PRINT March 1988


WHEN I WAS a student, somebody told me of a photograph he had seen of a group of Eskimos standing in a close circle throwing a man high in the air to enable him to see more of their surroundings. I never had the opportunity to verify this as fact, but given an arctic terrain and its lack of trees, I accepted it, and it impressed me greatly. It has led me to consider the importance of a vantage point, and other techniques for seeing more.

The development of the lens made possible the microscope, followed shortly by Newton’s reflecting telescope, which enabled men to see the moon’s well-marked face closely for the first time. Photographic plates left by chance under a telescope revealed, owing to the length of exposure, even weak light sources, recording millions of stars previously unobserved.

At some point, techniques using other energy forms—such as infrared and radio emissions—provided even more data, which today can be translated by computers into readable images. Visualizations of the macro-universe have been accompanied by equally impressive visualizations of the microscopic world.

And when it has been impossible for sensors to produce new observations, the tools of mathematics have been applied: in classical Greece, to describe geometric forms and their relationships; then in Newton’s calculus, which uses equations to describe both those geometric forms and infinitely more complicated “crooked lines” and curves; these equations evolving into the language of Einstein’s virtuoso description of the relationship between mass and energy. Then the observations and descriptions continue further, much further, into the problems of the late 20th century. Sometimes pictures are puzzled together. For example, Darwin’s theories and a mass of geological studies have together led to visualizations of trilobite-infested primeval seas and vast tropical forests, dinosaurs, mammoths, and last but not least, man.

How to get a look at things has not been a problem for just the Eskimos. I had to take the information about the photograph on faith—I was assured it exists, and the explanation is logical enough to support the idea that it does. But it is precisely this acceptance of something one has not seen, and the already immense size of the nonperceived, nonexperienced information world, that I believe is a problem of the utmost importance. Not simply because I do not like predigested experiences, but also because this information world is the background to everything. The information gained about the natural world is important because in this huge storeroom lie the keys to essential processes and explanations of our existence. The understanding of how nature works—which includes insights into the nature of human beings—is then applied, used to make the parts of the artificial, man-made world. The application of natural principles and models results in a flora of utilitarian objects, environments, and events that are subjugated to functionalism. There is also a struggle between the parts of the produced world, which in essence parallels the struggle for survival within the natural world.

The bronze sword was superior to the stone ax and the iron sword was better, and we all know how this story develops. A too-obvious example perhaps, but the same principle applies to all artifacts, which in the final analysis remain extensions of ourselves, bits and pieces we build on around ourselves. It is not surprising, perhaps, that at certain points these extensions collide with the space allotted to the natural world. At the base of this mass of production, governed by lowest-common-denominator decision-making, is the quest for power—a fact that governments, churches and businessmen have long been aware of.

Only in the area of natural philosophy and art is there the possibility of a productivity leading to a reflection and expression that confer a different level of responsibility on the making of objects, away from the demands of functionalism.

In relatively recent times, artists have liberated an immense vocabulary of materials, objects, environments, concepts, and activities from the nonart world, for use as parts of a rich language capable of expressing the most complicated ideas and emotions. The nomination of banal objects and actions as carriers of important information—the recognition that every object is accompanied by a world of associations and references—has been of great significance. Without this, a soup can remains a soup can, a fluorescent light bulb just a light bulb, and a chair with fat on it remains just that. But with this recognition, we find objects offering up meanings and emotions relating to their literal form, their metaphysics, their poetry, and their emergence from the natural world, or from their origins in nature.

Nature remains the source. The convention that distinguishes the natural world from the artificial world is convenient, as all conventions are, but leads us to forget that Homo sapiens are also natural objects. A bird’s nest is obviously in the realm of nature, but a house is rarely considered as such.

As interesting and essential as it may be to discover new materials, objects, and ideas, the achievement cannot stop there. The meaning of the invention and its eventual use in artistic expression can be much more valuable at the point when the artist is not just making a formal demonstration or gesture but is starting to become specific.

At the present time, the post-Modernist attitude represents the phenomenon of choice, as if all history had occurred simply to serve as a catalogue from which one can choose a desired style or form. If the artist were occupied with specific problems and searching for specific answers that go to the origins of the problem, this kind of choice situation would be recognized as superficial, and would never occur. Similarly, a preoccupation with design, which is bound by utilitarian criteria, rarely rises above the level of functional materialism—perhaps good for the body, but not necessarily for the spirit. Even dragging in historical references, literary references, and various mythologies will not, in itself, promote a work to the status of a specific reference point in the landscape of culture.

Finally, I would like to return to our small circle of Eskimo-throwing friends. Because there is still the possibility that they never existed. But even if they are just a fiction or a fantasy, they are for me a good and valuable fantasy. Their activity reflects a sense of rightness, justified by their needs and their environment. I find them mysterious and poetic, even romantic; their solution is original, and I sympathize with their desire to see a bit more.

Tony Cragg, 1987