Elephant embryo at twelve months
This past Tuesday, I went to Cooper Union, to see Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s lecture, Notes For a Biology of Numbers: Birds, Beasts, and Games with Forms. Sengupta spoke about his experiences in participating in the Raqs Media Collective and what he described as his amateur understanding of mathematics and biology.
Sengupta began his talk with an ancient Greek quote, which he translated to “man is always counting,” also giving examples of how numbers and quantities constantly inform our understanding of thought and language, an idea that I hadn’t really considered before. When I became aware of how much of what we say and think is based on an abstract understanding of amount, I began seeing how difficult it is to mention or comprehend anything without using numerical values. According to him, even the solitude of one is made of thirds and halves and no one is alone. Sengupta explains that when something is invisible or forgotten, it denotes an idea of quantity or even when things change they become MORE or less. He goes on to ask, how deep is our abyss or shallow our grave?
As a member of a collective, Sengupta definitely exhibited a bias towards art made in collectives and saw the collective as a natural progression in which all art was heading. Although I can see the collective gaining increasing popularity in art practices, I do not see it as replacing artists who are working alone. His argument was that historically, art relied on what he called “dividuated practices,” citing old masters and Leonardo DaVinci, specifically as an example of this, which I found problematic since the old masters ran their workshops much like contemporary architects do or even how an artist like Kehinde Wiley does, who employs assistants to carry out his ideas rather than as a group of people with shared interests coming together to work through a common goal.
It seemed that Sengupta considered solo practices to be inferior modes of working in comparison to the collective, stating that even the word “individual” is prefixed by a negative prefix, implying that such a semantic detail placed a moral value on the word, which was also a point of contention for me. I view both the collective and the solo practice as valid ways of working, and don’t see one inherently superior to the other. In Sengupta’s view, solo practices tend to be solipsistic, although I could see collectives just as easily turning myopic, depending largely on whom they consist of and how they are approached. In the end, the only value lies in the work that either mode of working produces.
Despite these discrepancies, there were many attitudes and views mentioned in the lecture that overlapped with things that I have been thinking about. One of them was how limiting and small the human perspective actually is. Man might always be counting, but neither man nor woman is the measure of all things or anything, really. Are we human, all too human, or are we even human? Certain anti-aging specialists consider us to be bacterial/human hybrids consisting of 95% bacteria and 5% human.
I remember the first time I saw photographs of different animal embryos, in the very beginning phases of development; one was human, one was reptilian, and the differences were indistinguishable! It is only in the later stages that the differences between the bird, the reptile, and the human can be seen. These photographs changed my perception of life, and caused me to revaluate my place in it.
Sengupta brought up the painting of the Birdman in the Lascaux Caves looking at the bison, and the possible interpretations of that image, which ranged anywhere from a failed hunt to a shamanistic ritual. About a decade ago, it had been discovered that the image also contained star maps, revealing that the artists at Lascaux, had been more sophisticated than we had believed. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/871930.stm) The subjective explanation that Sengupta offered was that the birdman was a stargazer conducting research, but I would prefer to think that the birdman was a daydreamer, who did not allow the banality and ordinariness of the world to interfere with his rich fantasy life.
I was struck by how similar the symbol of the birdman at Lascaux is to a series of drawings that I have been working on. These drawings are based on drawings I did in childhood, only they are more detailed, ornate, and suggestive. I used to draw hundreds of bird princesses, and these hybrids of princesses had the body of actual princesses, but just happened to have bird heads. I remember thinking that I was drawing these bird princesses, because I did not know how to draw a human face as beautifully as a bird face. Now, it seems more like I was tapping in to an archetype that I was unaware of. In my current incarnation of bird princesses, I depict theses strange creatures as staring at the sky, much like the birdman.
Another bird hybrid that Sengupta discussed was Hermes, with his winged shoes. In one myth, Hermes teaches himself the alphabet by looking at the patterns of migrating cranes. Sengupta also compared Hermes to the artist, and said that those who aren’t artists are “too philistine to read what gets written in the sky”, which might be true, but it seems that artists are often just as guilty of the same crime.
I appreciated a well-known allegory that I hadn’t heard before, but that Sengupta mentioned, which is known commonly as the Language or Conference of Birds. The story follows thirty birds who want to choose a king, and who travel to a mountain to find their soveirgn, but who realize that they don’t need a king, because they already have a king. The birds only needed to know themselves to find their soveirgn. What appealed to me most, in this allegory, were its anti-authoritarian message and the belief in the self-rule. The story can even be interpreted as an allegory about independence and individualism.