Earth, wa­ter, fire and air are the ma­te­ri­als by which we are able to rep­re­sent all our worldly ex­pe­ri­ence

Geist - - Features - Al­berto Manguel

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 al­ and

Ar­bor sci­en­tiae by Ra­mon Lull, 1515.

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