The Blank Page: From Chaos to Cosmic Order (and Back Again) in Boetti, Feldmann and Celmins

The presentations on the topic of ‘Origins & Creation’ in my class Classical Mythology/Contemporary Art were delivered on the following art works.

Peter Fischli & David Weiss The Way Things Go, 1987
Hans-Peter Feldmann 100 Years, 1996-2001
Alighiero Boetti Map, 1989
Sheela Gowda And Tell Him of My Pain, 1998-2001
Vija Celmins Untitled (Ocean), 1990-1995
Damian Ortega Cosmic Thing, 2002
Emily Jacir Where We Come From, 2001-3
Simon Starling Wilhelm Noack oHG, 2006
Rachel Harrison Voyage of the Beagle, 2007
Micol Assael Chizhevsky Lessons, 2007

Given this theme and what we had been reading in previous classes, it was no surprise that the creation narratives of Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses were the main points of reference for the students’ presentations, specifically ways in which the art works seemed to mirror key points of difference between how the two ancient poets approached cosmic origins. For Hesiod, the origins of the universe and the gods was a process of a genealogical series of divine sexual unions and births, arising out of a primeval Chaos or Abyss; while, Ovid’s creation imagines Chaos as an already existent confused mass that some god or Nature put into order. In their presentations, the students were particularly keen to map the Ovidian version of these two competing models for the origins of the universe and divine creation onto statements of artistic process. The Ovidian model for creation – the manipulation of an already existent cosmos into order, rather than creation ex nihilo – as a parallel for contemporary artistic practice is perhaps to be expected, given the general resistance to artistic autonomy and originality in Romanticism and Modernism.
For example, the student presenting on Boetti’s Map, related Ovid’s conception of Chaos as confused mass to the following artist statement: I myself did nothing, in the sense that the world is as it is (I didn’t draw it) and the national flags are as they are (I didn’t design them). In short, I did absolutely nothing. This statement is taken from the MoMA website for the ongoing retrospective exhibition Game Plan, in which various series of Boetti’s works (e.g. Arte Povera, Order and Disorder, Self-Portraits etc) are prefaced by a quotation from a statement by the artist. 
Alighiero Boetti Map, 1989
While in discussing Hans-Peter Feldmann’s 100 Years, another student used a description of artistic process to align it with Ovid’s version of creation out of disordered chaos. This time, the statement was taken from the first line of the Wikipedia entry on Feldmann: “Feldmann’s approach to art-making is one of collecting, ordering and re-presenting.”
Hans-Peter Feldmann 100 Years, 1996-2001

In spite of the Ovidian creation being the most appropriate Classical model for the creative processes of both Boetti and Feldmann, we can still find traces of the Hesiodic creative model in discussions of the work and statements of contemporary artists.  

The student presenting on Vija Celmins’ Untitled (Ocean) cited a statement by the artist that reflects on the creative process as one that is not a matter of ‘ ‘re-ordering’ a ‘world that already is as it is’, but instead creating a ‘double reality’. Celmins refers to: [a] consciousness of the surface of the paper and also the surface of the image.” And continues: 
“It’s about a kind of double reality of seeing what’s there in a most ordinary way, a flat piece of paper and then seeing the double reality of an image that implies a different kind of space which is laid on top of the other image, but which really isn’t there.”

Vija Celmins Untitled (ocean) 1990-1995

Celmins’ statement collapses the two ‘surfaces’ (of the paper and the ocean) into two ‘images’ (again, of the paper and the ocean), but there is considerable ambiguity as to what she is referring to when she describes what ‘really isn’t there’. Is it the ‘image’ of the ocean that is ‘not there’ (i.e. it is merely a representation)? Or is it the paper (as surface or image) that is somehow replaced by the creation of an image of the ocean onto it? Either way, unlike Boetti’s Map or Feldmann’s 100 Years, Celmins’ Untitled (ocean) does not simply rely on a creative process of ‘re-ordering’ of a ‘world that already is as it is’, but instead isolates the moment of creation – the coming-into-being – at the heart of the creative and artistic act.

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