by Uli Bohnen (2009)
INTER DIMENSIONES – MIND AND NATURE IN THE ART OF GERARD CARIS
Gerard Caris succeeds in combining his basic visual elements: regular pentagons (two-dimensional) and pentagonal dodecahedrons (three-dimensional) into complex structures with apparent ease, but that ease is illusory. Anyone who might attempt to build a mega-structure from such components will soon find out that they cannot be joined smoothly into harmonic patterns – unlike regular hexagons, for example.
For a long time the conclusion seemed justified that the involvement of this artist with precisely these forms with such problematic combinatory properties was of an extremely artificial character and might even be termed ‘un-natural’. After all, the search for phenomena in the natural world (including the polymorphous world of crystals) with underlying regular pentagons had always proved in vain. Pentagons in fact do occur from time to time, as in pyrite, but never in the regular formation we know from the (hexagonal) honeycomb or from crystals, which are based on different fundamental patterns.
When, in 1984, complexes of regular pentagons were observed in a rapidly cooled alloy of aluminium and manganese for the first time, these were referred to as ‘quasi-crystals’, as they had been synthetically contrived by scientists. However, practically nobody then saw reason to consider such products (or attempts leading to such results) as unnatural- unless one were to go as far as to consider all research by man as an expression of our essential inadequacy towards nature: the celt as the fall of man … But seen in that light all of the history of our culture and civilization is nothing but an accumulation of unnatural manifestations, following our exile from paradise.
Once arrived at the insight that our mind divides us from nature and binds us to her at the same time, the sculptural manipulation of ostensibly unnatural elements like the pentagon no longer presents itself as idle play disconnected from natural reality, or as mere dilettantism.
This observation is not only true because, in all our civilized and cultural activities, it is inevitable that we are occupied with nature in a mediatised role only; it is probably also true in a much broader sense – surprising in its perspectives – when we question ourselves to what extent nature itself may contain a ‘mental’ stratum.
After all, the world of forms to which Gerard Caris has been devoted for almost 40 years – first as a conceptual world, speculatively put on paper, later spherically elaborated – possibly proves so ‘difficult to grasp’ because the combination of pentagonal elements touches on the limitations of our familiar three-dimensional understanding of the world.
Since Einstein’s theory of relativity has confronted us with the problematic conception of space and time as a coherent four-dimensional continuum, our popular view of (two-dimensional) plane and (three-dimensional) space has equally become open to fundamental doubt. The system of logarithms as developed in the 17th century, and the non-Euclidian curvilineo-spheric geometry devised in the 18th century by Karl Friedrich Gauss and its continuation by Bernhard Riemann in the 19th century (with important consequences for the natural sciences) might well have inspired, not only a revision of our everyday vocabulary, but no less of the vocabulary commonly used by artistic circles up to our days. But this has hardly been the case.
It is already quite surprising to find Robert Lebel reproducing the following reflection from such a relatively common-sensical aphorist as Marcel Duchamp: ‘A three-dimensional object will cast no more than a two-dimensional shadow. From this he (i.e. Duchamp) concludes that a three-dimensional object must in turn be the shadow cast by an object of four dimensions.’ 1 Thus, with the help of this clever analogy, an attempt is made to bring closer to our imaginative understanding something we cannot visualize (though we can conceive of it in thought) with the help of something we can visualize.
It seems inevitable to point out this close association between an artist and the issues confronting the scientists of his time in relation to the work of Gerard Caris, not least because the long-term struggle of this Dutchman with an element that is so ‘unruly’ from an artistic point of view as the regular pentagon can also be observed among scientific crystallographers – cloaked in an idiom which typically differentiates their profession from the activities of Gerard Caris. Since the time when their microscopic view was directed to the aluminium-manganese alloy mentioned, and surprised by the fact that its crystalline structure was composed of regular pentagons, scientists have pained themselves with the question of how this structure can be reconciled with our understanding of three-dimensionality. After all, a spheric combination of these elements that is without either apertures or inner cavities cannot be realized in any model as Caris was also forced to recognize.
Of the theoretical hypotheses brought forward so far to explain the occurrence of the quasi-crystals mentioned above some are of special importance, namely the ones suggesting the possibility of a gradual transition between the even-numbered dimensions, or, to put it differently, the ones implying that our reality is of a hyper-dimensional nature. What does this mean?
It was said before that the extension of mathematics and geometry to the arithmetical and graphic manipulation of interdimensional and supra-tridimensional functions has advanced at a forceful pace since the 17th century, but that the artists of the same period, with very few exceptions, have nevertheless remained caught in their conventional conception of plane and space. In this we can discover a deplorable detachment of the plastic arts vis-a-vis the problems discussed, whereas the relationship between man and the natural world surrounding him may well essentially depend on a more adequate understanding of them. The very significance of this relationship today can be demonstrated by the calamities which we are calling forth on a global scale as a result of our conception of reality and the technologies based on it, including everything in their wake.
Would it not be plausible to assume, therefore, that the simple construction models and the mechanical violence of our practical approach to nature (independent of the fact that research, production and exploitation may have become largely computerized and electronified) are nothing but the consequence of an essential lack of understanding? In space travel at any rate we have learned to take speed-dependent shifts of time and the related shifts in destination setting into account as part of our calculations. In particle research, too, we can adequately handle the complex relationship between space and time, or mass and energy, respectively, when extremely high velocities come into play. But whether and how this insight holds the key to a more adequate understanding of our daily life still has to become manifest – thereby perhaps fully contradicting Einstein’s claim that the worldview of Newton suffices for our understanding of the reality directly open to our perception.
In the context of a reflection of this kind the uncertain hypotheses with which crystallographers have responded to the pentagonal structure of the rapidly cooled aluminium-manganese alloy may possibly be attributed a much wider significance than might be surmised at first sight from the limited scope of their object of research. This, however, is then equally true of the plastic art of Gerard Caris.
His graphic ‘pentagonal complexes’ (as he calls these structures him self), as much as their sculptural counterparts, are the functional outcome of an exponential multiplication process, which might be translated into logarithmically winding helixes, or – in abstract arithmetical terms be represented as logarithmic numbers. And what can be claimed for the latter: that they symbolize the gradual and endlessly differentiated transition between arithmetically representable dimensions, can also be claimed in a specific and therefore more illuminating sense for the world of forms of Gerard Caris.
But there is more to it yet. When an artist uses his formal vocabulary to create objects of everyday use and so enters the domain of applied art we are witnessing aspects of an age-surpassing modernity, showing consciousness of continuity.
More specifically: It may be true to say that the radical attitudes of some of the most important representatives of modern art in the present century became manifest precisely in the fact that they attempted to expand their metaphysical claims – partly borrowed from the distant past, partly inspired by the scientific and social issues of their time – to include the reform of daily life, and that, as a consequence of these attempts, they wished to end the separation between free and applied art. In contrast, however, the popular view has doggedly persisted that art and day-to-day life are uncorrelated (and non-relatable) domains – with the dominant preference for free or applied art generally falling now this, now the other way. In the face of this continuing anti-modernism Caris adheres to modern principles.
Let us call to mind that when the founders of modern art appealed to existential forms and modes of thought of a distant past, they did not necessarily intend to provide a new basis for hidden intuitive skills. Often enough they felt forced above all to establish links with manifestations of a differently oriented rationality. Vice versa, the appeals of many modern artists to the scientific theories of their time were not only made because for example these might provide the rational support they were looking for; after all: physicists, more than anyone of that age, experienced the excitement of witnessing the unexpected escape of profound entities such as space, time, mass and energy from the constraints of human imagination precisely when research conditions were strictly respected.
Thus an apparently paradoxical situation arose: From philosophers like Nikolaus Cusanus (1401-1464) or Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who had each radicalized the mathematical thinking of their days with the object of proving the existence of God, and who had, since the age of Leibniz, been made to serve e.g. infinitesimal calculus, immanent in nature, or (in the case of Spinoza) the comprehensive construct of the increasingly God-estranged Enlightenment – precisely from such philosophers transcendental needs were kindled afresh in the 20th century.
There is the example of an artist like Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965) 2 who, with an explicit appeal to Spinoza but without in any way wishing to revitalize the belief in God, attempted to reattach metaphysical implications to the rigour of mathematical and physical thinking and to develop sculptural symbols both in the domain of free art and in that of applied art. From this impulse can be explained the early object-less paintings and sculptures by Vantongerloo, but also his office furniture and architectural designs – among them a model for an airport, dated as early as 1928.
After World War I the socio-revolutionary turmoils in Europe for a while fuelled the hope that the synthesis of free and applied art would soon come about as part of the general society-wide abolition of the division of labour. In retrospect, nothing of this has remained but a knot in the handkerchief of history – and the intention of many artists to use their artistic arsenal to effect subversive changes in mindless modes of perception.
In view of what was said before on the special dimensional properties which characterize the ‘pentagonal complexes’ of Gerard Caris it cannot be dismissed offhand that their attempted transformation into objects of everyday use may be accompanied by perceptual irritation, the consequences of which cannot be estimated at all just yet.
Clearly, the metaphysical ‘hallowing of planes’ by Mondrian has not put a stop to the persistent adherence on the part of any of the architects who appealed to him to the questionable distinction, in their practical work, between ‘clear-cut-two-dimensional’ plane surface and ‘clear-cut-three-dimensional’ space. But the examples of later space/plane paradoxes (for instance in Op Art, or the work of M. C. Escher) overtly display the problems which Mondrian left behind and whose dimensional complexity is symbolized with focal clarity by the work of Gerard Caris.
Caris, of southern Dutch origin, is intimately familiar with the work of Mondrian, Vantongerloo and Escher.3 But the traditions of Holland and Flanders cannot exclusively explain his persistent involvement with regular pentagons, which cannot be copied and joined smoothly one to the other in plane or space without producing intermediary planes or cavities of different formal properties.4 Caris received his artistic training in the US, as can be learned from the illuminating biography in his catalogues. One of the artists whose courses he followed may have been of British descent – i.e. David Hockney – but his other teachers, including Richard Diebenkorn and, above all, R. B. Kitaj (with whom he has kept contact in writing), were, or are, native Americans; their involvement with the relations between space and plane have also considerably contributed to Gerard Caris’ sense of identity as an artist, in spite of all outward differences in their modes of expression.
In Diebenkorn’s ‘seascapes’, for example, which are constructive and sensitive at the same time, the problem of spatial depth, of sphericity, no longer presents itself to us as narrowly objective, but rather as filtered through a process of subjective observation, resulting in a synthesis with the atmospheric. In the figures of Kitaj, which are nurtured from a variety of sensory and intellectual sources and are thus truly ‘assembled forms’, it is self-evident that the heterogeneous elements – or ‘visions’, with a double bearing – are associated with heterogeneous perspectives. And in Hockney’s colourful telescopic constructs, with planes juxtaposed under carefully calculated angles (which sometimes convey an ornamental impression) the conviction of the artist becomes manifest that the cubist rebellion against the spatial conception with central perspective has not as yet led to the detection, or invention, of all imaginable – possibly even required – alternatives.5
This is a heritage which Caris does not so much stretch to the limit as adopt to select what can usefully symbolize conceivable correspondences between nature and mind – in the modality of a visual vocabulary minimized by mental discipline. That this correspondence cannot be expressed without conflicts has always been our anthropological fate. And the problem which both Caris and the crystallographers have in trying to explain the ‘dimensional unruliness’ of the regular pentagon ultimately illustrates the very similarity between them in this context. In fact, the efforts of the human race to break free from its relationship with nature through explosively uncontained overcrowding appear to result in the history of nature becoming the functional outcome of the history of mankind – up to the point where, as a consequence, the latter finds its logical end.
In the light of such perspectives it is important to steer clear of unsound alternatives, i.e. the violent escalation of human demands on nature, or the naive illusion of total harmonious integration with her, and reflect on the conception of mind as mediated nature and nature as mediated mind.
Great effort may be required for this task; but, in counterbalance, gratifying insights are beckoning us from afar. To both perspectives the works of Gerard Caris expressively testify.
1. The original quotation can be found in: Marcel Duchamp, Readymade. 180 Aussprüche aus Interviews mit Marcel Duchamp. Serge Stauffer ed., Zürich 1973, p.11.
2. Cf. e.g.: Angela Tomas, Denkbilder. Materialien zur Entwicklung von Georges Vantongerloo. Düsseldorf 1987.
3. It is extremely interesting to read books on artists whose views on dimensions fascinated Caris, with Caris’ own comments scribbled in the margins – as the publication described in footnote 2, or the chapter on M.C. Escher in: J.L. Locher, Vormgeving en Structuur. Amsterdam 1973.
4. Cf. Gerard Caris. Exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Bremen 1993, in particular p. 29 ff.
5. For this summary of Hockney’s objectives we again made use of a commentary by Gerard Caris on David Hockney: in Art&Design Vol. 4, no. 1/2, London 1968. In this source Hockney criticizes the central perspective (invented in Italy) as the parameter of European art of the last 300 years, clearly losing sight of the fact that, at the same time, completely different traditions in spatial representation were developed, particularly originating from Flanders. Also cf. Erwin Panofsky, Die Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form’. In: Erwin Panofsky, Aufsätze zu Grundfragen der Kunstwissenschaft. Berlin 1985, p.99 ff.
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