Sarah Davidson


You Can't See the Forest
Text for Sarah Davidson's exhibition "For the Trees" at Dynamo Arts Association, April 2017.
Printed by Moniker Press.
Text by Brynn Mcnab

ΔSuniv = ΔSsys + ΔSsurr ≥ 0

all spontaneous processes produce an increase in the entropy of the universe 1

There is a similar ontological pull between forces of preservation and ruin. The second law of thermodynamics has caused much depression and anxiety in the neuroses of the nihilists since its development in part in 1851 by Lord Kelvin. Although contemporary conceptualization of this law is the necessitation of an increase in entropy in a closed system, the law was originally formulated to refer to a transfer of heat. Kelvin (or William Thomas, as he was colloquially known)  stated that compensation to this irrevocable heat loss would require “a creative act or an act possessing similar power.” 2

Preservation is a word oft associated with environmental activism. However, its implementation is a distinctly “cultural” phenomenon, not a natural one. Namely, it is one of human beings, and their technologies. Preservation brings along with it a whole host of other activities. The verb implies an external process to occur in order to accomplish its goal. You have pickling, salting, fermenting, cataloguing, copying, categorizing, languaging, embalming. In reality, ruin itself is a much needed process in the activity of sustainment of diverse life. The transfer of heat from one system (biological, ecological, and, I would argue, visual, and ontological) is integral and the multiplicities of systems allows for a birth of organization in the transfer of this heat. Origin of Species by Darwin, and Kelvin’s laws of thermodynamics were published in the same decade. They both came on the tail end of the industrial revolution. Both theories were argued as paradoxical, and heretical, by the church. Both conceptually resist the possibility of a creative or intelligent design in the world. However, once you consider the closed system of thermodynamics as being one which encompasses you, the earth, the universe, this transfer of heat and its loss in the process - the movement of such energy - can still create a beautiful and complex diversity of ruin.

The ground … is not a latency but a container already filled, so that the gaze is experienced as being saturated from the very start; that the perspective projection is not felt as a transparency opening onto a world but as a skin, fleshlike, dense, and strangely separable from the objects it fixates… [these two perspectives] finally mirror each other in a complicitous reversibility, this is because they represent two funds of pure potentiality, two locations of the always-ever never-yet-filled: on the one hand, the horizon that vision probes, and on the other, the welling up of the glance. 3

Krauss speaks of a type of collage that Max Ernst worked with, that he called Übermahlung, or overpainting, at around 1920. Using gouache, he would mask found images with new spatial landscapes and abstraction. My principle fascination with these works is the way in which the visual language of the readymade material is used as a way of introducing tension between the rhetoric of the painterly frame, and the incipient organization of mass-produced print imagery. He painted masks around this uncanny valley, distorting perspective and arbitrary objects in his usual surrealist style. In doing so, the absurdity quite poignantly pointed out the bizarre tropes that typify our visual subconscious: the perverse abstracted way that we gaze at naked women; the methods by which we learn about the world through categorization; the prescripted differentiations that channel the sale of goods. The titles of these works read like parables. C’est le chapeau qui fait l’homme (It’s the hat that makes the man), la style c’est la tailleur (The style is the size), la puberté prôche n’a pas encore enlevé la grâce tenue de nos pléiades (The closeness of puberty has not yet let go of the grace that holds our Pleiades), démonstration hydrométrique à tuer par la température (Hydrometric demonstration to kill by temperature), a chambre à coucher de max ernst cela vaut la peine d’y passer une nuit (It is worth spending the night here, in the bedroom of Max Ernst). They also belie a sort of contemporary measure of abstraction that is pressed upon a fertile ground of previously produced material, or a reordering of the multivocal litany of objects through this type of masking, or the secondary layer of informational overlay.

A Farmer being on the point of death, wished to insure from his sons the same attention to his farm as he had himself given it. He called them to his bedside, and said, " My sons, there is a great treasure hidden in one of my vineyards." The sons after his death took their spades and mattocks, and carefully dug over every portion of their land. They found no treasure, but the vines repaid their labour by an extraordinary and super-abundant crop. 4

Our metaphors for the “natural” world have shifted greatly in the last century, as seen by this ancient fable, attributed to Aesop. I’m curious as to how this parable, if taken at turns literally and metaphorically, retains any relevance. Certainly the moral of the story has shifted. The original enjoys a certain marxist morality: the substitution of exchange value for use value is used as incentive, and through this the workers learn that their ownership of the fruits of their own labour is itself surplus value. I would like to posit a few alternative morals as well. That this abstract notion of exchange value is overlaid on top of the landscape to suggest and map a possible value system upon that landscape.  A value must directly or indirectly be placed upon the specific and the phenomenological in order to experience the full value of the landscape. This is done through two similar processes of overlay and masking. To add abstract information to the real, and to disguise the complexity of the real with an abstract plane in order to emphasize simpler parts. This is done through metaphor, through parable, through narrative, as well as, and within, systems of capital. Another possible moral for this fable is a confusion of processes of ruin and preservation. It occurs in the crux of the narrative pun. The kernel of wit in the parable lies in the structurally similar activities of destruction and creation. The digging up and turning over of the garden is initially an activity done with the intent to destroy the ground in the search for the abstracted notion of the earth (the treasure) hidden within. However, it has a strange side effect: the aeration and subsequent reinvigoration through nitrogen of the garden, and from that the flourishing of the crops.

With these interpretations in mind, perhaps our world has so little immediate value to us precisely because it is so useful. The overlays of speculation, exchange and abstraction are constantly masking the terrain on which we stand, speculating on changes in systemic heat loss, and intimating areas for exponential gain with extraction rather than direct experience of labour and use. To save the thing from our sons must we make the matter of it ornamental again? To return to the complexity of widespread representation? To confuse the map with the territory? We have found no solution in the meta-aesthetics of form, and they now bear striking resemblance to the complexes and industry that have built them. Neither has offered us a more fruitful relationship with the earth. Perhaps we can hide in our perception of the wilderness such treasure, and in such a secretive way, that the activity that is undertaken within it, in the pursuit of accruing capital, is cohesively productive in tending to its growth, renewal and persistence. 5

1. Konstantin Malley, Ravneet Singh (UCD), Tianyu Duan (UCD), “Second Law of Thermodynamics.” Libre Texts. Last updated: 5 Nov 2016

2. Sharlin, Harold I., and Tiby Sharlin. Lord Kelvin. Page 112. University Park: Pennsylvania State U Press, 1979.

3. Krauss, Rosalind E. The Optical Unconscious. Page 54. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press 1994.

4. Three Hundred Aesop’s Fables, Tr. Rev. Townsend, Geo. Fyler. Page 66.  Routledge, London,1891.

5. If this strategy sounds too convoluted, perhaps a system other than a capitalist one would offer a solution that is more direct.