One could see human nature as being somewhat schizophrenic – on the one hand we are part of, indeed a product of, nature and natural processes whilst on the other hand capable of reflection on our surroundings and ourselves. The blind process of evolution has produced a kind of mirror capable of reflecting on itself. This mirror is what we call ‘human consciousness’, both a blessing and a curse. The price we pay for the ability to ponder the universe is an inevitable sense of separation from it.
The way in which we ponder and make sense of things tends, in the broadest of terms, to fall into two categories: The reductive approach which seeks to understand the fundamental principles that underpin a seemingly infinite variety of phenomena. At its purest this is the pursuit of physicists. And the opposite or perhaps complimentary approach which seeks understanding through a study of the variations themselves more often practiced by biologists.These polarities of approach have been understood for millennia. 2000 years ago the Greeks would have thought of Platonists as those considering the ideal archetypal tree and Aristotelians categorizing all the species and sub-species.
My own approach has come about, to a large extent, through looking and making; a long informal study of natural phenomena combined with a rather obsessive desire to express this ‘leitmotif’ of ‘theme and variation’ which seems to permeate the universe. The reductive approach looks then for the underlying laws and forces which drive the physical world. In terms of form this is best understood through geometry (mathematics is often defined as the study of patterns). When analysed in this way, reality can be rationalized into a surprisingly small number of fundamental shapes. There are only three regular 2 dimensional figures that will tessellate; the equilateral triangle, the square and the hexagon – that’s it. Likewise in three dimensions there are only five regular polyhedral, (3D shapes in which all faces, edges and angles are equal): the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron, known collectively as the Platonic solids.
The myriad of variations we see around us can be rationalized in terms of a limited kind of ‘pattern book’, the physical expression of the laws of physics. For this reason we find these fundamental shapes and patterns scattered throughout diverse phenomena, often as a result of diametrically opposite processes. In both organic and inorganic forms and at all scales from the atomic to the galactic. The hexagonal columns of Basalt in the Giant’s Causeway, for example, were caused by the rapid cooling of molten magma, shrinking and causing a regular cracking pattern. Exactly the same hexagonal packing is also found in honeycombs, created by the instinctive behaviour of highly social insects. However neither the hexagonal patterns in the Giant’s Causeway or the honeycomb are geometrically perfect. They are approximations of, or variations on, the generative theme of hexagonal packing.
Geometry is predicated on the idea of an infinitely small dot and an infinitely thin line, which, of course can never exist. Pure geometry does not exist in the world of real things. It is an extrapolation based on the commonality of many variations. The fundamental shape can only be discerned by inference and, as such, can only really exist in our minds. It is almost impossible to envisage a world without this fundamental tension between a ubiquitous tendency for spontaneous pattern formation tempered by an equally ubiquitous tendency for spontaneous random variation. In fact one can characterise the evolutionary process itself as being driven by this tension between ‘theme and variation’, order without randomness, genetics without mutations, would produce evolutionary stasis, whilst randomness witoutpatern would be tantamount to undifferentiated chaos (whatever that would look like).
The term ‘theme and variation’ is most commonly associated with music: one thinks of Bach’s themes burgeoning into sublime complexities of variations inversions and repetitions. Or Charley Parker lifting a well worn ‘standard’ to exquisite emotional heights through his improvised variations. Yes, theme without variation would be a very dull and unexpressive affair. Playfulness is intrinsic to the idea of variation, a ‘how else could it be?’ kind of curiosity.
This tension between theme and variation is pervasive, not only in evolutionary processes and natural phenomena but in music, language and the visual arts. We recognize the balance between order and chaos instinctively and perhaps for this reason it is capable of moving us on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. We take pleasure, often subconsciously, in the ‘frisson’ between the reassurance of theme and the unpredictability of variation. It is hard not to ‘anthropomorphise’ this sense of play onto the myriad examples of variation in natural phenomena. As if some creative god set a few ground rules and then started to play.
For me, as an artist, the idea of play is vitally important. The unselfconscious pursuit of unformulated desire through making and drawing is more interesting and ultimately more enlightening to me than the illustration of ideas. In order to play satisfactorily, however, one needs a playground or at least a few rules. To be meaningful (and fun) any game needs some structure. Ironically, expressive freedom only has meaning in the context of constraints (one only has to imagine football without a finite pitch and a rule book).
Variation cannot exist as a singularity. By definition, it requires more than one example. Partly for this reason, much of my work, both two and three dimensional, consists of sequences. It is through comparison that an expressive guage can be built. Recognition of the generative theme enables us to enjoy the multiple permutations, both intellectually and emotionally. Making sequences of drawings or sculpture on a particular formal theme enables each individual image or object to take on its own expressive character by virtue of comparison with its siblings.
Variation, whether biological mutation or musical improvisation, usually implies a degree of chance, a certain freedom to try something just to see what happens. I often work in ways that deliberately embrace chance as part of the working process. Naturally eroded granite boulders, shaped by innumerable chance events over a geological timescale are, (within certain bouldery parameters), mathematically chaotic in form.
These stones often play the role of both material and muse in my work. I use their random shape as a starting point applying a structuring principle in the form of a geometric pattern or set of simple rules for covering the surface. The generative rule might be to cover the entire surface with one continuous line or a geometric matrix for example. Clearly any rigidity of the pattern is forced to yield to the shape of the stone, bulging and shrinking across its contours. The interplay between the boulder and the pattern is pleasing in itself. One becomes more aware of the contours of the surface when it is divided into increments. The distortion of the individual elements of the pattern emphasizes and amplifies the undulating form. Rationalizing it incrementally makes the shape more intelligible and enhances our appreciation. Fishnet tights perform exactly this function heightening our awareness of the contours of a woman’s leg.
When drawing onto the boulder, much of my attention is devoted to achieving a satisfactory union between rock and pattern. However, there is still room for improvisation. While one part of my mind is engaged in solving this puzzle of reconciliation, another part is liberated to play in the no-man’s land between order and chaos. After all there are an infinite number of ways to traverse a form with a line.
Symmetry is another powerful and pervasive ordering principle. We find symmetry in atomic molecular and chrystaline structures, in the multifold symmetries of flowers, leaves and stems of plants as well as in the bilateral symmetry of most animals. From ants to elephants, mackerel to monkeys, the vast majority of sentient beings exhibit mirror-image symmetry. I am not an evolutionary biologist, but it seems that the reason for this is probably something to do with genetic economy. But, for whatever reason, bilateral symmetry is clearly predominant amongst animals, ourselves included. As highly social creatures we are naturally attuned to reading meaning and emotion in the behavior of others. We read expression in body language, but facial expression is the most powerful and subtly nuanced communication we have, bar language itself. Being able to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling from their facial expression must have been an enormous evolutionary advantage for our hunter gatherer ancestors.
It is tempting to think that the special status that bilateral symmetry seems to have for our imaginations, its ability to suggest emotional significance, is a result of our sensitivity to reading meaning and expression in the human face. In 1921 Rorschach, developed his famous psychological inkblot test, where the subject is asked to say what they see in a random but mirror-imaged inkblot.
I have explored bi-lateral symmetry through drawings and ceramic wall works, using Euclidean geometry combined with a Rorschach-like ink blot technique. The results hover ambiguously somewhere between the geometric and the organic. Ambiguity can be a powerful tool. It engages our imaginations like a puzzle or a riddle and can evoke new images and fresh insights. Ambiguity is related to metaphor and as such is fundamental to all the arts.
There is another kind of ambiguity implicit in the themes or generative principles behind natural phenomena. The way in which similar forms or patterns appear in disparate contexts as a result of diverse forces and processes: the branching patterns of trees and plants, river systems and deltas, vascular and neural networks for example; similar patterns produced by a diversity of process. The vitality of a tree is in its ability to fight gravity, pushing its branches into the air, drawing liquid sap upwards to the leaves through evaporation. A river system is going in the opposite direction. Driven by gravity, it is draining from the tips to the stem, from tributaries to a main channel which eventually discharges into the sea. Playing with these ideas in the studio, I made a series of large ink drawings. I did not use a brush but allowed the ink to flow under gravity, controlling the direction of flow by tilting the paper. Starting with a seed-like blob, the rivulets of ink divide again and again in branching structure, the rigidity of which is mitigated by chance, how the ink happens to flow across the coarse surface of the paper. The drawing is given bilateral symmetry by folding the paper to create a mirror image. When hung on the wall I inverted the original direction of flow so they appear more like espalier trees, reaching upwards and dividing into ever thinner filaments which would eventually merge into blackness.
Some phenomena exhibit a higher degree of obvious order than others, whilst some appear predominantly chaotic. This is often a matter of scale. Looking at the earth from space the spherical geometry of the whole planet is obvious. Moving in closer, the coastlines resulting from the combined influence of topography and gravity on water seem fairly random. Closer still and organic life exhibits a high degree and structure, and, on the micro scale of crystalline and atomic structures, order rules supreme.
Human beings are supremely good at pattern recognition and capable of finding pattern even when deeply hidden within randomness. In fact, we have such a strong predisposition to find pattern and meaning in things that we project our own subjective patterns onto reality, even when none actually exists. The distribution of stars in the night sky (with the exception of the planets) is a truly random affair and yet we project shapes and meanings onto these arbitrary dots in the form of Ursa Minor, Orion et al... As well as using our deductive powers to comprehend the world objectively, we cannot help simultaneously projecting our subjective ideas and feelings onto reality. In the words of the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi “The world enters our consciousness as emotion as well as knowledge.”
The objective, reductive, Platonic approach enables us to understand the themes that underpin reality as experienced. But subjectivity is not nonsense. The things that the mind produces: literature, art, music etc. can tell us something about ourselves that any number of brain scans could never reveal. Myths, fables and traditional stories have all evolved in an oral tradition through a kind of cultural natural selection, where only the very fit or apt ideas survive. We use metaphor and analogy in our everyday speech. In short, by definition, all art forms pertain to the human condition.
In nature, theme only exists as an ideal exemplar of manifest variations and variation can only exist within the context of theme. They seem to be mutually dependent, locked in an eternal but fertile struggle.
Peter Randall Page, 2015