“Bending over a curled shadowy thing, like a sibyl reading a prophecy” David Esterly from The Lost Carving: A Journey To The Heart of Making.
I am currently going through images of Grinling Gibbons carvings and other intricate ornamental forms, and making drawings. Beyond the obvious representational aspect, what are the forms doing to the viewer (or should I say the ‘feeler’). Ornamental form is emotional and tactile. I experience ornamental or so called non-objective forms as a visceral language that speaks to body, to deep touch sensation and inner body sensations. When I look at Baroque, folk or Rococo ornament or arabesques and Eastern ornament I hear sound, feel movement, touch, texture, a kind of poetry of touch, inside my body.
Intricate ornamental forms pull me in. What is it that one feels, where feeling is physical, psychic, bodily, affective? Getting beyond what appears to be being represented, flowers, birds, petals, objects. The form reaches out and grasps us, our body. There is a dark furtive fertile fecundity to these carvings. It is their movements, harmonies and flows that I find so ‘moving’. A kind of dark genius of controlling energies, forces and flows.
In The Language of Ornament by David Trilling, he speaks of ornament as an art of intense if elaborately veiled emotion, and he says that the expressive power of form is a message to which we should be open. Ornament communicates primarily through its form, not what is appears to ‘represent’. Ornament carries emotions and moves us. Trilling says ‘ornament is not just a way of creating but a way of seeing’. Or maybe he should have said a way of ‘feeling’. To me ornament is a way of seeing, thinking and feeling and understanding my world, my body and my identity.
Many see these carvings and so called ornament in general, as superficial decoration. The powerful residues of Modernist and Classical modes of seeing would seem to dictate that ornamental forms like these are invariably seen as effusive and ‘over the top’. But I see something dark and shadowy in these Grinling Gibbons carvings and in certain other ornamental forms. A mystery of the energy of life, its movements, emergence, decay, loss, transformation, and of erotic touching, of secrets and some kind of yearning.
The West has a long history of disdaining what it perceives as lack of moderation, especially in ‘Oriental’ arts, giving it names such as horror vacui. Not being able to distinguish figure from ground, and ‘all over pattern’ has always seemed to cause much consternation. But instead of narrative or representative clarity, ornamental forms offer us intensity, complexity, intricacy, ambiguity and mystery, harmonies that resolve and dissolve, leading us on a ceaseless journey of movements that are visceral and affective.
Absence of the human figure or human presence in ornament and overwhelming intricate detail, distracts many from seeing what is really there in ornament. There is the unspoken principle in Western art that the human presence is the ‘true and proper subject for art’ as Trilling says. But in ornament the human presence is the human body itself, and the haptic and tactile experience of the world via the body. This experience often leads you out of your body, beyond the body, to reach other realms beyond the narrow confines of the representational.
The haptic tactile forms of ornament generate a close intimate body sensation, unlike the optical, which keeps the body at a distance. They promote a kind of seeing that is more like touching, less optical and more visceral. Touch is not just skin touch, there is deep touch, deep body sensation, that leads to intimacy, empathy, loss of distance, loss of the boundaries of your body with the world around it. A kind of dissolving and erotic sensation – erotic in the sense of deeply carnal but yet also embodied in the sensations of your mind.
Extended physiological proprioception – EPP, is the ability to feel sensations beyond your body in the things you are touching, as if your nerves extended out of your body into those things. Seeing that is like touching seems to bring the world into your body and take your body out into the world.
Hearing is close to touch. Those vibrations enter your head, sounds stroking the sensitive enervated skin in your inner ear, and your body feels the sounds of vibrations in spaces and volumes inside other bodies and objects. Ornament to me is like sound, musical, vibrating and stroking, stretching and knotting and curling inside you. Like pieces of melodies, physical melodies.
Elaborating our environment through ornament, drawing, patterning, arranging forms, sets up an atmosphere, a charisma, a charged atmosphere of comprehension and sensation between the viewer, the object, and their body. Space and time are altered as one goes into a trance like mode of feeling and touching and following the forms and lines of the carvings.
So ornament for me, is this kind of carnal, incarnated transference of experience from one body to another – so affective and dissolving – fleshy and transcendent at the same time – of the body and beyond it. Ornament in my work is the touch of the hand marking down those sensations of the body in the mind.
In a song called Touch by Daft Punk (Random Access Memories), seeing just isn’t enough for the artificial intelligence.
‘Touch, I remember touch. Touch – I need something more in my mind – I remember touch. Pictures came with touch. Sweet touch, you’ve given me too much too feel. You’ve almost convinced me I am real’