Alchemy and Metaphysics: From the Catalogue


Alchemy and Metaphysics was an intermedia exhibition at Trestle Projects Space in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn which ran from June 7th to July 3rd 2014.  The exhibition was curated by Jacob Hicks, Lily Koto Olive, and Kiley Ames.

Alchemy is the earliest point of transition from religion, ritual, mythology and mysticism as basis for the understanding of existence into the empirical sciences, where-in-which physical experimentation and methodology transformed hypotheses into factual foundations for the advancement of provable and evolving causality. Alchemical experimentation used the physical material of the contemporary sciences in attempt to metamorphosize matter (fire, element, test tube, etc.). It also imbued its process with ritual and magic, deducing that this too was as important to understanding as physical experimentation.

Metaphysics, whose origins are entwined with the philosophical and precede empirical science,  uses thought experimentation to explain phenomena beyond what can be solidly described by the physical sciences.

The curators of this exhibition carefully selected an array of artists whose work is engaged with either or both of these fundamental paradigms that are seminal to contemporary human understanding.

For the exhibition catalogue, a group of promising young and established essayists, poets, and short story writers were invited to publish a response to the theme.  What follows are those featured writer’s works.

Jane LaFarge Hamill, Head, Variable-Galilee 2
Jane LaFarge Hamill, Head, Variable-Galilee 2

Featured Essayist: Angela Gram, On Nothing

As a rational person who uncompromisingly endorses the empirical sciences, I was initially skeptical of existential questions involving metaphysical answers. However immaterial philosophical conclusions may be, our species defines itself through the ability and innate ambition to ask such questions. Our obsession with our own existence when scientifically expressed can be reduced to the material terms of evolutionary biology. Yet the pursuit of knowledge is historically diverse and it is this activity in itself, regardless of method, that is vital to the human experience. In this view there is value in examining that which cannot be measured. 

When metaphysics rigorously analysis the human condition essentially asking how we exist rather than why, Heidegger’s notion of nothingness becomes a strikingly psychological investigation of our emotional lives. 

Paradoxically named, the nothing is purely experienced and does not only reside intellectually. It is a form of consciousness that permeates every aspect of ourselves as sentient beings. Heidegger states, “without the original revelation of the nothing there is no selfhood and no freedom”. The capacity of human consciousness to transcend ones’ sense of self is to expose ones’ identity to an introspective void. To experience the nothing is to confront the blistering, unfathomable absence of such vulnerability. It is here, in an absence of selfhood, in a vulnerable state of inquiry, where we are essentially confirmed as human beings. Through the confrontation of nothingness we perilously come to terms with our existence, and inherent in such an action is the introspection of the artist.

Buried in any artistic endeavor is the threat of anxiety. “Its’ breath quivers perpetually through humanity… and stands in secret alliance with the cheerfulness and gentleness of creative longing”. Thus the artist is hypersensitive to the human condition. Such vulnerability is the condition of our freedom, knowledge, and of our relations with other kinds of beings. It is an openness to experiencing the annihilation of antagonism and failure but also the transcendence of sublimity and compassion. Here the artist embarks on perhaps the most primordial pursuit of knowledge. We as artists must find a resonance within ourselves worthy of creative expression. We make self knowledge a fearless examination of the nothing. We make such metaphysical truths tangible.

Jessie Brugger, Video Still from Alchemical animation, 2014
Jessie Brugger, Video Still from Alchemical Animation, 2014

Featured Essayist: Glenda Lindsey-Hicks, Two Painters, Two Poets— Art and Alchemy

War concerns the struggle of light against dark, good against evil—for that reason, the noble warrior takes up arms.  Gerhard Richter was seven when WWII began, thirteen when it ended.  Born in Dresden, he left school after the tenth grade and worked in a series of apprenticeships to a sign painter, a photographer, and a painter before his admission to the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. While there, he painted one mural for the refectory (Communion with Picasso), another for the German Hygiene Museum (Lebensfreud). A strange series of events after the second mural’s completion saw it painted over, restored, and covered again. This cycle must have registered as an iteration of the perplexing confusion Gerhard lived with from childhood on—the recursive experience of creation and destruction from without and within.

After his work at the Academy, in another sort of repetition, Richter began collecting photographs he projected on a canvas, meticulously copied, then blurred, sometimes subtly, sometimes vigorously, sweeping the surface with a homemade squeegee. It is not surprising that to avoid selecting subjects, understanding conscious choice assured critical/theoretical repercussions in modernist discourse, the images he projected and blurred were drawn from thousands of pictures from a variety of sources. Such a depersonalized agenda eventually and perhaps inevitably led to a confrontation with the self,  fragmented and perhaps at war—photographs of relatives, both members and victims of the Nazi Party he copied to blur.

War, the noun, or to make war, the verb, comes from the Old High German words, werran and verwirren. Verwirren means to confuse, to perplex. Robert Hass in his poem, “Time and Materials” describes Richter’s abstract layered painting as the emotional equivalent of “someone falling down and getting up/ and running and falling and getting up” (15).

In the Islamic tradition, the material war, the one we wage against “other,” is the “little holy war”; the “great Holy War” is the war that frees the individual from the enemies within, the one that liberates us from the confused multiplicity of our being that we find at the circumference of the circle and distant from the center that is the unity of the self.

The Porta Alchemica in Italy is a gate at the Villa Palombara around which (in the 17th century) symbols and/or puzzles were left on a page by a traveler searching the gardens for an herb capable of producing gold. On the gate these symbols were engraved.

From antiquity into Jungian psychology and beyond, the idea of an alchemical transformation persists, and though the idea of a literal change is enticing, the language of even early alchemists conflates the actual with the metaphoric. Perfection may be achieved as base metals are turned to gold, but the same is true of ignorance eradicated by knowledge, hell transcended on earth in visionary conversions. Shamans, sibyls, and scientists;  poets, priests, and painters; prophets and philosophers throughout time have sought change through various means and mediums.

It is no accident that the Porta Alchemica is engraved with the formulas for transmutation. The etymology of the word for writing, suggests that to write is to score, to tear, to scratch, to carve, to cut, to decorate with cut marks, even to paint. To say is to know. Words, units of language, spoken or written, are symbols, carriers fraught with meanings that cut to the quick of who we are, mirror our scars, and in so doing carry us over, across, and into recognition of the intersecting and oppositional planes of life that we meet on page or canvas.

On Richter’s surfaces, like a writer, according to Robert Hass in his poem, “Time and Materials,” layer after layer, Richter painted before he began to scrape the canvas to reveal what was below, what he had  concealed, beneath, above, beyond the multiple levels of his visual transformations.

It is in this process he “render[ed] time” by “stand[ing] outside “the horizontal rush of it, for a moment” (36-7]. Here Richter,  the “Absrakte Bilder,” is described “scor[ing], “scar[ring],” “smear[ing],” “streak[ing],” smudg[ing],” “blur[ring],” “gouge[ing],” in  the “vertical gesture…” of energized confusion or grief, confronting “the way…anger/Or desire can rip a life apart” (40-1).

The result is a “wound of color” (42), the visual remnant of Richter’s early desire (conscious or un-) for lebensfreud—health, wholeness, joy.

Thought the thread, the artist is the weaver, the magician (The word for text comes from textus, cloth.), the story teller who positions him or herself at the intersecting planes of the said and the unsayble, the seen and the unseen, the horizontal place of the vertical necessity of being where we confront the dialectic of good and evil, order and chaos, creation and destruction, meaning and meaninglessness, consciousness and the unconscious.

An image is a copy, an imitation, a reflection in a mirror, a pattern of forms and figures endowed with unity and significance—perfection at the highest form of knowing as is implied in the theory form where the whole is always understood as greater than the sum of our parts.

As we gaze at one another, the visionary artist beholds him/herself, fragmented and broken, abraded by experience in an unconscious repetition, internalizing external wars and annihilating him/herself bit by bit yet simultaneously, miraculously intact, whole. Irreducibly present.

Neither Hass, the poet, nor Richter, the “abstract builder,” has destruction as their object. For Richter (according to Hass), the task or art is “to make layers,/as if they were a steadiness of days” (1-2). For the poet, the same is true. The object of a poem, Hass claims, “is not to annihila/ to not annih/The object of this poem is to report a theft” (16-19).

The theft is of the image, intact and perfect, the self—the loss of the great holy war in the thunderous distraction of the little one.

Mark Rothko, a Russian Jew, born 29 years before Richter and plagued by fear throughout his childhood, was (like Richter) an exile, (from ex- away and the PIE root al- to wander). He was 11 when WWI began, 15 when it ended, 35 at WWII’s beginning, 37 at its end.

Stanley Kunitz in his poem, “The Artist,” describes his friend’s perpetual war as he paces “Back and forth, back and forth” over his “paint-smeared floor” (7-8), “diminishing in size each time he turn[s],/trapped in his monumental void,/[and] raving against his adversaries (9-11) until he “slashe[s] an exit for himself’ (13) and “through the holes of his tattered universe/the first innocence and the light/ [comes] pouring in” (15-17).

Kunitz describes Rothko’s stunningly tragic transformation, a reclamation in death, a return to “the first innocence” where for him “light/ poured in” (17) through his mutilation as he “slashed an exit” (13) from his vibrating multiforms.

If Jean Baudrillard (sociologist, philosopher, photographer, and cultural theorist, student of modes of mediation and technological communication) and Paul Virilio (architect, artist, urban student of the effects of speed, power and the military), disparate and similar as they are in their multiple identies, are right, and the accelerated duplication of who we are at the circumference of our selves is a war we don’t recognize as a militarization against us, it is because in our confused and warring multiplicity, we accept ourselves as a simulacra passively lost from our center, we are stuck in a living catachresis where we, the dead, inhabit a graveyard and “rav[e] against adversaries” (17) we create. There, only suicide can bring “light pouring in” (17) when in fact, in the metaphysics of alchemy, what we can imag[ine], we can create.

In alchemy, marriage is not the elaborate ceremony we are sold in the absurd notion that someone can complete who we are, it is the symbol of conjunction, the union of sulphur and mercury, the inner conciliation of our unconscious into our spirit. According to Carl Jung, marriage is the completion of the self in the process of individuation, the integration of the other that is us into our center.  Anékdota, un-published evidence, that wholeness in a broken world is possible.

Jacob Hicks, Ghost 1, oil on canvas, 11x8", 2014
Jacob Hicks, Ghost 1, oil on canvas, 11×8″, 2014

Featured Essayist: Jacob Hicks, Hyperuranian                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Socrates spoke of two realms:

A.) The physical

B.) The conceptual; the idea of the physical

Every “thing” carries with it a spirit; Socrates might call it the ghost image of thing-hood, and a physicist might refer to it as information.

To Socrates the idea of reality is melded into material, but the idea is where perfection and beauty lies-within the topos hyperuranios. To a physicist matter is infused with information and both structures forever recycle and can never be erased.

These dictums run parallel to homo-sapiens’ earliest form of cult religion-Animism, in which every “thing” has within it an embedded spirit, whether animate or inanimate.

Martin Heidegger states that the empirical sciences will be burdened forever to fall short of their aimes toward total description until they include within their boundaries of contemplation emptiness, absence, and void. This is challenging, when to label nothing gives it substance and identity (its antithesis).

1. Let us access the information/ spirit/ ghost image thing-hood of nothingness.

2. Let us re-examine what the Animists knew and what science concludes and renames; There is spirit/ information/ idea scored into the core of all things.

3. Let us learn so that we may teach.

In the core of the Earth reside the heaviest metals. They seep like water to the middle and sprout branches in three hundred and sixty degrees. As each branch climbs forward through the stratified layers of the deep earth, they decrease in elemental weight.  The closer the branches draw to the Earth’s crust, the more pure the metal.  

Lasse Antonsen, Lunar Lands, 2014
Lasse Antonsen, Lunar Lands, 2014

Featured Essayist: Lasse Antonsen, LUNAR LANDS                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Unexpectedly “back from the inspection of his lunar lands,”the Emperor, in his motley coat, suddenly finds himself surrounded by an agitated crowd of spectators. Frightened he mumbles something about a message that can direct them toward “the absolute poem, the poem without belief, the poem without hope, the poem directed at no one.”

The spectators are unprepared and defiant, they are restless. In their eyes the Emperor suddenly sees “all the unanswerable questions, this ghastly mute Not-yet, this even ghastlier, mute No longer and Yet again, and in between, what cannot be overcome, even tomorrow, even today.”

The Emperor-Harlequin knows they want an elsewhere, but is unable to explain that “there were among them two-headed birds and birds with many wings, there were cripples too, limping through the air in one-winged, awkward flight,” and that “the sky” had “resembled those in old murals, full of monsters and fantastic beasts, which circled around, passing and eluding each other in elliptical maneuvers.”

Exposed and vulnerable “he scratches…the earth with his stick, finds something that interests him….bends down and pulls it up. An onion.” He again mumbles, “I am reduced to an onion….you old fool prophet, you are no Emperor, you’re…an onion.”

The spectators see only vacillation and indecisiveness, they see a comedian without wit.

The Emperor-Harlequin decides to speak. He takes off his embroidered tunic. We set out together, he says, “we assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition….to make ourselves unrecognizable….to render imperceptible what makes us act, feel and think…we are no longer ourselves…..we have been aided, inspired, multiplied.”

“Haughtily, Harlequin looks the spectators up and down with ridiculous disdain and arrogance.” “Onion, artichoke, the Harlequin never ceases to shed his layers or to peel off his knotted capes.” Expecting “wondrous eccentricities,”

but now bored and confused, the spectators quietly drift away.

Lily Koto Olive, Transmutation Installation, 2014
Lily Koto Olive, Transmutation Installation, 2014

Featured Poet: Glenda Lindsey-Hicks, A poem about leaving                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

I’ve been wondering about what it might be like to have a poem about leaving, to write to those who have left, those who have been left for reasons shifting from here to there. To speak of the rationales used to vindicate the irrevocable place words occupy.

I’ve been thinking about repetition, the drawings on the walls at Lascaux, how I decided in France not to go, not wanting to live in a Disney lie where things we think we can claim to have seen can’t be seen.

I’ve been thinking about the absurdity of pretense, of fathers who aren’t, fathers who say “move on” as if the past were not etched more deeply than the chimerical beast I’d like to have seen but can’t, knowing it’s there and not.

I was in Dresden this summer watching women fall. I saw them fall. At the final fall I stood in the door of the re-built opera house waiting for the ambulance, worried it wouldn’t come, afraid I should have stayed. She was attended by a German man who knew what to do, so I left and stayed as if there were something real in my concern.

There was something real in my concern.

But I was talking of letters and leaving when I circled round to repetition.

I think that it’s Barthes in Mythologies who talks of this. Then I think, no, it’s another French thinker. The concierge at my hotel last summer searched him out when taking my book in hand he asked what I was reading, thinking I must want to talk to the person instead of just reading his printed word. He found him, told me where he was and how to go. Actually, I’d done something like this before in Barcelona, when I ferreted out Cirlot, found his address, and feeling a silly sort of groupie, considered calling, going, knocking on Juan’s door to say, I don’t know what.

Virilio. Of course. That’s his name. Paul. It seems suddenly there are many Pauls important to me. But that’s another story within a story, repeating other stories in other countries and towns. And I was in Dresden, not Damascus, thinking of women falling and things reproducing, reproduced after they’d been destroyed or reproduced so as not to be destroyed and wondering why, why, why it was so important for the Germans to rebuild Dresden exactly as it had been before the war.

I found myself in Germany this summer trying to talk myself out of the dread I felt over what had been but was no more, fearing the past as if it could repeat, knowing it is repeating since there’s never anything that hasn’t already been done, thought, found, lost, and found again, re-produced in spite of the fact that we value most the never before, as if that were possible, thinking it has to be possible as we loop back to the what was, hanging on as if Michelangelo weren’t a cubist.

Now I wonder what it was I set out to say. Something about letters and leaving, writing and reading, repeating as we go and stay, see, send, say. And here I am, again left, this time thinking of Freud and fathers, sons and mothers, echoes and shadows, ribs and caves. Thinking how this summer after a cold winter, it’s been unbearably hot.

Maeshelle West-Davies, Baggage (Video Still from performance), 2014
Maeshelle West-Davies, Baggage (Video Still from performance), 2014










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