|An image from Lafia's Anatomy of Pictures. See more >|
The conceit seems at once clear and strange. Images of art from books overlaid with found stuffs from nature — twigs, seaweed, shells, leaves — and then photographed. But what's happening here?
At first glance, there is something funny and disconcerting — and perhaps funny because disconcerting. These works of art that are so elaborate, brimming with history, sentiment, labor, love, and desire. And they're not even works of art — they are pictures of works of art, monumentalized in a book. It's all-too-human. And then there is this detritus, these scraps of nature — a dead fish, a sea shell — lying there stupid. This deadpan fish seems to be mocking our human shenanigans. And yet, at the same time, the stupidity of the fish elevates the toils of human being.
From one angle, then, these images draw a distinction between the human and the natural — and specifically between art and nature. After all, art comes from artifice and what's less natural than that?
But by placing these things in such juxtaposition, we are invited to find commonalities of flow between art and nature. We can see this in the purely formal aspects of the works. Put aside the subject matter, the history, the accumulation of cultural signs and knowledge and we are left with forms, lines of varying intensity. Suddenly, art and nature are not opposed. On the contrary, we are invited to see it all as flows, as shapes, as motions, as gestures.
The curves of a woman's body, the curves of the carved stone, the curves of the found rocks: they are of an ilk, all flowing together in a mysterious cosmic calculus, different modulations of a common source.
As the diverse of art images — they traverse time, space, culture — commingle with the stuffs of oceans and brush, we suddenly see the tectonics of art practice, all those movements and styles marking shifts in the very constitution of the earth. "Works of art," Lafia writes, "have genealogies and material form and like living forms continually change over time. The processes that produce art works, the materials and techniques, its raison d'etre in a culture, as these things change, art works and the activity of art and what we see as the art work also change and adapt." Just as the movements of the earth — its plates, its rocks, its flora, fauna, animals — shift, together, with the cosmic winds, so does art. Looking at Lafia's images, we see thousands of years of non-linear history (pace Manuel Delanda).
This is not to say that nature and art are the same. What Lafia does is orchestrate this distinct flows so that they inflect each other, move in and around and with each other, at times flowing into a common river but more often flowing at different speeds, different tempos and temperatures and intensities.
Look at this image. The natural objects fit with the face of the sculpture. But the two realms do not unite. We see, we sense, we know the different trajectories as there are limits, at once clear and blurred. And in a perhaps surprising reversal, it's the art object that is slow, monumental, tectonic while the natural objects are accelerated, giddy, pleated with whimsy as if drawn with the hand of the street artist.
Here, neither art nor nature comes first. It's not a matter of origin but of flow — flows of ever different stuffs, ever different speeds, ever different trajectories. The difference between a dead fish and a painting is not that one's artificial; it's that each distributes time, space, and matter in different way. As Henri Bergson says, they are not different in kind. They are both images.
From this view, a fish — a shell, a leaf of grass — is a self-construing work of art. It gathers together diverse elements from its environs and transforms them into itself — kelp, water, ripple, bubble, pebble, rock become gills, tail, slime, teeth. Every fish construes itself differently. A species is a school of art, all the fish following the same basic premise and rules, a kind of Dogme 95 as the species, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, plants its placard. This is us! We flow like this!
So what of Lafia's art work? Well, the emergence of these works began with a very old fashioned exercise: he wanted to sketch. Which is to say, these works were born of the mimetic drive of art, to reproduce, to represent, the natural world. But something happened along the way.
"in my desire to do some sketching i had gotten some books from the wellfleet [Cape Cod] library on anatomy, some works from the naturalists, haeckel and others, and some art history books. i wanted to make some drawings to bring these two things together, anatomies across forms including human, plants and animals. drawing takes a lot of time, and is very concentrated and i like that. so in the afternoon light, on the expansive woods and lawn in front of the bay, I put a small silver fish just found on a walk, on a book page with a drawing of an outline of a wolf on a lounge chair in front of me. i took out my hb pencil and looked down at the fish on the page and the outline and spent the next hour with eraser making markings on paper.
"then to record what i was doing, i took out my camera and took a simple picture. and then i could see that the camera draws a picture, sees what i can not see. the camera, and the photograph it takes, makes, is a plastic, has plasticity, has a language, the camera sees through its instrumentation something we do not see with our eyes. what i saw was that the fish was reading the wolf. it was a fish that showed me the wolf, a real fish on the drawing of a perfectly scaled and anatomically correct wolf. the scale of the fish with flies hovering about it was perfectly aligned with the scale of the wolf as it lay on this 9 x 12 page."
From mimesis to instrumentation and its framing, hedging, and stipulating of the cosmic flows: in this process, Lafia moves from the classic desire to represent the world to the modern practice of steering flows. The modern artist is not a master. He does not as much create as he does hedge: Pollock letting paint fall as it might; Duchamps putting a bicycle wheel in a museum; Goldsworthy making the tides his collaborator.
And Lafia, gatherhing these multi-layered genealogies of art and making them move, making them flow, with the elaborately pleated bodies of shells and fish to forge these...what? What are they? Photographs? Paintings? Sculptures?
No, none of these old world terms apply because Lafia is not using a medium to represent the world. His work — like all modern art — re-architects, re-engineers, the relationship between human and inhuman becoming, between nature and artifice. Lafia is not representing the world but putting on the world, putting images to work with images. Lafia, alas, is an imagist, an image maker, an agent of the image. Like our fish-artist, he gathers elements from his environs — books from the Wellfleet library, debris from the beach — and steers them, massages them, folds them into this placard, into this anatomy of pictures.