PRINT November 1981


What is most unnatural is nature.

OURS IS AN ERA OF industrial Platonism, in which artificial products—like primary ideas—are everlasting and indestructible. They don’t disappear, because their models or molds remain and it is always possible to regenerate them. Thus, thanks to replacements, the products can always be present. In itself, the extent to which we know a specific object is of negligible importance. In the first place, as stated above, the “unique” object doesn’t even exist (even with the slight variations that occur); rather, these are objects possessing the status of an ideal within the world of ideas. Second, the object is artificial, that is to say, it is made from materials that do not occur in nature, and therefore do not exist in the natural universe. The products of our modern world are based more and more on the use and application of plastic materials, made of substances and coloring matter that are worked out in laboratories according to abstract chemical formulas. No matter how these products are consumed and destroyed, whether biodegradable or not, they remain with us—not because they do not physically disappear or change, but because this replaceability means that for each one there exist potentially a hundred, a thousand, a million copies. Their “destruction” is theoretical, utopian. Consumption as a means of destroying them is therefore a farce. Their “death” would be theater—they would re-emerge in a new form.

And so we are faced with immortal products, whose lives, as reproducible plastic, are without limit or definition. Even when thrown away, broken up, shattered, and dispersed, they are reincarnated: recycled as scrap, they find new functions and new lives. One might say that they are as eternal as rock formations and they reproduce indiscriminately like wild rabbits. Here they are, then—our nature, our raw materials, and our pastures. Plastic is unique. It is a substance that is a synthesized whole, as though its maxim were: “there is no material other than me.” It absorbs all contradictions and catches the intellectual red-handed. Some have reacted to this situation—which can only be called “Promethean” in the true sense—with embarrassment and even horror, while others have glorified it. Such oscillation between love and hate has resulted in attitudes in art that have changed according to the era.

By the end of the 1950s there was a passion in the art world (as well) for plastic and for technology in general, which led to an outpouring of scientific and pseudoscientific investigations, and to artworks based on and using industrial methods and products. Many artists “deserted” tradition for the realms of chemistry and mechanics. Seeking the dignity and precision of industrial mechanisms, these forays into technology were inevitable and noticeable failures. The hypothesis was utopian—the myth of being able to yield to true desire and self-expression and to be “creative.” In those years, on both the East and West coasts of America, art “objects” were produced out of acrylics, aluminum, fiberglass, and steel, and made to appear light and dynamic, in keeping with “industrial progress.” These investigations into the marvels of technology also incurred a sense of guilt. Was this perhaps the era in which art and culture functioned as an intellectual and romantic palliative to the destructive forces of industry? Was this activity a symptom instead of a critique, and was the use of machines as well as industrial prototypes—whether fluorescent tubes or laminated plastic sheets—equivalent to rampant and imperial production? What could one do when museums set up competing relationships between installations of electronics and painting? What could one do except search for some true, definitive integration of art and technology? Those were mythic times, when artists deceived themselves that they might attain recognition in the world of quantity and production. Then the dream was shattered and we woke up to the fact that this “utopia” was actually diverting people’s attention from the deadly experiments being carried on “elsewhere” by industry, with great efficiency.

By the end of the ’60s, industrial mysticism was undergoing a full crisis, and its followers seemed to be asking forgiveness for ever having questioned the sufficiency of the natural world. They did so by attempting to demonstrate in an absolute (and therefore equally mystical) way that the only possible moral solution to its contradictions lay in a total dedication to the deserts, prairies, and rivers. Once again, nature became a setting for the unusual and the unpredictable, and artworks returned to the elements—earth, fire, air, and water—and then to the human body.

Clearly, art was (re-)positioning limits. However, by replacing the emphasis on the artificial with emphasis on the natural in such a sweeping, absolutist manner, the fact that the transformation of any type of material by the artist involves a dialectic of subservience for both the transformed and the transformer, was forgotten. Consequently, since applied engineering outlined the limits of the relationship between the natural and the artificial (in both land art and technological art)—art both negated these limits and was negated by them. Now, in this decade, one senses a tendency to return to the concept of true identity; monolithism eventually creates monotheism, and thus we have the recent predominant (re)emphasis on painting and sculpture, not as language, but as material with great mythopoetic value. This return to the concept of uniqueness was already intimated in earlier attempts to imbue natural and artificial residues with magic. Therein lay the falseness—elements and entities that are continually reproducing and reproducible cannot be rarefied or idealized. They have no mythic or ritual operating force because each one is produced by its appropriate “machine,” and their ability to proliferate excludes any thought of sanctity or theology.

And so at the beginning of the ’80s one finds the art system desperately seeking a “return to order.” Its complex survival mechanism requires something sacred, and in a certain sense, reactionary, to happen—like painting as material—in order to regenerate the belief in art as rite. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not this painting is the real thing or a remake; more important seems to be to stave off the demise of the belief in artistic magic. Despite this reactionary need to recover the magic of uniqueness, the problem of what to do with the residue of technology and the mass media persists. How can one adjust or respond? If a critical position is chosen, the problematic of uniqueness becomes moot because, whether it is a material or a technique that is used, from the critical viewpoint it will always be necessary to have recourse to the idea of a “product,” whose essence can be replaced or reproduced—and whose overabundance yields “treasure.”

This treasure can be found along the highways as well as by the sea, in the cities and in the forests. The artificial inhabits these places and causes them to glitter with refuse and plastic handiwork. After a period of work devoted to the use of natural refuse, the English artist Tony Cragg has turned his attention to this ubiquitous and irreducible splendor in our artificial landscape.

In 1970, Cragg’s world was populated by primarily natural elements found on beaches. At the time his artworks were made out of sand, stones, shells, shrubs, pieces of wood, paper, cord, and sometimes plastic bags. In two works from around that time, he arranged various elements according to a classifying grid pattern. The distribution was objective, without personal involvement; he focused entirely on the elements’ possible permutations in space. He emphasized the signifying and visual potential of the objects he found, but complicated his perception with the admission of conceptual, combinatory processes. Cragg’s process consisted of articulating, according to a scientific scheme of classification, the extent to which one could tie traces or elements left by nature to the common experience of discovery and gathering. This focus on the dialectic of the scientific and the natural justifies and informs all of his subsequent work. It is as though Cragg wanted to overcome the dichotomy between the two—but he makes them follow parallel paths, not allowing them to integrate or taint each other.

All through the ’70s Cragg worked at building a polyvisual system, dedicated as much to rationality and planning as to chance and unpredictability. In 1971 he drew, on a beach, a sequence of numbers that looked similar to those produced by electronic machines. The actual piece, however, was anything but electronic—the numerals were made of seaweed. The fusion of two opposing esthetics—one, a mental construct based on a mechanical model and on the international sign language of numbers and geometry, and the other, a reality determined by the material world of found objects (in time he added chairs, newspapers, rocks, cans, etc.)—created a veritable “impasto,” merging the two worlds and avoiding the dominance of one over the other. Around 1972 Cragg began to create compositions by throwing pieces of twine and paper in the air—always, however, maintaining the geometric perimeters established by his legs and arms, which were arranged along the diagonals of a potential square.

Cragg has always been concerned with the relationship between the organic and its representation, since the very act of representation—a process of intellectualization and design, whereby the human being identifies with the machine—implies a “reduction” of nature in an attempt to mimic it. In 1973 he drew the outline of his body on a wall, repeating the same gestures in successive stages; earlier, on another wall, he traced in stages, the path of bricks falling over a period of time as the elastic attaching them to the wall gradually gave way. His intention was to clarify the correlation between an object and the action that guides or produces it.

The heteronomy of Cragg’s work depends on a number of factors, ranging from his use of found material (organic or inorganic) to its configuration; the work always has a casual appearance, though, and an esthetic solidarity emerges within which all the references coexist. They integrate and react among themselves, generating an organic totality from a multiplicity of moments and materials. Disunity unites them. Decentralized time and space converge and form a whole. This process typifies chemistry—a science Cragg was interested in before becoming an artist. The unity of this organic totality does not, however, denote unity of materials. By 1976 Cragg was abandoning the use of natural refuse and beginning to work with industrial products and artifacts. To participate in the future, not only the reality of the natural and human world must be confronted, but that of the artificial as well. And so Cragg felt the need to go beyond the limits of his earlier work, to introduce unnatural nonhuman elements. But these adjectives—human, nonhuman—do not really apply, since artificial elements also comprise the human experience and are not necessarily disruptive to it.

Cragg’s interventions from 1975 to 1978, which show this, were “montages” of raw materials and manufactured goods. A good example would be the piles of diverse pieces of discarded materials and wood that he formed into pure volumetric cubes and parallelepipeds. His manipulation of material for its intrinsic connotations becomes the vehicle for a story, or, if you like, for History, and the act of “composing” (in the sense of manipulation as well as esthetics) acquires a powerful meaning.

This brings us to Cragg’s recent work. By 1978 he was presenting figures and forms made of the same material—in this case, plastic. Since all objects made of plastic are intrinsically connected, and in a sense made equal, the material fits perfectly into Cragg’s summarizing process. He began to use some of the plastic products that inhabit the world of refuse and that, because of their artificial nature, defy death and decomposition. This passage, from the singular and unrepeatable—and therefore irreplaceable—unity found in stone, wood, and whatever else exists in nature, to something as easily replaceable as a bottle or a toy, a comb or a fork, a glass or a plate (all made of plastic) signified a new direction in the artist’s work. At first he favored images from nature, almost as if to show, in a utopian and idealist manner, that nature contains, nurtures, and sustains these images. Then he took into account that nature is merely a recipient of images that, while they remain universal, can be duplicated in plastic. Today, naturalist pantheism is in competition with technological pantheism, but Cragg defines the parameters of their convergence. The two are not mutually exclusive.

This development in Cragg’s work dispels any analogy between it and the work of artists who continue to concern themselves with, and to derive their work from, a unified view of nature. That sort of vision seems unreal to Cragg, since it forces nature to accept false images—those of an “ideal and pure beauty”—while in nature today one eventually, always, comes across plastic. Cragg still spends hour upon hour at the water’s edge but now he is gathering urban industrial treasures. The remnants that he picks out now—toothbrushes, toy soldiers, tin cans, dolls, bottles, lids, etc., all carried to shore by the waves—have an artificial profile and color. Cast out by technological overflow, these objects reach Cragg and are gathered and chosen for their color, to be used in his sculpture and painting. They are no longer humble; in fact, once removed from the generalized circulation of refuse, the selected elements are purified and can again become signs. They can be read as chromatic matter that forms ordered planes of color, or can be organized into primary volumes that bring to mind minimal imagery. But the danger of such a formal interpretation lies in the risk of omitting an issue basic to Cragg—the totemic figure of plastic and of industry. According to Cragg, among these storehouses of memories are our indestructible icons. They follow their infinite journey, they defy deterioration, and they always show up. Plastic is an aggregate; it contains all possible images even if it is (usually) considered anti-esthetic and anti-artistic. Cragg shows us that plastic possesses the power of reconstitution and can become, within itself, the instrument for true imagination.

Since 1979 Cragg has selected found images—such as an American Indian—from his monochromatic accumulations of salvage. He takes these images and uses them as matrices for the configuration of the remaining elements, outlining the shapes on the ground or on walls and organizing them according to an internal prototype. This process derives from his sensitivity to industrial pantheism—if all things already exist, then the image itself is preformed and must be reclaimed wherever one finds it. In Cragg’s compositions it is the very nature of the industrial model that dictates the image. These are not unique images; they are potentially infinite, as are the figures within the accumulations. Any possible figure, therefore, has been seen before. It seems risky to affirm that the previously unimagined lies not in art, but in industry and its technologies.

To open one’s eyes means to accept the esthetic and ecstatic gift of reality. Many artists find this in the natural landscape; Cragg accepts this gift from the urban waste that accumulates dead objects. He reconstitutes the refuse sacrificed by consumption into art that, by means of esthetic sacrifice, reconsecrates the industrial sacrifice. The fact that a given aggregate can contain the potential for an infinite number of configurations causes one to think of the analogy between Cragg’s work and industry. It becomes difficult to distinguish between science and craft, between technology and poetry, since the work is based on the concept of discovery. Where will this lead? Perhaps to the discovery of an ambiguous process that transforms objects and figures that are not readily definable, and that often have contradictory characteristics, into something else? It seems as though we are in a period of transition, when facts are neither distinguishable nor distinct. This is clearly tied to a rebirth of a mannerist attitude. History has shown that it is indeed an era of mannerism that gives rise to an apotheosis of the double meaning as well as a love for detail. Together they can produce “marvels” and curiosities of the type favored by Giuseppe Arcimboldi as well as by Bonaventura Peeters. Cragg’s adherence to this mannerist ideology can be documented not only in his recent self-portraits, but also by his general attitude, which tends to destroy the monolithic image (which would have been defined as classical during the Renaissance and as “minimal” during the 1970s) in favor of a dynamic and nonorganic, that is, pluralistic, totality. His is a polymorphous investigation, whereby the object assumes the role of subject, leading progressively to a narcissistic situation (the self-portraits of 1980–81), in which the subject becomes the model and object of identification.

Moreover, in his denial of the single and the primary values fundamental to the makeup and validity of minimalism and conceptualism, he exploits the heterogeneous, the marginal, the insignificant, and the disorganized, to create a complex, rather than a singular, composition. His approach, then, favors the disorganization of vision, while conceptual and minimal art pointed to a formal, philosophical structuring and clarification of artistic vision. Cragg’s goal is to overcome univocal attitude through multiplication and variation, thereby tying the real world condition to his ephemeral, transitory compositions. He exalts the docility and suppleness of his found artificial objects, that grace which allows the flowering of an open dimension uncommon in art. Here, too, his work resembles the enigmatic imagery of mannerism, where paintings seem a confused mass of objects, but when carefully examined at the necessary distance, form figures and scenes. In Cragg’s work, as well, the “mysterious” fragments are polarized to form “artificial dreams”: ships and birds, moons and characters made out of fragments of wood, or discarded yellow or multicolored plastic. These bizarre, overflowing compositions express the artificiality of a supposedly cultured and refined society, showing it to be saturated with unreal colors and unnatural materials.

Cragg’s work gives an ironic portrait of this era, testifying to its customs and perverse reveries. It is the harmonious balance of his compositions that pushes things into the realm of burlesque. When the Renaissance goal was a single perspectival view, a visual and philosophical focus in a political as well as a theoretical sense, points of reference and a system of coordinates were needed. Today these things have become unstable, to the extent that one can no longer rely on a single conception but must piece together a heterogeneous and multiplicitous point of view. This means giving up, or at least questioning, norms and rationalizations, monolithic and linear concepts, harmony and order; the consequence is the disintegration of all ideological constructs. This collapse of univocal meaning, which displayed a vision of form seen as unity and centrality, goes hand in hand with criticism of a harmonious model. The proportioned and harmonious object is an ideal product; it does not exist in reality and is therefore undergoing a crisis. Consequently there is renewed interest in an obsessive, meticulous examination of detail which explodes the concept of unity in favor of variety. In fact, a fragment both reveals and conceals; beyond what it shows, it points out the missing parts. And so Cragg’s compositions of refuse refer back to the abyss of scoria as well as to the plastic. Waste and artificiality are our international condition and our cultural emblems. This year Cragg realized a series of flags that dealt precisely with this; composed of plastic fragments, European Tribes included the banners of Italy, France, Germany, England and Spain.

One of the characteristics of a material is the images it can evoke, but every image of it (the material) is also a case unto itself, whether one is dealing with specific configurations such as an American Indian, or a bird, or a boat, or with general references such as flags. The language of plastic—and therefore the imagery—can be both specific and general, national and international. Excavations of the possibilities this implies and the creation of imagery equivalent to them—boats in sea ports, for example—are among the surprises that lie in Cragg’s work. The sedimentation of refuse can become an endless reservoir of ideas, but one must draw on it intentionally. Along with his deliberate imagery there exists in Cragg’s work the anguish of the situation—tied to the world of the artificial, the fantasy of technological archaeology is a monster that kills with Promethean force. The objects that arrive from unexpected places to constitute his figures reveal the conditions of artificial existence. Their presence stimulates fantastic conjurings, but also represents our leukopenic society.

Germano Celant is a contemporary art historian and contributing editor to this magazine.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.