Claire Morgan The Fall
How to Explain Sculpture to a Dead Owl
The Opening of Our Vision (to come)
‘Artistic creativity is at all times a use of the earth in the fixing in place of truth in the figure.’ (Heidegger, ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’, p. 189)
A profound sense of melancholic unease and anxiety awaits the visitor to sculptor Claire Morgan’s confrontational first solo show The Fall. The works in this show also manage to achieve that very rarest of things – an alteration, modification and opening of our vision onto the world. The four delicate sculptures that make up this exhibition speak eloquently of a state of emergency in being where everything in nature has seemingly become frozen and trapped in a state of catastrophic collapse. In her sculptures nature stands at the autumnal threshold of death and transformation, leaves dry and shrivel, seeds fall to earth and animals forage for sustenance, but all seemingly without the hope of renewal from an emergent fecund spring to come. Autumn’s fall is frozen in time; the natural cycles of death, decay and renewal have been mysteriously and disastrously interrupted and appear as having been halted forever. In Morgan’s art the resonant natural rhythms of the earth have become petrified and sterile, and she irretrievably implicates our world in this absolute disaster.
The first sculpture to be encountered as you enter the gallery, Captive, has a Tawny Owl crashing to earth frozen and encased in a delicate cage of torn polythene fragments suspended from fine nylon threads, its eye no longer on the petrified mice prey but staring back up at us, perhaps imploring us to follow headlong into its disastrous fall to earth, perhaps implicating us in its violent demise. Perhaps this is the owl of Minerva spreading its wings only at the falling of dusk, except now the owl too falls. Its reflective wisdom appears to be diminished and is cruelly captured for a fragmentary moment before its death. It is possible that the owl demands an explanation from us, by way of a response. An explanation full of tenderness and care…
The owl’s invitation for us to fall serves as a necessary prelude to the three other sculptures in the show, leading us to collapse head over heels with the suspended bluebottles which tumble in a stepped spiralling line downwards in Head Over Heels. We are implored to follow the vertiginous pursuit of the bird crashing through suspended leaf debris towards its prey in The Chase before confronting the largest and perhaps most impressive sculptural installation of all, a piece where nature itself seemingly spells out in falling natural debris of seeds, leaves and flies the words The Fall. Here the autumnal debris swings fixed and suspended just ever so slightly above the earth, where the vital circuit of contact enabling renewal and growth has become inhibited; the open flow and ongoing future of natural life has become closed down into a moment of suspended dead time. The closed realm of nature in which our culture and world dwells, on the brink of a terrible disaster, is brought into visibility and coaxed into speaking our language. These are extremely provocative works which have the capacity to solicit a very powerful confrontation with our established ways of being towards and thinking about the very source of our cultural dwelling – the earth and nature. This engagement with nature is staged through a careful consideration of natural rhythms and cycles, an intricate and rigorous handling of familiar organic material, presenting an almost taxonomic suspension of both natural and artificial matter, and an ambitious effort to posit through works of art an appeal for an urgent renegotiation of our relationship to the earth. In her sculptures the rhythmic and fecund chaos of organic nature becomes subject to an almost parodic sense of surgical control, constraint, balance and geometric form, serving to dramatically display man’s increasingly disastrous calculative efforts to dominate and utilise the earth on which they dwell through reason, technology and culture. In the midst of such utilitarian calculation and serial control over the natural environment Morgan forces us to question and to contemplate again our most basic and fundamental orientation towards the very source of our life and being. By freezing the ongoing flow of life (which is depicted here not merely as an inevitable slide towards death but as a movement or descent towards complete disaster) Morgan, through the unique affectivity of art, is forcing us to open our vision and sincerely address the question of our origins in the desperate hope of averting the catastrophe to come.
Art as an origin
‘There is much in being that man cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known.’ (Heidegger, On the Origin of the Work of Art, p. 178)
Morgan’s sculptural material is ordinary, familiar and everyday, but this material is transfigured through the rigour of formal composition into becoming resonant with a mysterious melancholic power that allows it to be unfamiliar to us again. The significance of Morgan’s handling and transfiguration of material is crucial in understanding the capacity of her work to address vital and critical questions of our relation to the earth. These sculptures stage a dramatic and conflictual encounter between culture and nature which speaks powerfully of art’s capacity to function as a vital encounter and culturally originating gesture. In the contemporary world art is an increasingly empty category, a vapid and banal collective social term under which we merely normatively classify certain objects, certain phenomena and certain practices. Under the current dominant social assemblage art is merely synonymous with an art industry, marketing and capital. Art exists as a flat classificatory term, disclosing more about the existing and historical social assemblages of power, ideology and capital than anything of intrinsic and transcendent worth. It is clear that such a collective understanding of art has neither the capacity nor the power to interpret, understand or be affected by encounters with its own objects; it merely reduces them to the superficially familiar by absorbing and consuming them. The question of the essence of art and the artwork remains undisclosed by such a calculative approach, and even less frequently does it become an object of rigorous and sincere reflection and thought. So just where do we encounter the artwork anymore? Where are its affective mysteries and challenges to our established ways of thinking, seeing, feeling and being to be experienced?
What art is must be something inferred and interpreted from the artwork alone, from its material, from its form, and from its perceived aesthetic affectivity. Here is where one must address the question of what the artwork is, what it consists of, and what it does. Art often appears as something familiar and its objects are present as readily available objects. Whilst the material element of the artwork is seemingly irreducible, the aesthetic affectivity of the artwork seems to be something over and above that material element. The ordinary manages to provoke a sense of the extraordinary. However, this process remains somewhat mysterious, and to answer the question of this unique affectivity is to begin to address the essence of the artwork. The artwork appears to manifest something through its materiality which goes beyond it. In a work of art there is something literal (material) and something transcendent (meaning, affectivity). Art has the capacity to present that which always overwhelms familiar ways of comprehending, consuming and being through its specific handling of material. Its ability to refer outside of itself, to utilise material to produce a transcendent and challenging excess of meaning and affectivity render the function of artworks as essentially symbolic.
‘We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings. Beings are familiar, reliable, ordinary….However, at bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extraordinary.’ (Heidegger, ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’, p. 179)
The different materials in Morgan’s sculptures appear to function in an exemplary symbolic fashion. The question is how the work works, how to begin to understand its melancholic resonance, its capacity to arrest and unsettle our sense of the familiar, and posit a necessary renegotiation of the relationship between culture and nature. One way of approaching this problem is to consider the two different types of matter present in the sculptures, and to contemplate the significance of the two different realms associated with these materials. In her sculptures there is material which belongs to the Earth (leaves, seeds, flies, birds and animals), and other materials which belong to culture, which are seemingly manmade and artificial (plastic debris and nylon). Through these different materials Morgan is able to stage a conflicting encounter between two realms, between earth and nature and man and the cultural world. Perhaps it is that conflict between the different realms which allows Morgan’s work to produce its symbolic affect and resonate with all of the challenging power of truly great art.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger, when reflecting upon the question of the essence of the artwork, talks of the productive quality of this conflict when staged in a work of art. For him it is precisely the strife between incommensurable realms which allows the work of art to become a privileged symbolic realm for opening contemplation of the truth and our place in Being. In contemplating the nature of ancient art, Heidegger suggests that it was art which initially allowed the natural things of the earth to ‘enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as what they are.’ Art was the way in which we initially negotiated our understanding of and relationship to the mysteries of nature on the earth. The artwork is an object which opens up a cultural world to us, which manifests cultural meaning in its composition and form thereby rendering ourselves visible to ourselves in the midst of our ordinary and familiar ways of being in the world. But in doing so the artwork inevitably sets forth that which remains outside culture, and it does this through its material aspect. The realm of nature is brought into view through the material which is being used in setting up the composed world of the artwork, be it stone, wood, bone or pigment. The artwork causes the different materials of the earth to come forth into the open region of its world, where it is subject to an approximate understanding, where a relationship to the earth and nature is in the process of being formulated and articulated. However, as Heidegger recognised, the earth is never actually fully exposed or revealed in such instances, it is merely brought into visibility in its essential non-visibility, in its ongoing mystery and concealment. What is significant is precisely how the artwork originally negotiates and sets forth a relationship to the natural realm which is incommensurable to human world of meaning and culture. This nature of this negotiation is vital, instructive and culturally grounding. The earth and nature remain impenetrable, and the most successful and significant artworks are precisely those that seek to preserve that impenetrability, making it present and visible in an artwork as an essentially mysterious and concealed realm.
‘The earth shatters every attempt to penetrate it. It causes every merely calculating importunity upon it to turn into a destruction. This destruction may herald itself under the appearance of mastery and of progress in the form of the technical-scientific objectification of nature, but this mastery nevertheless remains an impotence of will. The earth appears openly cleared as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that which is essentially undisclosable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up.’ (Heidegger, On the Origin of the Work of Art, p. 172)
Morgan’s work contains precisely such an attempt to bring forth and render visible the closed realm of nature. However, in her work this realm is shown as being systematically threatened, and the sculptures present an implicit critique of the contemporary world. Here the human world is presented as having gone catastrophically awry with regard to its relation to the natural world. The artificial plastic and nylon material present in the artwork (which are utilised to construct and elaborate their precisely assembled forms in space) cannot but evoke the sterile and poisoning interventions of man upon the earth, both in a real and metaphorical sense; these are substances which cannot decompose and be transformed within the rhythms of natural time being used to reify and immobilise the flow of nature. These artificial materials are used by Morgan to surgically suspend, surround and capture the natural materials of the earth, to halt their descent. Her sculptures carefully and deliberately measure this natural matter into constrained and petrified cubes, rectangles and oblongs. Our disastrous cultural relationship to nature and the earth in all its fragmentary glory is dramatically emphasised and parodied by this almost machinic and serial formation of organic matter within the sculptures. Flies are arranged in delicate lines of flight, tumbling in a geometrical descent; leaf debris is meticulously assembled into a airborne trap capturing a bird’s pursuit of its prey; the natural debris of autumn is suspended from long pieces of transparent nylon so that it hangs swaying in a perfect solid line across the gallery space. Yet the natural material continues to convey a powerful sense of mystery despite such calculated constraint and formal immobility. Indeed, paradoxically Morgan’s rigorous and surgical treatment of this material serves only to set forth the mysterious weight of nature into the visible and affective realm that much more powerfully.
Beyond the established everyday nature of contemporary existence, where the earth has become stratified and arrogantly exploited by calculative technology, Morgan’s work, like Beuys’ work before her, demonstrates that there is still something else that happens. The possibility of social renewal and a healing of our fractured relationship to nature is offered by this work, despite the horror of seemingly inevitable and impending catastrophe. In the midst of our world her work arrests time (the contemporary time of impending catastrophe and the fall) and allows an open place of questioning, understanding, and contemplation to occur. Only such a space can enable and allow us a necessary passage back to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are, and might yet become. This is art which offers us passage back to the origin of things.