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The Mycological Travels - Hommage to John Cage (2014)

Over The Myc Trav

The series 'Mycological Travels (for John Cage)' started as a continuation of the 'Botanical Studies' of 2012-2013. In both series, the starting point was the Western 'obsession' with the idea of objective observation and classification of natural phenomena, on the other hand the filters that this approach creates between ourselves and the 'world', and a questioning of the paradigms that have defined our culture since ancient Greece.  


    In the figure of John Cage, American avant-garde composer (1912-1992), a number of lines of ideas and intuitions come together that have been important to me in recent years. His interest in mushrooms is legendary, and for me a reason to take these plants as a starting point for the second botanical series.


    Old botanical prints were a starting point for both the first series 'Botanical Studies' and the series 'Mycological Travels'. These drawings from the 17th and 18th centuries bear witness to the way in which drawing was still at the service of science (before the advent of photography) and was an important tool for understanding the world in a more or less 'objective' way. document. The naturalists of that period were often the first to map species, developing a classification based on common characteristics of the different 'families'. 

In the first 'Botanical Studies' I wanted to make a series of 'dysfunctional' studies, in which the subject recedes more and more and escapes identification as the researcher's gaze tries to get a grip on aspects of form and appearance. The only (il)logic used was that of the drawing itself.


    For the works of 'Mycological Travels' I also used old botanical prints with classification and documentation drawings of mushrooms. 

As mentioned, John Cage was an avid amateur mycologist, who spent a lot of time in woods and forests, looking for mushrooms. It is said that one of the reasons Cage was so interested in mushrooms was the fact that fungi are the most difficult to classify of all plant species. Use one set of criteria, and a given plant will fall under one family. Use a different criterion, and the same plant will immediately belong to a completely different family. This, of course, applies wonderfully to someone like John Cage, who has deconstructed, blown up, and finally abandoned all the structures of classical music. The question of determining mushrooms is of course not without obligation: incorrect identification can be life-threatening. Cage experienced this firsthand when he misidentified a mushroom as edible and narrowly escaped death.


    In his work Cage was looking in a fundamental way for a freedom from constriction by any imposed structure. He resorted to this (among other things) to a far-reaching use of chance in his work. When composing, he let the I Ching, the classical Chinese 'Book of Change', decide on just about every aspect of a composition: structure, length, interval, rhythm, tone,... for each choice he tossed three coins six times according to the guidelines of the 64 hexagrams in the ancient Chinese text, and took the outcome as the decisive guideline for the composition.


    Cage, in his view, was profoundly influenced by his introduction to Buddhism. In the 1950s he attended lectures by DT Suzuki at Columbia University in New York. The vision of Buddhism changed his life and work to the core, and without the central ideas and insights he learned from Suzuki,  Cage's work probably never knew the evolution that led to ao “Music of Changes”, “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano”, 4'33”, “Imaginary Landscapes”, “Composition #4”, ao  


    These ideas and concepts had a decisive influence on many avant-garde visual artists of the time. Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Nam June Paik, Alan Kaprow, George Macunias,...all were friends with Cage, and were influenced by the insights Cage had gained from his encounter with Zen Buddhism. In this way Eastern philosophy played an important role in the avant-garde of the second half of the 20th century, a fact that is still relatively unknown. Without the transfer via Cage of Eastern insights to the artistic community of New York, the development of contemporary art (performance, Fluxus, video art, minimal art, pop art, etc.) might have looked very different.

This was another reason for me to work around the figure of Cage. In recent years I have been working in my work on ideas related to the surprising similarities between the propositions of Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions, and the findings of contemporary, 'Western' quantum physics. The study of reality at the quantum level leads to a need for a new world view, and the insights of Siddharta Gautama and Lao Tze seem to match this perfectly.


    My starting point was the idea of making a kind of quantum-uncertain classification drawings, in which the logic of the drawing process itself, and chance, would be the determining factors. Decisions about final form, number of forms per drawing, place and way of rendering, arose in a very fast process that grew from the '(un)logic' of the drawing itself. Coincidence played a decisive role in a number of works.

Gradually series arose within the series. The 'blue' series came about when I wanted to further explore the use of chance. By rubbing drawing paper over the dirty floor of my studio, patterns and resonances arose. Despite the complete absence of conscious control, rhythms appeared that interested me very much, and I could immediately connect with other images. 

Another 'series within the series' is the series of black 'geometric' drawings, for which I started from images of display cabinets. The whole fact of 'objective perception', the separation between subject and object, and our construction of reality according to fixed schedules, I find back in the idea of the museum display case, in which botanical specimens can be classified and displayed. For me there is a parallel between the structures that John Cage wanted to free himself from and the constriction of the paradigms that define our Western worldview. During the making of these drawings I was in a sense preoccupied with the idea of 'quantum-indefinite' spaces, defined according to continuously shifting parameters, occurring simultaneously in different directions and locations, again with the only (un)logic being the logic of the drawing process itself.  


    It was very important to me that the works should not illustrate John Cage's ideas, or my ideas about John Cage's ideas. Rather, I wanted to explore some processes that also played a role in Cage's work and evolution, and develop analogies that could be relevant to my work. I wanted to free myself from any preconceived norms regarding composition or use of materials, and leave behind any preconceived goal in order to achieve a greater degree of freedom. 

Filip Van Kerckhoven, January 2015

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