“Art as a ‘Science of Devotion’”

Tony Carter, January 2008

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Chaos’ theory has been attrac­tive to numer­ous artists over the last two decades or more pre­cisely, since the pub­li­ca­tion of James Gleickc’s book on the sub­ject. Since its argu­ment seems to be that order exists where we cus­tom­ar­ily see only chaos or at best ran­dom­ness, it appeals to a deep seated belief in many of us, that cither a divine or a higher intel­li­gence is the author of our world. It should not, there­fore, be so sur­pris­ing that we feel com­pelled to find the proof. The idea of a world, a cosmos even, struc­tured in every par­tic­u­lar from the macro­cos­mic to the sub-atomic and in the ter­ri­to­ries of the vis­i­ble and the invis­i­ble is both com­fort­ing and inspir­ing, no less to the artist’s imag­i­na­tion than to the scientist’s.

Ece Clarke is cer­tainly cap­ti­vated by the sense of con­cealed order and she is famil­iar with Gleickc’s book. She is also, in her way, a com­piler of evi­dence. To talk with her is to appre­ci­ate how wide rang­ing her inter­ests are and that they embrace the dis­cov­er­ies of sci­ence as read­ily as the con­ven­tions of Fine Art prac­tice. But an artist is what she is, not a sci­en­tist, so she will strug­gle to give visual expres­sion to things which in them­selves we cannot see but whose exis­tence is inferred by sci­ence and oth­er­wise expe­ri­enced in the life-force that fuels all curios­ity, all appetite for action cre­ative or oth­er­wise.

The ear­li­est exam­ples of Clarke’s work that I know, were set within pic­to­r­ial or at least two-dimen­sional frames of ref­er­ence — but their defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic was less a con­cern with pic­to­r­ial rep­re­sen­ta­tion than with formal com­plex­ity. Osten­si­bly, they rep­re­sented nat­ural form, in plants, the flow pat­terns of water or air cur­rents: in the tex­tures of sur­face sand. rock. bark, skin etc. But what really seemed to define their sub­ject matter was the idea of some­thing con­cealed within or beyond the dis­trac­tions of appear­ance the iden­tity per­haps behind the fin­ger­print? Of course this artist would not be alone in her fas­ci­na­tion with com­plex­ity. One can find it for exam­ple in count­less draw­ings of con­vo­luted draper)’ in the sketch­books of Ital­ian Renais­sance artists, and though their fre­quent occur­rence may sug­gest only exer­cises in vir­tu­os­ity, per­haps they were never so inno­cent. It may be that the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of West­ern cul­ture with the com­plex, in both form and con­cept, reflects our deep sense of exclu­sion from some great secret, symp­to­matic in the myths of Eden, the Holy Grail, dreams of enlight­en­ment. So. we dig the earth, we mag­nify and analyse its sub­stance, we search the deserts and jun­gles of the world with appar­ently well defined objec­tives but we remain at the ser­vice of an ulte­rior and unde­clared motive. This com­pelling intu­ition, the promise of some rev­e­la­tion that seldom takes place, can of course be as much a source of anger and frus­tra­tion as of wonder or faith, a curse as much as a guid­ing star to the human enter­prise, but we seem to have no choice other than to per­sist in the search.

Clarke’s draw­ings then were never con­ven­tion­ally pic­to­r­ial, but rather, the evi­dence of a med­i­ta­tive process, where the densely marked sur­face might become first and fore­most an image of its own making, rather than a ref­er­ence to some­thing else; a map for an unknown des­ti­na­tion. With that in mind, it is less sur­pris­ing that much as the con­ven­tional world-map relates to the spher­i­cal globe, these two-dimen­sional draw­ings should, in the process of han­dling, have been turned in on them­selves to pro­duce the cylin­ders or scrolls which are cur­rently so cen­tral to her prac­tice and which both inten­sify its metaphoric life and increase the scope of its phys­i­cal author­ity. By the simple action of clos­ing the plane into a cylin­der, part of the sur­face is made always invis­i­ble — a dark side of the moon: no face pre­sented is ever defin­i­tive, and the com­bi­na­tion of cylin­ders allows, by rota­tion, almost infi­nite vari­a­tion on the same themes. When they are shelved and stacked in suf­fi­cient num­bers they assume the grav­i­tas of an archive, com­posed not of verbal text but of mate­r­ial effects; the nat­ural world express­ing its own con­di­tion, always dynamic and infi­nitely diverse: sea-spray, sand-storm, stonn beach, mud flat, coral reef, flood plain, glac­ier, starlight, day-glare, snowflake etc etc. The spirit inform­ing this project is akin to that of the monadists’ what the writer Robert Mac­far­lanc calls the fear­some con­cen­tra­tors’ (on the uni­tary nature of matter and the dynam­ics that acti­vate its poten­tial). In his book The Wild Places’ Mac­far­lanc speaks exactly the lan­guage of Ece Clarke’s fas­ci­na­tion with the overview, and a belief in the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of all things. Describ­ing the shin­gle penin­su­las of the Suf­folk coast of Eng­land he says:

There is an exquis­ite pat­tern­ing to the struc­ture of these spits. They organ­ise them­selves in designs so large that they are best wit­nessed from the van­tage of a falcon or an airman. At Dun­ge­ness. the shin­gle is arranged into giant flor­catc blooms. Orford (Ness) forms itself in long par­al­lel ridges, each of which marks a time when a stonn cast up thou­sands of tonnes of gravel along the shore and fat­tened the spit. These ridges are the stone equiv­a­lents of growth rings in a tree trunk. Aerial images of Blak­eney show it to pos­sess the com­plex beauty of a neuron: the long stem of the spit, and to its lee­ward a marsh­land that floods and emerges with every tide — a con­tin­u­ally self-revis­ing labyrinth of chan­nel and scarp.”

Clarke’s cylin­ders arc the scrolls or vol­umes of an archive in the making though their util­ity is avail­able only to the imag­i­na­tion. Col­lec­tively they evoke rather than doc­u­ment the dynam­ics of mate­r­ial processes in st) far as these are stim­uli both to our senses and. by exten­sion, our psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion. When the scrolls are par­tially unrolled and aligned side by side, the wave pat­tern that results seems to dis­close what are suc­ces­sive mind­scapes rather than land­scapes’ — expres­sions of sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence coming after the fact. The small stud-mag­nets which lock’ the edges in place and which hold one open script’ against another are doing more than just a prac­ti­cal job. they are con­sis­tent with the themes of end­less making and unmak­ing to the extent that they intro­duce an active charge of energy into the struc­ture. This in its turn rein­forces the pos­si­bil­ity of alter­na­tive align­ments and sug­gests the scrolls’ avail­abil­ity (within the con­straints of care­ful han­dling) for pri­vate com­muning and con­sul­ta­tion. It is the metaphor of a sci­en­tific project and for a site of accu­mu­lated evi­dence.

In cel­e­brat­ing the work of Ralf Bag­nold. author of The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes’ (pub­lished 1941), Robert Mac­far­lane sug­gests that:

The mas­sive accu­mu­la­tion of minute par­tic­u­lars… could not have been more appro­pri­ate to his sub­ject. This was sci­ence as devo­tion. Infor­ma­tion for Bag­nold was not a way to sum­marise and there­fore reduce or close down the desert land­scape, but instead, a way to make it more aston­ish­ing. Sci­ence for him refined the real into a greater mar­vel­lous ness.”

Ece Clarke is also an obses­sive accu­mu­la­tor of par­tic­u­lars, minute or oth­er­wise. She is a devo­tee of the cre­ative life and in her way, a searcher after truth’. She is not a sci­en­tist, though she reflects poet­i­cally on sci­en­tific method. She would. I think, be entirely happy at the prospect of her own prac­tice com­pound­ing rather than dis­pelling the mys­tery and wonder of the real’.

“Art as a ‘Science of Devotion’”