Every year in Berlin there is a sandcastle competition outside Berlin’s Central station. These creations are astonishingly intricate. And although the designs are usually too Disney/Fantasia for my taste, I imagine that part of the excitement of sculpting sandcastles must be the unpredictability inherent in the material. Despite the immense control that these artists have, ultimately there remains an element of contingency in the nature of the sand that has been formed into such magnificently chiselled castles.
This becomes more apparent on the simpler level of a pile of sand. As grains are added to a pile of sand the pile will grow bigger, until predictably, it collapses under its own weight and instability. Not so predictable, however, is precisely when the pile will collapse. Predicting this turns out to be almost impossible. This self-organized criticality – in which there is a fluctuation between stable and instable states – is also found in wildfires, earthquakes and avalanches.
Artist Andy Goldsworthy explores this tension between chaos and order in all of his work. He creates meta-stable pieces, always with the intention of allowing them to be destroyed. But unlike a Buddhist monk who destroys a sand Mandala after he (or are there also female monks who perform this ritual? I don’t expect so somehow) has finished it, Goldsworthy does not actively step in. His creations are made so that they will be worn down by natural processes. Goldsworthy’s work ruffles the veil where fragile beauty (or, to use a more neutral term, consistency) meets with forces that cause this consistency to fall apart. This results in creations of breathtaking beauty, as well as a lot of stress about finishing a work in progress before some unforeseen disaster takes place. Witness the moment in the documentary below, when a delicate construction of a web woven from tiny twigs (and appended to a tree), breaks apart moments before its completion.
A recent article discusses new evidence that these systems of self-organised criticality are very much like the functioning of the human brain. It turns out that ‘sand avalanches’ have an analogue in the brain’s ‘neural avalanches’ (that is, in the way that neurons communicate with each other). Even further, it is precisely at this critical border of disorder and chaos that the brain functions. That is to say, the brain is always on the edge of chaos. The article explains that this self-organised criticality (on the edge of chaos) is crucial for a proper functioning of the brain. The brain’s neurons connect with a rate of one to one. If it was the case that neurons transmitted information faster the brain would be swamped with too much information and indeed dive into chaos. On the other hand, if the communication were slower, the neuronal avalanche would die out before having been completed.
Monika Cichoń: creation at the edge of chaos
So, what if you are constantly aware of the chaos bubbling up like lava through the thin film of consistency that is always erupting in our heads? How does chaos traverse the human figure?
These are questions viscerally explored in the artwork of Polish artist Monika Cichoń (1980). If Goldsworthy has taken as his subject the self-organised criticality of nature, Monika Cichoń makes studies of this phenomenon as it applies to the human figure. She portrays figures at the very point where they are sutured to the unnameable void of the real, or in other words where they emerge out of chaos.
When we look at any object or person, we single it/them out from a background of chaos. We assign it certain coherent values so that it becomes a discrete object that we can handle, or a person with whom we can interact. But of course we can never completely and exhaustively perceive an object or person, as they are continually changing and are also not at all as separate from their environment as we – if only for practical purposes – often assume. And in any case, it is impossible to truly describe any object exhaustively, whenever we do talk about objects/people, it is enough to refer to one or a few essential/recognizable features. Nevertheless, a person’s clear idea of an object is interwoven with the chaos of the unthought. As Alain Badiou posits, any object is counted-as-one by people, but is in reality an uncountable multiplicity.
One way to appreciate Monika Cichoń’s graphic art and drawings is to think of them as the direct treatment of the relation between chaos and the human subject. (Parenthetically, it should be noted here that Cichoń employs many more different styles/materials than the works discussed below). Cichoń’s pieces portray the individuation of figures that are attached to chaos like to an umbilical cord.
She locates the situatedness of the human; the event that marks where it is pinned to the void of its situation; the moment of individuation, in which a first distinction becomes apparent between chaos and form. I would like to go through these works by briefly discussing three different ways in which they address this relationship between chaos and the human subject: 1. Scratches and tears in the fabric of the real; 2. Partial objects; 3. Blurred/vanishing/emerging figures.
1. Scratches and tears in the fabric of the real
Gilles Deleuze argues in his book on Francis Bacon that the painter’s cloth is never simply an empty, neutral space. Firstly, the canvas is always already impressed with marks and traces from everyday life that the artist carries with her/him and projects onto the ostensibly white, blank canvas. Secondly, there are ‘figurative probabilities’; places that are more or less likely to be painted.
The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface, but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it.
Francis Bacon, it is recounted, used to make violent swipes across the canvas before starting work on the actual painting, ‘…make random marks (lines-traits); scrub sweep, or wipe the canvas in order to clear out locales or zones (colour-patches); throw the paint, from various angles and at various speeds.’ (LS, 70).‘It is as if, in the midst of the figurative and probabilistic givens, a catastrophe overcame the canvas.’ (LS, 71) It seems as if Monika Cichoń not so much ‘clear[s] out locales or zones’, as that she allows that very chaos to emerge, to seep through the canvas/paper. The surface of many drawings is literally torn from vigorous scratching as if she is rubbing through the empty paper to the chaos stuck in its fabric.
One thing that is noticeable is that there is nothing obviously ‘artistic’ about this scratching. In one sense they appear as random impressions on the paper. A second thing is the violence with which the marks are made, often resulting in actual tears in the paper. In some cases, tears are also drawn on the paper.‘[P]ainters go through a catastrophe, or through a conflagration, and leave the trace of this passage on the canvas, as of the leap that leads them from chaos to composition. (Deleuze/Guattari, What is Philosophy, 203). Cichoń goes through a catastrophe, a conflagration. But the end result is never that of a linear process from ‘chaos to composition’, it is rather a disjunctive synthesis of both chaos and composition
The scratching, the cuts, the tears; they let in the light, but of course it can not be a composition and at the same time be wholly random. But although there is a plane of composition, it is at times minimally constrained/bound and at times contains actual holes. ‘...it is always a matter of defeating chaos by a secant plane that crosses it. Poets, artists make a slit in the umbrella, they tear open the firmament itself, to let in a bit of free and windy chaos and to frame in a sudden light.’ (WP, 210) Or as Leonard Cohen wrote, ‘There is a crack in everything that’s how the light gets in.’
2. Partial objects
Many of these works depict parts of bodies rather than the whole thing. Before partaking in a full body these parts are depicted as partial objects drifting through and emerging out of a chaotic but consistent plane. The force of life that connects everything in conjunctive and disjunctive flows of desire:
desire constantly couples continuous flows and partial objects that are by nature fragmentary and fragmented. Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn and breaks the flows … produced by partial objects and constantly cut-off by other partial objects which in turn produce other flows interrupted by other partial objects. Every ‘object’ produces the continuity of a flow; every flow, the fragmentation of the object (16f) … Every machine functions as a break in the flow to which it is connected, but also a chain in the flow itself, or the production of a flow, in relation to the machine connected to it (36).
These partial objects are part of the flows and functioning of larger bodies but in their own right also consist of and lead on to other flows within and away from the body. Both the body and the partial objects can thus be seen as flows; the body no longer as a discrete whole that contains organs, but as a body whose organs are flows and concentrations of intensities, in this sense a body without organs.
Partial objects are the direct powers of the body without organs and the body without organs the raw material of the partial objects (Anti Oedipus 326) … The subject, discharged of his personal identity but not of his singularities, enters into relations with others following the communication proper to partial objects: everyone passes into the body of the other on the body without organs (63).
3. Blurred, vanishing and/or emerging figures
Cichoń also depicts many figures that are already recognizable as more than floating partial-objects, but are nevertheless blurred, or vanishing/emerging from a backdrop of chaos or void. The figures (almost exclusively women) in these graphics are masterfully drawn; however, rarely are they rendered beautifully finished. There are either parts missing, or blurred out (in that way sometimes recalling Francis Bacon’s work). This can be unsettling, uncanny. But it can also ring true. In this sense that even a masterful finish and polished beauty can never separate themselves from chaotic turbulence, so showing one and not the other seems more flat than enveloping both in one another. There is bliss in merely being, but there is cruelty no less. If Deleuze illustrates this by invoking the chaotic backdrop of Goya’s paintings, in Cichoń’s work figures are often fading into a similarly chaotic background, against which the rest of their body is distinguishable. It is a violent rubbing out, a becoming-indiscernible, in defiance of a clean-cut representation of the body. Or conversely, this vanishing can be seen as the emergence of a true subject out of chaos.‘[T]he subject is, in the very instant of its coming to be, already in ‘eclipse’, as if the subject itself, in the event of art, were to appear in the flicker of its own vanishing or void.’ (Robert Hughes, ‘Riven: Badiou’s Ethical Subject’). A dark place to be sure. But also a place of pure potential, of any difference about to have taken place.
4. Sutured to chaos
This place of potential can be thought of as an inconsistent and therefore unthinkable multiple; one that has not been unified, or counted as one object. It is as if, alongside the masterfully finished creation, the very condition for creation is being simultaneously offered. There is no master in the sense that there is no doormat big enough under which to sweep chaos. ‘Truth results from the fact and the place – the ordeal of absence and void – first nostalgically and then actively arouses the fiction of a master that would be capable of truth – truth results from the disappearance of the master into the anonymity of the empty place. In brief, ‘the master has sacrificed himself so that truth may be’ (Inaesthetics 50). A sacrifice of the delimited masterful stroke for the incoherent doodling of a child. Witold Gombrowicz, the champion of the childlike as creative force, writes of a poet who creates ‘not solely like a wise refined and mature one, but rather like a Wise One who benefits from stupidity, like a Refined One who profits from being tirelessly brutalized, and like a Mature One who is being ceaselessly rejuvenated… Our element is unending immaturity.’ Samuel Beckett another master of failure, who made doodles of his own, wrung the cloth of language with one end dipped in sparse, formal perfection, the other in the unnameable collapse. And in what is something of an amorous encounter, Cichoń’s works, too, enmesh the perfect Masterful finish with the chaos of failure and childlike doodling. Two lovers do not merge with each other into a blissful One. Two lovers violently clash and meet and are traversed by the infinite extra that is the event of their love.
In a similar way, chaos and craft are both entangled and separately present. Film played at a slower speed such that the frames and the void that connects them become visible, without completely compromising the continuity that is the product of their sum. ‘The entire question can be reformulated as follows: How can a truth be thought, at one and the same time, as anonymous (or impersonal) and nevertheless as immanent and terrestrial?’ (Inaesthetics 54). In their own unthinkability, the figures in these drawings/etchings dwell. Yet if an uncanny emptiness pushes through them with unbound elasticity, it will also always snap back like an elastic band. And as infinity and the figure push through one another, intertwined with one another, neither remains unscathed.