Friday, 19 January 2007

Bellerophon and the Chimera

so this was one of my essays from uni last year on phenomenology. when i handed it in, it was printed on transparent paper, concealing and revealing. i threw in a few photos of related work from the grad show. enjoy....

LoveSick (Bellerophon & the Chimera)

A Phenomenological Journey


“I will cover you with wax and light your hair like a wick when the night is too cold”

( Xiu Xiu, Wig Master)

Phenomenology is an overwhelmingly practical theory, and as artists, it relates directly to not only our work and our ideas, but also to our bodies, to the very essence of what makes us the artists that we are. Through phenomenology we gain a deeper understanding of the language of our artist’s body, and an understanding of the technology and tools we add to ourselves to articulate our abstract ideas. The following discussion will elaborate on Heidegger’s ready-to-hand/present-to-hand, and revealing and concealing theories by tracing phenomenology in practice through a work titled LoveSick.

“The Painter Lives in Fascination. The actions most proper to him – those gestures, those paths which he alone can trace and which will be revelations to others (because the others do not lack what he lacks or in the same way ) – to him they seem to emanate from the things themselves, like the patterns of the constellations.” [1]

The forging and construction of LoveSick very much mirrored its inspiration, a path that I alone can trace, a dialogue and a relationship steeped in both the abstract and the physical, in both revealing and concealing. LoveSick (and love sick) is a state of dichotomy, feelings for the object of love become confused, and what is usually translated into physical affection, somehow loses its way in violence. In this particular case, the object of love was an idea that became imposed upon a person, he was more fiction than non-fiction, but in his fictitiousness, he became real. In the interests of decorum, let’s call him the Chimera. My greatest and arguably most fortunately unachieved desire was to measure my love sickness for the Chimera. In my mind, this required putting the Chimera in as much pain as possible, not to see how much he could bear, but how much I could. LoveSick is a functional blade designed to penetrate the object of love, with a hilt made of a single Gazelle antler (which refers back to the violence of sexual possession). The depth of the wound is measured with the Wound Probe made from dental gold and hypodermic steel, each unit of which is one heart beat in ten seconds (just enough time to complete the task).

The construction of LoveSick was to a certain extent a violent one. The hours spent standing in front of a 2000 degree forge, the long swing of the hammer, the inevitable accidents which included burns, bruises and blisters was cathartic in a sense, the built up affection/aggression towards the Chimera was safely expelled bashing billets of hot steel. The revealing and concealing nature of my relationship with the Chimera is also reflected in LoveSick, as within it I have admitted to my most violent fantasies, but also concealed them within the framework of ‘art’ and placed it safely behind glass where it can not be used on any previous, current, or future Chimeras.

When I first started thinking about LoveSick and about the very personal and revealing nature of the piece, I hated the thought of carving it out of a stainless steel blank. This relationship, in all its complexity, was something hand made, something metaphorically forged in fire, so LoveSick itself also had to be something hand made, something directly afected by my body and my ideas. This lead me to Mike Petersen, a master blade smith living in rural NSW.

My first night at Mike’s, I followed the bearded giant through the bushes to the camp site. I was wearing a long skirt that caught on every snag, a fur coat and my grandmother’s diamonds. ‘Out of place’ was definitely a phrase that came to mind. The next day however, I was in someone else’s old army pants and we were down in the workshop. I watched, listened, and tried to stay out of the way of the molten steel projectiles. At the time, what I was watching was a technique, a methodology, but what I actually saw was a fluidity that flowed between a body, technology and the material.

The process of making LoveSick was slow and hard; it involved learning a technique that was not only unknown to me, but unknown to most Australian craftspeople, and with little practice on other pieces, I put this technique into practice on what was to be both the first and the final piece of Tamahagane steel for my exhibition. There was little room for error, which meant that each and every step of its construction required as much concentration and focus as I could manage. The total of one and a half weeks at Petersen’s was spent down in the workshop, listening, learning, practicing and occasionally throwing tantrums.

Watching Mike work the billets[2], I realized that he saw things in the metal that I could not. He saw the blade within the metal as Michelangelo saw the form within the stone; it was simply a matter of careful liberation[3]. For the most part however, I was blind to this, and in a sense, after spending so much time working with Mike in the little studio at the bottom of the hill, I almost became the ready-to-hand technology. He knew just what to say and when to say it, so that I would direct my hammer blows or file strokes at just the right time and in just the right place to allow the blade to take shape. It was a complex little relationship we had with our materials, our tools and each other, as my tools evolved from present-to-hand technology to ready-to-hand technology[4], I myself evolved from a present-to-hand girl in a fur coat and diamonds, to a ready-to-hand apprentice, watching, waiting, trusting and ready for direction.

The blade itself was never really designed, there were no plan drawings, no measurements, no strict dimensions, but rather by the process of forging and the open connection between the brain and the hand, the blade evolved into what the Japanese blade smiths call a ‘Live’[5] blade. In much the same way as Picasso “affirmed again and again the physicality of painting”[6], so this blade became what it is through a dialogue between the inseparable abstract conceptualism and actual physicality, “an intertwining of vision and movement”[7]. In turn, it also became a dialogue between the maker and the metal, in a sense, steel demands a certain level of respect, it can not be forced or pressured into shape, rather the maker (in particular the apprentice maker) must be constantly ‘listening’ to the metal, humbly waiting for the right moment and temperature to strike, gently letting it cool down or heat up. Steel demands both respect and attention. to treat it badly, to not watch for its subtle symbols will result in one or more of the myriad of failures possible. Thus the significance and importance of the tools and technology being ready-to-hand and not present-to-hand is paramount. Each hammer blow has a permanent effect on the metal on a molecular level, thus each blow must be well placed and well timed.

In turn, I feel that the same care must be taken to make ones tools ready-to-hand as is taken to choose which tools or technology are used. In a sense, the artist, and the artists ideas are influenced by their arsenal of technology, whether that be the hammer and tongs, the brush, the pencil, or any number of the countless other possibilities. The artist speaks a particular language in their work, and as an artist, one must be conscious of this physical language. As Husserl states when discussing Galileo, “culturally acquired ideas can become part of one’s ‘natural attitude’ through the addition of technology to the body”[8], and one must be aware of what technology we extending our body with and what kind of ‘cyborg’ we may become. For my part, having the hammer and tongs in my arsenal, being able to manipulate the blocks of red hot steel with technology that will (hopefully) eventually become an extension of my body, is a valuable and desirable skill.

With this arsenal, the artist translates certain ‘truths’ into the language of art, and through this revealing of truth, there is also a concealing, “the two together constitute the full nature of Truth”[9] which is called ‘the Mystery’ by Heidegger. In my own work, I often find myself writing my most personal or truthful thoughts backwards on the page. As difficult as it is to read, the purpose on an unconscious level perhaps, is the act of writing, not reading. The same can be said not only for my notes and diary entries, but also for my work. In articulating the very personal and intimate desires in LoveSick, by bringing them into the real world and making them into a real piece of art, they have also been concealed in this same piece of art. Without the security and concealment of the articulated work, the unconcealed ideas would remain concealed by their unrealized articulation. “Concealing itself is not mere closing itself up but, as Heidegger says, a sheltering and guarding, in which the possibility of emerging into light is essentially preserved, in which such emergence belongs. ‘Self- concealment guarantees to self-disclosure its essence’”[10].

This is particularly true of another piece I have been working on titled ‘What colour are your thoughts, Apollo?’, which has grown to a length of almost twelve meters and is growing longer by the day. ‘Apollo’ is a collection small lengths of red satin ribbon with thoughts written on them, and then tied together. Each thought is in itself exposing, and in that sense difficult to write, however, by the sheer multitude of secrets included in ‘Apollo’, each single one becomes lost. ‘Apollo’ is revealing in the particular, but concealing as a whole. In one sense, it has been a hard piece to work on, because each length of ribbon holds something secret and precious to me, and yet I feel that the present secret, the one I am actually writing at the time of writing, could never be found in amongst all these other past and future secrets, and in that is a sense of obscurity. Thus in the presentation of this essay I have tried to convey the idea that as a whole, each single phrase is obliterated and concealed by the act of revealing, but when read, each phrase is in itself revealing.

When I started attending lectures on phenomenology I wrote all my notes backwards, I didn’t really think about why, it just felt like the right thing to do, so as a particularly self-indulgent person, I indulged myself and am left with almost unreadable notes. It was only nearing the end of the course that I discovered why I felt this urge. “Sheltering belongs to the essential unfolding of truth… the clearing must ground itself in what is open within it. It requires that which it contains in openness, and that is a being, different in each case (thing – equipment – work). But this sheltering of what is open must also and in advance be such that openness comes into beings in such a way that self-concealment, and thereby Being, essentially unfolds it.”[11] Through phenomenology, I have not only discovered the intimate connection between the mind, the body and the work, which makes my makers experience so much more significant, but also this idea of revealing and concealing. In my own, very simple way, I have realized that in an effort to reveal something in my work or in my writing, I have also simultaneously concealed it. My notes in class were written backwards because I felt such a connection with the ideas that were being discussed. I both revealed and concealed my connection to phenomenology before I fully understood Heidegger’s theories. LoveSick, ‘Apollo’, and my notes in class are all examples of an artist’s phenomenological journey and the realization that through our truthfulness to our concepts, materials, processes, and ideas, that truthfulness is as much comfortingly concealing as painfully revealing.

“True I’ve cried too much; I am heart sick at dawn.
The moon is better and the sun is sour…
Love burns me; I am swollen and slow.
Let my keel break! Oh, let me sink into the sea!”[12]


Bloom, Allan, ed. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. United States of America: Agora Paperback Editions, 1993.
Heidegger, Martin. The Essence of Truth; on Plato's Cave Allegory and Theaetetus. Translated by Ted Sadler. New York: Continuum, 2002.
———. On Time and Being. Translated by Joan Stambaugh. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Kockelmans, Joseph J. Heidegger on Art and Art Works. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985.
Macomber, W. B. The Anatomy of Disillusion; Martin Heidegger's Notion of Truth. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967.
Matthews, Eric. Merleau-Ponty; a Guide for the Perplexed. London
New York: Continuum, 2006.
Mehta, J. L. The Philosophy of Martin Heidegger. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Polt, Richard. Heidegger; an Introduction. New York: Cornell University Press, 1999.
Rimbaud, Auther. Complete Works. Translated by Paul Schmidt. New York: Perennial Classics, 1976.

Sanders, Kerry. Phenomenology Readers
[1] Kerry Sanders, Merleau-Ponty Reader,
[2] the block of raw steel from with the Tamahagane steel is made
[3] Kerry Sanders, Hegel Reader
[4] Kerry Sanders, Heidegger Reader
[5] Which is to say forged from a single billet as opposed to carved out of a ready made piece of steel
[6] Kerry Sanders, Husserl Reader
[7] Kerry Sanders, Merleau-Ponty Reader
[8] Kerry Sanders, Husserl Reader
[9] Mehta p. 231
[10] Mehta p.232
[11] Polt p.149
[12] Rimbaud p.139 (The Drunken Boat)

1 comment:

chrs said...

I'm printing this out... there are a few things I want to see in detail... I'll get back to you with the...