecedents, and as the means to establishing the context within which the Dendrochronological Library as a whole can appear as particular to its time. The century it spans runs from 1905-2005; it is Einstein’s century. 1905 saw him publishing those four path-breaking papers, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, the relationship between mass and energy, and special relativity, and their implications are still being worked through. There had not been a moment of equivalent intensity in scientific discovery since 1665-6 when, staying in the countryside to avoid the plague, Isaac Newton was able to develop calculus, together with his theories of gravity and colour. Without that, we might not have been able to read some of Pynchon’s deliberately cheesy jokes, such as the one Slothrop reads scratched on the cabin wall of the toilet ship Rücksichtlos:


According to Gerald Howard, Pynchon is the ‘poet of shit’, a title that might also be bestowed upon Dieter Roth or John Miller, both of whom stand in the shadows of the fracturing agglomeration of faecal brown travel mementos and toys that swamps the central glowing blue sphere of Globe of Shit.[23]

At the beginning of The Da Vinci Code there is a page headed ‘Fact’, which lists information about past members of a ‘European secret society’ called The Priory of Sion. Newton, Botticelli, Hugo and da Vinci, we are told, were members. Supporting evidence for this can be found in documents known as ‘Les Dossiers Secrets’ in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. And just in case you were tempted to raise a quizzical eyebrow at any of this, the clincher is that the documents are not merely papers but ‘parchments’. So it must be true. Then there’s some stuff about Opus Dei followed by a final sentence:

All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.[24]

And this really is true, this really is fact. They are accurate because they are in the novel, which is its own world. It is, like all artworks, a ‘what if?’ scenario.

In one of our conversations as we walk round his studio, Tyson brings up the problem of certainty by mentioning the old difficulty of defining things:

‘What’s a brother?’

‘It’s a male sibling.’

‘But a male sibling is a brother, so the question remains, what’s a brother?’

Wittgenstein’s On Certainty begins from a similar question, derived from G.E. Moore, as to whether one could know that something was a hand: ‘If you do know that here is one hand, we’ll grant you all the rest.’[25] This is not to say that one cannot derive certain statements from other propositions, but those propositions, too, will not be provable in any absolute sense. Later on Wittgenstein says this:

All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. the system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life.[26]

The interdependence of the various parts of Solar Powered Vacuum resonates with conceptualism’s interest in systems, notably Marcel Broodthaers’s formulation on the interdependence of art and theory, and Robert Morris’s exercises in tautology such as Card File, Metered Light Bulb and Box with the Sound of its own Making. There are, however, important differences. Broodthaers’s text is cyclical, implying that the system of art’s production and consumption is self-contained:

View, according to which an artistic theory will be functioning for an artistic product in the same way as the artistic product itself is functioning as advertising for the rule under which it is produced. There will be no other space than this view, according to which …[27]

Solar Powered Vacuum, by contrast, is what might be called a complex system which, due to the fact that it draws its energy from outside, is open rather than closed. Systems of this kind operate on the edge of chaos, or ‘self-organised criticality’, and it is this sense that things are always just as likely to be quite other than they are that remains Tyson’s consuming preoccupation. In 2000, in an explicit acknowledgement of this preoccupation, he gave a work the title, An Open Lecture about everything that was necessary to bring you and this work together at this particular time; and that so much of who we are and what we experience is unavoidably dependent on happenstance and accident sits at the heart of his thinking about and response to the world.

Collateral campaign. Robert Musil opens his long, unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities with a chapter disconcertingly titled ‘Which, remarkably enough, does not get anyone anywhere’. It sets the scene, and while that might more easily be achieved by use of the clause, ‘One fine day in the city of Vienna …,’ Musil chooses to do it over several paragraphs with a more elaborate description of the interacting atmospheric factors that determine the weather conditions, and the largely incoherent jostle of rhythms, movements and vectors that make up city life.[28]

fig 2: An Open Lecture about everything that was necessary to bring you and this work together at this particular time, 2000 mixed media, sound installation, 4 panels, overall dimensions: 244 x 488 cm,  Private Collection Connecticut



Lorenz Attractor

Fig 3: Lorenz Attractor

Motor cars came shooting out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares. Dark patches of pedestrian bustle formed into cloudy streams. Where stronger lines of speed transected their loose-woven hurrying, they clotted up – only to trickle on all the faster then and after a few ripples regain their regular pulse beat.

The Man Without Qualities was written and published years before Edward Lorenz did his work on meteorological prediction, and before the derivation of the characteristically shaped phase space attractor that bears his name, and which has cemented the popular idea of the butterfly effect. It also predates Benoit Mandelbrot’s studies of fractal geometry and the rise of chaos theory, but the image of both the weather and the city as studies in fluid dynamics is already there in Musil’s prose. In chapter 2, Ulrich, the man without qualities, observes the ‘flux of the street’ and thinks to himself that, ‘it doesn’t matter what one does. In a tangle of forces like this it doesn’t make a scrap of difference’. All the same, things do get done and do seem to make a difference, even if they don’t figure again in this particular narrative. The opening chapter that does not get anyone anywhere, if it were written simply as a single sentence, might be completed: ’One fine day in the city of Vienna, a pedestrian was knocked down by a truck.’

The title is a series of expletives uttered by Captain Haddock in Red Rackham’s Treasure. He has been drinking and jumps into the water without attaching the helmet to his diving suit. Much to his annoyance, though unsurprisingly, the suit fills with sea-water. Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin: Red Rackham’s Treasure, Methuen, London, 1974, p43.

[1] William Tucker, The Language of Sculpture, Thames & Hudson, London, 1974, p37 (his italics).

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, Zone Books, New York, NY, 1992, p27.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blue_Marble

[4] Paul Celan, ‘The Meridian’, in Collected Prose, Carcanet, Manchester, 1999, p46

[5] ibid, p52

[6] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1982, p75.

[7] ibid, p239.

[8] http://www.apple.com/ipodshuffle/

Random is the new order. Welcome to a life less orderly. As official soundtrack to the random revolution, the iPod Shuffle Songs setting takes you on a unique journey through your music collection — you never know what’s around the next tune. Meet your new ride. More roadster than Rolls, iPod shuffle rejects routine by serving up your favorite songs in a different order every time. Just plug iPod shuffle into your computer’s USB port, let iTunes Autofill it with up to 240 songs(2) and get a new experience with every connection. The trail you run every day looks different with an iPod shuffle. Daily gridlock feels less mundane when you don’t know what song will play next. iPod shuffle adds musical spontaneity to your life. Lose control. Love it.

[9] John Gribbin, Deep Simplicity: Chaos, Complexity and the Emergence of Life, Penguin, London, 2005, pp89-91.

[10] Daniel Buren, Legend I, Warehouse Publications, London, 1973. Text printed on front and back covers in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

[11] Manuel Delanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, Continuum, London, 2002, p44.

[12] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage, London, 1993, p85.

[13] ibid, p92.

[14] Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Eighth Elegy’, Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Cohn, Carcanet, Manchester, 1989, p65.

[15] Giorgio Agamben, The Open, Stanford University Press, Stanford, Ca, 2004, p75.

[16] Walter Benjamin, ‘To the Planetarium’, the final section of One Way Street, in Selected Writings vol 1, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1996, p487.

[17] Michael Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’, in Battcock (ed), Minimalism: A Critical Anthology, p128.

[18] Susan L. Jenkins writing on Tony Smith in Ann Goldstein (ed), A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2004, p340.

[19] Discussed in Lucy Lippard, Tony Smith, Thames & Hudson, London, 1972, p23.

[20] http://www.hotink.com/wacky/

[21] Joseph Heller, Catch 22, Vintage, London, 1994, p8.

[22] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, Picador, London, 1975, p450.

[23] Gerald Howard, ‘Pynchon From A to V: Rocket Redux’, Bookforum, June-Sept 2005, p39.

[24] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi, London, 2004, np.

[25] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, Blackwell, Oxford, 1975, p2e.

[26] ibid, p16e.

[27] Originally published in French, German and English on the front cover of Interfunktionen, Autumn, 1974.

[28] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, vol 1, Picador, London, 1979, pp3-6.

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