What is Abstration in Art?

December 12, 2014 10:37 am. Published by


One story that left an impression on me who was the tale of the mapmakers as told by Jorge Luis Borges in his On Exactitude in Science. A description of the plot is somewhat fruitless, seeing as the story is only one paragraph in length:

… In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that matched it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography. [1946]

Borges’ tale gets to the heart of conundrum which examines of the veracity of abstraction. These dogged mapmakers, in seeking to represent their territory in extraordinary detail, ended up producing a map that was the exact size of the land they were attempting to chart. If the question is ‘What should be included?’ then these cartographers took up an exceptionally unprejudiced position. Their stance was absolute visibility, where reality was multiplied through the replica ‘point for point’.

The purpose of the tale is to recognise the immediate obsolescence of such a representation. The map is so unwieldy that it offers no perspective at all. It is left to rot across the land because it is useless. Perhaps what we learn from Borges is that the universal perspective is a cumbersome, hopelessly comprehensive rendition. Representations, if they have any use, must be selective in the reality they show. Abstraction furnishes them (news reports, maps, artworks) with insight. A representation must maintain its distance from the reality it replicates, for it is a rarefied incarnation.

When it comes to making works of art, a visual artist must decide what to select and show of the world around her. An artist must decide which parts to make visible. The discrimination is, in a sense, an enormous task, for most of the world must be discarded in order to get to a salient image.

Much of modern art is concerned with the process of this selection. What is made visible is the decisive choice of the maker, and is what gives the representation its character. The unspoken manipulation that precedes the display of an image is the artist’s mark. For this reason, it might be said that all representations are symptomatic. They indicate a perspective. But who’s perspective is this, and exactly what is it a perspective on?

Artworks can sometimes get to the heart of difficult questions with apparent ease. In a recent piece by the Spanish artist Dora García, the artist installed a projection piece, Instant Narrative (IN), consisting of written descriptions of the movements of visitors to the exhibition projected on a large wall. The visitors, unaware that they were being watched by a gallery assistant sat in the corner of the gallery typing away at computer – descriptions like ‘Woman in orange T-shirt pauses in middle of floor’ – found themselves as unwitting subjects in a work they had come merely to observe. As the list of descriptions built up on the wall space, so the fleeting nature of the reality they represented became apparent. The woman in the orange T-shirt had come and gone, but the trace of her presence still appeared as a rudimentary and abstract description on this section of the gallery wall.

Instant Narrative (IN), by Dora García

Instant Narrative (IN), by Dora García

The ‘instant narrative’ of Garcia’s work is a perspective without a named author (only the gallery assistant sat quietly in the corner) and without any of the purposeful direction normally expected of a narrative. The anticipation of seeing a version of reality replicated on a gallery, with the usual attributes of purpose and meaning, finds an uncanny result in this work. Here the representation is ongoing and dependent both on the actions of the audience and the discriminations of the gallery assistant. The traditional duality of copy and original, map and territory, representation and reality, is here upset as the conventions of authorship are overturned.

Sherrie Levine

Sherrie Levine

The critical themes of this sort of work can be traced back at least thirty years, probably much longer. Artists such as Sherrie Levine have tackled the question of authorship head on. In her series After Edward Weston, 1979, Levine re-photographed the photographs of Edward Weston, whose early Twentieth Century subjects of the human figure and objects of nature are highly celebrated. Later she undertook a similar project with the photographs of Evans Walker, the well-known photographer of the rural American poor during the Great Depression. One of the points of these works was to show how easily the normal attributions of authorship are disrupted, since Levine’s appropriation of the original images as her own came with no additional explanation. We are accustomed to accept photographic images as faithful reproductions of reality, perhaps more so than any other medium. In this sense, Levine’s ‘theft’ may work to disarm our assumptions of documentary verisimilitude. To add a further layer of confusion to this story of authorship and originality, Michael Mandiberg recently made digital copies of Levine’s photographs, and encouraged their dissemination through the internet, coaxing yet more accusations of artistic pilfering and copyright infringement.

The importance habitually given to authentic authorship reveals the customarily accepted relationship between reality and representation. Authorship seems to stand for authenticity, which is important because our sensibilities are well-attuned to how information can be manipulated and substituted for the real. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard used the term ‘simulacra’ to describe the phenomena of images that purport to represent reality but have no existent model. For an image to be a simulacrum means it has escaped the obligations of similitude, and no longer stands in the chain of resemblance that copies, and copies of copies, fall into. It claims to be an image of reality, but it has discarded (and disguised) its responsibility to refer to anything real. Baudrillard’s concern was that with the intense proliferation of mass media, the substitution of ‘signs of the real for the real itself’ was process gathering pace. Indeed, for Baudrillard, the ruined tatters of the cartographers’ extensive map are all that remain of representations that continue to treat reality as their model.

This sort of territory is wonderfully explored by the art of Cindy Sherman. From the late 70’s Sherman began work on her so-called ‘Film Stills’ series, a range of photographs that presented Sherman herself modelling in the guise of film stars and advertising models, not ever referencing particular individuals, but achieving a generic similitude to images within popular culture. In this masquerade, Sherman often indicates an uneasy aspect by having her characters looking askance or suggesting an unwholesome aspect to their lives. The viewer is given a series of surface connotations such as clothing, makeup, lighting, composition, and point of view, which in turn yield the uncomfortable subtext of cultural standards such as success, femininity, desire, etc. Through their collaboration with images from mainstream media, Sherman’s work digests and regurgitates the methods by which popular culture is active in shaping the common ideas of identity. Her art succeeds in showing how the artificial may harbour signs that have become our real life measures.

'Suite Venitienne' by Sophie Calle

‘Suite Venitienne’ by Sophie Calle

Alternatively, the French artist Sophie Calle has found new and intriguing ways to explore the dialogue between reality and representation. With her undoubtedly romantic sensibility, Calle’s work elaborates on the imaginative aspect of forming an identity, often using the city of Paris as a rich and anonymous backdrop. By relying on coincidence and chance encounters, Calle pursues interactions with strangers and records her own subjective, psychological responses to their meetings. In her Suite Venitienne, 1979, a piece comprising photographs and text, the artist details how she followed a man she met at a party in Paris to all the way to Venice, where she disguised herself and trailed him, recording his movements around the city. This piece was something of an apogee for Calle’s work of the time, which had previously recorded her following strangers around Paris, employing various methods of surveillance to construct identities for them. Later, she somewhat reversed the scheme by requesting her mother to arrange a private detective to follow her and report on her daily movements. The resultant text, The Shadow, 1981, shows photographs of Calle taken by the detective, as well as descriptions by Calle of the experience of being watched once she recognised she was being trailed. In another work, Address Book, 1983, the artist made use of an address book she had found whilst out walking, and by contacting many of the people listed inside, built up a portrait of the book’s owner through their unsuspecting descriptions.

Calle’s maps of other people’s lives are partial, and by the invitation of her own subjectivity into the process, purposefully idiosyncratic. By eliding the traditional duality of copy and original, artists like Calle have succeeded in producing a perspective on reality which is neither the result of a sole author nor the faithful representation of reality, but which express the fluidity of a variety of perspectives. The lesson perhaps is that, in the end, reality is only experienced through a fluidity of perspectives, and that all representations can provide is an insight into this layering – imaginative and fragmentary, and subject to deconstruction by other images, as all representations must be.


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This post was written by Christopher P Jones