BY Tom Morton in Features | 06 MAY 03
Featured in
Issue 75

In the beginning

Charles Avery

BY Tom Morton in Features | 06 MAY 03

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) kicks off, famously, with the words 'The world is all that is the case'.

It's an image of a planet made up of facts: the fact that paper burns, sparrows fly and there's a hole in your favourite shoes. But if the world, as Wittgenstein wrote, 'is the totality of facts', where does that leave feelings, or fantasies, or art - the stuff that makes life special? Perhaps we need to reformulate the philosopher's first principles, to go back to the beginning.

In the first of Charles Avery's series of five drawings 'The Creation of the Omniverse' (1998) a waitress walks past two elderly men sipping beer at a table. She holds a tray high above her head, a cocktail tumbler on its silvery surface. Fast forward to the third drawing and one of the men, a little the worse for drink, flings out his left arm, knocking the waitress into the foreground. The tray slips from her hand, and the tumbler - to the tune, perhaps, of Johann Strauss' Blue Danube (1867) - pirouettes across the picture plane, its sloppy contents suspended in mid-air. By the final drawing the tumbler, tray and Technicolor cocktail have formed what looks like a bunch of fresh nebulae, a billion new-born worlds.

In a sense, 'The Creation of the Omniverse' is about the fictions we weave when we're faced with the ineffable. The scene is familiar, and this familiarity makes Avery's cosmos-as-the-product-of-a-spilt-margarita myth seem at least as plausible as the hypotheses of theoretical physicists or theologians, with their Planck densities and trillion-pound turtles paddling through space. But if the work is about philosophical fallacies, it's also about belief, or, more precisely, about how art makes fictions feel like facts. Looking at the old men's baggy jackets, it's impossible not to imagine that they conceal a jumble of arthritic limbs. Strictly speaking, the jacketed men are merely marks made with a pencil, but something compels us to add, in our minds, to the plain 'facts' on the paper. Avery's images are parasitic, powered by the people that host them in their heads. Witnessing 'The Creation of the Omniverse', the 'world', as Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, 'is your idea'.

Avery's series 'The Life and Lineage of Nancy Haselswon' (1999) - published in book form - also explores this compulsion. In the preface he describes the drawings as 'a pictorial account of the Haselswon dynasty, a very dear family who never existed'. What follows is a beautiful album of humorous, oddly moving images. We see Nancy as a boy in red bathing trunks, hoisting a rock above his head, a perfectly judged passage of pencil zigzagging across his tummy. We see Nancy as a young man, his arm slung bashfully around his father's shoulders. We see friends, fishing trips, funerals and, finally, Nancy as a septuagenarian, a weak smile on his weathered lips. Although 'The Life and Lineage of Nancy Haselswon' is a confection, it feels, in a way, wholly real. Perhaps this has something to do with the way in which the artist makes his images. Avery begins by drawing a single figure, allowing its attitude to dictate the attitude of the next figure, then the next. It's a flight from reality into a semi-automated mysticism, an attempt to tap into the
place where the imponderable becomes ponderable.

Like the wobbling waitress, the two panel digital print Che Sara Sara Sara (2002) is also a picture of creation. On the right hand panel, a series of concentric rings fade from rose to pallid pink. They are overlaid with the word 'Sara', repeated until it, too, pales into pastelly nothingness. All of the rings are centred on the same point, somewhere on the left hand panel of the print. This central spot represents a singularity, or a big bang, around which arcs the 'h' of 'Che'. This is the initial cause, and the rings represent its effects, and the effects of those effects. Although these pinkish 'facts' are the product of a cause, they become more and more illegible the further they get from it. The work takes its title from Doris Day's 'Que Sera Sera' (1956),
playing on both the song's blithe 'what-ever will be, will be' fatalism and its 'wait and see' prognostics. The artist's point, I guess, is that as time passes and the world becomes increasingly complex, predestination fades into something a lot like freedom.

Avery's recent show 'The Freedom of the Universe' at S.A.L.E.S., Rome, featured both 'mystic' and 'atomic' works. The 'mystic' works, mostly drawings, show people engaged in the pursuit, or the propagation, of knowledge: men with Abrahamic beards peering at a perfect, floating sphere, a pony-tailed guy explaining geometry, and a lecturer holding forth on a dog that, like Schrödinger's cat, is neither alive nor dead. In the centre of the gallery stood Art Atom (2003), one of Avery's series of the same name. A wooden tetrahedron painted a different colour on each of its facets and mounted on a revolving metal plate, it reminded me, weirdly, of Joseph Wright of Derby's painting The Orrery (1766). Roughly the size of a human head, the 'art atom' is the simplest shape (apart from the sphere) that can exist in three dimensions. (It is important, I think, that while a tetrahedron changes its 'personality' as it rotates, a sphere always looks like, well, a sphere.) This tetrahedron though, is no instrument of enlightenment, no mouthpiece for Pythagorean truths. Rather, its hidden facet points to the imperfection of pure knowledge, the flaws in the law of facts. Untitled (The Seven Billion Sided Dice) (2002) is like the 'art atom' writ large. It seems pretty straightforward at first - a wooden super-triangle made out of nine units painted in (mostly) primary colours and composed of four, smaller triangles. In fact, it has over 7 billion possible ways of being - as Avery puts it, 'one for every human soul on Earth, with plenty to spare'. The units are held together with G-clamps, visible at the back of the piece. Perhaps they represent relationships between 'factual' things, or perhaps they're there to impose order. It's tough, after all, to hold the notion of an atom and the notion of nigh-on infinity in your head at the same time.

The finale of 'The Freedom of the Universe' was a digital print and a pamphlet - a piece of fiction about Avery's beliefs. The print depicted a sea sparkling beneath a blue summer sky. On top of the image the following words appeared: 'When Sailors Spoke of Fish That Flew, You Knew They Were Not Really Fish, or That They Never Truly Flew.' This formula corresponds to the theory of factual propositions that Wittgenstein espouses in the Tractatus, a work that ends with the passage: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.' In the print, however, the horizon beckons beyond the limiting, lyrical words; and the horizon, as we learn from Avery's pamphlet, is an important place: 'The difference between the sea and the sky represented something very significant to me; something that isn't made of anything; the threshold of an altogether other realm, the line where reality ends
and possibility begins, where all the big ideas live.' Gnawing away at absolute truth but still wide-eyed with wonder, Avery is heading towards the vital vanishing point.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.