Justification a priori: Science and Aesthetics in the Work of Gustavo Diaz by Julie Knutson and Fabiola López-Durán

Apr 27, 2012

Justification a priori: Science and Aesthetics in the Work of Gustavo Diaz

April 27 – June 30, 2012

The work of Gustavo Diaz sits at the intersection of science and aesthetics. Preoccupied with the microcosmic—with rendering the minute, subatomic, and fractalized underpinnings of the universe visible—the Argentina-based artist eschews the facile and the dogmatic. Rather than representing the singular and universal, he seeks atomized and discrete particularities, offering, whether in elaborately assembled three-dimensional acrylic reliefs or in painstakingly rendered pencil drawings of rhizomatic structures, multi-layered, de-centered, and boundless compositions that require, in his terms, engagement with the work’s “intimate complexity.” This complex intimacy is evident at all stages of his creative process—from the conceptual moment before Diaz’s work is materialized to his extended, artisanal crafting of the objects to the viewer’s interaction with the piece, which requires proximity and close inspection. Using very few materials—his reliefs tend to consist of acrylic and vinyl, his drawings simply of pencil and paper—he attaches extraordinary importance to both concepts and craft. In his works, almost as in bricolage, concepts are inseparable from the material process of making. Like other contemporary artists in the Americas such as Vija Celmins (USA), Ana Maria Tavares (Brazil) and Maria Fernanda Cardoso (Colombia), Diaz explores the multiple ways in which art and science — crafting and thinking — illuminate one another, with his works standing as paeans to the visual intricacies of chaos, complexity, uncertainty and imperfection.

At first encounter, the exhibition title Justification a priori reads like a cipher. The term a priori is most often heard, if it is heard at all, in philosophical discourse, drawing on the writings of the late eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, a priori knowledge is knowledge that exists and is possible prior to and always without experience, such as mathematics. Yet, Diaz’s understanding of the term is more in accordance with the post-Kantian mathematical logic of Charles Sanders Peirce and his concept of abduction. With the addition of this concept, Peirce complicates the dichotomous relationship between deduction and induction — methodologies used to prove or disprove a statement. Therefore, abduction, which for Diaz parallels the a priori, is a speculative enterprise, which involves guessing about what is plausible. In fact, Diaz uses the Latin term a priori literally to point to an abstract junction of space and time where the move to the material emerges within the hypothetical, initial origin of every search. For Diaz, limitless and unstable, drawing from the realm of the possible, the a priori moment engenders the first visualization of the work of art, precarious and incipient though it may be. In this amplified state of vulnerability, science provides Diaz not with the expected objectivity and neutrality, but rather with a vehicle for revealing the incomplete, unstable, and political condition of art. From Max Planck’s quantum theory of 1900 to Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity to Gödel’s 1931 theory of incompleteness and Mandelbrot’s 1975 “Fractal Geometry of Nature,” Gustavo Diaz’s work traverses twentieth-century scientific discourses whose combined emphasis on chaos, probability and uncertainty have infiltrated the aesthetics and politics of making and receiving cultural objects, including art, architecture, and other visual media and artifacts. In so doing, Diaz’s work destabilizes not only our everyday pseudo-scientific assumptions—it stands as a visual response and challenge to proclamations like those made by the Argentine art critic Jorge Romero Brest. In his presentation for the 1965 Premio Nacional e Internacional Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, Romero Brest distinguished between scientific objectivity and aesthetic subjectivity, suggesting what has been commonly accepted as an indisputable truth: that the scientific is concrete, objective, and precise and therefore incompatible with the fragile, subjective, and imprecise nature of art.

Drawing on the discoveries of twentieth century physics—including Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Niels Bohr’s theory of complimentarity, and what Einstein ‘called spooky action from a distance,’ it is clear that distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity cannot be reached, especially within the most rigorous of the sciences, in so simplistic manner as Romero Brest suggests. Diaz—who recognizes that science and art are not opposites, but compliments—probes this ground of uncertainty. Romero Brest’s assertion of the independence of scientific and artistic “truths” collapses when placed in discourse works like Secuencia Entrópica (Entropic Sequence, 2008) [Figure 1], which consists of seventeen modules spanning four columns, the sum total of which illustrates the entropic sequence. Read from top to bottom, left to right, the work begins with the formula for entropy: S = K.log P. The same formula is repeated but altered with each step, and the original equation visually transforms from legible and recognizable letters and symbols to increasingly complex, blurred, and obscure marks. The material for this progressive abstraction is present in the original letters and symbols, something which a critic like Romero Brest would likely read as an expression of “pure” mathematics or science, antonymic to “art.” However, by distorting and fragmenting entropy’s constituent parts, Diaz reveals that something so apparently straightforward as an equation exists to mask the fundamental disorder beneath its surface, which has always existed and continues to evolve into greater stages of complexity. Complexity is, in fact, structurally inherent to things that appear deceptively simple and formulaic.

Born in Argentina in 1969, Diaz’s interest in the sciences predates his work as a visual artist. Diaz’s art bears the theoretical imprint of his electronic engineering and music studies, as well as his independent inquiries into the interrelated areas of philosophy and mathematics. The titles and descriptions of his work—peppered with references to the theories of philosopher Gilles Deleuze, architect-musician Iannis Xenakis, and theologian Thomas Aquinas, among others—reflect his engagement with multiple intellectual influences and his use of art to visually manifest a different form of abstraction. This endeavor—to give shape and assign visuality to concepts that often elude form—distinguishes him from many of his abstract predecessors, in Argentina and elsewhere. Diaz’s abstraction does not translate to non-figurative, non-representational, or anti-naturalist—he defies and complicates many of these terms through creating abstractions and magnifications of things that, though not typically visible, are, nonetheless (in their microscopic form) figurative.

At the center of his creative process, then, is an understanding of tekne and logos as an indivisible unit. In fact, Diaz envisions his process not as an abstraction but as a figurative biological metaphor: a tree in formation. For Diaz, the first phase parallels a vast field of soil and seed, which together form an amalgamated entity. In this fertile moment, which he associates with doubt, instability, questioning, and curiosity, anything could happen. In the second stage, these invisible, underground workings begin to congregate into a solid axis: the trunk of the work. Diaz’s ideas meet and begin to acquire a relational logic. The third stage is represented by branches and foliage appearing as organic extensions of the trunk. This, according to Diaz, is the most significant phase of his process, the tangible moment of artisanal intervention at which he, as the artist, physically manipulates the material, giving shape to knowledge. Importantly, these stages are not distinct or discrete; rather, they are fluid, often overlapping, alternating, and intersecting.

The tripartite structure that follows derives from recurrent themes that emerged in a series of conversations with Diaz in February and March of 2012. The first section focuses on the boundlessness and unframeability of almost all of Diaz’s acrylic structures and drawings, which speak to the historical precedent of the disassembled and restructured frame set by mid-twentieth century Argentine artist collectives such as Grupo Madí or Grupo Concreto Invención. As a strategy to liberate the work from its representational function, these collectives, like Diaz, expanded and extended the frame: the former by breaking the frame, transforming it into an irregular entity, an object in its own right; Diaz by transgressing it. Although the operations of both transform the frame into an integral part of the work itself and, in so doing, incorporate the work into the surrounding environment, there is a critical difference. While the Argentine avant-garde shifted the attention to presentation over representation by portraying the frame itself as the work of art, Gustavo Diaz’s works activate a regressus ad infinitum by forcing the viewer to engage with their inner depths while simultaneously imagining their proliferation beyond the work, endlessly inverting and subverting the process of presentation over representation. This section is followed by an examination of Diaz’s engagement with discourses of science and his placement within the lengthy intellectual-artistic tradition of trying to visualize the invisible. Not simply concerned with sight, Diaz’s work also evokes the sense of hearing, incorporating questions of sound and silence. Diaz attempts to do sculpturally what John Cage did aurally with his piece 4’33”, that is, to force the audience to concentrate on that which ordinarily would be ignored. His project complements that of Cage, in that it engages people in the act of looking on an intense and contemplative level as Cage did with hearing and concentrating on silence. In the last section, we turn our attention to that which Diaz hopes his work will demand, an extended and absorptive engagement with its “intimate complexity.” It is the “aura,” the metaphorical shadow of the artist in the work, which Diaz refuses to cede in his bricolage handiwork. Correspondingly, this last section explores the impossibility of digitally or photographically reproducing Diaz’s art. Throughout, Diaz’s works are placed in conversation with those of seventeenth-century scientist-illustrator Athanasius Kircher, whose detailed drawings help historicize the mutually influential forces of science and aesthetics so integral to Diaz’s process.

Waves of flames lap across the surface of Athanasius Kircher’s mid-seventeenth century engraving Solaris [Figure 2]. Kircher presents the sun as a sea of fire, dotted by volcanic mounds and crosshatched plumes of smoke indicative of gaseous intensity. The rim of the celestial body blazes, punctured at intervals by belching clouds that refuse to be circumscribed by the sun’s perimeter. These atmospheric releases break what could be viewed as the sun’s “frame,” disrupting any idea of containment or enclosure. We imagine their diffusion and expansiveness as they gradually occupy more and more airspace from their circular points of release.

Like Kircher’s sun, Gustavo Diaz’s work defies circumscription. For instance, El universo como origen hipotético entre una cierta ambigüedad y una ambigüedad cierta (The Universe as a hypothetical origin between a certain ambiguity and a ambiguous certainty) [Figure 3] is characterized by indeterminate endpoints that seem to proliferate and bear consequence beyond the construction. The assemblage of hundreds of overlaid transparent, acrylic rectangles protruding out of a panel, the back of which is marked by black vinyl strips, refuses to be flat or contained. Though the seemingly endless minute rectangles that comprise the whole are “regular,” the collective effect of them is not—holistically, the object appears to have multiple contours, with different endpoints on each of the several layers. Such refusals of easy measurement and central structuring predominate elsewhere in Diaz’s work, notably in his other acrylic pieces Estrato de estabilidad vulnerado por un bucle extraño con cuadraditos Gödel (Stratum of compromised stability by a strange loop of minute Gödel squares) [Figure 4-5] and in Mientras Malevich concibe su cuadrado blanco sobre fondo blanco es atravesado por la flecha del tiempo y en el fondo se escuchan sonidos 4’33” (While Malevich was conceiving his White on White painting it was crossed by the arrow of time; in the background one can hear sounds 4’33”) [Figure 6], which similarly disrupt the idea of a contained picture plane.

In a March 2012 interview, Diaz contrasted the irregularity of his objects with those of the Grupo Madí and Grupo Concreto-Invención tradition, emphasizing the immesurability of his structures and their intrinsic complexity. Although these artist collectives working in Argentina in the 1940s and 1950s restructured the frame into polygons with sharp, jagged angles, theirs remained cordoned off with sides that, despite their deviation from the standard square or rectangle, were measurable. Their irregular frames, in their supposed “closedness” and in featuring them as part of the art object sought to “invalidate the stereotype, inherited from the figurative tradition of the painting seen as a ‘self-contained organism’…as a circumscribed surface, separate from its surroundings and destined to house a figurative or other type of narrative.” In keeping with this genealogy, Diaz’s departure from the standard frame seeks not simply to formally restructure an object but to destabilize the dialectic of interior and exterior, object and milieu, and expand perceived reality. His structures defy the very idea of the frame, representing what he terms a rupture from centered, Cartesian stability.

By undifferentiating the work from the outside, Diaz creates a space for dialogue about aesthetic normativity and the power of the built environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he confesses that architecture and habitats, which he sees as having the power to condition behavior in a manner comparable to the way in which the frame structures seeing and ultimately legitimizes the work, stood at the forefront of his mind as he worked on El universo como origen hipotético entre una cierta ambigüedad y una ambigüedad cierta (The Universe as a hypothetical origin between a certain ambiguity and a ambiguous certainty). In a similar vein, neo-concrete Brazilian artist Lygia Clark thought of painting specifically in architectural terms. This explains why her Bichos, those metallic unfolding sculptures that she called bugs, animals, or organisms, derived from paintings but curiously look like architectural models. Emancipating painting from its conditions, Clark’s Bichos are modulated surfaces that seem to open, disconnect themselves from the wall, fall and then transform into creatures, reminding us that painting was always a body—perhaps an architectural body. In this sense, his work approximates the challenge set by twentieth-century philosopher Keiji Nishitani, as explained by Norman Bryson, “to dissolve the apparatus of framing which always produces an object for a subject and a subject for an object.” As we shall later see, this dissolution of the frame enables the viewer to shed their subjectivity, forget about their distance from the work, and fully engage with its “intimate complexity.”

Picture the earth, sawed from pole to pole, revealing its inner contents. To a seventeenth-century viewer, such an imagining might have looked much like that of Kircher’s subterranean aquatic system. In his System Ideale: Quo Exprimitur Aquarium [Figure 7], a radiant center with tensely-concentrated energy spirals outward from the middle of the mass. Egg-like repositories of water that branch in tendril-like growths surround this midpoint, with many of these aqueous arteries touching the interior edge. Scalloped waves—the world’s oceans, if we are to trust the sailing ship visible in the engraving’s lower portion—encircle this inner world. Mountainous landmasses are interspersed between the waters that cover the globe’s surface. Each corner features putti who, also invisibly, direct the earth’s winds and atmospheric conditions.

While this image may strike twenty-first century viewers as naïve, its project—to render the hidden transparent—has preoccupied scientists and artists for centuries. Art historian Barbara Maria Stafford goes so far as to label this tension between visible and invisible “the foundation of all dichotomies,” citing this dialectic as a driving force behind both the fine and medical arts, which share the task of “conjecturing about…the unknown.” Thoroughly embedded in this discourse, Diaz extracts and magnifies fragments to understand the structural logic of the whole from which they are taken.

In the graphite drawing De natura sonorum invisibilis (Sounds of invisible nature), Diaz exposes a complex, rhizomatic structure. In characteristic fashion, he subtly incorporates music, science, and philosophy: the title derives from a 1975 series of twelve pieces—De natura sonorum—by avant-garde composer Bernard Parmegiani, a study of the interrelationship between naturally-occurring sounds. This interest in sound and silence is evidenced elsewhere in Diaz’s work, particularly in Arquitectura de ruido blanco (Architecture of White Noise) [Figure 8], and Mientras Malevich concibe su cuadrado blanco sobre fondo blanco es atravesado por la flecha del tiempo y en el fondo se escuchan sonidos 4’33” (While Malevich was conceiving his White on White painting it was crossed by the arrow of time; in the background one can hear sounds 4’33”), which references John Cage’s 1952 conceptual work “4’33”,” a silent piece intended to make people listen to the sounds that surround them but which often go ignored. The rhizome, while an organically-occurring structure, also relates to the philosophical works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who invoke it as an example of a non-hierarchical and non-dualistic mode of representing and interpreting information.

De natura sonorum invisiblis (Sounds of invisible nature) [Figures 9-10], features two biomorphic forms that call to mind the pleural cavity. The impression—of a literal opening of knowledge and accessing of invisible forms through science—parallels the exposed core of Kircher’s earth. These oblong shapes, networked in pencil, are organically webbed together by fragile, circular outgrowths that bridge the blankness between them. From a distance, this pair looks ethereal and nebulous; the intense grays of the interior fade toward the outer edges, which appear smudged and without definite end or boundary. Step nearer the image, and its vagueness transforms into a gridded network populated by fine dots painstakingly rendered in pencil, such as if we were looking through the skin to the complex structure of the respiratory system and its invisible agent: air. The preciseness of the micro-level of viewing dissolves as one steps away, and these tiny, distinctly-rendered specs recede back into their former imprecision.

Kircher’s Tabula Combinatoria [Figure 11] shows a seventeenth-century diagram of alchemic interactions, with straight lines stretching from points on one side of the figure to the other. With each line, the intensity of the network amplifies, acquiring density and depth. The imperfect alloys of the left y axis, which include arsenic and cadmium, span the diagram’s width to combine with such perfect substances listed along the right y axis as ferrum and mercury, in the process creating a symmetrical, argyle-like pattern in which the addition of each line creates new angles and shapes.

In Diaz’s 2008 pen and ink series Paradigma de la línea: De Platón a Deleuze (Line Paradigm: From Plato to Deleuze) [Figure 12], we encounter a meditation on the function of the line in creative assembly. A tangled web of overlapping and intersecting lines, varying in thickness and value, supplants the predictable and ordered patterns of crossing observable in Kircher. Diaz’s drawings represent the tension between classical and contemporary philosophical paradigms; in this case, the classical “ideal” model of Plato is contrasted to the complex system of Deleuze. Deleuze’s alternate paradigm, as mapped by Diaz, possesses no determinable start or end point and no traceable trajectory; instead, these lines appear as endlessly repeating iterations, many of which continue to span well beyond the parameter of the image and exceed the notion of frameability.

Although Paradigma de la línea immediately presents as frenetic and multi-layered, extended viewing and contemplation of the piece reveals coherence. Recognition of this coherence, masked as it is by the density and complexity of the network, involves intimate engagement—seeking the parallels, intersections, and perpendiculars that are not immediately obvious and tracing the course of the individual line within the composition. Like the 2008 relief Universo fractal imperfecto (Imperfect Fractal Universe) and the previously discussed El universo como origen hipotético entre una cierta ambigüedad y una ambigüedad cierta, this work provides an apt visual model for the networked and interconnected world we inhabit, the complexity of which is often missed in everyday and routine engagements. These drawings, like so much of Diaz’s work, forces us into a meditative internal dialogue evoked by close, extended inspection.

Appreciation of the irreproducibility and complexity of Diaz’s work—whether his three-dimensional reliefs or drawings in graphite—requires physical nearness, a literal intimacy. As he asserts, these works are meant to be seen in person, designed to “encourage the observer to get physically close…[in a] detail-oriented examination that might awaken some sort of philosophical interpretation.” As seen in images of Diaz’s La suma teológica de las partes no es igual al todo: orden + desorden >