Saturday, July 14, 2012

Drawing from caves to computers

Another Joe Thomas shot of me - shot in Palmerston North when I was about 9 .

Hands and feet drawn when I was about 13

Mum knitting 

Mum in front of television

Chinese ornament

Glenda my first girlfriend

Ma and Pa

More TV mother

TV Dad exhausted in front of TV

Evan Webb 1976

A Mother

Mother on telephone

Mother and Child

Mother and child

Ruth and Justine Jungersen - Smith with Trevor Edmond and China Black in Lauris' bamboo

Blind sketches 

Ruth - from memory

Sylvia in chinese ink 1997

Hellen Bollinger with child c. 1972

British Waterways rubbish barge at Little Venice c. 2002

Tuturamuri... Kneeling before the hills c.1979

Tuturamuri - Wairarapa dry lands

A young boy learns how to draw. The nearest still things at hand – a Chinese ornament, his own hands, his parents as they watch television, sleep in front of television.

Why does he do it? He knows people will give him praise, he has a quest for this praise and he has a quest, is motivated to see through the eyes of a painter, an artist. But what do these words mean?

The core facts of drawing – from nature – are... a species called Homo Sapiens (wise man) has the will and capacity to translate and transfer what arrives through sensory devices to another medium. This is done to help the species along, to communicate. It started with a bare hand being silhouetted with basic pigment in a cave some 30 to 50,000 years ago. That momentous instant when a shadow from the most likely recently invented portable lights flickering in those caves cast shadows on the mainly limestone, creamy walls. Black on white. Either through a straw or with a mouthful of chewed or ground up carbon/charcoal and maybe some fat from the recently roasted animals this concoction was sprayed over an outstretched hand . When the hand was removed the negative imprint of the hand was left silhouetted on the wall – hey presto an image of mankind. A self portrait. And can you imagine the “power” this would have had among the artist's peers.

The artist could have then played all sorts of games with that image – imagine him (one does presume a male!) then holding out his hand in front of the lamp (yes lamp) to then cast another shadow of his hand inside the image on the wall – effectively we have a white and and a moving black hand. A smaller projected hand inside the large hand – the movies were born.

Inevitably this set of projections would have become the cinema of the times – and would have created both mirth, myth and legend, and would have created a very specialised person in the camp – the artist. No doubt the species already had manifold specialists at the time – great warriors, great hunters, awesome gatherers, hut makers, clothes makers, chefs let alone tattooists, weavers, rope makers, tool makers, fire makers, vessel makers, morticians and yes lamp makers.

I am speaking here of my knowledge of European cave art – which is most likely far younger – for some reason than certainly Australian early art. In Lascaux we see the lamps that made all of this possible and I think we are talking around 27,000 years ago. Lamps made from animal fat and a wick. Controlled light – in itself a work of art. Imagine the power the controller of light would have wealded when he or she first managed to understand and then create wicks. Sure any old animal roasting on a fire is going to create fat and oils which are then going to burn brighter than any other part of the fire – will then be able to be taken from the bottom of a fire once it is cold in the form of sand/ dirt and fat. It would not have taken long to learn that this fat when a stork of grass, cotton fibre is best – is dangled from the liquid fat allows the oil to be drawn up the fibres and burned at the tip. The wick was the pre-eminent piece of technology of the age. Alone in a fire the cotton or straw fibre wick would be burned in a second but when the oil is drawn up into the flame through the fibres there is very little of the wick that burns – why? I don't know. Perhaps the oil burns at a lower temperature? Or higher temperature somehow allowing the wick to be mainly preserved. Wicks do burn down of course and I do know that the diameter and thereby drawing power of a wick and the amount of wax around it have been carefully measured over  - no doubt – millennia so that the burning of the wax and the wick maintain an equilibrium and burn down together – another great unsung pas de deux of human ingenuity.

So back to the boy – drawn by the same propulsive mechanisms of race and culture, genes, hormones and whatever else – he sits by a fire and draws his own hand. The world has a copying machine. The boy shows his picture to his family. They praise him, he continues, get better at it – he studies other painters and drawers, learns techniques like cross hatching, methods of rendering shade, tone, light.

He learns that people like it, hold him in regard because he can render something onto paper. He has learned a valuable skill. He can translate nature into culture. He can take the wild world onto a piece of canvas or paper and go elsewhere with it. This stuff is portable – he can heap more praise on himself by taking it to his peers, to school. This is a lot to do with power. He becomes known as “a good drawer and painter” “an artist”.

So why is there this glow around the word artist – other than the glimmer surrounding other skills – like gardening, parenting, even mathematics. The artist takes the raw image of the world and translates it into language, portable language, shares this in depth and searching analysis of the object of his gaze through his depictions. Second hand ideograms, pictographs, symbols.

Back in tha cave I am sure it would not have been that long that images of the hunter, the hunted started to appear following the hand – who knows maybe the quarry was first? It doesn't really matter. Art and visual language had begun. And the animals from out there and the great battles won etc were all now able to be recalled, passed on, we had memory banks. Hard drives of hard walled limestone caves.

I recall the stunning image of a chimpanzee filmed in the 60's or 70's – that famous woman who lived with and studied them. The camp had a number of oil drums – tins left empty and this male chimp – for some reason chose to use this tin as a – well a kind of weapon – he bashed and smashed and rolled the drum to create a cacophony scaring all the other chimps in earshot... was this art?

Then in 1901 I think it was the Lumiere Brothers … for the first time played to a packed cinema in Paris the scene of a steam train coming straight for the audience... they ducked, screamed, ran out.

We honour, scare, enthrall and enchant. Challenge the status quo. But more than anything we collect the audience. - they make the work into the collective memory – they pass it on with word of mouth. In this way art is pure democracy – especially when it is possible for anyone to see the work, access  is an issue but so is newness and new technology – The chimp had some new technology – as did the Lumiere brothers.

 If it's worth remembering... then don't forget it. Or – if you can't remember it – forget it. And it's worth remembering for many reasons – sometimes it really is just the new tricks of the techno trade – like Speilberg with the dinosaurs, the chimps and some of Jackson's tricks like Stephen Regelous' use of AI in Lord of the Rings crowd scene software “Massive” but often these are forgotten with the money that made them – mainly the lasting art that gets real memories going is driven by conscience – (the science of the con? – na just kidding). Conscience is the driver for much of my later work – after many of these drawings were done. The Cabbage Patch, much of the artist's co-op stuff – where one's thoughts move through – concern, to contradiction to a synthesis of new direction – a truly cathartic process as TARKOVSKY says – art is essentially “a purging trauma”. The artist, in the first instance, followed by the audience. This catharsis – endured, enthralled provides a learning and it thereby coheses  the audience into a shared belief, a culture – with the work as the talisman. 

Conscience drives comedy and most drama. As Duchamp said (mainly of esthetics) “I wanted to throw (the urinal) in their (the art judges) faces”. He wanted revenge of sorts, was motivated by pure need for the written words that “all works will be displayed” to be tested. The egalitarian driver of the show was not able to live up to it's aspirations when confronted with the comic yet vicious Duchampian response. His conscience said – let's see what happens if I take this to an extreme. In doing so he changed art forever. He challenged authority pure and simple. The artist out on the electron field of culture – orbiting the hub – fires a random yet targeted arrow back into the status quo and changed the nature of that atom. In this instant, unlike most of his other work, he was purely political. I have found a rare small Da Vinci drawing that I have no-where seen commentary on which shows Leonardo's only similar political anger. Drawn around the time of his deluges Da Vinci shows an hypothetical situation of a flood of cultural flotsam and jetsam – pots and pans, brooms, junk commodities all sailing down to earth (from nature) – man's or Da Vinci's revenge on commodification in Renaissance Italy!  Brilliant. His conscience said to him... we have too much junk in our lives mate. By the way – while we are on Da Vinci – I learned ages ago that Leonardo  Da Vinci means – Leonardo of  Vinci (the town) so I thought I could call myself Barry  da Upper Hutt... it has such a ring nay?

Why draw? Why copy nature? It shows and displays a discipline – a devotion a respect for the world as it appears. It creates a memoir to the time and place of the thing drawn. It displays the fact that we humans can and do hold the language of surrogate, sign and symbol, metaphor dearly. Like money being a surrogate for energy/ power, resources art and language stand in place of something, stand for something – a value at the heart of the matter at hand. Values drive culture, what we believe holds us together and propels culture forward... these are our myths and until they are bettered they stand firm, sentinels in the sands, markers for the directions we all need to live by. In the absence of the church and with an ever growing gap between haves and have nots – an increasing homelessness in western cities – a virtual plague of “nots” and a media increasingly at the mercy of those who pay their bills, banks that care less, politicians playing all of the above for their short term re-electability and corporate feeders  - we need something like art to hold our values up. Get moral, make art.

Like Da Vinci – after one has done one's study, can draw well then – as with his “commodity deluge” it is then necessary to imagine, consider and reflect on what is wrong with the world and use art to re-design the future. I think this would be a pre-requisit of any art school I ran – learn to look, draw and then reflect.

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