Friday, March 10, 2006

The Slide Turned On End: Abstraction & Microaestheticism

Art or Amoeba? Maybe They Aren't So Different After All

The strange resonance of abstract images has never been fully explained. Some critics have argued that no image can be truly abstract, as every mark on the canvas resembles something already seen. Abstraction, then, is not so much an aesthetic experience but a game, almost as childish as the old peg-and-hole boards. A viewer’s pleasure comes from deciphering the seemingly indecipherable, much like a child triumphs over finally seeing the round peg as round, and finding its corresponding hole. Abstraction is a game of vague resemblances, and an activity in the high subjectivity of personal response. One viewer may see a geometrical shape as an anvil, another as a blocky bull’s head, and still another might see it as a piece off a fender. Viewers know that their interpretations vary, so they have the double satisfaction of both creating something concrete out of an abstract, and knowing that concrete is all their own. In that way, abstraction again seems to tap into our toddler-dom: young children revel in figuring things out, and revel all the more when something is all theirs. Merely watch two toddlers in a sandbox, and inevitably you will hear a possession-battle: That’s my pile! Don’t use my shovel! Abstraction is a sandbox, shovel and bucket that is always all your own.

Or perhaps we accept--and even support--abstraction because it does not aim to trump the world’s order. So many human endeavors try just that—we have homes cleanly divvied up by geometry, ruled language, and behaviors that aid in giving the whole human race an air of dignity and coordination. If one glances down from a descending plane to a metropolis below, the success of human choreography is evident. Roads run straight or curve with fair warning, cars weave in and out of building but rarely into them or each other, people bustle towards goals which further the project of people-bustling. The lack of chaos is remarkable, considering the natural anarchy in each individual by virtue of individuality alone. But, of course, the order humans impose upon the world has nothing on the world itself. Should nature act up, we are, even now, at a loss. Abstraction acknowledges all that, and seems to taunt the world with its vying disorder. If our order can’t control the world, perhaps our disorder can cow it into submission. “You think that earthquake/plague/scant resources is chaos? Well getta load of this!” So says the abstract artist to all uncontrolled phenomenon.

While these theories have their validity and certainly their share of worthwhile implications, a new theory of abstraction has recently appeared that aims to traverse all that treacherous topography between the physical and metaphysical. “Microaestheticism,” a term coined by Dr. Markus O’Hara, is the study of abstraction as an innate desire for our smallest origins. This theory attempts to bridge the longstanding and perhaps mutually preserving gap between art and science. O’Hara sums up its basic starting point: “Humankind yearns for its amoebaean roots, hence, Abstraction.” Microaestheticism asserts that abstract images hit a primal cord in us because they strongly resemble microorganisms. “Or, the smallest bits of us” O’Hara adds. We’re sitting in his office in Concord, Massachusetts. O’Hara—a biologist by trade—explains his entry into the art world. “I was on my way to a conference on DNA lithography in Illinois, when I got lost. I stopped at an art museum, called the conference directors, and realized that I got the day and time wrong. I missed the damn thing” O’Hara gives a little shameless smile, acknowledging that brilliant minds are allowed leniency in planning and daily alertness. “So I figured, what the hell, I’ll look around for a bit I guess. And what I saw there was nothing short of remarkable,…” At this point, O’Hara is clearly ready to launch into a dog-eared tale of the humble beginnings of Microaestheticism. It’s clear that his enthusiasm for his idea, and its story, never abates even in repeated retelling. O’Hara, a rather shrunken looking man in his mid-sixties, is fond of spreading his arms wide to show how wide-reaching his ideas are. He does just this at his opening line “I saw science and art merge once and for all…”

O’Hara claims he glanced at a work of abstract art—a Kandinsky, he thinks, and was immediately struck by how similar it was to some of the rare amoebas he was working with at the time. “I thought I was hallucinating. I mean, here was something precisely like what I had under the slide just that morning!” So precise was the resemblance that O’Hara thought he had lost his mind. “I nudged this person next to me and said—I mean, I realize how absurd this is now—I said “is that a blown up slide of Grayson’s amoeba, I mean, is that the guy’s er…inspiration?” O’Hara reports that all he got in response was an “I think not” and some advice about brushing up on his at history. O’Hara however, was sure that he had hit upon something significant. “The more I walked around looking at this so-called abstract art, the more I felt like I was looking at a bunch of blown-up slides turned on end.” O’Hara was sure that there must be some explanation. When he returned back to his university, he quickly arranged a sabbatical to study this phenomenon. “I lied to the department. I said I was going to study a new way for extracting antibodies from fungi—specifically truffles. There’s no way I would get a sabbatical to look at a bunch of art.” O’Hara is clearly pleased at his effortless deception. “Those morons heading up that department haven’t a clue. I used all the truffles they ordered for me to make dinner for a group of art critics.”

Clearly, these truffle dinner-parties were a success, because soon O’Hara had created a buzz among art critics. By this point, O’Hara had his firmed up his idea. “I realized we humans probably react to art because we must, in some subconscious way, recognize it. Even abstract art. What I’m saying is I think we can sense the tiniest part of ourselves, and our origins—the cell, platelets, and our ameba ancestors--in these images. And I think that’s what resonates with us when we view abstract art. We are, in a sense, recognizing the bits.” At first blush, this hardly seems like the type of theory to garner any sort of following. The fact that it has might be more a reflection of the art-world’s permanent scramble for the “new” rather than a reflection of its merits. Still, O’Hara is prepared for resistance. “Look, I know this theory is hard to accept. We all want to believe that we appreciate art because its “beautiful’ or somehow or another special and apart from out daily lives. But the fact is we appreciate it because its life—only magnified.”

I must have dropped my neutral reportage face because before I knew it, O’Hara was leading me down to his basement, where he housed his “evidence”. “Look at this” O’Hara produced a glossy photo of a striated blob. “This is a virus—the common flu, to be exact. And now look at this.” O’Hara now pulled out a reproduction of Paul Klee’s work. “Is that uncanny or what?” There was a slight resemblance of line quality, but uncanny seemed like an overstatement. Always alert to skepticism, O’Hara supplied the explanation. “If that virus was just a hair turned right, and caught during a moment of replication, it would match the Klee painting exactly.” O’Hara went on to compare a who’s who of abstract art to what he assured me was a who’s who of bacteria, protozoan, and cells. Here and there the resemblances truly were uncanny, but what that proved remained obscure.

But if O’Hara is right, does this mean the death of art? Couldn’t we just blow up microscopic images to experience a more direct and accurate connection to our “bits” as O’Hara refers to them? Isn’t art just inaccurate biology in O’Hara’s view? “No.” O’Hara seemed as if he had been waiting to hear this, and before summing up the most sweeping virtues of his theory, he again threw his arms wide (strange that a man so concerned with the very small would be so big in gesticulation). “We still need the handmade rendering of the micro. What artists choose subconsciously to paint might indicate what we as humans need to confront inside us. If artists start depicting white blood cells up the wazoo, maybe biologists need to study those more intently. Art could, in this way, spur science on to greater discovery.” Here, O’Hara paused, as if even that feel-good message of the art/science bond wasn’t quite all-encompassing enough for his taste.“See, I think of infinity and the great unknown as being not in what’s outside, beyond, and bigger than us, but in what’s in us. In the smallest little bits of us. The bits of the bits of the bits. Beauty’s not the big, the grand, the God, it’s the tiny little antibody battling an itty bitty virus. That’s biology. And now we know that’s art as well.”