Thursday, February 21, 2008

Chance in Art


The lower order is a mirror of the higher; the forms of earth correspond to the form of Heaven; the spots on one's skin are a chart of the incorruptible constellations.1

The art to come (and go, like all the others!): Imitating nature almost; above all imitating nature's way of creating!2

The first part of this two-part essay revolved about several types of indeterminate art which bear a close relationship to natural forms and patterns. Blotting, crackle, marbling, decalcomania - counterparts for all these effects can be found in nature. The crackled glaze of a Sung vase bears a direct physical relationship to the pattern of fissures in a dried-up creek bed, for example. And the mottled patterns of ink blots are highly evocative of the shifting patterns of light and shade in massed foliage and rock faces. The branching indeterminate 'growths' on mocha ware, produced by dropping an acid colourant (called 'tea') on to the glaze of a vessel before firing, are similarly evocative of trees, river deltas, etc. Such undifferentiated patterns have a tendency to suggest homologues and mirror the viewer's unconscious. Because the elements of such indeterminate images side-step relationships of domination and subordination, (dis)arranging themselves paratactically or non-hierarchically, they can suggest all things to all people.

It is perhaps because of this mutability that undifferentiated patterns have played a central role in the magic and divinatory rituals of various cultures through the ages. Richter and his fellow Dadaists recognised in indeterminate forms of imagery a source of immediacy and primeval magic power that they considered art had lost through contact with people like Lessing, Wirickelmann and Goethe.
Absolute acceptance of chance brought us into the realm of magic, conjurations, oracles, and divination 'from the entrails of lambs and birds' . . .3

Aeromancy is a form of divination from the patterns of ripples on bodies of water; ceromancy from patterns of melted wax dropped on a floor; crythomancy from patterns of grain or flour particles; xylomancy from the positions of dead wood and leaves on the ground. Scapulomancy is a traditional Chinese method of divination from cracks in mutton bones dried over a fire.

Crucial to all forms of divination, including those involving indeterminate configurations, is the empirical concept of acausal synchronicity - the orderedness of events which has no intelligible cause. This holds that all things are interconnected by a complex web of relations - from the smallest blade of grass to the remotest star; and that any given moment, any event is inextricably related to every other event. The significance of such an attitude is that it accepts multiple perspectives of events in place of a narrow one-point perspective. Consistent with such a premise is the use by contemporary artists of oracular, ludic and other aleatoric techniques as a means of relinquishing some cognitive control over the creative act, thereby bringing some 'magical' contingencies of the transient moment into play.
JOHN HURRELL Pocket Press over Wall 1981
polyurethane varnish and acrylic

The Christchurch artist John Hurrell by using dice to select permutations of prescribed set of geometric shapes and colours within an over-all grid structure for his Dice Pieces paintings, is literally working in an aleatoric mode. The stark geometry, hard edges and flat unmodulated colours of Hurrell's Dice Pieces belie their fortuitous composition. First the artist sketched his grid plan on paper; then ran off a series of duplicates. Next he decided on a range of variables (triangle lozenge, diamond, assorted colours) with which to 'flesh out' the skeleton structure. By ascribing numbers to the variables, tossing dice and recording the results on the paper plans, a final composition was divined. Only later was the design scaled up, transposed to canvas and painted in, The indeterminate part of the process was relegated to the plotting of the composition, not to the execution. In the final stage the use of masking tape and unmodulated colours minimised gestural irregularities. Any two or more paintings produced by this process, all conditions being equal, will look fundamentally similar, but differ in detail, in the same way that dalmatian pups from a litter or assorted snow crystals are at once homogeneous and yet unique.

The problem Hurrell experienced with his Dice Pieces was in deciding how far he should go in making the elements variable: for example, the range of colours and tones could be extended almost infinitely; the size of the canvas could similarly be made variable. In short, the question was how to strike a balance between arbitrary and aesthetic decisions, between objective and subjective choices, chance and order. One of the Dice Pieces paintings became so complex that Hurrell never completed it.
Cerussite crystals

It is precisely this type of problem that highlights the pitfalls in indeterminate art. Kaprow, one of the American progenitors of the 'happening' summarised the issue: 'It is essential to know what change and chance are, where the one leaves off and the other begins, when to use one, when the other and when neither; and it is most essential to know that the use of chance can be a vehicle for the denial of art itself, as much as for its realisation'.

Fundamentally, indeterminate art is concerned with process; the artist acts in the 'gap between art and life', to borrow the words of Robert Rauschenberg. It is in this sense that one can speak of the realism of indeterminate art - not the superficial mimicry of naturalism based on the skilful art of simulating appearances, but the more fundamental realism of process. Nature is, of course, an unconscious and partially fortuitous process, a static representation of which, by a systematic and totally conscious process, is a contradiction. In pursuit of a more natural and unconscious art which is consistent with the indeterminate flux of life, artists have devised a variety of objective techniques for diluting subjective control. The terms aleatoric (depending on the throw of a dice), stochastic (to aim at a mark, guess), indeterminate (not fixed in extent, number, character or nature; acting freely), random (not set or guided in a special direction; made, done, occurring, etc. at haphazard) are now part of our cultural vocabulary.
KENNETH MARTIN, Chance and Order 15 (four colours) 1973

From the Dice Pieces, Hurrell moved on to Map works, circumventing the escalating indeterminacy of his Dice Pieces and the attendant aesthetic problem which had troubled him. Each of the Map works is based on a printed street map, parts of which are painted out according to some governing decision. Pocket Press Over Wall, for example, involves two press maps - one wall and one fold-up pocket map. The pocket map is glued on to the larger wall map. Wherever one of the four edges of the pocket map intersects a street on the larger map, that street is left (truncated), but all other streets are painted out. The same streets are left in their entirety on the small map and their references are deleted from the index. The resultant pattern is reminiscent of exposed borer channels on a sanded kauri floor. Where the streets are truncated by the overlaid pocket map, a parallel can be drawn to borer channels terminating at the gaps between floor boards.

More so than the Dice Pieces, Hurrell's Map works provide all the information necessary for the viewer's comprehension of the working process. The system is a closed one and from it the work develops indeterminately but logically to its conclusion. Unlike the Dice Pieces, the formal qualities of the Map works are latent in the 'ready made', becoming revealed or accentuated during the process of the work. 'With the Map works, I feel I have solved many of the disconcerting problems of the Dice Pieces . . . where to allow chance to affect the decisions, and when to have fixed arbitrary or aesthetic decisions . . . the map sizes and street colours are predeterminated by the manufacturers.5

Hurrell's indeterminate works bear a close relationship with those of the noted British artist Kenneth Martin. The Dice Pieces in particular bear comparison with Martin's aieatoric works which grow automatically from a preordered system. Martin has explained the system used in his Chance and Order drawings: 'The points of intersection on a grid of squares are numbered and the numbers are written on small cards and then picked at random. A line is made between each successive pair of numbers as they are picked out. In early drawings, to show and use the fact that each direction was drawn in sequence, a system of parallel lines was invented. They were always on the same side of the direction throughout a work. Chance determined the sequence and also the number of parallel line to each. 1 line would serve the firs drawn, 2 for the second, 3 for the third and so on. Each block of lines and space was drawn underneath the preceding ones and did not pass through them.6

In spite of their linear qualities, Martin's Chance and Order drawings are strikingly organic. 'Construction stems from within. The work is a product of inner necessity and is created through an inner logic, i.e., a developing logic within the work that results in form . . .'7

Nature operates in a like manner. The way the branches of a tree bifurcate; the way a river delta fans out into a system of rivulets; the way crystals grow, is the result of inner necessity - an internal logic Within such systems the relative positions of individual elements are comparatively arbitrary - arbitrary, that is, within certain parameters. Stockhausen in describing his aleatoric musical compositions once drew a comparison with a tree the leaves of which could all be rearranged without affecting its essential appearance. Xenakis for his music has used the analogy of a swarm of singing cicadas: whether one cicada sings or not has no effect on the envelope of sound, which derives its distinctive character from the statistical result of a myriad of cicada notes.
KENNETH MARTIN Chance and Order

Tossing coins, picking numbers from a hat, throwing dice, exploiting gravity, wind, magnetism, etc., are just a few of the ways in which artists have been able to step outside of themselves, so to speak, and dilute subjective control by a measure of indeterminacy. But always this indeterminacy must apply within certain prescribed limits. No art can be entirely objective or indeterminate - an artist's choice of materials, the scale and duration of the work, the type of variables selected - these tend to be subjective and therefore aesthetic decisions. By the same token, no art can be entirely subjective or controlled. Wear and tear on the bristles of a brush, irregularities in the artist's canvas or paper, varying consistencies of paint, impurities, etc., make it impossible for the artist to predict exactly what sort of mark he or she will make. With a highly fluid medium like watercolour, where the colours bleed and mingle in a, volatile way, the artist has even more variables with which to contend. But given that in any work of art there will be some gap between intention and effect ('one grimly tries to master the material and equally grimly chance keeps hold, insinuating itself through a thousand loopholes than cannot be caulked'8) it is important to recognise that what is called 'indeterminate art' is that in which chance or indeterminacy play a significant or major role, as in the following colourful example.

The great Japanese master Hokusai is recorded as having painted a river scene on a karikami (screen-like door) by brushing in the water with a broad sweep of blue; then dipping the feet of a rooster in red paint, causing it to walk over the screen in such a way as to describe maple leaves floating down the river.9 This abdication of sole creative responsibility - let alone collaboration with a dumb animal - is to the 'Western' mind, which holds dear the idea of the individual ego expressing itself and of man's need to control his feelings and environment, an artistic heresy. But, in an age where 'civilised man' has achieved an awesome, even dangerous, control over his environment and has become correspondingly alienated from it, an art based on sensitive collaboration with the contingencies of nature, in appreciation of its ,magical' vagaries, and a respect for the complexity of its inter-relationships, makes increasing sense.

1. Borges, J; 'Three versions of Judas', in Labyrinths, Harmondsworth, 1970, p.126.
2. Strindberg, A; 'The New Arts, or The Role of Chance in Artistic Creation', English translation in Sprinchorn, E(ed) Inferno, Alone and other writings, August Strindberg, New York, 1%8, p.103.
3. Richter, H; Dad. Art and Anti-Art, London, 1965 P.60.
4. Kaprow, A; Assemblages, Environments and Happenings np, nd, p.180.
5 . Hurrell, J; letter to Andrew Bogle, 3 Nov. 1981.
6. Martin, K; 'Chance and Order' in Kenneth Martin, Tale Gallery, 1975, p.46.
7. Martin, K; 'Construction from Within', op.cit., p.12.
8. Boulez, P; quoted in Stuckenschmidt, H; Twentieth Century Music, English edition, London, 1969, p.220.
9. see Strange, E; Japanese Colour Prints, London, 1910, p.663.


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