On Metaceramics and the Consciousness of Things

Terracotta, Variable size: approx. 40 000 elements, each 8-26 cm tall.
Installation view, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland.
Arts Council Collection, England.

Antony Gormley is a British sculptor whose work “explores the relation of the human body to space at large.”  He creates geometric interpretations or deconstructions of humanoid figures and also fills spaces with wireframe geometries that need to be carefully navigated and negotiated.  The scale of his projects ranges from large-sized gallery installations to interventions in public and natural landscapes.

The project I wish to draw your attention to here is called FIELD, and has been made and exhibited five times in different parts of the world between 1989 and 2003.  He employs local individuals to assist in the production, which is a crucial aspect of the project’s ethos of ecological responsibility.  In his artist’s statement, Gormley writes,

I wanted to work with people and to make a work about our collective future and our responsibility for it. I wanted the art to look back at us, its makers (and later viewers), as if we were responsible – responsible for the world that it [FIELD] and we were in.

Energised by fire, sensitised by touch, and made conscious by being given eyes.
Work in progress, 2003. Xiangshan, China. Photographs by Zhang Haier.

He continues on to describe his occupation with the relation between the viewer and the space from which she encounters the piece, as well as the give-and-take of the act of viewing and witnessing:

The most recent is from Guangzhou, China, and was exhibited in Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing in 2003. It is made from 125 tonnes of clay energised by fire, sensitised by touch and made conscious by being given eyes.

The 200,000 body-surrogates completely occupy the space in which they are installed, taking the form of the building and excluding us, but allowing visual access. . . .

The viewer then mediates between the occupied and unoccupied areas of a given building. I like the idea of the physical area occupied being put at the service of the imaginative space of the witness.

I’m really intrigued by this notion of the figures as “surrogates” for the world they inhabit and share with the viewer, as well as the “consciousness” with which their eyes imbue them.  I think here it would be safe to say that this consciousness is not a subjective one in the humanistic sense, but recalls the earliest meaning of the term as a knowing together (con-sci-, as in scire). The first two definitions of “conscious” that the OED gives are: 1. an obsolete usage that has to do with “knowing, or sharing the knowledge of anything, together with another; privy to anything with another”—in other words, to be conscious is to share a secret with another; and 2. a figurative, chiefly poetic usage that is “Attributed to inanimate things as privy to, sharing in, or witness of human actions or secrets.”  (Unfortunately, as I have no immediate access to the OED, I am unable to give any details about when these senses gave way to the dominant meaning of being self-conscious or self-aware, though I’m willing to bet that it was sometime around the sixteenth century.)  What, then, are the figures of FIELD conscious of?  What are they privy to, what do they witness, what do they share or wish to share with the human viewer?

What are they privy to?
ASIAN FIELD, 2003. Clay from Guangdong Province, China. 210,000 hand-sized clay elements made in collaboration with 350 people of all ages from Xiangshan village, north-east of the city of Guangzhou in south China. Installation view, Modern Mall, Jiangbei Di.

The work also invokes for me the opening pages of Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, a book I have found delightful in its sheer audacity.  (I need to write a post soon on his moving presentation of the placenta as the “primal companion,” a shadowy double that Western culture has been unceremoniously discarding since the eighteenth century, and whose material disposal and discursive elision speak to “the secret of an augmented loneliness” that each one of us carries [Sloterdijk 385].)  This tome is the first part of a trilogy that, I suppose, could be said to develop an ontology of relating, and which has, I think, some resonance with the sort of ontological cartography that Levi Bryant talks about.

Sloterdijk begins at the beginning.  In an almost medieval sort of move, Bubbles opens with an exegesis of the Book of Genesis within the context of a discussion on inspiration and animation.  It is here that Sloterdijk argues that his work is ultimately one of media theory:

Messages, senders, channels, languages—these are the basic concepts, frequently misunderstood, of a general science of visitability of something by something in something. We will show that media theory and sphere theory converge . . . . In spheres, shared inspirations become the reason for the philosophy of humans existing together in communes and peoples.  The first thing that develops within them is that strong relationship between humans and their motives of animation—and animations are visits that remain—which provide the reason for solidarity.  (31)

The creation of humans in the Book of Genesis provides the “primal scene for what, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, deserves to be called inspiration” (31).  In the course of his argument, Sloterdijk emphasizes the technicity, rather than the divinity, of God’s work.  He pays close attention to the words of Genesis 2.7, in which God “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”  This verse he reads in explicit terms in order to reveal the “procedural insight” into the creation of human beings:

man is an artificial entity that could only be created in two installments.  In the first stage of the work process, as we read, the creator forms Adam—the clay creature taken from the soil, adama—and molds him into a work of art unlike any other that, like all products of artifice, owes its existence to the combination of artistic knowledge and raw material.  Craft and earth are equally necessary to erect the image of man in the form of the first statue.  Hence, in His initial access, the creator is no more than a potter who enjoys using suitable material to form a figure that resembles Himself, the producing master.  Whoever wishes to imagine humans as primitive machines finds here an early model of how to create statues, human dolls, golems, robots, android illusions and the like according to the rules of art.  The God of the first phase of human creation embodies a representative of the oldest technological culture, whose main emphasis is on ceramic skills..  It was the potters who first discovered that earth is more than simply farmland to be cultivated.  The ceramist as an early creator of works or demiurge has the experience to know that the ground which bears fruit can also be raw material for clay vessels to which form, clarity in conjunction with stability, is lent in workshops and ovens.  (33)

Procedural insight.
Work in progress, 2003. Xiangshan, China. Photograph by Zhang Haier.

I love the way that Sloterdijk honours the Bible in its terrestriality as he continues to describe Yahweh as a master potter:

If the Lord of Genesis began the creation of humans as a potter, it was because this creation succeeds most plausibly when it begins as the production of vessels.  Being able to make android creatures according to ceramic routines: at the time of the biblical Genesis, this marked the state of the art.  Hence there is nothing unusual about Adam’s body being manufactured from clay.  It is initially no more than a hollow-bodied sculpture awaiting significant further use.  Only then does the extraordinary element come into play, for if the clay creature is made hollow in its original modeling, it is only because it is henceforth to serve as a jug of life.  It is formed as a semi-solid figure from the start, as its creator has a special sort of filling in mind.  Metaphysics begins as metaceramics, for the substance to be filled into this singular vessel will be no merely physical content.  (Sloterdijk 33-34)

The inspiration that fills up the human as an empty vessel may be “no merely physical content,” it may be incorporeal in the strictest sense of the word, but it nevertheless has a certain mundane materiality that Sloterdijk hints toward as he describes the breath of life as “the epitome of a divine technology capable of closing the ontological gap between the clay idol and the animated human with a pneumatic sleight of hand” (37).  A craftsman and a conjurer using his most subtle tricks.  Sloterdijk’s account invokes the metaphors of craftsmanship that we find in Plato and the neoplatonic traditions handed down through the Christian era, the figures of forms and moulds and simulacra that establish a metaphysics of representation that entails a hierarchy from the divine down through the natural and on to human artifice.  But it also subverts them.

It is technics all the way down.  God may have performed a feat of manufacturing that humans have not yet fully mastered, there may be a hierarchy of skill involved, but there is little metaphysical difference expressed in this exegesis.

For a further treatment of a the statue to yield a living human, on the other hand, we must introduce a pneumatic or noogenic bonus that, it would seem, we have so far lacked any procedural rules to imitate.  The breathing in of life was a technical-hypertechnical procedure that had to be honored as God’s exclusive patent throughout the entire period of religious-metaphysical though.  Nonetheless, in attributing Adam’s spirit to the skilled act of a craftsman (or breathsman), the narrators of Genesis stretch out their hands for this bonus.  (38)

There an obvious romanticism in the final line of this quotation, though not without a certain irony.  In concluding the first phase of his reading of Genesis, Sloterdijk asks, apprehensively, if “what we call historicity is nothing but the time required for the attempt to repeat God’s trick through human ability? . . . Should, with sufficiently precise formulable artistic and procedural rules, even the phenomenon once known as animation become something amenable to serial production?” (39).  Here he recalls, of course, the biotechnological scenario that is the basis for so much speculative fiction, so much hope in certain quarters of techno-utopianism and techno-humanism—as well as so much ethico-political anxiety directed at the biomedical and scientific communities.  But Sloterdijk places the source of industrial espionage with an unexpected enclave.  “Should it transpire that breath sciences lie in the realm of possibility,” he asks, “and that the humanities have already embarked on repeating the divine breath through the higher mechanism?” (39).  That is, repeating it graphematically, through language, of course, but more generally, I’m pretty sure, through the mechanism of the trace in Derrida’s sense.

A great shout-out to the humanities and the arts as the discipline that animates the world.  It reminds me of the sort of crypto-animism that informs Foucault’s notion of critique, which “would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life” (Foucault 323).

What Sloterdijk is after with his media or communications theory and his techno-ontology is a theory of intimacy, of solidarity, of a subjectivity that does not take place outside of relations between two entities at the very least.  The figure of the human being as an empty vessel provides a vehicle for Sloterdijk to speak about inspiration as an originary resonance and mutual augmentation, according to which “the originator does not preexist the pneumatic work, but creates himself synchronously with it as the intimate counterpart of one like himself. . . . Once set up, the canal of animation between Adam and his Lord, filled with endless double echo games, can only be understood as a two-way system” (40-41).  Sloterdijk’s sphereology as media theory adheres to an ontology of the event, the happening, transductive or emergent relations, becomings-with.  While he is concerned, in the first and last instances, with human relations, his approach is as anthropo-eccentric and object-oriented as you can get, since “anyone who presumes to speak of humans without mentioning their inspirators and intensifiers, of their media, which amount to the same, has missed the topic through their very approach” (42).

In some ways, the notion of the partners who do not precede the partnership is a bit of a well-trodden conceit—though by no means do I feel it is one that does not require continuous emphasis in a culture where privatization, of the individual and of the species, is so destructively hegemonic.  Since Heidegger at the very least, being of all kinds has been a Mitsein and a Mitgang, a being-with and a going-along-with that is also a Mitteilung—communication as a sharing (and dividing) among.  Entities are insofar as they are together.  What Sloterdijk asks after is perhaps unabashedly metaphysical, i.e., “The strong reason for being together is still awaiting an adequate interpretation” (45).  Why is existence a matter of resonance?  I have not returned to Sloterdijk’s work carefully enough to adequately paraphrase his own interpretations as to what lies behind the ontological necessity for intimacy.  I am also anxiously awaiting the following two volumes of the Spheres trilogy.  Nevertheless, the urgency for such an interpretation is clear, insofar as we live, Sloterdijk claims, in an “age whose main tenor is that deanimation has an insurmountable lead over reanimation” (75).  This is, ultimately, a matter of bioethics in the most profound sense.

I think that the metaceramics of Gormley’s FIELD project suggests that the stakes involved are nothing less than consciousness.  The hundreds of thousands of clay figures stare back at us, secretly conscious of our actions.  They wordlessly bear witness to our responsibilities, and demand us to do the same, an ethical injunction to know together with the earth.

An ethical injunction to be conscious.
Work in progress, 2003.  Xiangshan, China.  Photograph by Zhang Haier

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rainbow.New York: The New Press, 1997. 303-19. Print.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Spheres Volume 1: Bubbles: Microspherology. Trans. William Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011. Print.


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