Text as presented during the symposium Existence at Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, 3 April 2008
(Published in: Peter Lodermeyer, Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold, PERSONAL STRUCTURES: TIME SPACE EXISTENCE, DuMont Verlag, Cologne, Germany, 2009)
About Existence, Coexistence and Art.
Historians, philosophers, archaeologists and many others, have long been debating the question of what is it that distinguishes us humans from animals, and up until now, we have not reached a clear, universally accepted answer.
All animals learn how to obtain access to food and other resources from their environment, but when an animal dies, the only knowledge that does not die is the directly transferred knowledge. All other knowledge the animal has accumulated in its lifetime dies with the animal. For humans, though animals as well, the case is somewhat different. Many animals can use gestures and sounds to communicate with each other, but it seems that only humans can communicate information in so many different ways and with such nuances, and only humans have learned how to preserve knowledge for generations to come.
Knowledge can be transported over generations not only through writing or other means, but also through Art. Art provides probably the most powerful evidence of how humans perceive their world. The existence of art is one of the signs that humans most likely have a broader and more complex ability to communicate then other animals. It seems to be that only humans can communicate things that are abstract or that do not exist. I believe that the art humans make is also proof that humans are capable of a certain awareness concerning their own existence.
The earliest indication of the existence of art among humans is the physical evidence of powdered pigments that has been left behind. Humans seem to have ground up pigments and used them to paint themselves or their surroundings. Evidence of the use of pigment in southern Africa has been dated back over 100,000 years. My belief is that the use of language goes back even much earlier than this, but that the development of art by humans must be related to the development of a constantly improving use of language and increasingly refined communication. The human need to communicate, not only through spoken words, but also with and through art, seems to have been in existence at least since that time.
Around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, the first figurative objects no longer created for purposes of daily survival as well as the first musical instruments and cave paintings were made. These forms of communication show some of the ways in which humans expressed themselves. From then on, in many parts of the world, human artistic expression developed fast. Humans began to produce not only paintings and carvings, but also ornamental items to wear on their body. Through their art, humans created a figurative as well as symbolic representation of their world.
First through the cave paintings, and much later through writing, photography, sound and other methods, the knowledge individual humans gained during their lifetime could be preserved from now on, which provided an enormous advantage to future generations. When exactly this process of preserving knowledge started is not clear, but this process has not changed even today, and because of the availability and increasingly easy accessibility to the growing amount of knowledge, this process is reaching ever more humans and continues to accelerate.
During the Early Stone Age a positive difference in knowledge acquired by each subsequent generation, was not very great, or most likely, not present at all. Now, generally speaking, each successive generation already has significantly more knowledge and has developed further than the previous generation, whereas ‘further’ is not to be understood as necessarily ‘better’. This state of being more developed also does not seem to have made us any more satisfied or to guarantee us a better life quality. We can only hope that we humans will finally accept the consequences of the knowledge and awareness of the fact that we do coexist with other living beings and we should soon come to a global consensus and begin to use all available knowledge for the better of the planet as a whole. Although humans can now easily adapt to big changes in our environment, this ‘coming to a global consensus’, will even prove necessary for the majority of the human race in order to continue living under so called quality circumstances.
Communication is a basic need for all human beings, at least for me it is. My need to communicate is mainly driven by curiosity and my will to interact with other humans. My will to communicate is probably inherent to human nature. Here and now, I am trying to communicate with you, but here in Japan, and in several other countries I have traveled in, the people I meet do not seem to really understand my language and gestures. Therefore, I mainly try to communicate through the objects I create, but communication with another living being still needs the use of some kind of language. Although several other artists seem to have no problems doing so, I do not want to make artworks by using words I might not even understand myself. I do not want to use a language that uses words, also because I think that such a language reaches a too limited number of people and I would like to reach many people. Therefore, even now, I have to use words and sentences which can be easily understood by many. So, when you create an artwork with the use of words, the only solution to reach many people seems to be to translate the artwork, the words, in as many languages as possible. That just doesn’t seem efficient and accurate enough for me to transport the contents I wish to communicate. The quality of art in general lies in the possibility for experiencing different people expressing similar or different contents while presenting the meaning they wish to communicate by choosing different forms of communication.
Reaching everybody in the world is impossible, but some people, not taking into account human creations, like God, have managed to reach many people with their words, and some of them had a positive, some had a negative influence on the development of significant parts of mankind. There are many ways to reach, communicate with, other humans. There are many languages and forms of expression. Because of the way I have decided to live my life, I cannot reach many people. But in order to reach as many I can, without offering up my own personal life quality and being able to maintain my own personal egoism, I decided to create objects. By doing so I decided to make use of an abstract language with formal elements like color, shape and material. With this type of communication, it may not be possible to convey thoughts as precisely to another person as when both people speak exactly the same verbal language, but the use of an abstract language in an art work seems to reach many people in a more location-independent and timeless manner than other means of expression in visual art. This was one of the reasons why I chose this abstract language as my main form of communication.
Several conceptual artists say that the form of presentation of an art work should have no value, but if you want to give an idea a physical presence, then you have no other choice than to use formal elements and it is impossible to create a form of physical presentation without value. The best you can do is to try to transport the intended meaning with a reduction of formal elements. Since there is no escape for acknowledging this and dealing with it anyway, it is the best option we have. Besides, it seems that, at this point in time, the reduced use of formal elements does represent me, is me and also seems to communicate better with the audience my works encounter, much better than the use of them in a more baroque way. However, of course, I am aware that no language is universal. The use of whatever language and the perception of whatever language remains a very subjective and personal matter. Therefore, explaining the ‘meaning’ of art is always very difficult, because so much depends on the cultural context of the work and on the ideas we ourselves bring to the interpretation. Even if an artwork consists only of words, the observer can hardly do more than speculate on the given meaning. I claim that the objects I make are first of all about the meaning they represent. They contain my awareness of my existence and because I want to communicate my awareness to myself as well as to you, I created those objects and I had no other choice than to use formal elements. Amongst other formal elements, I had to use color, shape and material.
I am aware that I exist and that time passes, therefore I know that my present existence becomes past, and I therefore know that I have existed in the past. At the moment of the actual execution of my works, I always express my subjective memory of my existence in that past. The conscious action of the creation of each of my objects themselves is an expression of my awareness of my momentary existence. While making my works, they express my existence and my coexistence in the past and present. But as time passes, my works might be nothing other than the proof that I have once existed. But at this moment in time, I still do exist, and you still seem to exist as well.
I believe that gaining awareness about time, space and existence can be of great help in creating a more satisfying personal way to live our lives. Many people claim to have read texts by philosophers or other great thinkers, but reading and even understanding the knowledge acquired is not enough. This acquired knowledge should actually have an influence, real consequences, on how we live our lives. This all sounds so ‘logical’ and easy, but in reality it seems that most people still do not really reach sufficient awareness of their own being in order to be able to self-define their own existence. Only to a certain extent can you make accountable that through limitations owing to the physical circumstances you are in, you were left no better choice and were forced to come to the choices you made.
Here, in this conference space in Tokyo, we see and experience several different human beings and many of them have come from very different parts and cultures of this world. And although we are all humans, we are not the same. Our brains do not operate exactly the same and during our lives we have all lived through many different experiences. Therefore, we have often come to very different thoughts, opinions, philosophies and choices.
To be human includes being surrounded by and being part of the physical, factual, concrete everyday world. Our world is here, now and everywhere around us. We are totally immersed in it, we are nowhere else, we are here and now, and we have to make the best out of that. Once we arrive at the realization that each of us is a distinctive entity, we have to fulfill our own destiny. We should start to question the input from our culture and start to rethink all values we have been taught in order to create, to self-define our own identity, our own being. To try to understand all the different identities represented in as many humans seems essential for developing a global human existence with quality.
At least since the times of Socrates, philosophers have raised and discussed many questions and sometimes they have even come to conclusions. We cannot create any awareness without the use of language, but several philosophers lose themselves in words and definitions. Although these philosophical discussions about existence stimulate our intellect they have not yet helped us to really comprehend the subject matter. There are no answers. But, whether we agree with all the thoughts about time, space and existence or not, without a doubt, in their search for truths, they at least have helped to create a greater awareness. So, we might not have gained any knowledge but we certainly have created opinions. There is no reason why we exist, and we ourselves will have to give value and meaning to our existence.
I exist and you exist. Regardless of all the different thoughts and points of view about existence, I simply have no other choice than to come to this conclusion. This means, I exist amongst other objects and living beings that exist at that same moment in time as well. The awareness of my existence always includes the awareness of my co-existence. There was a time when I did not exist and there will come a time when I will not exist anymore, but at this moment in time, I do exist.
The awareness a person has established for himself cannot be measured, but it can be expressed, in words, sounds or objects, for others to read, hear, see or feel, and to be understood by those who have reached a certain level of awareness themselves. I am not sure if we are the only animal aware of its own existence and of the fact that each of us will die in the not so distant future. We like to believe we are the only creatures who can reach this level of consciousness, but elephants for example, seem to respond with grace when they encounter the remains of a deceased family member. Do they not have any awareness at all, or can it be that we just have great difficulties in communicating with the elephants because we do not speak the same language as they do and so we must guess what they think. Is it because I come from another culture and I do not speak Japanese well enough to understand what you are thinking and why you think like that? Can I ever find out what you are really thinking? How can I find out how aware another living being is about himself and his surroundings? I need communication. Communication seems to be the key factor, not only communication with the other living beings, but also the communication with oneself.