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Art Project Essays:
The Broken Vessel Cartomancy Series
The symbolism of “The Broken Vessel” has been reflected in religious and philosophical discourse for millennia in sources as diverse as the Kabbalah to the Zen concept of Kintsugi (Wabi Sabi) to hermeneutic and poetic translation in literature (Walter Benjamin). The ancient Epicurean philosopher Lucretius uses the metaphor in his Parable of the Punctured Jar* to advise us to be more mindful of the real blessings of living: to not let life leak away from our souls in fearful or mindless living, so influenced by the specter of eventual death. On the other hand, in Sufism “…and when the vessel is broken, the vision comes back…” (Rumi) and, in contemporary words the songwriter Leonard Cohen tells us “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
As a former archaeologist, shards of broken vessels were a ubiquitous occurrence in my experience that poignantly revealed the nature of culture and time. As an art historian, reflection on the nature of art and artifacts became the flux that helped ignite my everyday awareness of their potential for evolved thinking. Many years ago my first college professor of art – Ronald Decker – introduced me to the history of playing cards in divination (of which he is an acknowledged scholar**), as well as the work of psycho-analyst Carl G. Jung. So I’m reaching back to this influence as the germ of this project of combinatorial artworks: The Broken Vessel Cartomancy. Subsequent reading and conversations with Tarot-involved friends have made my exploration all the more engaging. The spark for my Shard Suit of “cards” was reading related to Italo Calvino’s description of Tarot cards as a “combinatorial narrative machine.” The process of making the series began in January, 2016 and (as with all my work) is a semi-automatic integration of my painting, drawing, photography and words, and a collaboration of the conscious/subconscious with materials collected over a lifetime. These words of psychologist Jerome Bruner are in the back of my mind as I work – “All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity – a placing of things in new perspectives.”
The potential that I attempt to imply with my project is not that it can serve the act of divination, but one which may illuminate the importance of introspection. This, in my view, is the real value of playing cards used in fortune telling. As I study its history – Tarot in particular – the “occult” use of playing cards for augury (Cartomancy) did not coalesce until the 19th century, though Tarot playing cards have been around since the 15th century. I’ll be honest up front in stating that I don’t believe that occult augury has any basis in reality beyond the reality that we ourselves ascribe to it. I acknowledge that culturally, throughout history and the world today, belief in oracular mediation of this sort is significant and socially influential.
With the act of fortune telling, as in all assisted acts of beckoning a higher power, the interpretations attempt to answer as well as lead to questions for the personal reflection of the requestor. So, I have attempted to focus my images to act as portals of thought and imagination. My aim with the accompanying questions is not that they should function as a psychic’s interpretation, but that they, in concert with the image, might lead a viewer in a similar way across the threshold to reflection. This undertaking may seem like a cynical reproach of the rich history of playing cards’ use in Cartomancy. But I regard the fact that these mediated transactions exist as emblematic and important. Following in the spirit of its folk tradition, it is the magic of “the reality that we ourselves ascribe to it” that I’m going for: an intent more physical than metaphysical; deliberative, not psycho-therapeutic.
People continue to reach back to historical forms of augury to attempt to achieve a short-term understanding, and in doing so, perhaps neglect to seek the longer-term truths to be found within personal histories and predilections. By combining philosophical and mythological perspectives from a variety of world cultures in
my open-ended images and questions, I am attempting to address this by setting a table for the viewer to carry out a private “augury”. My over-arching purpose is to directly investigate how art stands as a gateway to expanded thinking and an evolving consciousness…
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid their own souls…all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their own souls. Thus the soul has gradually been turned into a Nazareth from which nothing good can come. Therefore, let us fetch it from the four corners of the earth – the more far-fetched and bizarre it is the better!...it is worth man’s while to take pains with himself, and he has something in his soul that can grow…and the most and the best happens when it is not regulated from outside and from above.” CG Jung ***
Gregg Harper © 2016-2017
A Game and A Puzzle…To Start a Conversation
Over the past several years as I’ve read voraciously and looked and listened attentively, I’ve begun to focus more intently on the power of images intertwined with words and concepts. My particular focus is the importance that we ascribe to these as we assess our present against our past and look to other means to guide us into the future in this liquid time. Concepts like “hope”, “will” and “oracle” are at the core of this exploration. My series Broken Vessel Cartomancy and Spiritus Ex Machina (of which The Philosopher’s Game and Elders Puzzle are a part) are my experiments.
Philosopher Simon Blackburn describes Philosophy as “Conceptual Engineering”. Perhaps then, Conceptual Art is an engineered “visual philosophy”? Both the Philosopher’s Game and Elders Puzzle attempt to play the dual role of breaking down the perceived barrier between artwork and viewer while engaging in a conversation on the eurocentric nature of western philosophy (including religion) and its inherent anthro-centrism (Philosopher’s Game) and the comparison to non-western philosophy and images (Elder’s Puzzle) where humans are generally part of, not separate from, nature. What words, images and artifacts might suggest a way to evaluate each mode of thinking to make it comprehensible to our own reality?
What if we think in terms of a “pluri-verse” as opposed to the western focus on “universe”? And how do we conceive of the human place in all-encompassing life – parallel to nature, of nature, against nature? What are other “philosophical” perspectives on our existence beyond western anthro/eurocentric thinking and image making? How applicable to our daily lives are the concepts that embody the thinking?
My assemblage of the Game’s and Puzzle’s elements is part deliberate/coincidental (the “Board”) and part stream of consciousness (the Curios and Amulets). The central form of the Boards is the “Quaternio”, representing the cardinal directions. Etruscan Augurs used the Quaternio to divide the sky to search for portents delivered by the flight of birds. An archaeologist uses it as the core of a site’s organizing grid system with the benchmark at its center. It is also used as an evaluative graphic by mathematicians, physicists and even psycho-analyst Carl Jung.
The words on each board are attributes that Western and various non-Western cultures assign to their view of the cardinal directions. The words are the four Greek Elements, four Medieval Humours and Carl Jung’s four Functions in the Philosopher’s Game. In the Elder’s Puzzle the four elements – Earth, Water, Fire and Wind - are shown as well as Native American and Asian human attributes. It’s interesting that the Western element “Air” is replaced with the more physically perceptible and effective “Wind” in the non-Western modes of thinking. What do these essential descriptors in both Western and non-Western philosophy tell us about our consciousness…our perception and interaction with our reality?
Viewers can choose four Curios or Amulets (from a group of 13 for each artwork) and arrange them on the respective boards. The objects are like artifacts from a mind dig that could be signs of ritual, remnants of a Cabinet of Curiosities, alchemical substances, body ornaments, bits of memory…perhaps the birds that fly across the Etruscan sky. And with the formula of four artifacts hung on hooks on the four corners of the board, there are 17,160 possible “compositions” or “oracles” for each artwork.
The over-arching idea with these two pieces, as well as the series mentioned above and other projects that I envision for the future, is to start a direct conversation between viewer and the artwork with physical engagement beyond the visual and in “analog” form without the use of technology. The subsequent conversation that I attempt to spark is within the viewer. Like a double use of the metaphor “muscle memory”: to use physical interaction with an artwork to exercise the brain muscle…and, perhaps, the heart/empathy muscle.
Gregg Harper © 9/2018
Séance: 9:20am & 11:40am EST, 2018, Gregg Harper,
“Séance: 9:20am & 11:40am EST” is the first artwork made in my series “Spiritus Ex Machina” of which there are 19 pieces in all. When the idea for the exhibition “Some Reliable Truths About Chairs” was presented, I had been making other artworks that explored the importance that many people ascribe to the various practices of popular spirituality such as Tarot Card Readings, Astrology, etc. The focus of my inquiry was the origins, history and methods of these practices and the parallel question of their similarity to the making and experience of Art.
For the conception and making of “Séance…” in particular, I drew upon my research on the methods of historical mediums in bringing together grieving family and friends with a deceased loved one. The most influential book for me in this regard is “Houdini: A Magician Among the Spirits” (1924), written by Harry Houdini after 30 years of research, that exposes the trickery of the “mediums”.
So, my trick with “Séance…” (which means “to sit” in old French) is to make a play on the “reality” of an “animated spirit” while mostly exposing my visual method.
For this series in general, there are two theater terms at play: “Spiritus Ex Machina” is a pun on the phrase from classical theater “Deus Ex Machina” that describes the method of a god or goddess appearing on stage via a mechanical contraption in the stage floor amid a cloud of smoke. The second term is “the suspension of disbelief” which is a psychological factor in the experience of a performance that joins the playwright, actors and audience. Magicians/Houdini, Psychic Mediums and, I contend, Visual Artists rely on this phenomenon for their particular “performances” to succeed. Of these, who are the least deceptive…or even deceitful…or…most mystical? All of them are entertaining!
Gregg Harper © 10/2018