In developing my works made out of attrition I have drawn on many sources of inspiration. My search has been for the ways in which the process of attrition has been exemplified in the works of other artists and thinkers, and how I might build upon their precedents and insights.
The history of art consists of battles for supremacy during each epoch, entailing a war of attrition between the new and the established. It is also a story of how the meaning of objects has been eroded or modified, how language has been evolved and its meaning enhanced or changed by usages and juxtapositions.
It seems that the human brain seeks to expend the minimum energy in executing its tasks. Behavioural scientists have demonstrated convincingly that a high percentage of decisions are taken with little rational consideration, but on the basis of 'rules of thumb', 'common sense' and herd instinct. An important product of this process is the imbuement of things with associations which are important to the brain's 'short-handing' and decision-making capability.
Thus the use of objects in art can almost never be neutral. They all carry meanings which can be 'read' by the viewer and add to the richness of their experience of the work. The more the image or object is loaded with semiotics, the greater the potential for the 'beholders share'.
Yayoi Kusama's pumpkin
My first sighting of a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin was at the Benesse Art Site, Naoshima, Japan
in 2015. The sculpture was striking, and I decided to look into its back story to understand its meaning.
Literally and metaphorically Kusama’s pumpkins grew out of her childhood spent on her parents seed farm. Their anthropomorphic shape appealed to her and when painted with dream-derived hallucinogenic polka dots they became striking objects.
Kusama has produced pumpkins in both two and three dimensions, and in many colour ways. They have populated an 'infinity room, and latterly she has deconstructed one into a giant multi-limbed creature. Clearly this motif has made a big contribution to the Kusama brand. Her pumpkins have become her most recognisable signature, and are a huge success commercially, but I struggle to find anything meaningful in them.
Much has been written about her lifelong battle with mental illness, which has been her double-edged sword. No doubt some may be intrigued by the tales of her philandering Father, spying on him in flagrante for her Mother, and the consequences for her psyche. And there’s the curiosity about a lifetime of semi-permanent hospitalisation and obsessive self-documentation through art.
But what real insights arise from consideration of her pumpkins? Having seen a Kusama pumpkin sculpture and immersed myself in one of her infinity rooms, I don’t know anything more about the nature of psychosis, or it’s implications for me.
If the pumpkin itself isn’t imbued with meaning beyond the artist’s childhood memories and art therapy, what about their polka dot treatment? Sadly there’s little to be discovered here either. While Damien Hirst attempted to add intellectual ballast with the titles he gave his spot paintings, Kusama doesn’t even try.
The dots are decoration without the mythology of the Aboriginals, the science-based insight of the Impressionists, the clever optics of Vasarely and Riley, or the humour of Lichtenstein.
The facility with which Kusama has merchandised her dots onto handbags, champagne bottles, and clothing speaks to their superficial appeal. They have no more essential meaning than the dots on a Cath Kidstone wash bag or table cloth.
When the artist is juxtaposed with her pumpkins dressed in Kusama trademark dots it's as if she's with her photogenic family. She and they look wonderful, but they don't say much.
Hamish Pringle ‘If I can still see, I can see a way out’ 1-8 Lockdown 2020.
Dimensions variable. Styling and photography by Vivienne Pringle.
Rarely has the process of attrition in nature, society, relationships, and language been so abrasive. The many external pressures have been exacerbated by multiple self-generated ones. This series of works was inspired by 'Lockdown' which I created early on in the Covid-19 pandemic. As the first wave was followed by the second I felt the need to manifest physically my internal concerns as away of dealing with them. But my experience has not been one of unremitting gloom. Indeed incarceration has enabled deep reflection and time to create. So this series of 'portrait self-portraits' expresses glimmers of optimism in a dark time.
There is a rich social history of make-up, masks, headdresses, and helmets, and they have been deployed in contemporary art in a variety of ways by a wide spectrum of artists. Magritte, Picasso, Ernst, Escher, Beuys, Sherman, Gormley, Muholi, and Cobbing being just some of them. My intention is to use the semantics of the materials which wrap my head to express what's going on inside it.
‘Leaning into the wind’ by Thomas Riedelsheimer 2017
There’s a telling moment in this film by Thomas Riedelsheimer when he captures artist Andy Goldsworthy agonising whether to dig a sculpture in the brow of a hill, and then can’t bring himself to do it. Unlike the US self-monumentalizers such as Robert Smithson and James Turrell, Goldsworthy has a reluctance to impose himself permanently on the landscape. He shares this with other British ‘Land Artists’ such as Richard Long and David Nash. Instead he enjoys the struggle with nature not wishing to win, but creating a series of visually stunning provisional victories. His is a gentle war of attrition: delicate leaf filigrees are holed by a breeze; icicle installations melt; twiggy lattices unravel. Goldsworthy accepts that even his sculptural installations such as at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or in his refuges in Dignes, France, are destined to decline and decay. He embraces entropy and his physical works are always unfinished until they’re destroyed finally by attrition. Hence the significance of the photographs by which Goldsworthy has documented his works for decades, and which freeze frame the beauty of his ephemeral nature collages for posterity. But given the dynamic qualities involved in both the making and manifestation of his art, and especially in his performances, video is perhaps Goldsworthy’s key medium. The technology lets us both follow the narrative and freeze frame the revelatory images. Made in collaboration with Riedelsheimer, ‘Leaning Into The Wind’, and the 2001 film ‘Rivers and Tides’, are the most completely fulfilling Goldsworthy art works.
Jenny Holzer: ‘Thing indescribable’ Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 2019
The concern of concrete poets is to stretch the meaning of words. This can be conceived as a process of linguistic attrition. George Herbert laid out his 1633 poem ‘Easter Wings’ in a shape reminiscent of angels. Likewise Jenny Holzer uses many typographical techniques to enhance and evolve meaning – for example slogan-style advertising lettering, redacted text, and most famously the LED typeface associated with the New York Times Square news ticker tape. In 1981 her compatriot artist Ed Ruscha developed his own font in which he called ‘Boy Scout Utility Modern’. His continued use of it became a trademark so that the viewing of a new work evoked memories of previous ones. Holzer has appropriated LED in a similar manner: it’s become her ‘handwriting’ much as Tracy Emin's has in neon. However a weakness in Holzer’s strategy was revealed at the Guggenheim Bilboa: firstly, many of the LED sculptures were moving too quickly to convey meaning. Secondly there didn’t appear to be an inextricable link between the words and the medium, apart from just declamatory emphasis. Ideally words, typography, and material should work inextricably together to make a work of concrete poetry. Take ‘The Little Seamstress’ a 1970 collaboration between Ian Hamilton Finlay and Richard Demarco. They used the title and a multi-level verbal and visual pun of a sailboat stitching waves upon the sea to create a complete work. If LED has its roots in news then art works should utilise its visual impact for clarity of communication.
Thomas Albright “Perception and the Beholder’s Share” 2014
Neurologist Albright has demonstrated in experiments that the brain is in a constant process of ‘sensing attrition’.
As it receives new sensory inputs, it assesses them against its existing database, reaffirming familiar links, trying to make sense of the unfamiliar, arriving at an interpretation, or rejecting the irreconcilable.
“This combination of things, the fusion of signals from the retina and signals coming back from memory store produces ‘implicit visual imagery’ whereby we fill in the blanks creating images that correspond to the exemplar in filling in the blanks on a noisy, fuzzy, imprecise image. We try to make something out of noisy signals. We try to see pattern in them. A small bit of suggestion will cause you to see a particular pattern.”
And the brain rewards us when it succeeds in resolving what Derrida termed ‘differance’. Research in 2018 by the Medical University of Vienna “showed sudden and significantly greater activation of the nucleus accumbens when the solving of a puzzle is accompanied by an Aha!-moment and hence a moment of intense joy and relief.”
The Impressionists exploited Ernst Gombrich’s 'beholders’ share' and following Duchamp many artists have set puzzles to create what Arthur Koestler termed ‘bisociation’ events.
Albright has shown that repeated stimulus can condition an ‘illogical’ neurological response – for example A conferring B – but this takes considerable effort. Reinterpreting existing signs, symbols, and stories to produce a similar but different iconography may be more efficient in producing the ‘noisy signals’ the brain enjoys decoding.
Thomas D. Albright: Schematic depiction of change in local cortical connectivity and neuronal signaling predicted to underlie acquisition of visual associative memories 2012
The role of sculpture in ‘Parasite’, written and directed by Bong Joon-ho 2019
Two sculptural objects play key roles in the film ‘Parasite’. These are counterpoints to the three environments in which this war of attrition unfolds – a squalid semi-basement, a hilltop mansion, and its underground bunker.
The first sculpture is a gift to Ki-woo by his wealthy young friend in exchange for a favour. It's not just an ordinary piece of rock, though his Mother thinks so. This one is imbued with centuries of tradition and symbolism. This ‘Suseok’ has been chosen for its resemblance to a mountain, a type which used to be placed on Confucian writing tables - hence the name ‘scholar’s stone’. This object can be assessed in terms of its materiality and form, placing it naturally in the category of Minimalist sculpture. However, appreciating its symbolic meaning makes for a richer experience.
The second sculptural object is the Indian tepee. This portable installation plays a subtle but powerful role. With it Bong Joon-ho exploits North American history for his own tale of invasion, subjugation, and appropriation. The 'tent' is a Duchampian ready-made whose placement in Da-song’s bedroom, and then in the garden shows how powerful context can be for sculptural narrative. In the former location it’s the child’s safe retreat from his fear of the ghost in the house. But out on the lawn it becomes ominous, especially as the storm gathers, and ultimately a murder scene. Bong Joon-ho does as Ronald Bogue suggests in ‘Art and Territory’: his art practice involves “processes and movements of territorialisation, deterritorialisation, and reterritorialization”.
Phyllida Barlow in ‘Phyllida’ 2019
“The actions and incidents of how things collapse and deteriorate and become repaired are great metaphors for the human condition.” This RA film reveals that there are four kinds of attrition running through Phyllida Barlow’s work. Firstly her use of everyday materials which have been through the abrasive process of usage, then discarded. Found objects which have a patina. As she says, “Taking the ordinary and seeing it as extraordinary.”
Secondly her robust technique is a form of attrition. She makes, breaks, and re-combines objects to create “kinds of still life”. Her collages unite these disparate components and carry forward their residual material stories, as well as her making processes, into monumental forms which are giant palimpsests of meaning.
Thirdly her perception of interiors as “folded”, environments, which catalyse forms of interpersonal attrition. “Domestic space is quite enclosed, quite charged in many ways. Potentially highly emotional in terms of what domestic space contains, everything from great love, family and closeness. And yet there’s also the opposite, enormous frustration or maybe feeling boxed in and imprisoned.”
Lastly her embracing of the subconscious and letting ideas fight their way to the surface. Childhood memories of being driven by her Father through the bomb sites of East London, of her Grandmother’s under-stairs Wunderkammer, and perhaps inspiration too from Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' books and their meandering, decaying, gothic towers. “I don’t think I’m an artist who has a subject in my head at the outset of the work. I’m just continuously trying to find that. I like to use chance, to allow accidents or mistakes to become part of what I’m doing.”
Robert Rauschenberg ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ 1953
This drawing raises fascinating questions about originality and authorship through the process of attrition, in its making, and in its intent. Aged 27, Rauschenberg managed to persuade the 49-year-old Abstract Expressionist superstar William de Kooning to give him a drawing for the purpose of rubbing it out.
As writer Duncan Ballantyne-Way put it “Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns plotted the downfall of Abstract Expressionism in their grubby paint strewn apartments in downtown New York.” In his book ‘Erasure In Art’ artist and writer Richard Galpin proposes that “The question of destruction then, could be seen in terms of positive and negative, or addition and subtraction. Additive subtraction is a contradiction that suggests a play of differences, rather than an absence of a presence.”
Gerhard Richter, with his painting ‘Table’ of 1962, took the notion of erasure and began his long-term exploration of it. As a deconstructionist painter there are clear links to the writings of philosophers Martin Heidigger and Jacques Derrida who also used the erasure (of words) to explore the post-metaphysical era.
In 2010, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art scanned the drawing to reveal the de Kooning original which appears to be a sketch for one of his celebrated ‘Woman’ paintings. While these received high praise from the high priest of critics, Clement Greenberg, others condemned de Kooning for using imagery deemed violent and degrading towards women. Implausibly, Rauschenberg claimed not to recall what the drawing was. Perhaps to avoid taking sides he erased his memory?
Marcel Duchamp and Alfred Steiglitz’ photograph of “Fountain” 1917
Duchamp’s insertion of grit into the art world was a work of precision as "He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object”.
The abrasive medium was a photograph he commissioned to accompany the article he wrote and published in 1917. No more than a handful of people actually saw the physical sculpture until 1950 when Duchamp authorised a reproduction of his ready-made (more grit). So Duchamp anticipates the power of the image of an art work over and above the object itself.
Duchamp’s choice of Alfred Steiglitz was laden with meaning. He was leader of the Photo-Secession movement - a “rebellion against the insincere attitude of the unbeliever, of the Philistine, and largely exhibition authorities.” Steiglitz took the photo in his art gallery 291. Here he had exhibited both photographs and paintings, often juxtaposed, to set up the challenge of the new art form against the old. Steiglitz, under Duchamp’s direction, positioned ‘Fountain’ on a plinth making reference to traditional marble portrait sculpture. 'Warriors', 1913 painting by Marsden Hartley, was the background chosen to echo the form of ‘Fountain’ and the artists’ campaign against the establishment.
So every abrasive element was considered: the choice of exhibition, the act of choosing and submitting a ready-made object, re-titling it, signing it with a pseudonym, photographing it to reinforce its symbolism, and disseminating it through mass media.