Love among the Ruins: On the Aesthetics of Fragility of Natural Materials and Methods
Therapeutic Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, University of California, San Francisco
Things around us, be they natural or human creations – the division which is questionable in view of the fact that humans are products of natural evolution and so may be all so-called artificial products in the creation of which they are involved - talk to us not only with their explicable attributes, but implicitly too, by means of their figures and forms pronounced at various scales. For example, a recent study has shown that more than 90 % of what humans grasp in verbal communication as information comes not from worded meanings, but from body language and the intonation of the voice. Likewise, whatever we come across on daily basis strews us with a far greater plethora of implicit information than the explicit one. Therefore, the metaphor of a glacier whose largest part stays submerged under water can be employed in depicting any observable phenomena. For the very same reason, producing a discourse on aesthetics, while sticking onto dry language that borders sheer administrative level of expressional excitement, which undoubtedly includes this very sentence, tells something about the incompleteness of the author’s approach. For, as we see, the conception and composition of the overall structure of a written work speak to the reader, to a large extent implicitly though, as much as the meaning of the words employed does. Hence, it comes as no surprise that architectural and any other palpable, visual forms of human creativity can tell us a plenty about the essence of the approach applied in their making as much as their ostensible meaning and purpose can. And now, after this rather conventional intro, the time has come to break things into pieces.
If you ever see me walking around with a red bandana in my hair, tagging the city or school walls or sanely and sensibly rupturing things apart and yet ask me why I act so, I may swiftly turn around and ask you in turn if you have ever heard of the Theory of Ruin Values. In an old Zen story, when an Emperor showed to the sage how his garden looks impeccably tidy and ordered, the sage took a can full of leaves and tossed them all over the ground, proclaiming: “Now, it looks perfect”. Likewise, nowhere did drawing houses with crayons on asphalt appear more touching and beautiful than on the famous Fischer footage of a boy sitting on the streets of Cologne, right next to the city rubbles and peacefully painting the ground, somewhat similar to the popular image of Archimedes drawing his circles in front of vicious Roman legionaries who were there on a mission to wipe them all. “Albeit ruined, it is beautiful”, the words of an inhabitant of Vukovar, the city that heavily suffered during the recent civil war in Yugoslavia, pronounced in the midst of its fall, then echo in my head, plucking tears from the flowery walls of my soul as they bounce off them. Thus I bring to mind the brilliance of Albert Speer’s Theory of Ruin Values, according to which buildings, or quite possibly any other pieces of human creativity, should be made so as to degrade into aesthetically pleasing ruins, the concept which he applied in the architectural planning for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, having Parthenon and other ancient ruinous monuments as the ideal. The German architect thus favored the use of stone, wood and marble over concrete, plastic and steel, especially because the former could weather, crumble and ruin well, producing over time a moving beauty that contrasts the architectural sterility of structures made of the latter. This theory continued to thrive in the hearts of Berlin punks who lived up to the ideal of Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings would be the literal translation of this German phrase), the movement preoccupied with introducing flowery fragileness into post-World-War-II buildings endowed with a sense of plasticity and sterile perfection.
Once, I remember, I found myself spacing out while standing still on a Belgrade street and watching in wonder a garbage bin overflowing with trash, finding beauty in it after spending too much time on the sterilely clean and lackluster streets of another European capital. Thus I was prompted to dream of the times when everyone would be encouraged to make one’s own street pieces of art on one’s way to home or work, to disrupt the overly ordered and planned urban landscapes on regular bases and startle people out of their daily routines thereby, while increasing their awareness of the wonderful little details that surround them. Subtle entwinements of order and chaos are, after all, engrained in all artistic masterpieces. Accordingly, the Japanese art of Ikebana, that is, of spatially arranging primarily flowers and than all other things around us, emphasizes the necessity of balancing symmetry and asymmetry. If you have ever watched an artist performing this art, you could have seen movements directed to organize and disorganize neatly balanced. Or, when the famous car designer, Giorgio Giugiaro attended a Geneva Motor show in the 1970s and was shown a new model of Triumph, he looked at the car’s profile for a while, walked to the other side of the car and noticed: “Oh no. They’ve done the same thing on this side as well” .
What this chaotic array of thoughts introduced like a blitzkrieg into this discourse, signifying the need to balance chaos and order within every product of our creativity, was about to lead us is a deep gaze at the natural materials, such as stone, wood, or bones, and their so-called artificial counterparts, such as metallic alloys or plastics, for example. Namely, while the former visibly degrade into aesthetically pleasing forms, the latter tend to wear not so gracefully. Implicitly, this tells us that natural materials are all about exhibiting perfection in imperfection. Take bone, for example, a paradigmatic example of perfection amidst imperfection among materials scientists. It is a combination of two components that possess quite depressing mechanical performances per se, when compared to many of their artificial counterparts. The inorganic, ceramic component is surprisingly brittle, while the organic one is too soft; yet, when combined with an extraordinary degree of structural entwinement, hardness and stiffness of the former becomes balanced with toughness of the latter, yielding a tissue that provides a stable skeletal support for the rest of the body. Correspondingly, applying metals as substitutes for the damaged bone turns out to be unfavorable exactly because of their superior mechanical properties. Once implanted in the body, metals tend to absorb most of the mechanical stimuli that the surrounding tissue is subjected to. Just as one’s living in a perfectly sterile environment slowly puts one’s immune system to sleep and makes one less resilient to intruding species, this stress-shielding effect causes the surrounding bone to become weaker and eventually completely resorbed, leading to the collapse of the entire biomechanical structure . Similarly, if a biomaterial with identical elastic properties as natural bone is applied, the surrounding cells would not do any work at all to proliferate and “instill life” within it, and eventually the probability for its rejection by the body would be high. As a matter of fact, every successful implantation of a biomaterial is followed by a certain degree of inflammation. Avoiding the latter would imply a complete inertness of the body to the foreign material, which would signify all but a healthy and sensitive response. This perspective of the importance of the biomaterial to possess a weaker mechanical response than what may seem most desirable may also be complemented by the many times observed necessity of the biomaterial in contact with the cells to possess a rough surface, for only then can be the conditions for an optimal cell attachment achieved. For this reason, titanium implants are subjected to sandblasting and etching procedures prior to their application in vivo . The material is in such a way endowed with a surface roughness, which makes it seemingly less perfect at the first sight, although it leads to a more optimal integration with the organism in the long run. Therefore, a biomaterial has to remain slightly imperfect in order to be perfect, just as the bone that it substitutes is.
Aside from materials, the same can be said for natural methods as well. Namely, a seed of imperfection ought to be sowed in the midst of every artistic expression to ensure its genuineness. The most fruitful approach to artistic creativeness is not the one whereby the artist attempts to project the blueprints of her imagination onto a real medium with perfect precision, but the one whereby she lets Nature have her say as well, so to say, via intuitive channels which her senses keep open. After all, any form of creativity, scientific or artistic, flourishes while resting on the very boundary between the domains dominated by fine threads plaited by crystal-clear reasoning on one side and the unconstrained flights of fancy on another. The former provides limits and boundary conditions along which our mind builds ideas, whereas the latter stands for unlocking the doors of inspiration in the back of our consciousness, from which fragments of our memory will be released onto the front screen of our consciousness and, like dancing ghosts or pieces of a broken puzzle, let miraculously assemble into wonderful and inspiring ideas. In that sense, an analogy between the creative way of conceiving ideas outlined hereby and the chemical processes of self-assembly can be proposed. Unlike the synthetic techniques that almost absolutely rely on human creative preconceptions, on building materials exactly in accordance with the blueprints conceived in human minds, self-assembly methods are based on humans and Nature directing the formation pathways of the fabricated materials in their togetherness . In other words, a dose of spontaneous and unpredictable development of the evolving material into its final structure is allowed to take place. Thence, self-assembling design is a design where both man and Nature are involved, and the same can be concluded for any other aspect of human creativity. This stance brings us close to the previously developed co-creational thesis , according to which products of basic human perceptions, mental reflections and all tangible creative involvements arise at the boundary whereon creative potentials of the subject, defined by her cognitive capacities, prior knowledge, ethical and aesthetical values and biological predispositions, meet creative propensities of the environment, that is, Nature.
In the times when the Beatles were introduced to the Oriental philosophies and came up with the apathetic call to “let it be”, the Rolling Stones replied with a “let it bleed”. While the former motto could be in its best light seen as devotional acceptance of the way of Nature as permeating all details of the reality and guiding their development, “open up and bleed” could be taken as a message symbolizing the creative drive that explodes from the other side of co-creation of our experiences, that is, from the core of human spirit. The prehistoric man has been mostly in contact with things of natural origins, whose change was beyond his control and which he could therefore only pray to and direct the bright rays of hope onto; hence, unassailable beliefs in Nature as a sole guide of the evolution of his experience thrived in his head. In contrast, as Ivan Illich noticed in his anarchistic treatise on deschooling society , the modern urban kids rarely get to touch anything in their surrounding that is not manmade, which explains their growing into beings alienated from the ability to recognize the aesthetic richness of landscapes wherein blooming and degradation are balanced. Indeed, kids and grownups who had a chance to get lost in an endless corn field on an Indian summer day, caressing them and being moved by the clattery hum of corn stalks and ears under the translucent blue sky more than or at least as much as by the flashy neon beams and dire beats of a Top 40 song played in a colorful strobe-lighted discotheque, or find fulfillment for their soulful seeking in hugging trees, sprinkling them with the geysers of love implanted in their hearts and letting the waves of the ocean of love in their eyes move by amiably gazing at them, are an indisputable rarity on the pavements of the modern city. Naturally, the human mind has thus found itself on the opposite, anthropomorphic extreme of the balance between creativeness of human and natural origins. Yet, by abandoning the precious channels of communication with natural objects and living things, by never talking to trees, flowers, bees and stars, people have forgotten what natural things, which all of us are, after all, ought to appear and act like. Grab a piece of tree bark or a flower and you will notice that they all crumble under our touch, as if bleeding with their essence and giving their hearts to us. Likewise, angelic fragileness and gracious softness of our spirits is what makes us live up to the immense natural potentials ingrained in us, as opposed to the stable and stiff, suntanned and perfectly sculptured appearance inspired by the world of “perfect” manmade materials that we are surrounded with that most dwellers of the modern age tend to attain.
What this short discourse has indicated is that a sense of fragility, of flexible weakness that is de facto a mental and emotional strength is to ideally stand at the sensible beginnings of the artistic process as well as at its ends in terms of awakening it among the consumers of the given artistic product. If you are a dancer, a sculptor, a musician, a philosophical lecturer or are into mastering the art of living, this perspective tells you that at one point in your life you may realize that only after you begin to lose precious things in life, your acts will start to shine with winsome beauty. All moves and words of ours are thence magically liberated of jerky and jittery anxiousness and filled with sparkles of starry grace. “People cry, not because they are weak, but because they’ve been strong for too long”, someone has observed, ringing bells in accord with the words of St. Paul: “Strength is made perfect in weakness” (Corinthians II 12:9); for “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (Corinthians I 1:27).
As I write these words, the walls of Pompeii are falling. Yet, ruined as they are, to almost every artistic eye they present an object of greater appeal than any of the sterilely smooth and glazed architectural constructs of the modern city. In the end, although it may be beating among the skyscrapers, malls and other displeasing monsters of the contemporary urban landscape, artistic heart is the one drawing orange sunsets of hope and beauty above ruins of Pompeii of a kind. With these glorious skies posed above crumbly stony pillars that remain gracefully erected, ready to solemnly stand in support of edifices far greater than the translucent air above them, a concoction of an eternal sadness and an elevating joy is stirred in it, yielding crucifying polarities that burst into emanations of stellar creativity.
The essay is a partial adaptation of the author’s works entitled SF Aphorisms and A Star. They are released online at uskokovic.yolasite.com.
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