CITY OF WORDS
Earth, water, fire and air are the materials by which we are able to represent all our worldly experience
Miquel Barceló Restores Our Sight
In the nineteenth century, John Ruskin defined the relationship we intuit between our physical landscapes and our emotional states as a “pathetic fallacy.” Seeing in the world around us a mirror of what we feel, a sympathetic universe dark as our pain and sunny as our bliss, was for Ruskin an artistic device that, however powerful, had to be misleading. In spite of his caveat the illusion persists, and it is tempting to recognize such a consolatory fantasy in the associations provoked by the features of the mountainous, sea-beaten island of Majorca and the imaginations of its artists and writers, from the mathematical constellations of the philosopher and alchemist Ramon Lull in the thirteenth century to the earthy creations of Miquel Barceló in ours.
Miquel Barceló is one of the greatest Spanish artists of our time and has worked with every conceivable substance, from paper left to be partly devoured by termites in the Dogon country in Africa to splatters of clay on the wall of the cathedral in his native Majorca. Barceló’s art is elemental, in the sense that the ancient alchemists understood the word, and his working materials are the four basic elements from which, according to the eighth-century Arab alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan, everything is created: earth, water, fire and air. These four, according to Jabir, provide the world with a system of numinous letters and words (or signs and symbols) through which we are able to represent all our worldly experience. The alchemists called this system “our clay, by which we reflect back the earth to itself.” Accordingly, the twelfth-century Sufi alchemist Ahmad al-bǌnư instructed his followers: “Know that the secrets of God and the objects of His science, the subtle realities and the dense realities, the things of above and the things from below, belong to two categories: there are numbers and there are letters. The secrets of the letters are in the numbers, and the epiphanies of the numbers are in the letters.” Lull’s combinatory art, the equivalent of a primitive computer, was the incarnation of these hopeful alchemical elucidations and was presented physically as a series of lettered disks that, spinning in opposite directions, came to rest on an assortment of words that suggested associative concepts. The disks were cut out of sturdy paper and held together with a piece of string, a rudimentary tool for combining concepts and elucidating contents.
As a young man, in the service of the King of Majorca (as Lull himself tells us), he led a carefree life, writing love poems and songs in the style of the Catalan troubadours. One night, when he was sitting by his bed about to compose a new song, he looked to his right and saw Christ on the cross, as if suspended in mid-air, staring down on him. The vision effected a deep change in Lull and from then on his goal was to seek enlightenment for himself and for others; to this purpose he developed his complex philosophical machines.
Lull’s machines are manuscript artifacts that serve as a kind of compendium of philosophical and religious thought, an instrument to inspire meditation and hopefully lead to the conversion of the unbelievers. Above all, his combinatory art was intended as a way to create new propositions, even to the extent of abolishing ordinary language altogether and replacing it with a system of ineffable signs that allude to, but do not name, the components of reality. Lull’s books are machines of pure thought.
Barceló’s work develops, through a combinatory art comparable to Lull’s, a script of sorts (neither exactly letters nor exactly numbers) made out of clay, water, light and air, producing a text in which the argument is both hidden and revelatory. Barceló’s creations are collaborative palimpsests, the result of a staged performance, sometimes in front of a public, most of the time private; of his use of light and shadow, and the ongoing vocabulary that these produce together; of the ceramist’s techniques learned from the artisans of Catalonia, Andalusia and the Dogon country; of his trust in the contributions of the external world (the scorchings of soot and charcoal, the splatterings from his own brushes and other instruments, the corrosive substances he uses to paint, the interventions of other living creatures such as tunnelling termites, bats and birds). An avid reader, Barceló creates through his work an ongoing narrative that we are compelled to decipher.
Confronted with a piece by Barceló, it might be useful to bear in mind the instructions that Lull put forward for his readers: “My idea is to present in a single book everything that can be thought… as well as everything that can be said… From
the binary combination of terms in this universal grammar, conceived as general principles, it would be possible to find a solution to any question the human mind can pose. As an art of questioning and getting answers to a variety of matters, it is applicable to all the sciences.” The same can be said of Barceló’s combinatory art that brings the four elements into relation with one another.
Earth, the clay or dust we scoop in the hand, is our beginning. The Arabic word sulala, used in the Qur’an (23:12) to describe the matter from which man was created, denotes a representative example, the essence of something—in this case, the essence of clay. Clay is also our end, the dust to which we return.
Water, its opposite, runs through our fingers and lends earth its life, testing the craftsman’s skill. The Babylonian Talmud tells the story of the rabbi’s daughter who asked:
“In our town there are two potters: one who fashions pots from water, the other who fashions them from clay. Who of the two is most praiseworthy?” “He who fashions them from water,” was the answer, “because if he can fashion them from water, he can surely fashion them from clay.” For Barceló, however, there are no hierarchies among the materials. This is what Barceló means when he says that “pottery is painting.”
Fire is praised, both in Islam and Judaism, for possessing the double quality of burning and giving light. Fire that burns purifies water and hardens clay “immobilizes” matter, in Barceló’s words. The light of the fire, however, lends them material presence, and a new movement. According to the alchemists, light carries in itself the qualities of the things it illuminates.
Air is the breath that bestows life, as in the creation of glass. Certain Talmudic scholars argued that the Creator’s power can be deduced from glassware: if glassware, made by the breath of human beings, can be repaired when broken, “then how much more so man, created by the breath of the Holy One.” Air lends matter visibility through its essential transparency. It also brings forth the memory of matter: Barceló tells of how his own pottery preserves the imperfections and traces of the clay’s history, and how, for example, in some of his clay work, traces appear as the negatives of the drops of excrement that the owls let fall on his pots from the beams of his workshop. In these visible absences Barceló sees the contribution of chance to his deliberate creative gestures, an artistic undermining of his own conscious intentions, a collaborative process that lends his work “a new meaning.”
This is also true in the case of Lull. The use of chance to attain creative understanding lies at the root of Lull’s systems of thought, which in turn can be seen as the source for most of the combinatory and logic theories in practice today. And yet, however universal Lull’s ideas became, they remain essentially emblematic of Majorcan culture (as are Barceló’s), a culture in which the local geographical and metaphysical elements combine, reflect and act upon one another: sea and thought, thought and light, light and earth, earth and sea. In this combinatory art, the four elementary constituents of the world interact and produce, in a constant movement of change, the vocabulary by which we are allowed to read the world. Such a reading is never conclusive, creating a continuum of ideas that is at the same time logical and intuitive, what we see and what we imagine, interwoven in a fluid and ever-changing text. This is what Borges once defined as “the imminence of a revelation that does not occur.”
There is a parable in the gospels that illustrates this relationship between our eyes and the outside world. Jesus, according to Mark, bestowed sight on a blind man with his saliva; the man, upon opening his eyes, saw “men walking about like trees,” a vision that reveals the communality of all created things. But according to John, in his own account of the miracle, it was not saliva that Jesus applied to the blind man’s eyes, but clay. Because he performed the miracle on the Sabbath, the people called Jesus a sinner. To which the man who had been blind replied: “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” Clay restores sight. Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Curiosity, All Men Are Liars and A History of Reading. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at alberto.manguel.com and geist.com.
Arbor scientiae by Ramon Lull, 1515.