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The limitations of the human senses and of human thought are interests that connect not only the works in that exhibition, but the majority art that I've produced over the last 10 years. Other themes include how we classifying and comprehend the world around us (taking into account our biological limitations) and, most importantly, the dissonance between our subjective inner world of experience and the objective outer world of physical reality.
When I was an undergraduate student in Biochemistry I was called in to the head of department's office who was very concerned by my use of adjectives in an essay on molecular biology. 'Subtle', 'intricate' and 'profound' were deemed inappropriate ways to describe the processes occurring in human cells at the molecular level. Subjectivity was to be avoided at all costs in the context of a Biochemistry examination.
Five years later the vice chancellor of the Royal College of Art (himself a former Biochemist) described my entry for the 2003, RCA Christmas card competition as too 'cold', 'clinical' and 'objective', but awarded it second prize anyway out of curiosity.
It took a while to realise the connection between these two seemingly unrelated and unimportant events, but they were first hand experiences of an artificial division between scientific objectivity and artistic subjectivity. In fact it wasn't until I made 'Clouds, glands, tributaries' in 2007, that I felt I had struck some sort of balance between the philosophical ideals of the two subjects, and possibly found a way to combine them.
Over time I came to realise that the mechanism underlying the drawing is almost identical to that of Japanese Haiku poetry. Unlike classical Chinese poetry the Haiku poet must remain as objective as possible whilst composing the three short lines of the poem. In a classic 'show don't tell' fashion, when a poet directly describes their own subjective feelings, then the poem fails as a haiku.
In my mind, the true power of a haiku lies in the 'subjective void' left by the poet for readers to fill themselves. The effect of a successful haiku is fleeting but powerfully subjective, and much more than the sum of its objective observations. The best haiku, even in translation, are capable of connecting the reader and writer as human beings in the world, despite vast distances in time, space, culture and language, and the goal is to achieve this by purely objective means.
The cloud images are based on weather diagrams, and employ the symbols for ‘cold front’ (colder air moving in the direction the triangles are pointing) and ‘warm front’ (warmer air moving in the direction the semicircles are pointing).
Their collision and entanglement lead to the formation of vast cyclones, and whereas weather diagrams depict such formations as maps viewed from above (i.e. by satellite imagery), in the drawing the clouds are positioned upright, so that the cyclones rotate inwards toward the viewer.
and also the Lacrimal gland which creates tears. (frontal view and cross section)
The drawings are based on the geological theory for the formation of river tributaries which suggests that, over a period of geological time, small irregularities in the valley wall are eroded by running water, creating fissures which gradually extend back into the rock face into more complex river networks.
The Meibomian / Tarsal glands secrete an oil that traps the 'tear film' against the surface of the eye. This creates a miniscule layer of salt water 0.003 mm thick, through which we view the world. The geological layer beneath this depicts an erosion pattern arising as a result of water draining from the land into a river system.
Two other aspects of water are present only by suggestion, the raindrops from the storm clouds and tears from the eyes, and both of these play off the idea of erosion over time on the landscape beneath. To my mind, the spherical ball of the eye is also indirectly present in the spherical negative space created by each of the three layers, especially the four upper eyelids.
Considered as a whole 'Clouds, glands, tributaries' is an open work, to use Umberto Eco's terms, and so there is no definitive reading of the drawing. As in Duchamp's 'The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even' (The Large Glass), the title gives some suggestion as to what we are looking at, however specific details remain hidden unless the viewer has some experience in meteorology, biology or geology.
Duchamp considered the title of a painting to be "another colour on the artist’s palette", perhaps even an invisible colour creating a kind of aura of meaning around what we're looking at. His use of complex and obscure references in 'The Large Glass' was accompanied by whole volumes of notes, both published by Duchamp during his lifetime and by others afterwards.
The notes act as a kind of encyclopaedia to be referenced before, during or after looking at 'The Large Glass'. However the disconnected and vague nature of the notes creates yet another layer of abstract meaning surrounding the work, turning the process of deciphering it into a cryptic game that has occupied a whole generation of Duchamp scholars.
'Clouds, glands, tributaries' does rely upon more a specialised knowledge in order to recognise the specific nature of the diagrams being used. The title gives no suggestion as to what type of cloud, gland or tributary the viewer is looking at, and the references risk being lost in ambiguity.
In order to avoid this problem the titles of later works use more specific scientific terminology, so that a title acts as a set of keys to understanding a work. Instead of having to refer to volumes of notes to read each drawing, an inquisitive viewer can check the terms used in a title using their smartphone.
In this way, each person can begin their own personal reading of a work and draw their own conclusions, thanks to the ever increasing artificial intelligence of search engines and the vast, interconnected hypertext of the internet.
To see just how subtle, intricate and profound biochemical pathways really are, it's worth following the link below to two of my favourite diagrams of all times. Compiled by Gerhard Michal of the Boehringer Mannheim company, they were originally published as huge wall posters, but are now available for free in an online, interactive form.
The two charts 'Biochemical Pathways' and 'Cellular and Molecular Processes', are both daunting in their scale and beauty, but it's worth remembering that if every known molecule within the human cell were to be included on a chart at this scale, it would need to be far larger than a football pitch in size (and probably 3-D).
Click on the images below to access the online versions of the charts: