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30 April 2019


Ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno’s famous paradoxes produces odd conclusions, such as motion is impossible and the further impossibility of travelling a finite distance. The conundrums seem to revolve around notions of infinity. One must conclude that reason taken to its logical conclusion bends in on itself and becomes contradictory.

Such “conclusions” cohere with contemporary post modernism and discourse around art. Talk of the end of grand narratives, of the cantered logo-centric truth and “pure” reason are holy grails that have eluded us at best or simply subsided in extreme nationalism, exclusion of the “other” and the dangers of a uniform system of control. In art, this was heralded with the modernist explosion of new art movements, a movement away from traditional knowledge and institutional control (whether this succeeded or just creates another canon or system is debatable).

When Magritte painted his famous “this is not a pipe” he was in effect saying that to create a picture of x is an illusion of x. When Duchamp declared the now so-called “ready-made” as art, a fixed ontology of art was no longer forthcoming. Such artists question – like the philosopher – aspects such as what is real or true or good. In the realm of science, the constituent particles are mainly described as moving energy such that solidity is called into question. Whether in politics, art and science, there appears to be no fixed rational description of reality. Indeed, as Zeno pointed out so very long ago, perhaps there is a point at which reason is limited. Mathematics may describe such a seeming impasse with ideas such as infinity, yet the idea that infinity can be measured appears contradictory.

Yet a further difficulty arises: While to cast a sceptical eye on how reason may impose an order, a kind of fundamentalist totalitarianism, the antinomy – namely the decentred sign – implies a kind of chaotic eclectic mixture, wherein definition and objectivity seem to be eradicated. For when the text has no clear meaning, when art has no definition save its institutional contextualisation, where the destabilised sign means that anything could mean anything, then are we bereft of meaning and truth? Is the price for doing away with classical logic, a haphazard collective of mere surfaces, with no solidity or value?

On the other hand, the positive spin on this openness is that aesthetics is not simply an image with a definite correspondence to demarcate reality from that which so refers, namely language. No, Derrida’s notion of difference implies that language does not simply refer to a stable world out there. Indeed, language is itself a reality or medium and not a transparent one at that. In art, the image which is a sign can portend to multiple meanings or in fact, no meaning. Perhaps at best there is simply tautological truth as conceptualist artist Kosuth perhaps expressed with his well-known artwork of a “real” (or actual) chair, a dictionary definition of a chair and a photograph of a chair. And yet, “chair” might also have metaphorical significance.

In effect, one is part of the processes that give rise to thoughts and emotions, so that one is as much cause as effect. Pointing to reality includes that which points. Artworks are not windows into or of the world. Art works are objects in the world. Their fate is unpredictable, a quantum particle and wave. Consider the massive imprint of even popular culture which draws from art and it will be clear that reality is no-where to be found: there is the surface; the sign; the symbol and the games and conventions that defines societies and cultures. Nothing is what it seems precisely because one engages with each the other via a medium be it biological and cultural and therefore there is just a play and struggle of nature and human intent. “Therefore” is here said with circumspect. The initial premise may very well imply another conclusion.

Printmakers are welcome to respond to the philosophical, psychological, political and aesthetic dimensions of ideas surrounding infinity, paradox, illusion, post-modern diversity and instability of the sign or presence and the like. If it is true to say that many artists use art to better grasp reality or at least hint at its ineffability, then perhaps envisage and imagine and transcribe as printmakers your ideas concerning the complexity, difficulty and perhaps beauty that the play and struggle of nature/self/culture inevitably gives rise to.

Dr Daniel Shorkend