Form inside matter


The AGO currently has an exhibit in its Italian gallery of beams of wood carved away to reveal the heartwood. Literally starting with a building material, the artist is able to reveal the tree inside it – in other words, in something whose form has been neutralized, made identical (one beam is the same as any other), he finds a particular shape.

The work reminds me of Aristotle – who says the wooden bed is not natural insofar as we consider it a made thing, something whose end (telos) is a human activity – however, it is natural if we consider it the kind of thing which in the right environment will rot or even from which could sprout a new tree. But, the work is not the same as placing a bed in mud and waiting for it to rot – the from revealed in the tree has much more endurance, it is not rotting – it looks as if it might last in its current form eternally.

So, the work is about form in matter-for-production, but without being about the generation and corruption of matter. Rather, the beam shows up the form in the wood as something natural yet eternal, which fits with the modern concept of nature as fixed lawlikeness. But, this fit is only analogous – we think nature as fixed process (i.e. gravity is a law which holds the same everywhere), but here we have a shape of a tree frozen in time, revealed, and put into museum conditions which will enable its permanent endurance.

So, the work is about something in between form in the Platonic sense (i.e. geometric forms), and form as a contingent particular (i.e. the shape of this mud field after a rainstorm). Or, perhaps it is traditionally Aristotelian – form is permanent, what matter shows up as, yet non-mathematical.

Another reason the piece is interesting is that it is a hands-off piece according to the directions given by the Artist to the gallery. But, since the piece is so clearly hands-on, security guards constantly need to tell people to not touch it (photography is allowed, however, unlike in the rest of the gallery). The artist is certainly bright enough to know the work is a hands-on work, so the only reasonable conclusion is he is including an ethical-political dimension in the work about law as the order of authority, for the sake of maintaining the perfection of the work – which is being lent to the gallery. In other words, the market value of the work requires it to be maintained in identical condition (which is part of the work). The parents telling their children not to touch the work enacts the authority of the permanent over the flux inherent in human engagement with nature. The security guard I spoke with seemed to understand this – he agreed at least when I made the point that the work is a hands-on piece regardless of what the artist or gallery say – the relation between the work and the audience is determined by the work itself, not by what someone says about the work.

The work is being loaned to the AGO with no fixed end date. I encourage anyone in Toronto to go see it, especially on a free evening when the extra people and extra security should bring even more clearly the dynamics here described into your experience of the piece.

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