In conversation with Michael Whittle
Toby Kidd and Adele Lazzeri
Michael Whittle is an artist and academic hailing from the north of England who has developed a particular interest in the diagrammatic in art. His recent PhD, which he studied in Kyoto City, was an investigation into what he has coined Romantic Objectivism. The concepts behind this area of research appear to be concerned with the convergence of art and science, and the semiotic and aesthetic lineage of the diagram in art making.
Michael is about to embark on a lecture tour about the the role of diagrams in visual culture where he will be talking at places such as Glasgow School of Art, Newcastle University and the Royal College of Art amongst others.
Fiends: Hello Michael, hope you are very well today. You are about to embark on this lecture tour, where are you based now? Will you be visiting any places that you have a particular fondness for?
Michael: Kyoto has been home for almost ten years now. I first visited as an exchange student from the Royal College of Art and returned a few years later as a research scholar at Kyoto City University of Arts on the Monbusho scholarship program. It’s a generous but competitive award run by the Japanese government that provides language training, living costs and full tuition fees at a Japanese University. Before I studied art I had always thought I’d end up in research science and my first degree was actually in Biomedicine. The plan was to study for a PhD in Biochemistry at Michigan University in the States but I decided to take a year out first and move home with my parents in Northumberland to study fine art at Newcastle College. The idea was to have art as a hobby, although it very quickly became much more than that. The year I spent studying in Newcastle was incredibly stimulating, second only to my time in London at the RCA, so I’m really looking forward to returning to both of those colleges to present what I’ve been working on in Japan for the last decade.
Fiends: The premise of the lectures will be your concept of Romantic Objectivism, could you tell us a little more about this and what brought you to be talking about it?
Michael: Romantic Objectivism was the title of my PhD thesis. It could have just as easily have been called ‘Subjective Objectivism’ to suggest a meeting place between the subjective ideals of art and the objective ideals of science. But I wanted to reference the European romantic period, during which time the great rift developed between the arts and sciences, or what C.P. Snow famously described as ‘The Two Cultures’. The idea is that Romantic Objective artworks are able to bridge the gap.
The simplest way to understand Romantic Objectivism is by considering Japanese haiku poetry which, unlike classical Chinese poetry, has to be written as objectively as possible. It’s a similar idea to ‘show, don’t tell’. When a poet does directly state their emotional feelings then their poem fails as a haiku. To my mind the power of a haiku lies in the 'subjective void' left by the poet for readers to fill themselves. The effect may be fleeting but it’s powerfully subjective and much more than the sum of its objective observations.
I think because of my scientific training I’ve always been interested in visual artists who work along those lines, artists who hide their subjective self expression behind a façade of logical rigor like Sol LeWitt and his instructional, diagrammatic wall drawings, or Marcel Duchamp’s diagrammatic ‘Large Glass’ and his concept of a ‘playful physics’. Contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson, Yves Netzhammer and Nikolaus Gansterer all create Romantically Objective work, and the tool or process they rely on to do so is very often diagrammatic. So the real focus of my research is how diagrams allow artists to create Romantically Objective art.
Fiends: We would love to hear more about your time in Kyoto, and how this influenced your research, if at all.
Michael: The first difficulty I faced in describing my research proposal to my Japanese professors was that there isn’t a direct translation for the word Diagram in Japanese. Our modern understanding of the diagram is a very Western idea that came to prominence during the period in Europe when Encyclopedias were being mass manufactured. There are Japanese characters such as 図 (Zu) which can be combined as 図式 (Zushiki) meaning scheme or pattern, 図表 (Zuhyō) meaning chart or graph and 図面 (Zumen) which suggests more of a drawing or blueprint. But more often that not the loan word ダイヤグラム is used, pronounced ‘diaguramu’. It was helpful to have to explain how the word diagram unites all of these ideas and, despite the initial differences, the Japanese do have a history of creating some incredible diagrams. Traditional maps are readable which ever way you turn the paper, and there are some very sophisticated diagrammatic geometry puzzles at Buddhist temples designed to be meditated upon in the hopes of being enlightened, not to mention Mandala.
Japan is a parallel universe of aesthetic and philosophical ideas and Kyoto is still its cultural capital.
Fiends: Would you describe the diagram as a sort of parallel language, choosing lines as you would choose words? Could we talk of diagrams as a kind of poetry ?
Michael: Diagrams are definitely one of the oldest forms of visual language that humans use. There are several prehistoric examples of cave wall drawings of star constellations and town plans, and even a portable stone age hunting map which is five times older than the first written language. The major difference is that text and written language such as poetry tends to be linear, whereas diagrams are capable of creating non-linear networks of ideas. Perhaps what does connect poetry and diagrams is the ancient Greek word ‘poesis’, which a Greek friend once explained to me. It means the act of making or creating and refers to all areas of artistic creativity. The interesting thing about diagrams is that not only are they used to stabilise and store information, like in a chart, a table or a graph, but they can also be used to create new knowledge by creating new connections and rearranging ideas in to new configurations. Diagrams were fundamental to the scientific revolution and its easy to see why artists and scientists are drawn to them because of their incredible creative properties.
Fiends: Is there something about the ancient Greek culture, perfect proportions and the ideal form that relates to the scientific method and to the aesthetic traditions that are embedded in the west?
Michael: Idealism is alive and well in art and science but has evolved in complexity since Plato’s Theory of Forms. The basic process comes down to either adding simplicity or reducing complexity, which might sound like the same thing but they’re very different ideas. In the first you’re imagining ideal objects like perfect spheres and frictionless surfaces, this is Platonic Idealism. In the second you’re creating a model of the world based only on its essential properties, you strip away or ignore all the unimportant or distracting qualities. This is Aristotelian or ‘minimalist’ idealism, although in art it often gets called reductionism or reductivism. There’s some confusion between the terms but it’s a really interesting area of overlap between the two subjects and diagrams sit nicely in that sweet spot.
Fiends: We would love to know more about your beautiful drawings, for instance, the work in your recent show The Shape of Information exhibited in COHJU Contemporary Art, Kyoto last year, and how this may relate to your diagrammatic thinking.
Michael: As an undergraduate biology student a lot of my time during lectures and in the lab was spent copying, memorising and creating diagrams, but it wasn’t until much later that I came to realise their real importance. Diagrams are actually the most common type of drawing people make, and they’re also the fastest growing and arguably the most varied type of image - especially as we’re living in the information age. That was definitely something I had in mind while I was working on the new series of drawings for the show you mentioned in Kyoto.
The series is based on diagrams from cutting edge research in a diverse range of fields from quantum physics to mathematical knot theory and stem cell research. Kyoto is home to some of the most prestigious Universities in Japan and I was lucky enough to work with a number of scientists who agreed to act as expert advisors in their fields. Until then I had written a lot of theory about how diagrams connect art and science both philosophically and aesthetically, but the fact that scientists actually found these contemporary drawings engaging and that several pieces ended up in the collections of Kyoto University and the Centre for Advanced Studies was incredibly rewarding.
Thanks for your time Michael, we look forward to attending one of these lectures and hearing more!
Find out more about Michael Whittle here: http://www.michael-whittle.com/
Lecture tour dates:
Jan 15th - Glasgow School of Art
Jan 25th - Newcastle College of Art
Jan 29th, 30th - Teesside University
Feb 1st, 2nd - Newcastle University
Feb 8th - The Ruskin School of Art
Feb 9th - Brighton University
Feb 13th - London College of Communication (Pioneer lecture series)
Feb 14th - Central St. Martins
Feb 16th - Royal College of Art