Friday 30 December 2011

Making time and form

Henri Focillon's 'Vie des Formes' is an important study of artistic form written in the 1930s - but fascinated as I am by it, I've had a number of unsuccessful attempts to read it deeply and understand it. Now however it is making more sense to me after I have spent a lot of time thinking about Von Foerster's idea of Eigenform and the relationship between the recursions of thought and the experiences of being: particularly the experiences of matter, space and time. What Focillon says accords very much with Von Foerster's ideas.

Focillon's main thesis is the dynamic interplay between form and experience. He says:

"For form is surrounded by a certain aura: although it is our most strict definition of space, it also suggests to us the existence of other forms. It prolongs and diffuses itself throughout our dreams and fancies: we regard it, as it were, as a kind of fissure through which crowds of images aspiring to birth may be introduced into some indefinite realm - a realm which is neither that of physical extent nor that of pure thought."
This is very much the theme of Von Foerster's Eigenform idea, and reminds me of Louis Kauffman's recent talk at the Von Foerster congress in Vienna this year, where he talked about "what is an object that a person might know it, and a person that she might know an object?". Kauffman's talk centred on the binding relationship between Eigenform, materiality and experience, but most interesting of all was his weaving of time into the equation.

For Focillon too, time is important. Although unlike Kauffman, it is not so much the time of experience which interests him directly (although he does see this as part of the process of form), but rather the historical time of creation: the emergence of epochs and styles in history. But Focillon is not on the side of those who see art as purely political or historical...

"We have no right confuse the state of the life of forms with the state of social life. The time that gives support to a work of art does not give definition either to its principle or to its specific form"
 Form, time and experience are entwined...

Focillon treats the fundamental dimensions of art in separate chapters: Form in the realm of space, form in the realm of matter, in the realm of the mind and in the realm of time. Focillon makes a distinction between the moment of a work of art and the 'moment of taste'. With regard to the relation between these two moments, Focillon says that sometimes they coincide, at others their relationship is sluggish and intractable.
"One is tempted to conclude that, in the former case, a work of art suddenly and with great power promiulgates a necessary actuality that had long been seeking with feeble, rudimentary movements to define itself, and that, in the latter case, a work of art eventually overtakes its own actuality and forestalls the moment of taste. But in both cases, a work of art is, at the very instant of its birth, a phenomenon of rupture" (p155)

This is what I have been wondering about as I examined some of the art works in Cologne's city museum the other day from the 1920s. There was a distinct experience of rupture which (I think) coincided with a moment of taste.

But I want to be clearer about this. I think Focillon has a message which is consonant not only with the cybernetics of Eigenforms, but the cybernetics of human viability and the cybernetics of attachment. Maybe next year I will try and put all this together!!!

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