The Molyneux Problem

Maria Hlavajova: “The story has to start somewhere” is how you open the theoretical part of your doctoral thesis. Let’s start with your trip to the South Pole.

Irene Kopelman: On 6 January 2010 I embarked on a mission to the Antarctic. Having departed from Ushuaia, Argentina, I spent twenty six days travelling. I charted the course of the journey through sketching, and came home with an extensive series of landscape drawings. Upon my return I produced a series of large oil paintings based on these drawings.

MH: These drawings and paintings are assembled together in a work titled 50 Metres Distance or More (2010). Tell me a little about the title first: does it have a specific meaning?

IK: The title actually makes reference to a practical logistical constraint, namely that I could only engage with the landscape from a distance of at least 50 metres. That is because my vantage point for the bulk of the journey was either from the vessel on which we were sailing (and even when you’re anchored you can only get so close to the shore), or from land, where you still cannot get much closer to the actual landscape because icebergs or glaciers keep you at bay with their constant moving about and fracturing. It creates a kind of permanent unpredictability in the conditions and thus limits mobility.

MH: While on one hand, I am rather fascinated to hear about an artist’s expedition to the Antarctic territory, at the same time I cannot avoid associating such a gesture with the distant past, evoking the trope of the artist-wanderer-explorer of yesteryear. How to position such a journey—both undertaking it as well as creating an aesthetic document of it—in our day and age?

IK: For me, the expedition was a way to try to answer precisely the question: in art and also generally, does it still make sense to look at landscape today? Making is a way of thinking, and the only way I could address this was by going to the Antarctic to encounter that extreme notion of the landscape, to sit in front of that very landscape, and while drawing it, to try to reflect upon the questions of “why” and “how.” I was trying to understand how one looks at the landscape with all the baggage of history and also the history of art on our shoulders. But then there is another issue, which is very, very obvious: due to environmental pressures it seems inevitable that ultimately the Antarctic will simply disappear. That the landscape is shifting, drifting, melting. And this is a situation that wasn’t present a century or two ago, in the distant past, as you put it. To place this in our contemporary condition, I suppose one aspect of my thinking was that basically one goes there to document a place that will disappear soon enough.

MH: So what answer did you discover to your question about landscape?

IK: That we can’t look at landscape with an innocent eye today. Not only do we have that weight of the long tradition of landscape painting in our field, but one has to add to that an awareness of the history of colonialism and how it drove the greedy discovery of “far-away lands,” as well as, of course, consciousness of ecological problems.

MH: Wouldn’t I be able to achieve the same “sense” of the landscape by, say, spending an evening on Google Earth or settling in to study whatever other 3-D maps or surveying materials the digital era has provided us with? Is there something subversive in the fact of physical presence in a place that only a relatively few human beings have had a chance to reach?

IK: I believe that experience makes a difference. Being there—all that adrenaline, a frozen, trembling hand trying to sketch the scenery, hearing an iceberg sinking and water levels rising, the stories of the sailors and of the researchers living on the scientific bases—generates a completely different frame of mind and understanding. The notion of time changes, it relents. Anything without such experience is just a piece of information, because it has been processed, filtered, mediated, or however you want to put it. The directness of my experience allowed me to then translate it, to transform the information and make it into something else.

MH: I understand this from your point of view. But I wonder, how is that piece of information from Google different to me as a viewer, or to your public, from what you present in your work, because both are equally mediated and “filtered,” so to speak. Have we touched upon something that constitutes a difference between (just) information and a kind of knowledge that art is capable of generating?

IK: That is exactly the point. In art, we work with what I would call a radical difference in depth. It’s not about the generation of raw information; rather art is made up of layers of comprehension, association, and understanding. Speaking of the knowledge that art produces, however, can bring us to a paradox: seeing art exclusively as a method for acquiring knowledge might present us with a very dry and uninteresting idea of art…

MH: But your practice does incline towards research, observation, and classification systems of data…!

IK: That’s true, but the materials I gather in that way are vehicles for my artistic work and not ends in themselves. In fact for years I’ve been collecting archival material that stayed in the background of my work. It includes hundreds and hundreds of images that were compiled during my study in natural science museum collections, libraries, archives, botanical gardens, and also landscapes… I’ll give you an example: especially since I moved to the Netherlands, I’ve turned to studying the extensive natural history collections that can be found here. In some way this has been a continuation of my interest in landscape, because it meant looking at the way Dutch culture has understood, classified, and represented landscape over time. For this exhibition I put this very collection on display for the first time, offering a sort of a mental space in which my practice can be located. I am presenting it in a makeshift publication—just a small edition for viewing—with an index of tons and tons of images that are part of my work process.

MH: By reorganizing the systems in which these data are stored, you seem to put under pressure the conventional way of representing things, and of registering knowledge here in the West. That sounds like a gesture that is intrinsically political—something beyond what I imagined an interest in landscape could lead to.

IK: The West seems to have thought for centuries that the world around it and all knowledge produced by humanity can not only be recorded but also manipulated according to its own views. If you come from a place where 2 plus 2 is not always 4, it becomes hard to believe that you can imprison the world in such equation.

MH: Could you say something about the project _Scale 1:1,25 _(2008)?

IKScale 1:1,25 was a site-specific work I realized in Outline, a gallery in Amsterdam. I decided to work with the texture of the walls of the exhibition space—the surface. By placing paper on the walls and rubbing it with a square graphite bar, I produced an endless number of frottages, which I then photographed and printed on sheets of matte paper, each 30 x 30 cm—four times smaller than the originals. The photos were displayed in the exhibition space on the same walls where the frottages were made.

MH: So again we have a landscape of sorts, and another instance of you juxtaposing various versions of the same structure against one another…

IK: I was clearly on the hunt for images that recalled topographical formations, such as aerial views of mountains, rivers, deserts, lava fields, and ice fields. I imagined I was looking at geography from above and at a distance. I was also searching for a system—finding a “program” was in itself an aim. I wanted to create a system, a programmatic set of actions that would then generate the images. Yet after the show, I had a collection of drawings and photographs with which I could do nothing. The work was so site specific that it had a life only in that place and in that moment. Thinking about the exhibition at BAK, I realized that I had actually created a system that could be applied endlessly in different spaces. Because it’s a system that will always generate new permutations and variations of forms, that’s what I will be experimenting with in the BAK space. It’s about the application of this system again in a new context, and we’ll see what new images result.

MH: Your work naturally tends towards the field of science. I wonder however whether with the recent establishment of a doctorate in the field of visual arts, we have not chosen to follow the system of academic distinction that is to an extent prescribing this type of practice. It does seem to formalize a prerequisite of the notion of research and knowledge production in the field of contemporary art that one collects data and reorganizes it into new systems. Or to put it even more directly, it seems that this system requires a particular genre in art that would qualify for academic recognition, with all the conventions associated with the demands of scientific method, peer review, empirical data collection, and so forth. Would you agree?

IK: To some degree I have observed the same things.

MH: So why have a doctorate as an artist? Isn’t this form of academic qualification posing a threat to the open field of artistic expression? Isn’t the freedom from certain constraints of the academic system—its codification, rigid hierarchies, territorial outlining of specific “fields,” aversion to new ideas, etc.—the very thing that we could argue gives art its freedom to be visionary?

IK: I entered the doctoral study with more interest in the process of doing it than in the degree itself, as it offered me what I couldn’t find elsewhere in the art world: a space to reflect upon process, references, and working methods. A precious space to think.

MH: Would this exhibition be different if it weren’t for the public defense of your doctoral thesis?

IK: Yes. I am more cautious than I might have been otherwise, especially in making sure that I am transparent about my procedures, references, and the language I use. It’s a productive challenge.

MH: I’m curious as to the title you selected for the show, The Molyneux Problem. It doesn’t immediately call to mind transparency…

IK: The title comes from the book The Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, by art historian and theorist Jonathan Crary. Crary describes “the Molyneux problem” based on philosopher John Locke’s formulation: ‘Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which is the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: Quaere, whether by his sight before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?”

I thought it was an interesting invitation to the ideas of observation, representation, visualization, perception, discovery, and re-discovery. For, after you will have felt and heard about art, can you also see it?

A conversation on the occasion of Irene Kopelman’s exhibition, The Molyneux Problem, on view at BAK from 21 August till 29 September 2011. The exhibition is part of Kopelman’s doctoral research and dissertation. For more information regarding the exhibition, see here.