IRRATIONAL ENVIRONMENTS: JACKSON POLLOCK & PASCAL DOMBIS
By Maha Alsharif
Pascal Dombis, Géométries Irrationnelles, 2008. Galerie Municipale, Vitry sur seine, FR.
View from video installation. 4 screens, each screen : 13 x 10 ft. Video software: Claude Micheli; Electronic: Sylvain Belot.
Collection of the artist (© Pascal Dombis).
Pascal Dombis, French mathematician/artist, uses computers and algorithms to generate complex visuals by manipulating simple processes through excessive repetition and layering. By computationally reproducing geometric or typographical signs, he reconstructs common structures and develops irrational environments. His work recalls Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist paintings in appearance, however Dombis’s work is kinetic. Dombis, like Pollock, has adopted the idea of providing the spectators with new experiences by presenting them with large-scale projected visuals or flat prints, which represent alien environments. The spectators become part of a virtual experience and hence are not expected to engage with it like they do with reality. Consequently the experience is unique and it enables the viewers to be subjective when interpreting it. Dombis uses ordinary and familiar shapes but he complicates them through repetition and reformation. This essay will contrast Dombis’s dynamic environments to Pollock’s still images within the context of movement, medium, form and method, compare their similarities in terms of using large-scale canvases and abstract shapes and finally discuss the effect they create on the overall experience of the viewer by examining Dombis’s Irrational Geometrics, 2005-2015.
Pollock and Dombis represent different times in Western art: Modernism and Postmodernism respectively. The late artist Pollock (1912 – 1956) was a leading pioneer of American Abstract Expressionism and he continues to be regarded as an iconic Modernist figure. Modernism is characterised by the rejection of traditional concepts and techniques of the creative act and pushing towards innovative ideas and styles, especially in painting as artists referred to Abstraction rather than Representation; Modern Impressionist painters established the distinction between image and subject. Pollock achieved fame and success as Modernism was verging into Postmodernism and till this day he is still recognised not only for his innovative style, but also for inventing a new painting method – action painting – that requires the artist to be an active part of the artwork rather than an outsider. Moreover the interpretation of a Pollock painting is subjective to a knowledgeable spectator, who in this case becomes a participant. Postmodernism emerged as a reaction against the trends of Modernism; the new philosophy rebelled against hierarchies of good and bad art and style. Additionally it embraced the idea of pluralism and art as an experience and in this aspect Pollock was seen as a major influence. Postmodernism welcomed the mixture of styles and media as well as deriving inspiration from all surroundings, including science and simple aspects of everyday life. The introduction of new technology assisted with the change as it enabled artists to experiment with and produce virtual realities in the form of installation art. Dombis represents the Postmodernist movement as he comes from a mathematics and IT engineering background. The complex visuals he produces are the results of over twenty years of experimentation with the digital manipulation of simple algorithm rules.
Dombis’s work falls within the Computer Art realm. However, as computers became ordinary tools, the description of the medium came to be known as Electronic Art or New Media Art. The medium is a source of still-lively concepts that originate from scientific disciplines and draw elements from Modernist Avante Garde practices like the speed of Futurism, the industrial forms of Constructivism, and the space-time geometry of Cubism. New Media Art highlights the union of science and art. New Media artist and curator of Imaging By Numbers (2008) – where Dombis’s work was exhibited - Paul Hertz suggests that New Media Art has become a key in contemporary visual culture even though it is slightly neglected in art history and has a low visibility rate in the contemporary art world, i.e museums, galleries, and private collections. New Media Art pushes artists to experiment with new technology and expand its potential, so that artists are now able to create virtual realities and a new type of surreal environments.
Moreover, New Media Art traces its history to the late 1950s during the early age of computers. The first to experiment with it was a group of artists in Zagreb, Croatia called New Tendencies. They were fascinated with the aesthetic results and saw the medium to be liberating as it allowed easy experimentation and produced unimaginable visuals. For instance they were able to digitally illustrate the visual illusions that psychedelic drugs cause. They described new media tools as tools for escaping rather than stimulating a lived experience. Vladimir Bonacic, a member of New Tendencies in 1968 added that the computer is not simply a means for stimulating what exists in a new form, rather it provides us with a new substance that reveals a new world before our eyes. Furthermore, New Media Art relates to conceptualism in the sense that coding relates to digital artwork comparable to the way concept relates to analogue artwork; meaning that “code not only describes the work, it produces it”, says Hertz (2009). Early New Media artists, including Michael Noll and Collete and Charles Bangert, argued that the machine itself is not the medium, instead it is the software used.
Image 1: Pascal Dombis, Antrsana 11, 2000, recreated 2008, site-specific installation, inkjet print on vin/l, approx. 12 x 17 ft. (365 x 5 18 cm), installation view, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Collection of the artist (© Pascal Dombis).
One of the first to recognise computer graphics as an art form was Herbert Franke in 1971. In his book Computer Graphics: Computer Art, he explained that computer artists explore human cognition and creativity through experimentation and ‘chance operations’. In addition, New Media Art follows essential themes of all art that includes the investigation of form and meaning, the realisation of objects that communicate as art, cultural mediation of the interpretation of art, and the social context of production. More to the point, Dombis uses algorithms to generate images. An algorithm in this case, computing, is a set of steps to attain a desired result; it relies upon important mathematics and logic to perform a task. The description is simple and abstract and can be implemented in a variety of computer languages. In a broad sense, any well-defined procedure that yields consistent outcomes may be considered an algorithm. Basic algorithms are then manipulated by various techniques. Dombis is most known for recursion, or repetition, in which the structure transforms into itself. Dombis employs recursion along with playing with the original scale of the structure, known in mathematical terms as ‘fractal self-similarity’. It is evident in his Antisana 11, 2000 (Image 1); the repetition and overlapping of eclipses is mirrored on the adjacent wall.
In his artist’s statement, Dombis compares his process to the workings of the neurones in the brain. He explains that the human brain is made of numerous neurones, which are made of microtubules. These microtubules in turn operate as "automated cellular agents with an algorithmic mode of functioning" (Dombis, 2005). So his process is creating complex combinations made of microtubules that function on the basis of an algorithmic statement. The artist adds that he does not consciously preconceive a structure in advance; rather he lays down an arbitrary rule and expands it as he puts the outcomes through serial interactions. Then, he states that he merges with his work; the new environment that is generated becomes his working space. In a similar manner, Pollock relied on his ‘natural gestures’ to create his work; he laid down a large canvas on the floor and his gestures guided the dripping and splashing. Action painting is also characterised with the direct immersive link between the artist and his working space.
Even though the two artists come from different times and employ different mediums, their work appears similar visually. Dombis explains in an interview with curator Danielle Delouche that his work is “very much inscribed within the evolution of Abstract painting” (2005) and he adds that he draws inspiration from Pollock as to the way Pollock questioned the equipment at hand and experimented to explore new forms while introducing the notions of immersion and vertigo in painting.
Image 2: Pascal Dombis, Géométries Irrationnelles, 2008. Galerie Municipale, Vitry sur seine, FR.
View from video installation. 4 screens, each screen : 13 x 10 ft. Video software: Claude Micheli; Electronic: Sylvain Belot. Collection of the artist (© Pascal Dombis).
Video available at: http://www.dombis.com/work/Vitry/Vitry_320x240.mov
To elaborate the discussion, one may compare the artworks, beginning with Dombis’s video installation Géométries Irrationnelles (Irrational Geometrics), 2008 (image 2). The installation consists of eight 13 X 10 ft projection screens. Two screens are placed together at a right angle to form corners and each pair is in a separate space. At first glance, one sees numerous layers of coloured and black and white lines, stripes, and curves of different strokes; nonetheless, it is not obvious that the structures all have their roots in algorithms. As one approaches the large screens, there is a straight vertical rope stretched from ceiling to floor on the side and the audience is invited to pull up and down. In response, the projections begin to transform as the shapes change scale and position, new structures appear, disappear, reappear, and merge into each other. The flat surface becomes kinetic, full of energy and motion. The experience initially feels overwhelming as so much is happening in a short amount of time and all as a response to a simple stimulation gesture. The spectator cannot then help but be enveloped within this unusual and irrational space that is waiting to be explored. To understand the overall identity of the piece, the viewer must examine each structure separately.
For this installation, Dombis’s original structure is a line. The repetition and transformation give the line a flexible and free identity, like a piece of string that can be stretched and manipulated to form many shapes starting with a parenthesis, to half a circle, and then through gradual stages to form a circle. Interestingly enough if stretched further the structure returns to its original shape, a line. Dombis’s experimental concept here focuses on the interim phases to outline the principle of the illusion of ‘fake straight lines’ to ‘genuine curves’. The video production of the process enhances the level of harassment and manipulation a line can undergo and the shapes it can produce; this effect indicates the essence of self-production, proliferation, and excess. The optical and geometric effects are not the end point of the artist’s work. His idea here is to take a given as simple as a line and examine how it can stimulate multiversity. In other words, altering an ordinary structure to unleash its real potentialities and complexities.
When asked to explain the title of the work, the artist replied that it is a paradox; geometry is meant to be rational. With the influence of New Media technology nowadays, present everyday life is reflected and one knows it is made of rational and irrational elements. He compares his concept to Lucretius’s atomist philosophy in which atoms fall down in a vertical manner, yet the smallest diverging modification of the fall causes the collision of atoms and hence life. Furthermore, the artist adds that he wishes to “disturb them [the audience]” (Delouche, 2005), to invite them to play a game as they wander around his work because it engages them and confronts them with their own primitive irrationality. Once the viewer sees beyond the irrational surface and questions his own human irrationality, that be external or internal, the interpretation of the work is subjective. Dombis’s work, more or less opens up this issue through a strange environment that the viewer later comes to feel familiar with through immersion and engagement.
Pollock’s art, on a parallel note, embodies space and time. It is viewed and read from all angles; the edges of the canvas seem to be the lines that separates what he provided and reality. The large-scale canvases enhance the experience of an environment rather than ‘viewing’ an artwork, one is sucked into that environment and left to unravel the process of the making, even though in the beginning the strong presence of the work confronts and assaults the audience. Pollock created an illusion of ‘spatial extension’ through the overwhelming lines and splashing that take over the room.
Artists need to be innovative by questioning available media and exploring its potential, like Pollock did and currently Dombis does. Artists derive concepts from neglected ordinary aspects such as the irrationality of reality. Dombis and Pollock confront the audience with such uncanny environments that engage and envelope the spectators that they become participants in the work and rethink reality. Within the context of New Media Art, Dombis proves to be expanding the possibilities of the medium as he displays complexities that originate from a simple process.