Marie Foley: Aesthetic Logic

Triskel Arts Centre, Cork

The ‘Link’ between the Triskel’s main building and Christchurch’s balcony is, as the name suggests, a transitional space, joining stairwell and lift to an entrance to the rich polished wood, bright windows and white plaster interior of the former chapel. It is also the setting for a year-long project by two well-respected figures of the Irish art world: Cork-born and educated artist Marie Foley, and curator Jobst Graeve. Intended to mark the anniversary of both the birth and death of logician George Boole (1815–1864), who taught at UCC, an initial installation was put in place for December 8th 2014, 150 years to the day from Boole’s death. This installation will ‘evolve’ over the course of 2015 until it reaches its final state on the anniversary of the great man’s birth, on November 5th. I visited shortly after Christchurch’s New Year reopening on January 9th.

Marie Foley: Aesthetic Logic (2014 - 2015). Installation shot showing Boole Birth (2014), Triskel Arts Centre, 2015. Museum cabinet with collected objects. Image courtesy of Marie Foley. Photo by Roland Paschhoff.
Marie Foley: Aesthetic Logic (2014 – 2015). Installation shot showing Boole Birth (2014), Triskel Arts Centre, 2015. Museum cabinet with collected objects. Image courtesy of Marie Foley. Photo by Roland Paschhoff.

Not a whole lot is offered to the viewer: there is a tall, tripartite cabinet, with glass fronts, but otherwise like an old-fashioned mahogany wardrobe, displaying a symmetrical arrangement of antique scientific paraphernalia; and a large wall-text, taken from an entry on Wikipedia. The latter came as a bit of a surprise: the kind of work I associate with Foley, generally modest in size and object-based, often using ceramic and natural materials like wood and feathers, draws on a sense of long durations and close association with nature, and is representative of a kind of Irish romantic modernism that drew its strength from a withdrawal, often to the countryside, from the technology and market-driven culture of the (over-)developed world. The new century, and its new human environment of constant personal teleconnection, has left its mark even on this pastoral generation of Irish artists.

Foley’s wall-text refers to 21st rather than 20th century technology though the subject matter, ‘alpha-beta pruning’, was a product of Game Theory and Artificial Intelligence studies in the Cold War period. I’m not going to claim any knowledge of the area, but three things about the reference strike me. First, alpha-beta pruning is a very specific affair, a particular way of getting decision-making algorithms (those used in multiple player game-playing, especially) to be more efficient: that is, instead of investigating (hypothetically) every single ramification of every single legal move (in chess, let’s say), only those with a high likelihood of success are chosen, marginal lines of inquiry being ‘pruned’ away (as I understand it, anyway). But it’s representative of the kind of procedure, between an enclosed human symbolic system (like a game of chess) and a programmable system of circuitry (like a computer), that Boole’s legacy made possible. Second, the somewhat abstract text that Foley has transcribed to the wall is in something called ‘Pseudocode’, a ‘language’ that is neither spoken by any human community, nor can be used to programme computers, but is a hybrid of both, making it easier for us to grasp the working of a computer’s processing. Foley, perhaps significantly, has left out the word pseudocode: could the term be used for the coded procedures of the piece in the Triskel? Certainly, there has been quite a change between the symbolism of forms of her earlier work (she has cited Klee as an influence in the past), and the cryptic game-playing of Aesthetic Logic. Lastly, the associations with chess in a contemporary art context make it difficult not to think of Duchamp. Are we being offered Duchampian game-playing on the edge of dissolution into mere cybernetic process (Alekhine submitting to the great Deep Blue)? Might one draw parallels between this situation and Boolean Logic, a Victorian regimentation of cognitive workings, in advance of their conversion into the material terms of intricate circuits performing innumerable microscopic binary switchings?

Coming to the cabinet, then, we find ourselves both stumped, and set off on new tracks. It has the feel of a secret, and makes the work as a whole (in its January incarnation at least) satisfyingly quiet. The Victorian character of the cabinet itself is carried through in the objects it contains behind its three panels of glass. There is a very blunt symmetry: the display could almost be folded on itself laterally. The centre is dominated by an iron weight hanging from a chain. It passes behind a small five-section wooden box, on four of whose shelves lie metal castors, not inconceivably removed from the bottom of the cabinet. Hanging from the same point as the chain and weight, and ‘embracing’ the shelved box is a wooden callipers, an instrument for measuring. On either side of this central section hang single wooden, extendable supports, more than likely two of the three legs of a tripod. Below the tripod legs are what look like plaster-casts of the fossil of a fish, one on each side. Both fish are of the same type and much the same size, but there are minor differences. They also face towards each other, so that the two maintain the ‘mirror image’ arrangement. What are we to make of this?

The title, linking Boole and art, is ‘Aesthetic Logic’, and an associated text refers to the project as an ‘exploration of what an aesthetic logic might be’. Approaching from the ‘aesthetic’ side, and keeping Duchamp in mind, we are struck by the bareness of the piece. There is nothing like the careful, retinally unstimulating beauty of Duchamp’s composite pieces (or the startling formal ‘fact’ of the readymades); let alone the usual battery of aesthetic elements – colour, form, formal interplay, composition, tactility, etc. There is not even an aesthetics of purity or bare minimalism. Instead, a sense of utilitarian design (if something so much a matter of convention can be called ‘design’), points us to Boole’s Victorian world, and the function of the objects in the cabinet. It is not Broodthaers-like, however, or anything like that other taxonomist Haim Steinbach – the institution of exhibition, or relations of artistic and commodity value and exchange, are not under scrutiny. The choice of objects is a bit puzzling, to be honest. They refer to Boole’s world in terms of instruments of measuring and calibration and, in the fossils, to 19th century developments in science. But what has this to do with logic, where scale and quantity are beside the point, and science is just another analysable discourse? Perhaps there is an intimation of 19th century’s man subjugation of nature by scientific and technological means, but that is a world of inquiry in itself, one that stretches far beyond the 19th century. Aesthetic Logic itself is an ‘evolving’ piece, but is the pun sufficient cause for the inclusion of two fossils?

On the other hand there is an aspect of aesthetics at work here that does, tentatively, link to Boolean logic, and its uses in information theory. The cabinet is a tripartite unit; the callipers is a bipartite unit; the four castors point to the cabinet’s four-sided plan and sit in a box divided in five; a mirror image makes two of one; a tripod has three legs, but only two are here. 1:3, 1:2, 4:1, 4:5, 1:5; 2:1, 2:3, etc. Aesthetics is also a matter of proportional relations, and the cabinet presents these in very basic, almost naive forms, ultimately dominated by full frontal symmetry. It is like an archaic attempt at mathematical proportionality in sculpture, waiting to be developed (undergo a process of evolution?) into full complexity, and at the same time like the diagrams of branching possibilities and decisions of a game of chess or cybernetic logic of a chess-playing algorithm.

It is worthwhile remembering at this point that what I saw was a snapshot of an ongoing event, and that, just as a theatre play can hardly be judged from a single act or scene, the whole work is still to reveal itself. In January at least, I found some elements of Aesthetic Logic pointing towards a fascinating unfolding of a numerical relation between art and information theory, a relation which could be seen as mediated by Boole’s logic. And I was pleased by the mute, secretive quality of the presentation. But I also found myself feeling that I had been given both too little and too much: too little in the way of an aesthetic working, and too much in the way of branching possibilities of meaning – Boole, the logician’s lifespan, logic, code, artificial intelligence, computer programming, chess, Duchamp, measures of quantity, proportion, etc. In the publicity accompanying the exhibition there was even an image of a white, perforated ceramic ball that I looked for in the Link in vain, and that I couldn’t connect with anything other than Foley’s previous oeuvre. Perhaps there is some pruning to come. Let’s see how the middle and end games play out.

Postscript (4 February): I saw the press release today, and visited the Triskel again. The press release contained a great deal of essential contextual information that had not been available through any other public organ or at the exhibition itself (I have been told that this oversight has since been rectified). For one thing, the roles of curator and artist have been made clear, resulting in almost all of the ‘cryptological’ character of the work disappearing – with a pop, as it were. The press release reveals the following. ‘Foley’s wall text’, as I put it, is not Foley’s, it is clearly Graeve’s, part of a framing procedure – ‘an installation of computer code’ – involving a collaboration with ‘various programmers which demonstrates an aesthetic flow of logic independent of any function’. Foley’s cabinets – the cabinet in the Triskel with its changing arrangement of objects, and a second in her studio – are an independent art-piece, in other words (we also learn that the cabinets were formerly part of the Egyptian Collection of the National Museum, an interesting but not essential fact). The ceramic ball on the exhibition hand-out belongs to one of these cabinet arrangements – an image of which is labelled Boole Death in the press release, it is filled with ceramic pieces and has a kind of dialectical relation to the arrangement that I saw, which is labelled Boole Birth in the press release. The objects in the cabinets come from a large collection (‘drawer upon drawer’) that Foley has put together and keeps in her studio. Chess programmes, and more specifically, ‘Deep Blue’ are indeed among the referents of the wall text. In the Triskel, meanwhile, the arrangement in the cabinet has changed, but the wall text is the same. What now do we make of this?

The wall text hasn’t changed, so I’m going to pass over this aspect of the Boole anniversary project as a whole, and concentrate on the cabinet. It is now clear that I had no reason to be surprised at the turn in Foley’s practice – it’s very much an extension of what has gone before, and we are still in the territory of formal symbolism. Evocative objects are found or manufactured and their symbolic potential is released by their particular choice and arrangement in the impressive setting of the old-fashioned museum display cabinet. Each presentation, then, is more or less a large Cornell Box (i.e. like one of the confined arrangements of found objects made by US surrealist Joseph Cornell [1903-1972]) though less autonomous than those little wonders of resonant juxtaposition. Boole Birth bears a clear relation to Boole Death, and part of the durational working of the cabinet is a kind of stop-motion effect – a perceptual jump from the current arrangement to the remembered, that maintains a relation between the two. Most of this symbolism is private (though there are ‘sharable’ moments, like the association of the callipers with birth, or the bone-white ceramic with death) – this chimes with the fact that we are aware that a whole dimension of the piece is not accessible to us as public, that it is kept in the artist’s studio. This is how such formal symbols work, however – we don’t expect Klee’s arrows, palaces and fish to be ‘decoded’ either. The experience is what is often described as ‘poetic’ – aesthetic, with a promise of intimate meaning that is ultimately withheld. The work promises some gentle beauties, but I’m not sure that the semiotic and conceptual pressure applied by their proximity to the wall text, and their immersion in the currents and cross-currents of the occasion of their making, will not overwhelm them.