Another language another way of speaking so quietly always there in the shape of memories, thoughts, feelings, which are extra-marginal outside of primary consciousness, yet must be classed as some sort of unawakened finite infinite articulation. … To exist is one thing, to be perceived another.1
– Susan Howe, The Quarry
A preposition, when used with a noun or pronoun, indicates direction, location, or time. To place alongside. Near, nearby, next to. In regard to, together with, toward. What I am about to write is about relationships between things. About, after, around, owing to. A line has an infinite number of points. The consideration here is how to connect some of them.
Andrés Ramírez Gaviria’s Beyond Black (2010), is a “nano-size grid on glass,” a work in which we see a black monochrome surface, and we are told that it is—at the level of one-billionth of a meter—something much more complex, consisting of a tight grid of invisible-to-the-eye lines. At the nanometer level, the grid we cannot see underpins this apparent blackness, destabilizing the visual information our eyes perceive. Once we are told that something is beneath that impenetrable black, that it breaks down, we are beset by more existential questions. This is a poignant metaphor for artistic process, for history writing, for information technology and how we understand it, for social and racial categories. There are countless things we cannot immediately see.
We have to trust that the nanometer grid exists under the blackness. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it is actually there or not. We decide to agree that it is there.
In her most recent book of essays, poet Susan Howe unlocks connections across disparate points of American cultural history and her own personal history. She writes about grief, but also about perception, about time, about memories and lived experience, and about how language can bear a relationship to these things. Language is the preposition in this case, the thing that points toward something. Language is not the thing itself. Rather, it is an indicator. Howe’s essay “Sorting Facts,” is presumably about film, though it expands into an essay about grief and memory, history and its holes. Film’s structure, with its cuts and layers of visual clips, its montages and jumps that we organize and make sense of almost unconsciously by now, offers rich parallels to Howe’s poetry, in which she directs her readers to the structure of language itself. As one critic writes: “by asking us to focus on the tangible presence of language itself—on the morphemes, phonemes and graphemes that words are made of—Howe moves us away from our tendency to think in abstractions… We are asked to see and hear the shapes and sounds of the words instead of reading through them to what they supposedly refer to.”2
In Between Forms of Representation and Interpretation (2015), Gaviria breaks down the text of his exhibition’s press release into a series of light patterns made by flashing LED light tubes on two triangular forms. Howe writes, “Somewhere I read that relations between sounds and objects, feelings and thoughts, develop by association; language attaches to and envelops its referent without destroying or changing it—the way a cobweb catches a fly.”3 Using the cultural systems we devise to understand the world around us (i.e. science, technology, language, music), Gaviria takes one set of information and remakes it in another system. One system of ordering knowledge is the cobweb; the thing it catches is the fly. One kind of information told through another system becomes something entirely other: the information becomes different. How do we reconstitute the fly?
A pioneer in the field of information theory, Claude Shannon writes in his A Mathematical Theory of Communication (1948), “the fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.”4 How can one communicate information in a way not determined by meaning, Gaviria asks. In the end, decoding the press release from the flashing lights of Between Forms does not expand what the work is capable of doing; it does not elucidate your experience to uncover what exactly the press release says. The transmission into another system is the point, is the art, is the idea, all at once. In Gaviria’s homage to Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Information (2015), the artist reorganizes the mathematician’s original text, maximizing the information in it at the expense of its meaning. Or perhaps the translation heightens how the text can mean, allowing for a way of reading that actually enacts Shannon’s theory. And yet, by taking the theory at its word, Gaviria makes Shannon’s original meaning almost indecipherable. It becomes, instead, a visual representation—perhaps a performance—of an idea. As viewers, we see the representation of the idea, yet the details of Shannon’s theory are obscured. Gaviria’s book exists in a kind of liminal space: it acts between the articulation of the idea and its meaning, between the thing itself and how we can show it to someone else. It is a prepositional mode.
Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915), a significant precedent for Gaviria’s Beyond Black, radically reinvented what paint on a canvas could represent and how we understand the monochromatic. With it, Malevich made something that was not representational of the object-world surrounding him: “trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square,” Malevich writes. His abstraction was premised upon a “world of feeling,” rather than upon a world of objects. He writes, “The black square on the white field was the first form in which non-objective feeling came to be expressed. The square = feeling, the white field = the void beyond this feeling.”5
There are countless things we cannot immediately see.
For Resonance (2006-2008), Gaviria attaches himself to a heart monitor and connects it to a loudspeaker in a gallery. The speaker plays the sound of his heartbeat as he goes about his days and nights elsewhere, creating an abstract, pulsing self-portrait. The heart is not only the central human muscle, powering all the movement of the body. It is also the symbolic center of human emotional life. This rhythmic self-portrait, then, abstracts an entire world of feelings.
One thing about Gaviria’s work is its relationship to translation and transparency. Much of the work takes a concept from one field—perhaps mathematics, or code, or film—and represents it through another medium. If you do not realize that the throbbing sound of Resonance is Gaviria’s heartbeat translated into sculpture, how might you engage with the work? How else might it exist? Sometimes the artist will describe the translation for you; sometimes a curator will outline the subtext. Other times, you are left to your own devices. “A lot of the work can go undetected,” Gaviria says to me. The question is how much to disclose, and how much to leave open. “There is no one way of communicating something.” How we understand the unfamiliar, the unreadable, the unexplained, tells us much about how we relate to others.
Malevich writes about the sensation of disorientation, of confusion, of frustration among the viewers who first saw his Black Square. “Yet the general public saw in the non-objectivity of the representation the demise of art and failed to grasp the evident fact that feeling had here assumed external form,” Malevich writes6. Paintings that portray recognizable things—landscapes, portraits, genre scenes—allow a different kind of connection, as well as a different conceptualization of what art does. For his viewers, the removal of these familiar indicators led to a sense of dislocation. There was an overwhelming sense of confusion about how to relate to this black painting. After Malevich’s death, Black Square went unseen for decades, as Stalin’s social realism became the official state-sanctioned art of Soviet Russia. It is worth noting that fascist governments almost always prefer social realism: visions of wholesome, national citizens provide a one-dimensional relationship. Either you belong to that world or you don’t. The implication of Gaviria’s work is that all modes of belonging are subjective, are complex, and are premised upon emotional lives and other forms of knowledge. When we open ourselves to different languages, when we allow for different modes of saying, we allow for a more complex way of being. We relate to others differently. We find new forms of how art can mean in the world. Meaning—not at all fixed, actually—is an attempt at describing how we understand ourselves in the worlds we make. It is a structure for making sense of things.
“Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper,”7 Howe writes. Gaviria’s works follow a certain consistent set of questions across his career, even as they tackle diverse visual and conceptual propositions. How do we make meaning? How do we understand? How do we share information? What gets lost in the process? How can image, language, and sound illuminate important truths about our code-oriented world? Within, around, upon, near, alongside: Gaviria makes moments of poetry in the spaces between the systems we use to communicate with each other. That is to say, he works in the spaces that prepositions try to fill. Even in the seemingly meticulous, structured worlds of mathematics or code, Gaviria’s works leave open a space. What you, dear viewer, make of this open space is limitless in its imaginative potential, in its points of connection. And that, really, is what poetry offers us.
- Susan Howe, The Quarry (New York: New Directions Books, 2015), 62.
- Stephen Paul Martin, cited in Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/susan-howe.
- Howe, The Quarry, 31.
- Claude Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” The Bell System Technical Journal 27 (1949): 379-423, 623-656.
- Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003 reprint), 76.
- Malevich, The Non-Objective World, 76.
- Howe, The Quarry, 3.