2009 Essay 1

Rene Rietmeyer

Text as presented during the symposium Time Space Existence at Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti in Venice, Italy, 4 June 2009

(Published in: Peter Lodermeyer, Karlyn De Jongh & Sarah Gold, PERSONAL STRUCTURES: TIME SPACE EXISTENCE, DuMont Verlag, Cologne, Germany, 2009)


The subjective use and perception of matter

Matter, Material, Materiality

Around 450 BC the Greek philosopher Empedocles proposed one of the first theories that attempted to describe the things around us. He argued that all matter was composed of four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. He thought that the ratio in which these four elements were combined, decided the properties of all matter and after we died, we would turn into fire, air, water and dust again. Approximately 50 years later another Greek philosopher named Democritus realized that if you would take a stone and break it into two pieces, each part would still have the same property values as the stone from before the splitting. He came to the conclusion, that if you would continue to break the stone into ever smaller pieces, eventually you would come to a piece, that would be so small, that the piece itself, could no longer be divided into two parts anymore. He called these smallest possible pieces: atomos. Aristotle and Plato, rejected the theories of Democritus. Aristotle accepted the ‘fire, air, water, earth’ theory of Empedocles, and because Aristotle had many people who believed in him, the theory of Democritus would have to wait almost another 2,000 years before being rediscovered. Proving that, both Aristotle and Plato, could be seriously wrong sometimes as well.

Especially in the last hundred years we have to come to the conclusion that this subject is even much more complex and difficult to understand as it seemed. In praxis however, almost all artists are not concerned with the latest developments in the research of matter, and I, myself, honestly cannot understand the latest findings anymore as well. I can therefore only touch the surface from the physical discoveries and ongoing philosophical discussions. Kant tried to explain the difference between matter, material, and substance. Marx and Hegel tried to explain the differences between, material and content and material, latest from that point on, was not just a physically present object anymore, it became to have meaning. In the late twentieth century, Heidegger’s thoughts gave way to the use of the word ‘materiality’, and Clement Greenberg, as an art critic, made an enormous effort to redefine the value of the work of art and discussed thereby the significance of physicality in visual arts. Michael Fried claimed: “the materials do not represent, signify or allude to anything; they are what they are and nothing more.” Material that had been only part of the form of the art work, as opposed to being part of the content or meaning of the art work, this material now did become an important factor of the meaning of the art object itself.

Over the years many philosophers and even scientists have come to many different opinions and since art is no science, artists have taken the freedom to believe in, and express what, they subjectively like best. An artist simply does not have the time and understanding capability anymore to deal with this subject as intensively as specialist researchers do. We therefore can only include a very limited know­ledge within our works, which makes our use of questions concerning matter within our art works even more subjective, and as long as we do not pretend that we know, there is nothing wrong with that.

Matter; I would describe today as: something that is physically present, which emphasizes that it is at least something, something everything has been made out of. Solids, liquids, and gases are the most common states of matter that exist on our planet. Everything around us is matter and the atom is considered the most basic unit of matter.

Material; commonly refers to physical present matter, but there is also material which is associated to non-physical present matter, such as spoken words, magnetism and electricity. The material aspect of things, for example an art work, is often not obvious. In the late twentieth century the actual meaning of material became associated with the abstractness of art and that brought the word ‘materiality’ into the discussions about art works.

Materiality, has become one of the crucial aspects while discussing the characteristics of the media used to create a work of art. The materiality of an object seems to be; our perception of the material the object is made of; the perception of the qualities, the values of the materials as such. The different interpretations of Matter, Material and Materiality, seem to be one of the crucial aspects in understanding the characteristics of the media artists work with.

How do humans perceive matter

Matter values are personal not universal, although there are similarities in perception. Knowledge about the history of a certain material has influence on its perception. Personal experiences with materials in the past, influence the momentary perception. Material contains qualities which transport emotions and meaning. Qualities such as: color, smell, texture and also, the sheer knowledge about what material the art work has been made of creates an emotional reaction.

Each series I make, begins with an idea. My main concern is the process of realizing what exactly I want to express, how to communicate and how to realize this in the best way possible with the available material. Once each Box gains physical reality, the perception of its meaning and emotional impact are up to the spectator, including me. Only by realizing my ideas in the object and the completion of a series of Boxes, my thoughts are made visible and can be perceived. Once I have finished my work and I display it, I have no control over the way a viewer will perceive my work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different way.

Three-dimensional art of any kind is a physical fact. The physicality is its most obvious and expressive content. Good art is made to engage the mind of the viewer by reaching his brain in any way possible. The physical aspects of my work emphasis the use of certain materials, matter, because of its specific materiality. The choice of which material I use, underlines the idea which was the foundation for the creating and supports what I want to communicate. New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary art. Some artists confuse new materials with new ideas. The ‘tradition’ of using non-traditional materials and found materials in art goes back awhile, at least since Braques and Picasso’s collages and Duchamp’s urinal. Today we are accustomed to seeing everyday things in museums or galleries. For me, the good use of non-traditional materials has to transform that material so that it becomes something else than the novelty of the material itself. Generally most artists who are attracted to these new materials are the ones who lack the strictness of mind that would enable them to use the materials well. It takes a good artist to use new materials and make them into a work of art. The danger lies in making the physicality of the materials so important that the material itself becomes the idea of the work.

Objectivity, subjectivity and perceptive reality

We human beings cannot perceive things or events objectively at all. A statement is objective if it is neutral and not influenced by prejudices, feelings and interests. An objective statement is consequently independent of the person who makes this statement. It is only when we could know and understand everything on earth and in the cosmos, that objectively correct observations are theoretically possible. However we are still a long way from this, even the so-called knowledge we previously thought we had gained has been revised many times. So, for example the model of the structure and properties of an atom has drastically changed in the last fifty years. Many times scientists were convinced that we now know ‘everything’ but our knowledge is constantly expanding. Those things which we recognize as good and correct in science and technology today, can be proven incorrect or incomplete in the future while perhaps being the basis of new findings. Even our perception within the scope of science and technology is therefore also subjective. To my opinion objectivity cannot be achieved, and should therefore also not serve as a goal, we should rather learn how to deal with and see the beauty of subjectivity.

‘Perception’ is how we view our world: ourselves, others, events. It was not long ago, Alfred Adler who first introduced to psychology the idea that perception is a matter of subjectivity and personal perspective. Our perception of everything around us (perceptive reality) is purely subjective. There are a number of factors that affect perception. Among them is the personal need to see events a certain way. Our perceptions are not simply how we ‘see’ things, but what our minds make of what we choose to see and not see in an event. This becomes the ‘meaning’ of the event, a meaning that is highly personal. In the course of our personal development our own perception changes. It is however true that no one can force us to develop ourselves further. If for example we want to be miserable for the whole of our life because of the end of a relationship, we can do so. The decision is ours alone. How we experience the world is simply our subjectively perceived reality. The nice thing about subjectivity however, is the possibility of influencing the situation ourselves. If my perception is subjective then I, I alone, have all the options of influencing or being influenced in a given situation. I alone decide whether I think that something is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, cold or hot, beautiful or ugly.

Many people assume that having this subjective influence on the neutral picture happens in our subconscious, but we also can consciously modify the way we perceive things. We ourselves can influence it, and we also can allow it to be influenced by external forces. But we can only create awareness with the use of language; we have to give words to our observations. These words are being taught to us and they are the tool for our communication with others, but also with ourselves. If we enlarge the amount of words we are capable of using, or if we learn to address the words more specific to the observed thing, our consciousness and therewith our emotional perception will change. As long as we speak the same language, the differences in the way of using words seems relatively small, but as soon as we have to discuss with for example an artist from Japan, the different meaning of similar translated words becomes obvious and communication with words can lead to serious misunderstandings.

Fortunately it seems possible to communicate without words as well, not only by using figuration in an art work, but also with an abstract language. Although colors are of course not understood the same everywhere, there are similarities in how we perceive for example the color red. The subjective perception of colors has been extensively studied, with a focus on single colors or on combinations of a few colors. It is a challenge to understand the subjective perception of colors, but it is obvious that the emotional impact of color on humans is an important factor in how we perceive our surroundings. The sight of blood causes excitement in primates, it means something important. We therefore use red for important things, like Stop signs, green can calm people down. Colors seem to have subconscious effects of which however we can become aware, although the origin, why, most often can only be guessed. But even our own perceptions are not exactly the same on a day by day basis; they depend on Location and Time. For a great part, the way we for example perceive the exact same object on different occasions, depends on our own personal situation of that moment, and on the space which surrounds the object.

Commonly we are not consciously aware of all the factors involved and, although perception seems to be so personal, there are general tendencies in how we humans perceive our surroundings, the things we encounter. Our mind is capable to create awareness about our own individual possibilities for perception, but it needs to be developed gradually. It is often astonishing how little time we take to experience consciously the emotional impact an object has and how little we consider the meaning certain materials carry within them. If we would experience, perceive, materials and our surroundings more consciously, and if we would integrate the concrete application of these thoughts to our everyday lives, we would be more aware of our own existence.

Knowledge about how matter will mainly be perceived and awareness how I perceive it myself, is the main influence in the choice of the matter, material, which I use for the objects, the Boxes, I am going to make.