Dear Carl: Studies in Material Philosophy
(Equivalent I), 2003. Bricks.
Studies in Material Philosophy
Dear Carl is a study in material philosophy, a series of works that rely on the material properties of used bricks. Bricks refer to the materialities of existence and to the lives which shape and are shaped by them. A used brick has a human and material history, traces of which are visible as ‘imperfections’: coloration, roughness, mortar, paint, variations in shape and size. These are sensory rather than abstract qualities, referring to conditions of existence rather than ideals. The series invites viewers to consider the relationship of real to ideal, and of experience to abstraction.
I have adopted the term material philosophy because it contrasts with some elements of metaphysical philosophy, like the idea of Platonic forms or 'the ghost in the machine'. While both material and metaphysical philosophies are abstract ways of imagining the world, I favor materialism because it allows me to consider the thing as it shows up, rather than whether it conforms to some abstract ideal. For example, bricks are designed with mathematical ideals in mind, as simple solids with flat surfaces at right angles to each other. They are meant to be regular, identical, idealised forms. But they don't have any of these abstract, ideal qualities. A real brick may be designed with an ideal in mind, and it may have some resemblance to an ideal brick. However, it also has a wide range of qualities that are less than ideal.
But thinking of a brick in only in terms of its ideal qualities is a mistake. The material qualities of brick are superb for building houses and laying pavement. Bricks also have aesthetic qualities that derive from their imperfections. For example, bricks with variations in color are much more pleasant to look at than monochromatic surfaces of glass, concrete, and so forth. Likewise, my old bricks don't line up straight, they don't have smooth faces, and they have various things growing on them. But instead of dismissing their irregularities as flaws, I think it's more interesting to do something with them.
One of the more interesting things to do is to use them in highlighting distinctions between the ideal and the real. One of the interesting things about bricks is that they display ideal qualities and real qualities at the same time. They are clearly meant to be ideal shapes, but just as clearly, they are not manifestations of "harmony, proportion and pure order" (Ries, 1991). It's easy to see differences and tensions between the real and the ideal. In this way, a stack of bricks can help focus attention on the philosophical relationships, on the artifice and necessity of constructing distinctions between the real and the ideal. This tension also draws attention to conflicts between real and ideal, between the matter-of-factness of the real and the unattainable purity of the ideal; between a rejection of the real or an embrace of it.
I find that the 'less-than-ideal' is much more satisfying in terms of having character, complexity, texture, substance and sustenance. These amount to a quality of experience as opposed to a quality of abstraction, even though the abstract brick offers an experience of contemplation. But a real brick can also be contemplated and provides a bunch of other experiences besides. In general, material things offer sensory experiences. In particular, bricks offer sensory qualities of texture, temperature, color, weight, and so on. These are opportunities to engage with the real in ways that imagination probably cannot do on its own.
It's a surprising realisation, but bricks can help to highlight distinctions between reality, idealism, abstraction and experience. So simple, yet so complex. All this in an ordinary brick!
I set out to make some works based strictly on material qualities rather than on the basis of any ideals. I chose to use the bricks in ways that depended on their imperfections as bricks. I chose to use them in a series of works that could not have been made with any other material. It turns out that this approach is in some ways opposite to that of Carl Andre, who used a stack of bricks named Equivalent VIII to great effect at the Tate Gallery.
His work was based on an abstract, mathematical principle. He used 120 bricks, simply because 120 has a lot of factors; whole numbers that can be multiplied by each other to come up with 120. "One hundred twenty is the number richest in factors," Andre explained, "arithmetic is only the scaffolding or armature of my work" (Ries, 1991). Nothing to do with bricks. He could have used Tate & Lyle sugar cubes. It would have been interpreted differently and it would have been a lot smaller, but the principle would be the same. This is art based on abstract principles. Heading in the direction of metaphysics.
My approach was to use bricks to highlight the qualities of bricks. Can't use sugar cubes for that. In the Equivalent series I used exactly the number of bricks necessary to show the relationships of bricks to themselves. In most cases this amounted to 5 bricks. I made a series of stacks showing the relationship of length, width, and height to each other. This usually required 3x1x1 bricks in varied arragements. I named the series Equivalents for the same reason Andre gave his series that name: each of the stacks is equivalent to the others. Equivalent 1 is the first in the series.
Inertia, Transformation, Portraiture
These works are similar to Andre's in that they have a mathematical arrangement, they sit on the ground, they use no adhesives or fasteners, and they are made with commonly available materials. However, Andre used firebrick, which is manufactured to much tighter tolerances that the old house brick I've been using. He also used new (or like new) bricks. His work is therefore much more uniform than mine, much less about the individuality of each brick in relation to the others. Carl could rearrange his stack, but it would look pretty much the same each time. There's a consistent uniformity. I think that's the point of his Equivalent series.
After thinking about this a bit, I realised that I could work with some of the qualities that Andre ignored, and some themes that stand in opposition to the ones he uses. For example, he works with uniform, regualr qualities, and I could work with non-uniform, irregular qualities. He relies on gravity and inertia to keep his stack neatly in place on the floor. The stack doesn't move, it never changes, it has one shape and that's it. But if bricks are stacked in other ways, there is always a possibility that they'll fall over. Where Andre worked with stasis, I work with unpredictable instabilities. This gives the structure a very interesting quality of suspense: it could fall down at any moment. His work is safe (mostly). Mine is not.
Not only could a stack fall over, but in doing so, its mode of existence changes, it transforms: upright and semi-stable until something causes it to pitch over, then through the disarray of collapse and stablising in a unique pattern on the ground. Thus, a stack of bricks has three modes of existence: upright, falling, and fallen. It continues to rely on gravity, but it plays a game with inertia. A delicately balanced stack of bricks will stay upright until some slight movement causes it to topple. One never knows how long it will stay upright. Nor does one know which way the bricks will fall, nor the pattern they will form when they land. Once they've landed, the work of the artist begins again, resisting entropy, re-stacking the bricks, going through the motions all over again. The piece absorbs more meaning as it is assembled, wrecked, and re-assembled, referring less to the eternal verities of mathematics than to the hard slog of material existence, the unknowns and uncertainties of working life.
Using old, funky, decrepit bricks adds to the instability, adds to the number of shapes that different arrangements will produce, adds to the character and the suspense of the piece. This makes for an interesting contrast with Equivalent VIII. One feature of Andre's work is his use of the horizontal plane, the floor, as opposed to the vertical, portrait plane. But artwork laid on the floor (i.e. Jackson Pollock) is no longer remarkable. So it's time to take stuff off the floor and put it on the wall. Particularly if it 'belongs' on the ground in the first place. In this regard, a vertical stack of bricks constitutes a break with convention and sets up some interesting possibilities, such as making portraiture with bricks. Contra Andre and Pollock, taking material off the floor and using to make portraits is a 'new' idea. Furthermore, in the digital age, where artworks consist of bits, pixels, blocks and stacks, bricks take on 'new' meaning as pixelated compositional materials. A stack of variegated bricks is, at some resolution, a block of pixels. Therefore, in contrast to the universalist qualities of Equivalent VIII, a self-portrait in brick is highly specific in its references. I have constructed a life-size self-portrait using 27 bricks. The portrait falls over occasionally, so I make another one using the same materials and arranging them carefully each time. No two portraits are the same, but they are nonetheless self-portraits.
When possible I have filmed the production digitally, and present the finished movie as a means of making distinctions between electronic digital media and baked digital media. Sometimes the pixelated movie accentuates its own mathematical qualites by reducing the texture of brick to a simple colored bock.