Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Excerpts on Fire Painting


The Perfectionist’s life is a rat race. I am a rat with perfectionist tendencies that is stranded on a treadmill to stretch and strain myself compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals, standards high beyond reach or reason. It is the flawless, faultless ideal vision I 'm after. Being a perfected digital image rather than flesh and blood. That is before my humanity, my imperfection slaps me in the face and knocks me right off the treadmill. 

My world is ostensibly simple: things are right or wrong, good or bad, the best or the worst. These are the only categories that exist. No grey areas, no nuances or complexities, no middle ground to dare to lose one’s footing momentarily – solely the extremes of the continuum. All or nothing. And a true Perfectionist takes the existence of extremes to the extreme. In a perfectionist fantasy world, nothing is impossible. It seems as though the water supply here is spiked with ecstasy. Feeling lethargic while oblivious to any real-world constraints, I fly high, detached in arrogance and under the illusion that I am the master of my destiny, that I create my reality. Humming Eminem’s new song – “I’m going to be what I set out to be without a doubt undoubtedly, and all those who look down on me I’m tearing down your balcony” – absurd and pathetic as it sounds, I have zero intention to read the 5-minute guide to quitting the rat race or to change my all-or-nothing approach and adopt the 80/20 Pareto Principle rule for that matter. This busy mechanical hobgoblin of a treadmill, an animator for making a racket while running in place in a monotonous, wearisome routine, is my very own construct. In other words, I live in the psychological prison of my own making. 

With the unyielding and rigid mechanical mind-set that is ill-suited for modern fluidity, I am an emotional and cognitive dogmatist plagued by closed-heartedness and closed-mindedness. Dogmatic plus not wanting to be a slacker, I take the mantra ‘No pain, no gain’ in the wrong direction and thus set myself to repeat the quote, made famous by California’s governor when he was still the Terminator: “I am a machine.”

Tal Ben-Shahar traces perfectionism’s intellectual roots to Plato, the father of Western philosophy. Aristotle, Plato’s student, broke away from his teacher to reflect on realism and thus became de facto father of optimalism. The distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy is explicit in Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, in which Plato points to the sky, to the perfect and Aristotle points to the ground, to this world, to the real. Here is how Ben-Shahar states it:

Plato argues that although we may think we live in the real world, we do not; we are like cave dwellers who are facing away from the entrance to the cave, bound and unable to turn around and leave. The real world, the world of perfect forms, exists outside the cave, where a fire burns and projects the shadows of the forms onto the walls of the cave for us to see. Each object that we perceive in our illusory world is a projection of the perfect form that exists in the real world: the people we see around us are not real but imperfect imitations of the perfect human. Unlike Plato, Aristotle’s view of reality is not at odds with our experience of the world. There is only one reality, that which we perceive through our senses, so experience precedes thinking.

At this point, if politics is what interests you, the significance of the Platonic and Aristotelian perspectives could help you understand that all political conflicts can essentially be boiled down to a disagreement between two different views of human nature: the constrained view and the unconstrained view:

Those who lean toward the constrained view believe that human nature is immutable: it does not change, and we should not waste time and effort trying to modify it. Human flaws are inevitable, and the best we can do is to accept our nature, its constraints, its imperfectability—and then optimalize the outcome based on what we have. Because we cannot change our nature, we must create social institutions that will channel our given nature in the right directions. In contrast, those who hold the unconstrained view believe that human nature can be changed and improved: solutions exist to every problem, and we should not compromise or be resigned to our imperfections. The role of social institutions is to create systems that will modify our species in the right direction. We therefore sometimes need to work against our nature to conquer it. In the unconstrained vision, human nature is itself a variable and in fact a central variable to be changed.

Both sides prescribe very different political systems. The belief in constrained nature is typically upheld by free-market capitalists, given the capitalist system's attempt to channel the individual's self-interest for the common good. Thus, I ought to be careful and street smart when I address myself to a capitalist: I appeal not to the humanity of the other, but to the other's self-interest and self-love, and never talk to the other out of my own necessities, but to the other's avantages. To proceed carefully at the other end of the philosophical divide is smart as well: the unconstrained view, which I myself implicitly or explicitly defend, promotes various forms of utopianism, and herein lies the danger of its advocate being tagged a Communist or a Fascist, given the attempt to reawaken the superman.

As you now know, too many oppressions have been conducted in the name of the Idea of humanity, and the machinery, which was to regulate the psychopathology of everyday life, proved itself just as neurotic and psychotic. From a good theory, it does not follow that the practice is just.

This done, imagine I as a perfectionist now make myself into an artist. What corpus would my artwork elicit and what would it illustrate, advocate or testify to? The work I create might as well be a machine of some sort since I already declared myself as one, with my approach and my qualities being very much machine-like. A machine which proves my theory and upholds my practice; in short, it embodies me and my doctrine. I put myself on a par with it, thus positioning myself to see through it. Better still, I resemble a slug inserted into a slot machine. 

By “internalizing” the “mechanizing Perfect”, humanness is what escapes me. Similarly, a person who spends a lot of time making the absolute perfect machine works only to erase him- or herself. It is an effort to remove and erase any trace of the subject. Or perhaps vice versa, the industrial smoothness, which generally suits the basic fact of production, obliterates any trace of the subject; smoothness like an “exclusion” of subject, here is an interesting clinical question... In industrial domain one can notice that a human subject only intervenes in it by one way: that of a mistake, accident or failure. According to Gérard Wajcman, the subject exists when there is a certain imperfection in the object. Only that which malfunctions and fails has its author. If the subject has his or her place in the industry, then it is only as the subject of mistake or the author of imperfection. 

After the passage above, all is the same: I have not stopped being a perfectionist and an artist with a machine in mind. Because the Perfectionist perpetually swings between, on one hand, high hope and great expectations and, on the other, disillusionment and frustration, from affirmation to negation and back, and forth, and back ... until the motor of contradiction is exhausted, an element is engaged in the machine to properly mirror the existence between extremes with no midpoints. Among all phenomena, it is the ultra-living element of fire in which I may lay claim to the opposing states that shake me. Prometheus stole fire from the gods (idealism) and gave it to humans (realism). Fire rises from the depths of the substance and it plunges back down into the substance and hides there, pent-up, like hate or vengeance, it shines in Paradise and it burns in Hell, it is cookery and it is apocalypse, thus it can carry the ridiculous into the sublime, a phenomenon both monotonous and brilliant, a really total phenomenon that contradicts itself; “the intensity of fire cannot be measured by the egg timer – the egg is done when a drop of water, a drop of saliva, evaporates on the shell”  – yet fire can link the small to the great, oscillate between destruction and a renewal. Fire passes the irony of a joke: art means anything and everything (whatever), as does fire.


I chose to make much of the construction for the fire staging device out of transparent material – glass – which keeps up with the marching clarity of an illusion, making its absurdity also transparent at once. This choice is decisive of the thing and determines it. If the machine is of huge proportions, glass makes its corporeity bodiless due to transparency. Moreover, limitless extension is implied here. The optical play between solidity, fullness and monumentality of form vis-à-vis its dissolution leads to the interplay of the device and its surroundings; glancing at the volume itself, the pure glassy construction is see through and through it you see what encircles it, albeit not clearly due to refracted light. The engineering glass construction disappears, yet here it is, paradoxically belied with fragility as it might break at any given moment of carelessness, accident or mistake. 

Because some parts for completing my design were missing, I visited the glass factory where workers stationed about the furnace behind the fire-screen scooped up the material with iron rods and gave it shape with the breath from their lips. Transparent pipe lines and fuel tanks attained their forms in order to conduct fuel for ignition. Oil or gas: I can always use vodka (water that flames) as well. 

In the crowning assembly process, the main body of my apparatus is engineered like a modular system: each particular module is identical to the other; and each particular module is rigged with a nozzle attached to the electromagnetic valve, the valve attached to the fuel pump and the pump attached to the fuel tank. There are 16 modules altogether, networked into the square – 4 x 4 – matrix, where one nozzle is one pixel. One nozzle and one valve regulate one flame together, the size of it, the rhythmic of its movement and appearance, and subsequently the joining of this flame with another and with the rest of the flames. 

I set your machine in motion and see the pumps creating the pressure, then numerous valves on pipes opening paths through nozzles, pushing the fuel to combustion. In Fire as a material becomes an image. The image created lavishly by open flames. The apparatus draws a fire-curtain out of the plane strangely reminiscent of a painting's canvas, so I come up with the perfect name for it. I call it Fire Painting. 

Today the field of art in its totality can be seen as an embodiment of paradox. My machine is to be a paradox-object, which simultaneously embodies thesis and antithesis, a self-contradiction really. After all, I am a perfectionist who is an artist and the life of such is rich with absurd contradictions. I take some comfort in the fact: to be a paradox-object seems to be the normative requirement for any contemporary work or artwork. "Fill the artwork with a potentially infinite plurality of interpretations, that are open in their meaning, that do not impose on the spectator any specific ideology, or theory, or faith. And make sure that this appearance of infinite plurality is, of course, only an illusion. De facto there is only one correct interpretation that it imposes on the spectator: as a paradox-object, this work requires a perfectly paradoxical, self-contradictory reaction. This is the only adequate interpretation of a paradox," as Boris Groys says. I am in luck here because I am dealing with fire which can explain just about anything. Fire is the ultimate self-contradicting phenomenon, a complete paradoxical element. 

Fire feeds itself like a living creature and for a modern mind to feed a fire has become a commonplace synonym for keeping it going with all the charge of the original naiveté. For Gaston Bachelard: 

"Psychically, you are created by your reverie – created and limited by your reverie – for it is the reverie which delineates the furthest limits of your mind. Imagination works at the summit of the mind like a flame, and it is to the Dadaist region of the metaphor of the metaphor where reverie transforms forms that have previously been transformed. And metaphors are not simple idealizations which take off like rockets only to display their insignificance on bursting in the sky [like fireworks on the New Year’s Eve], but on the contrary metaphors summon one another and are more coordinated than sensations, so much so that a poetic mind is purely and simply a syntax of metaphors.” Such mind is both conductive to the acquiring of a neurosis and to the writing of manifestos: “one can find paradise in fire’s movement or in its repose, in the flame or in the ashes.” 

If my fire apparatus wasn’t built, I could nonetheless produce fire like an old woman who “vented her rage by breaking off two sticks from the trees and rubbing them violently together.” Fire is the exorcist of inner rage, of a hand that has become irritable. Furthermore, as one burns shit or ignites one’s fart, fire is all-purifying because it suppresses nauseous odors. No, seriously, one of the reasons for attributing to fire a value of purgation and purification could be its power of deodorization. The odor compels recognition either by its most insidious or by its importunate presence. It truly violates your privacy. According to Bachelard, the second reason for the principle of purification by fire, a reason that is far more sophisticated, is that fire separates and destroys material impurities. In other words, that which has gone through the ordeal of fire has gained in purity. On the other hand, the complete purification of the concept of fire is retarded by the fact that fire leaves ashes. 

I shall not deal with the theological problem of purification. To give a full account of that would require a very long study. And to prove my own atheism – the thing is weariful... There are, however, other Fire Paintings from the art world that can serve as the spiritual example, namely those of Yves Klein. Klein created them by using models smeared with paint, as with his earlier Anthropometries, but also soaked with water, leaving their wet print on the paper, which served to hinder the action of flames. Equipped with an industrial blowtorch with varying degrees of intensity, he then revealed the traces of their silhouette by shaping them with fire. The body, put to the test of fire, is as though purified of its cinder.

In this respect, the transformation of fire into light through a process of idealization is the principle of the transcendence with light not only a symbol but an agent of purity. Look at the eternal flames: there is one burning in Sarajevo in memory of the military and civilian victims of the Second World War, one in Madrid honoring all those who died fighting for Spain, in Liverpool as the memorial to those who died in the Hillsborough disaster, in Moscow to honor the dead of the Great Patriotic War, in Budapest commemorating the revolutionaries of the 1956 uprising against control by the Soviet Union... Many of these very real annihilations happened on the hands of “False Marias”(In the famous scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), the revolutionary agitator is burnt like a witch, although she is clearly modeled on the symbolic female figures that since the French Revolution have embodied the ideals of freedom and revolution. As she is burning, this female figure, capable of “luring” masses, is exposed as a robot. The flames destroy her and unmask a mechanical, nonhuman construct, a machine insensitive to pain and not a living human being.).


Why do I insist on calling my machine a painting?
When you dispossess painting of all its cookery, its practice, its technique, when you erase the colors, remove the canvas, clean the brushes, what is left? The name? A corpse? Nothing? As an artist with the perfectionist tick, I started out as a painter. Fire Painting, in retrospect, has everything my past works have; all the while it is not just their continuation, but rather their radicalization. With it, I went back to the beginning (painting) and simultaneously the end (machine) of my practice. 

It is indeed a funny and strange coincidence that Duchamp first conceived his Bicycle Wheel as a flame in the fireplace, as that which one contemplates with absorbed eyes, as a mutable, unsettled and pleasant object that is almost absent from itself and is instead inhabited by one’s captured but vagabond thoughts: a meditative spinning wheel for long winter nights. Some sort of an altar for gazes. One can also see Malevich’s Black Square as a huge black square of dynamite. But it is impossible to detect the slightest suicidal temptation in it. Because, by and large, “energetic combustion of the force of negation” is just that: when a painter blows up the painting, the painter blows up him- or herself along the way. In Fire Painting, that square of dynamite does go off exploding to set up a nice fireplace as an altar for gazes.

I don’t call the Fire Painting a painting in the way you would call a chestnut a chestnut, I baptize it a painting out of aesthetic conviction. This is a search for pure painting that might as well be a destructive weapon. Fire Painting butts up against the notion of painting not only to look at its essential norms and limiting conditions, but to push back or transgress these limits with abandonment, destruction or deconstruction of pictorial conventions.

First up: the integrity of a picture plane. Many clues show that a painting is a liar. It is an optical instrument for showing the world, which has the power to disguise itself as a window, open into the world and all its stories and all its ideas and all its ideals, which paint themselves illusionary onto this window or through it. Painting shows what illusion really is – nothing more than a little paint on the surface. Determined to shame the lying illusionism ,I ignite the Fire Painting with a shout: “Burn, baby, burn!” Here, now, is a violent imperative: against the painting-that-gives-to-perceive in the form of illusion, and for the painting on the position of action-interruption-rift. In such trailblazing action, the flames of combustion swallow the canvas, the surface, the picture plane. By which Fire Painting follows another lead, it sings another song: the surface is in itself a certain small lie. The picture plane replaced by a different surface, a surface made out of flames, a fiery surface that is fired up by an iconoclastic rage only to fall like the curtain over illusion. 

In Fire Painting, the surface is made out of flames and it might not even be real; it might itself be an illusion unless you want to prove otherwise – go ahead: Touch it. Secondly, the fire curtain is, at once, the surface and the image. Now, here is the crux of the matter. Fire surpasses every image and every word. Not only does it obliterate all illusions that previously presented themselves on the canvas; it obliterates the canvas too, and takes over as an ultimate illusion. Thirdly, fire itself is misleading and ambiguous. It is the principle of the essential ambiguity which is not without charm. This charm is so well defined that it has become banal to say, “We love to see a log fire burning in the fireplace.” It is a problem that no one has managed to study objectively, “one in which the initial charm is so strong that it has the power to warp the minds of the clearest thinkers and to keep bringing them back to the poetic fold in which dreams replace thoughts and poems conceal theorems.” For fire is a seed, and fire curtain thus an LSD tab. You can give in to its seductive maneuvering appeal to close your eyes, to spare yourself with all the weight of reality for the good of I-don't-know-what-kind-of elevating feelings, imagination or dreams – or »inner experiencing« if you use this horrible psychological expression, illusions or utopias. Such is the affective power of fire that it creates images out of desire; it is a source of reveries. Yet reveries represent futility; they are as unsubstantial as flames. And finally, fire is pure. At the extreme limit, at the point of flame, where color gives way to an almost invisible vibration. Then fire is dematerialized; it loses its reality; it becomes pure spirit. 

Next up: the framing of the painting. In the case of Fire Painting, the frame is no longer external to the painting, it is no longer a parergon [an element added to work], but its inner part instead. The machine works like a frame in which a new painting springs up in the form of the fire-image. Such frame passes the line and intervenes into the painting. So you can look at the machine as the frame of the fire-image with this frame also being the producer of that very fiery image, but it is also recommendable to perceive the machine as the background of a figure with that figure being fire. To reiterate, in this slick relationship the machine acts as the offspring for the fire-image and the fire-image cannot exist without the machine as its background. The fire-image steps into the background as soon as the machine in the background stops generating it and thus sneaks over it. In other words, the mechanical background isn’t just a background just like the fire-image is no longer just an image. The image and the machine are both the figure and the background, simultaneously and inseparably.


The mechanical structure I arrived at combines the investigation of the perfectionist reality with the investigation of the aesthetic that suits it. I decided to embed the Fire Painting in a more “realistic structure” of the public space and leave the safety of gallery walls, albeit not completely as shown later. Galleries and museums as institutions can affix the statement “This is art” to just about whatever object steps through their gates. In this respect, one thing I could achieve by setting my bizarre construction outside is that a different audience stops, wonders, talks about it. Maybe he or she will laugh at the daredevil captured in the machine, or maybe at its uselessness squared, since the machine not only cannot be put to any use, but – by stimulating usefulness – purports the behavior of useable machines, of whose components it consists?

At the beginning, my idea was an overly simplified one: one way to leave the safe gallery walls is to make something: a painting, which literally threatens to destroy them or smoke them out. Make a dangerous apparatus or an apparatus operating with such a dangerous material like fire that it seems all the more threatening on account of the unpredictability and hazardousness of the material, which the machine tries to control. So, if it signifies danger for a gallery, it should then rather perform outside. And only after the apparatus stops performing, can it resign in art museums, where one is able to contemplate its design but not see it in action. Thus after the performance, the machine is put in a gallery space, not to perform but rather to be silent, without a voice, a relic, which resigns as all artworks within museums or galleries normally do. An object passing away with days, a paralyzed object that is a symbol of its own nullity.

Now, Fire Painting burns more than once. Each time it returns in the public space to shoot out new beams. And each time the performance lasts for twenty minutes or so. And if in my prevous kinetic work light plays upon and laughs over the surface of things, heat in Fire Painting penetrates. This need to penetrate, to go to the interior of things, to the interior of beings, is one attraction of the intuition of inner heat. Just as if you lack fire, this burning failure will gnaw at your heart, so the fire will remain within you. And if you produce fire, the sphinx itself can consume you. 

A hypnotized form of observation is involved in gazing into a fire. This slightly hypnotized condition, which is surprisingly constant in all fire watchers, is highly conductive to psychoanalytical investigation. The viewer is also wrenched from the passive, contemplative condition by the opportunity to orchestrate and play with fire. My motivation has been to create the machine that is interactive, involving the audience in the experience of controlling a mechanism that appears uncontrollable. Controlling the apparatus and affecting the fire-image is enabled by the data-glove, which the participant wears on his or her hand. The sensors on the data-glove translate small movements or gestures of the fingers into a grand gesture on the Fire Painting. Small gestures or actions cause changes or reactions within the fire-image by opening and closing the valves and applying various pressures on the nozzles of the machine. Flames are thus somewhat contained or mastered by the hand wearing such a glove. The work itself is creatively active together with the participant. They harmonize their relationship. Together, the participant and the machine create something that is irrational, purposeless, vital and new.

The person playing with fire is like a superman or a cleverly disobedient child who wants to obtain a personal knowledge of fire by stealing some matches from his or her father like a little Prometheus. In Bachelard's point of fact, "respect for fire is a respect that has been taught; it is not a natural respect. The reflex which makes you pull back your finger from the flame of a candle does not play any conscious role in your knowledge about fire. In reality the social prohibitions come first. This, then, is the true basis for the respect shown to flame: if the child brings his or her hand close to the fire the father raps him or her over the knuckles. Fire, then, can strike without having to burn. Whether this fire is flame or heat, lamp or stove, the vigilance is the same." What you first learn about fire is that you must not touch it.