It Is Fitting That This Meditation Upon Mud Should Begin with Thoughts on the Clay 'Urban

It Is Fitting That This Meditation Upon Mud Should Begin with Thoughts on the Clay 'Urban

Charles Simonds/Clay/Abandonment

It is fitting that this meditation upon mud should begin with thoughts on the clay 'urban landscapes' of Charles Simonds, whose art practice arises from a concern for the modern psyche. In kind, his art encompasses actions or body art, clay sculptural site installations and photographic media, its common element being Simonds and clay. All the various clay works, whilst often occupying overlooked corners, inhabit our major life conjunctures : the world-scale of child and of adult; subject and overseer power relations;body and architecture spatial relations; body and landscape relations; the dualism of city and country; the vision of past and of future from within our present.

(See figure 1)

Vast time passes in gazing upon these works, whole histories fade, in a manner similar to how we experience Man Ray and Duchamp's 'Dust Breeding' (1920), or some of the Biblical desert landscapes in the work of photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper. Micro-macro scale shifts unsettle us, the viewer: they draw us to wonder and to unconscious life through haptic memory.

The appeal of Simonds' work, its raw enigma is, I think, its questioning of abandonment, the sense of loss within the figure of clay itself, here understood as elevated and elaborated mud. In broadly Hebraic-Christian terms, clay is golem and it is Adamic humanity. In modernity, Simonds' clay works appear an attempt at a healing art, one which addresses historical and psychological wounds indirectly, elementally, materially.

If we were to survey the work in the light of Julia Kristeva's critical advice, "we must translate childhood memories into a foreign language"[i], our understanding produced by something familiar made strange, something close taken afar, an elsewhere approached yet never reached (the secret withheld), then we would realise that Simonds' play here seeks a process capable of producing and holding numinous experience [ii], wherein creative and destructive force is one. Thinking the work in this way forces upon us an estimation of metaphor and archetype, but only alongside the ambivalence of the major deconstructionist tropes, from the mise-en-abyme to trace/veil and the imponderable double, from deferred form to supplementary reconstructions.[iii]

1970 was a decisive year for Simonds. His ritual self-submersion in a New Jersey clay pit that year inaugurated a life-long relation to his chosen material, clay. He filmed the event, and titled the piece 'Birth'. In the photograph below, one of an immediate series of actions entitled 'Landscape-Body-Dwelling' (figure 2), we look upon the young New York artist half-kneeling, half-sitting in a clay bed, on the edge of a pool of surface water. His body is patchily covered in dry and wet clay, as he works his way from his chest to his thighs, placing small brick-shaped 'dwellings' in rows on top of prepared landscape ridges and mounds. He looks down upon the scene, hair and arms matted with dry, whitening mud. He is the landscape, earth dwells on him, as he does in the clay pond, building his imaginary settlement.

Part of the expressionist legacy, some of which was for the release of the ego into a healing elemental otherness, is evident once more in this marvellous, simple nakedness. This is the flight back to the 'child-primitive' world, wrongly named thus, but powerful in its rendering of a ritual which can counteract work-order and neuroses. The artist engrossed in this clay-play is some kind of frame for our own visual experience of the image, as we think about material dwelling, time, water and earth. Temporality in the work's transcience helps us think of growth, fragility, decay and disintegration. The light and dark of the image, under what it speaks culturally - the voice carrying the language - suggests a divided wholeness, best felt in the cast shadow of the artist's left arm.

The grail of wholeness is the secret sense of this piece, in its effect of reconciling a distant past with an immediate action. It makes us question what we know, lifting us somewhere close to uncertainty (of time, of place, of looking). If the mise-en-abyme happens, the photograph's gift of an abyss (from the greater being held within the smaller)[iv], and the reciprocal relations of landscape-body-architecture (each a form of dwelling) are somehow doubled in the situated viewer's experience (in his or her own human ecology), then we are engaged by an art which takes a world problem to the individual. What happens is a birth of consciousness over clay, a matter of water and earth, and the event of our primary unconscious being.

Indeed, thinking upon settlements and urban civilisations in the passage of time, the piece operates as a death-in-life, life-in-death sign-symbol. Simonds appears to have tapped a stream of forms, and then images, which lie behind particular emotions : those emotions true to abandonment, to the presence of the past as a conversation between the living and the dead. Abandonment as vision, ecstatic vision. Abandonment as ruins, past and future.

As dwellings of departed civilisations, or of imaginary 'Little People', which they were fully intended to be, the work comes to us as a ghostly archetype, ancestors inhabiting us, things unanswered, unresolved, unredeemed. As the matrix of a mythopoeic imagination, the work is akin to such miniature worlds as depicted in Swift's Gulliver's Travels or those of Celtic legends and the fantasy of Middle Earth.

Technological miniaturisation, nanotechnology, may have prepared the way in recent times for a revival of appetite for such scale-shift conceits and a de-centring from the human. Technological development, always subject to the competing interests of rival parties, may now be the cultural dwelling which we 'inhabit' collectively as a future. Simonds makes us 'inhabit' the absent-ed other of the past with these 'Landscape-Body-Dwelling' works. So mastered and ordered now are those systems we (fail to) maintain, and those cycles we (fail to) control, all in the grip of this future question, that the material, the quiddity of clay (the spirit of it) seems forgotten, abandoned too.The life-in-death, death-in-life ambivalence of the clay works contrasts with the deadly neutrality of any cyborg future (the so-called post-human), a world abandoning the tactile immediacy of the material unconscious for the plastic flow of hard surfaces and numbers.

Simonds, reflecting upon his practice in the mid-70s, stated that "'Landscape/Body/Dwelling' is a process of transformation of land into body, body into land."He thought in emblematical and metaphorical terms : "like my body being everyone's body and the earth being where everybody lives. The complexities work out from this juncture."[v] In that Artforum interview with Lucy Lippard, Simonds talked of his "personal mythology", a Jungian reference surely implicit in that phrase : his myth that of "being born from the earth." [vi]

Making the pieces, he devised a rationale for interlinking fantasy and 'real' worlds; the works were inhabited by Little People, made for Little People if anyone were to enquire: "Both 'Birth' and 'Landscape/Body/Dwelling' are rituals the Little People would engage in. Their dwellings in the streets are part of that sequence. It's the origin myth - the origin of the world and of man and of the people."[vii]This narrative power, what Paul Ricouer explains as time, history and fiction being one problem, the attractiveness of shared imaginary worlds, seemed to drive Simonds in placing his clay constructions in "gutters, on window ledges, in niches in walls, under loading platforms, in vacant lots"[viii] of Manhattan's Soho, then, later, in the Lower East Side district.

Their success depended upon belief in the Little People : for mythic agency, the work would bridge conscious and unconscious life. "They would become part of your consciousness, always brushing their world against yours,"[ix] Simonds noted of these Little People who began to exist in people's imaginations for longer than their life in the fragile, physical clay works. Myth was a way of conceiving the world, and a process of transformation in the development of consciousness.

Making these miniature clay architectural environments, Simonds noted the high point as "the moment when I finish them, when the clay is still wet and I'm in control of all the textures of the sand and the colours, when earth is sprinkled on the clay and it's soft and velvety, very rich."[x] Critically, their power derived from the action of the unconscious, as cities within cities, as reversals and displacements : "They throw into relief the scale and history of the city. You have the feeling of falling into a small and distant place which, when entered, becomes big and real - a dislocation which gives it a dreamlike quality."[xi] Power, sexuality and hunger, all forces of the libido, instinctual psychic energies, are operating within the artist's rationale in fairly easy, explicit ways : Earth is the fecund feminine, the body-land source, and sensuous awakening.

"When the Little People get destroyed," reflects Simonds, "people start to think. I've often sensed the feeling of loss about the brutalisation of that fragile fantasy which is emblematic of the lives they lead."[xii] At this level, the artist is overtly political, galvanising hope, acknowledging the link between American Indian cultures of the South-West Pueblos (desert cities deserted, adobe dwellings of the river valleys seen in the clay constructions) and the situation of the works within "capitalist New York City" or in an art world reduced to "four white walls and a sociological framework confined to narrow commodities and values."[xiii]

There may be what Sigmund Freud would have referred to as archaic vestiges in this image of an atavistic Simonds making 'Landscape/Body/Dwelling', but I am inclined to see C.G. Jung with his sense of the living past, as the true key to the artist's motivation and declared agency in works. Simonds, according to Stiles and Selz, editors of Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, was the son of New York psychoanalysts, and I am guessing that the careful direction of their son into art practice in the 1960s would have been influenced by an American intellectual climate then favourable to the Swiss psychologist's avoidance of any monotony of interpretation.

Jung's autobiography, translated as Memories, Dreams, Reflections , was widely popular in the early and middle years of the 1960s. It is in this book that he revealed his own dreams , visions and creative practices. The latter are remarkable enough in material ways to be taken as the likeliest direct inspiration for Simonds clay 'baptism' and subsequent construction of his clay pieces. The artist's evolved aesthetic appears distinctly Jungian, not only for being centred in a benign approach to fantasy but also in being drawn to alchemical material energies.

It is to Jung that we are indebted for elaborated ideas on a collective unconscious, and the scheme of a male-female dialectic (anima/animus). Also, his idea of the archetype, a key primordial image, has permeated our culture. It is to Jung also that we ascribe concern for the process of individuation, as well as the better known notions of introvert-extravert attitude types. His now unfashionable belief in a centred self [a textual continuum], a self at the heart of a vastness encompassing conscious and unconscious being, was decidedly pre-modern, the roots of psychology for him being in alchemy as a form of religious philosophy.[xiv]

His was a non-causal, contingent reality greater than the modern rationalist's yet he sought "scientific comprehension."[xv] Dreams were the source of spiritual values, means of a psychic transformation. Many dreams came from worlds beyond personal memories. If modern reality was that of positivist empiricism, then Jung drew us aside, pointing to chaos, doubt, unintelligibility, to strange magical healing powers ('mana'), to confrontation with an unconscious which stood for timelessness, for paths towards wholeness, and for ecstacy.Though difficult to name, these all seemed impossible to deny.

Modernity, he appeared to be instructing us, was robbing us of transcendence. In over-valuing reason, hubristic man was in danger of losing his soul, that universe within. As a psychiatrist, he saw himself as a doctor of the soul. His version of the psyche was that "at least part of the psyche was not subject to the laws of space and time."[xvi] Like the body, the psyche had a prehistory of millions of years : Jung used the figure of an 'ancient self' which "exists outside time and is the son of the maternal unconscious."[xvii]

Dream was part of the truth of myth : "myth is a revelation of a divine life in man. It is not we who invent myth, rather it speaks to us as the Word of God." [xviii] Our place, according to Jung, was to be rid of urban neuroses, to accept inconsistency and uncertainty, to hasten on, solitary keepers of a secret (often something particular to the greater force of the unknown).

Wholeness, he knew, was strictly unreachable, unencompassable in the absolute, yet was alluded to in myth : "the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more of life we integrate."[xix] Of this wholeness, he states : "Being a part, man cannot grasp the whole. He is at its mercy. He must assent to it, or rebel against it, but he is always caught up by it. He is dependent upon it and sustained by it."[xx] This is wholeness as imagination, love, desire and joyful, meaningful being. Ever affirmative, Jung wrote : "Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable - perhaps everything."[xxi]

In Memories, Dreams, Reflections , in a chapter entitled Confrontation with the Unconscious, Jung describes how, during a difficult period of living in a constant state of tension, he had to give himself up to "the impulses of the unconscious" [xxii] in order to find his own way forward, find his own personal myth. What occurred led out from memories of a building game he enjoyed as a ten year old:

"I distinctly recalled how I had built little houses and castles, using bottles to form the sides of gates and vaults. Somewhat later I had used ordinary stones, with mud for mortar. These structures had fascinated me for a long time. To my astonishment, this memory was accompanied by a good deal of emotion. "Aha," I said to myself, "there is still life in these things. The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?" For as a grown man it seemed impossible to me that I should be able to bridge the distance from the present back to my eleventh year. Yet if I wanted to re-establish contact with that period, I had no choice but to return to it and take up once more that child's life with his childish games…Naturally, I thought about the significance of what I was doing, and asking myself, "Now, really, what are you about? You are building a small town, and doing it as if it were a rite!" I had no answer to my question, only the inner certainty that I was on my way to discovering my own myth. For the building game was only a beginning. It released a stream of fantasies which I later carefully wrote down." [xxiii]

Play-building, with stones and mud, then later sculpting and painting, released Jung into free productive life and a sense of becoming who he was. Analysis of his fantasies and dreams from this play helped his advancement in both psychiatric practice and his writing theorizing that practice.

Mud is somewhat more than the earth to hand, in this account, because it figures in Jung's charting of his break with Freud, in that episode of his memoir just prior to his own encounter with the unconscious. For Jung, Freud had replaced meaningful spiritual life with sexual libido as a "concealed god." [xxiv]Sexuality was a numinosum for his teacher, yet it appeared that this was masked, reduced or deliberately obscured in Freud's system as simply an over-determining biological function. Freud's "concretist terminology was too narrow to express this idea."[xxv]That is, it was too narrow to include spirituality or mystical experience, unable to hold the paradox and ambiguity essential to an understanding of the unconscious.

"He gave me the impression that at bottom he was working against his own goal and against himself; and there is, after all, no harsher bitterness than that of a person who is his own worst enemy. In his own words, he felt himself menaced by "a black tide of mud" - he who more than anyone else had tried to let down his buckets into those black depths." [xxvi] The "black tide of mud" in Jung's account of his distancing from Freud soon becomes "the black tide of mud of occultism" [xxvii] in what Jung pictures as an unwitting mythological struggle between light and darkness for Freud, in the latter's reversion to defensive dogma over the rule of psychosexuality. Occultism, Jung's alchemical researches and defence of the multifaceted nature of experience, image and meaning ran counter to his master's teachings. Turning the figure upon Freud, Jung writes of "the mud of the commonplace,"[xxviii] describing an unhealthy pact or complicity between patient and analyst, both dwelling in the dual condition of neurosis/reason. 'Enlightenment' would not cure neuroses, without an awareness of something "different and better" [xxix] according to Jung. Even the theory, Freud's teachings, held the subject captive in this "mud of the commonplace."