Within the framework of my research into Asger Jorn´s writing and thinking I organize public sessions with special guests at a variety of venues. The guest´s practice, knowledge, insights, or responses are informative to my research, or steer the direction I take on a particular topic. The sessions also often respond to the context of the hosting institution, or to a specific request. Making the sessions public is a way to share and enter into a dialogue with the audiences.
‘Thinking Through Matter’ was a talk by myself and Copenhagen-based artist Ferdinand Ahm Krag in the framework of the exhibition ’Asger Jorn – Restless Rebel’ at the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. The talk took place Saturday 22 March 2014.
Both my introduction and Ferdinand Ahm Krag’s contribution find their starting point in Asger Jorn´s text ´What is an Ornament?’ from 1948. In this text Jorn states that ornamentation is to be found in all matter, that ornamentation is “the grammar of substance”, “the geometry of life” itself. Illustrations in Jorn’s text include a representation of the orbital paths of a radium atom, and a representation of the earth’s rotational curves within its phases of movement. They serve to stress his idea of the ornament as “spontaneous arabesque”, a type of ‘moving’ and hence dynamic ornamentation that is natural and about organic cohesion.
My text introduces these ideas (a different version though from the session ‘The Grammar of Substance’), and serves as a support to join in Ahm Krag’s thinking about what it means to be ‘natural’ and have a ‘natural’ relationship with materiality in our current times, the age of the anthropocene – the human-made geological epoch. You can find my introduction in the blog entry ‘Thinking Through Matter I’.
In his text ‘What is an ornament’ Asger Jorn describes the ornament as the formal language of nature. Different elements interact in such a way that it becomes ‘ornamental’: think of the patterns the wind and the clouds create. On a micro scale Jorn finds the principle of ornamentation inside the atom. But how far does the principle of ornamentation reach? When does it stop to relate to the human world? In relation to Jorn’s text I am particularly interested to try and locate the outer boundary of the ornament. How far does it stretch? So let us look at the figure of the ornament as a way of assembling a cosmology.
In his ambitious trilogy ‘Spheres’ the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk tries to describe a metaphysical history of “enclosed spaces, utopian or practical pods and domes, real and fantastical atmospheres of ecosystems”. In the first volume he writes: “since the start of the Modern Age, the human world has constantly – every century, every decade, every year and every day – had to learn to accept and integrate new truths about an outside not related to humans.” And he continues: “Every view into the extra-terrestrial spaces provided increasing evidence that mankind is towered above on all sides by monstrous externalities that breathe on it with stellar coldness and extra-human complexity. The old nature of homo sapiens is not up to these provocations by the outside.”
Matter builds up into solar systems that build up into galaxies that build up into clusters and superclusters, and at the very largest scale we find the filament-structures of visible and dark matter – the overall superstructure of the known cosmos. The ornament of matter at the largest scale. Does the natural ornament of matter at a certain point leave the human being behind – and where exactly is this point? And where should we position Asger Jorn in all this? Does he stay within a human centered world?
One could wonder why there are no images of spiral galaxies in Asger Jorn’s text ‘What is an ornament?’ Asger Jorn never leaves planet Earth. It’s from the ground that he looks up and observes the patterns of the clouds and the weather. Today the weather has become climate and the topic of climate change. Climate models always envision the globe seen from outer space. From some thousand kilometers above ground, where there is no gravity. Climate models place us in an imaginary space outside earth and this positioning of ourselves outside earth trying to monitor the climate is made possible by the interior workings of computers. Asger Jorn stays on ground – he stays grounded. But he inhabits the ground in such a way that it seems to be infinite in all directions.
For those of you who have seen the movie ‘Gravity’ – that just won seven Oscars – you will know that the film starts with the following statement: LIFE IN SPACE IS IMPOSSIBLE. ‘Gravity’ is about an astronaut – Dr. Ryan Stone – trying to fight her way out of space and back down to earth. It’s a sort of reversed science-fiction: It’s not about expansion out into Space. It’s about getting back down to earth. Getting grounded and gaining gravity.
It is called ‘re-entry’ when a space-shuttle comes down the atmosphere from outer space. If the film ‘Gravity’ reflects the changing mental state of a culture that now is in the process of a re-entry – a re-entry to the planet and the materiality that makes up the planet, then the question is: what ground are we re-entering? Is it the same ground consisting of the same materiality as when we – metaphorically speaking – took off from the ground in the beginning of modernity ?
If we follow the logic of the film ‘Gravity’ the odd thing is, that it is Earth itself that has become utopia. Not Space. But if it is Earth itself that is the new ´space´ to project our ideals onto, then one might ask: if we are not on earth, then where are we? Apparently we are dealing with this problem of locating where we are?
Marx wrote the following famous words in the communist manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.” We are now learning that the ‘air’ Marx mentions is not at all a metaphor. This ‘melting process’ of industrialization and of capitalism has been so profound that it has within the last century led to an epoch-scale crossing of a geological boundary.
If we took off from the planet in the beginning of Modernity we are now in the process of a very troubling and difficult re-entry that brings us beyond modernization. We took off in the geological period called the Holocene – the geological period of time that for 10.000 years provided a safe environmental envelope within which contemporary civilization has developed. Our re-entry to the planet – this re-orientation towards matter, this re-materialization of human thought – is not a re-entry to earth and matter as we know it. It’s an entry to a radically new world. Some geologists have now come up with the term the Anthropocene’. The thesis of ‘the Anthropocene’ suggest that:
“The earth is now moving out of its current geological epoch, called the Holocene and (ii) that human activity is largely responsible for this exit from the Holocene, that is, that humankind has become a global geological force in its own right” – (The anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives – Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill, The Royal Society, 2011)
The starting point of the Anthropocene is set in 1950 by geologists. Jorns text ‘What is an Ornament’ is from 1948 – an interesting coincidence. I would like to bring up one of his interpretations of the ornament again: “The ornament as spontaneous arabesque, which manifests itself as a set of elements within a greater whole. This is ‘moving’ and hence dynamic ornamentation. It is about organic cohesion”.It is my strong feeling that Asger Jorn´s thoughts on the ornament and ornamentation – in some updated version – could be a powerful and necessary contribution to the urgent task of assembling an ecological thought that is not grounded in the Holocene, but instead in the strangely disrupted world of the Anthropocene that goes beyond all former notions of the natural world.
I will now show a video that I recently made and which is partly inspired by Jorns thinking about the ornament. But it also differs a lot from his thinking. My work does not really deal with `organic cohesion`. Instead it is about “digital cohesion”. It is a kind of spontaneous digital primitivism. And the question is – for later discussion – if there still is such a thing as “organic cohesion” that can be used as a model for a materialistic cosmology? How do “organic cohesion” and “digital cohesion” relate to one another?
Ferdinand Ahm Krag, 2014