Focusing on the here and now is generally regarded as a good thing. Art that is happening now is interesting, stimulating and can occupy and satisfy our whole attention. In growing up, I was always interested in music that was happening now and tended to disregard anything that had become mainstream or popular. However, in art especially, it has taken me about half a century to realise that context is everything. Without knowledge of time and place, what has happened before or elsewhere, or how the future might take shape, it is difficult to know the value of one's work. This is underlined for me by the fact that whatever else you try to control or dictate about your work, the one thing you have absolutely no control over is the time and place you are born in. This makes awareness of the context in which you are working absolutely imperative. To be unaware is to be blind, to some degree or other.
Then the question is, how far do you set your net?
Homo Sapiens has become the topic of popular discussion with the publication of Yuval Noah Harari's books on the subject of our past and future. Other writers, like Max Tegmark in 'Life 3.0' or Nick Bostrum in 'Superintelligence' speak of futures that would have the Futurists of the early 20th century stopping in disbelief. As Robert Hughes famously said in The Shock Of The New, "Nothing dates faster than a vision of the future". And he was right. Looking at the chaos that has been caused by our recent burgeoning into technological wealth and the precipitating climate change and population explosion, one might have to suggest that maybe the Luddites were on to something. Maybe our drive to war masks a powerful urge which comes from a deeper awareness that resources, time and space are finite and there is only so much to go around? The instinct for survival is the same instinct that drives us towards competition, war and perhaps ultimately towards either progress or extinction.
So where do you go to get perspective on these issues?
If you look at the news, which is all about now, the one thing you can say about it is, that it is not just global, but universal. Our reach as a species will bring in information from the farthest imaginable reaches of the Hubble Space envelope. Go back a hundred years and your news came from the explorers of the poles, or soldiers fighting for King and Country in unpronounceable locations. Home meant one thing. Away meant something else; and whichever place you found yourself in, you may well have been forgiven for wishing that you were in the other. So Homo Sapien's culture has always been about moving, migration, gathering resources and sustaining material and physical fluidity. In the process we have outcompeted countless other species, starting with our nearest evolutionary kin, Homo Erectus and the Neanderthals. I am certain that this process will continue for wealthy, highly selected minorities who will benefit from privileged access to technology, medical science and controlled environments whilst the rest of our species will inevitably decline.
In the face of this evolution, desirable for some, undesirable for many, and which seems to have little to do with empathy or sentiment, both of which are core attributes of humans and apparently many higher animals, is Art relegated to the realm of sentiment or aesthetic artefact creation?
The twentieth century told its own story through Art. Landscape and portrait gave way to abstraction and in literature, coherent prose gave way to the ramblings of the Beat poets. Pop gave way to Punk. Ambient gave way to Noise. In every case there seems to be a move towards dis-integration or entropy. This is natural and is probably a fair reflection of what was going on. It is interesting to note that art from previous centuries largely focussed on an aesthetic of fashion, decoration and wealth. Artists which we pick out as having paid attention to the common place, visceral or violent are few and far between. I am thinking of Goya, Turner or Caravaggio. Interesting to note, this is probably the seat of the current popular appeal of Van Gogh and the same reason why he was rejected by the bourgeois collectors of his time. Perhaps that is why, as students, I and most of my contemporaries dismissed art before the 20th century as irrelevant and unappealing. Even today, such works seem to be the provenance of rich and wealthy collectors, which kind of under scores the point. Banksy's recent stunt with the self shredding picture is all about this very issue. That the peripheral chaos implied by the ordering of the picture plane is directed at the buyer. After all, who said should all the suffering be borne by the artist? Guess who was laughing all the way to the bank on that day?
It is a fundamental law of nature that organisation in one place leads to disorganisation in another.
Maybe that's why, when I am working my studio becomes so messy! If this sounds silly, it has been written about by none other than Erwin Schrodinger, of quantum mechanic and cat fame. In his 1944 book What's Life?, he postulated that: "a hallmark of a living system is that it maintains or reduces its entropy by increasing the entropy around it. In other words, the second law of thermodynamics has a loophole: although the total entropy must increase, it's allowed to decrease in some places as long as it increases even more elsewhere. So life maintains or increases its complexity by making its environment messier." Max Tegmark, Life 3.0.
So Homo Sapiens carved rocks and doodled on walls and invented religious and mystical ceremonies, probably in a direct attempt to create some semblance of inner order in the face of an untameable, deadly and chaotic nature. Because nature itself is as much a part of the general order of construction and disintegration of matter and being as the physical output of man. The difference is, that now we are approaching 9 billion individuals our influence is geologically decisive. In 10000 BC we numbered about a million. Life was teeming. You could take a gazelle and know that there were plenty more to be had. The rules have changed because we have become so populous. Not for nothing is this becoming known as the Anthropocene age. So we grow, we develop cities, technology and meanwhile it seems inevitable that at the edges of that process we see the detritus of entropy; in slums, in extinction of species or in climate change. I would like to ask Mr Schrodinger, at what point will the chaos outside my bubble start to fight its way back in and grow to such an increasing extent that the order I have created is in turn overwhelmed.
As I write, my studio floor is covered with items in various stages of unpack and disassembly in process for preparing to leave for Antarctica in about ten days time. The chaos seems an inevitable prelude my orderly departure. There is nowhere to stand. But I can sit in my chair and put my feet on the floor and hence write this blog. I am reminded of photos of Francis Bacon's studio - although he was seriously messy! And what happens next? The artwork is taken out and put into an Art Gallery. White, sterile and very tidy! People should be made to climb over piles of detritus just to get a look at it!! Rothko and Van Gogh did themselves in (unless you believe he was murdered) whilst trying to make sense of their inner chaos, in beautifully structured paintings. Is this not the same law applied?
Yes, by the way I am going to Antarctica. It is very tidy down there - unless you are in the middle of a seal or penguin colony. I am going to live in a very tidy cabin on a very tidy ship.
In the mean time, if you want to see my work, I have an exhibition at Twenty Twenty Gallery in Ludlow, featuring fellow polar artists Nick Jones and Shelly Perkins. https://www.twenty-twenty.co.uk/