Ship Shapes
One of a Thousand Ways to Defeat Entropy, Courtauld Institute of Art & AVC Charity Foundation, London, 2011
to souls it is death to become water, to water death to become earth, but from earth water is born, and from water soul. – Heraclitus1

This exhibition is a metaphorical current flowing from one related image to another. The tide is such – death to entropy, entropy to water, islands to cities, cities to ships, ships to men, men to death. Its mimetic drift traces the dynamic process central to the concept of entropy itself, a transition unto static oblivion. Since this physical law cannot be escaped it must be surfed.

In numerous ancient philosophies the sea stands for the primordial interconnectedness of all things, a fundamental unity incorporating the dissolution of individual subjectivity and other ostensibly discrete systems.2 Though antique, this image complements a modern scientific principle. Entropy – the Second Law of Thermodynamics – entails the eventual non-differentiation of the physical universe precipitated by unavoidably increasing disorder in mechanical processes. The entropic end-state is nothing less than ‘all-encompassing sameness’, an equilibrium which recent art-theoretical discourse has associated with representations of melting and liquidification – an ocean of homogeneity.3

The discovery that loss of usable energy and disorder in the universe cannot be avoided – i.e. that entropy unavoidably increases – has been conveyed in apocalyptic terms. Terminal decline and the eventual ‘heat death’ of the world are exemplary characterizations of our fate given the entropic principle.4 If these things are unavoidable then why bother with anything at all? Such is the romantic-morose response to the Second Law, to which clearest rejoinder has been supplied by the founder of information theory, Norbert Wiener. For him the question as to whether to construe ever-increasing entropy pessimistically or not “depends on the importance we give to the universe at large, on the one hand, and to the islands of locally decreasing entropy which we find in it on the other”.6 Continuing – “we ourselves constitute such an island of decreasing entropy and […] we live among other such islands”. To this statement we may add the following: we live upon such islands and may discern the image of our fate and virtues in their character.

Venice is such a reflection. Against the odds, it emerged from water. The seventeenth century English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton described la Serenissima as ‘microcosmos rather than a city’. It is certainly an exception to the rule of ocean and, therefore, a world set against a wider/liquid universe. It is also an archipelago in more than one sense: in geographical terms the sea surrounds its metropolitan isles but they are otherwise encircled by a countervailing aesthetic principle; stone and brick architecture bounded by liquid flux, straight lines contradicted by fluid – the aqua alta greedily licking at San Marco’s colonnade. In this respect the floating polis can be characterized as a triumph against entropy; the natural law evaded. This is one reason why it is often referred to as a city of miracles. Beyond divine intervention in human affairs, the establishment of an urban island in the middle of a lagoon was, at the very least, highly improbable. Thusly, the unlikely birth – and maintenance – of Venice informs this exhibition.

Yet, as intimated by regular floods and many sinking palazzos, the physical city is only a momentary confection in time; it may be the fruit of conquest but it is also a future Atlantis – the historical presentiment of which has already been supplied by the loss of some of its islands to the surrounding waters.6 Often likened to a ship, the Venice which remains bobs atop the inexorable entropic flow like the metaphysical principle of individuation described by Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘Just as the boatman sits in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in the stormy sea that is boundless in every direction, rising and falling with the howling, mountainous waves, so […] the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis’.7 The ‘Venice in peril’ campaign, aimed at foreclosing the possibility of the city’s sinking, may be interpreted as a sublimated expression of the desire to save the image of mankind itself from cosmic oblivion – an attempt to stop our boat overturning.8

Venice constitutes a victory snatched from the jaws of loss but it is, nevertheless, only a battle won in a losing war against entropy. Despite much care for the physical city manmade catabolic processes gather pace. At Santa Maria Glorioso del Friari, in front of the gold-bathed cherubim of Titian’s l’Annunciata, lie marble tombstones. Once inscribed with such clear martial iconography they have been smoothed to abstract mounds by the pious feet of pilgrims and tourists. Who was he? I cannot tell. It requires some effort – some energy – to establish that the man underneath the slab was a specific general or a merchant prince. Defeat, under feet, of memory: today the whole city is a memento mori.

This is a melancholy fact paralleled on the historical plane by the fate of the Arsenale in which our exhibition is housed. Formerly an engine of triumph – a factory for the production of naval ships that would dominate trade routes in the region – today its buildings are predominantly empty, no longer vessels for the city’s economic energy. Devoid of galleys, the windows of their yards offer a view of San Michele, the island graveyard established by Napoleon – the first foreign conqueror of Venice whose rapid subjugation of Europe in the eighteenth century was nothing less than an imperial tidal wave. The vista reminds us that the historical ship of state – the Venetian empire – is already sunk. In this and other respects our exhibition takes place after conquest, with an eye trained on the posthumous present.

But something stirs. In view of the necropolis and within the Arsenale a ‘small army’ has recently been at work constructing a fleet of vessels that synthesize ‘art, culture and technology’. The title of the exhibition suggests that their task is nothing less than defeating the undefeatable second law. This grandiose agenda is slightly modified in a polemic by the curator and artist Alexander Ponomarev; the artists’ ‘less probable structures’ are launched in order to allow us, if only ‘for a second’, to ‘doubt the inevitable domination of Entropy’. The exhibition’s intellectual coordinates are thus set out: the resistance of fact by fantasy, a seeming paradox that will, unquestionably, be resolved in time.

*

Hercules was the tribal hero of the first people to settle the lagoon – the Veneti – and he became a legendary protector of their new home. He was an apt champion given the colossal task facing these pioneers – to lay foundations and maintain lives on shifting sands. Not least because, as Peter Ackroyd has noted, it is he who ‘acquires by labour what others claim by right’.9 Beyond this, Hercules embodies the power to defeat divine / natural law. Our exhibition labours under this aspect of his sign. Artists are, Ponomarev asserts, ‘warriors with cosmic noise’, it is they who give ‘birth to life energy that is capable of creating less probable structures to counterbalance more probable ones’.

Preternatural energy and monumental gestures are characteristic features of Ponomarev’s practice. The man can – in a figure of speech not so far from the truth – move mountains, as demonstrated by Maya: A Lost Island in which the artist, collaborating with the 5th Fleet of the Russian Navy, made a land mass in the Barents Sea disappear. Prior to this, in 1996, he gained access to a secret naval base and painted an operational submarine in ‘anti-camouflage designs’.10 When the vessel was properly decorated it left the harbour and sewed his signature into the ocean. Further colossal works would include a fleet of handmade submarines, one of which surfaced on the Grand Canal during the 53rd Biennale; the erection of a forty foot periscope beneath the dome of the Salpêtrière cathedral in Paris; and the construction of his own aeroplane, Feedbacks (2009). Such pieces are united through their embrace of significant technical challenges – rooted in Ponomarev’s training as a nautical engineer – and what the artist calls his “strategy of adventure” – forged during a previous career as a Soviet torpedo officer and, later, as a merchant seaman.11

Ponomarev’s oversize agenda remains on display in Formula (2011), the work that he has produced for One of a Thousand Ways to Defeat Entropy. It consists of two eight metre tall acrylic columns, each clear and hollow with a diameter of one and half metres, containing twelve metric tons of lagoon water. The immense pressure generated by this liquid has posed an unprecedented challenge for the manufacturing team, being the largest quantity ever to be held in vessels of this shape and material. Thus, prior to intellectual content the work breaks new ground through its contention with a sheer physical magnitude. For this reason the symbolic weight of its fluid element looms even larger as it surrounds a pair of quasi-automobiles which rise and fall in their vertical caskets, as discussions of entropy commonly invoke an ‘all-encompassing’ measure.12 The titanic scale of Formula is matched by the other works in the thousand square metre exhibition space. At over three metres tall and sixteen metres long Duchamp Funeral 3 is the largest painting that Adrian Ghenie he has ever produced. Furthermore, Ryoichi Kurokawa’s Octfalls (2011) and Hans Op de Beeck’s immersive Location 7 (2011) also occupy great spatial volumes. In this respect the extravagant rhetoric of Ponomarev’s curatorial text/manifesto plays out on the material level. Nevertheless, the exhibition’s concern with extension does not constitute an unreflective performance of virility and obsessive control. In fact, all these constructions are deployed as specters of limitation and demise; effectively, as ghost ships.

The clearest manifestation of this propositional linkage between energy and death is apparent in Duchamp Funeral 3, which depicts the eponymous artist’s cadaver laid out in a decorous coffin recalling the cult scenography of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. The resemblance is both intentional – following Ghenie’s previous portrayal of the latter’s corpse – and suggestive. Vladimir Ilyich rarely slept. Isaak Brodsky’s Lenin at Smolny would have us believe that he was even too busy to remove the white dustcovers from furniture in his dacha before getting down to the business of dispatching communiqués that would give sense to anarchy – new order to the radically chaotic socium. So preternaturally busy, so engaged with the building of a new world was he that mortality would have to wait – from 1924 his mummified person lay in state for all to see, apparently motionless but still ‘acting’ on the Soviet Union; even today, working on contemporary Russian public life. Through his painterly act of refiguration Ghenie recognizes that Duchamp is likewise undead, just one of many revenants which – like the spectre of entropy – shape our lifeworld. Unquestionably, death moves us.

Other works in this exhibition explore the mortal pathos of the Herculean agenda through architectural metaphors. In his memoirs Giacomo Casanova noted the rarity of gardens in Venice.13 However, the masonry of the city’s many palazzos imitates flora, comprising sculpted foliage, flowers and bark. Ruskin outlined the breadth of such details in his Stones of Venice.14 Bearing this in mind, the city must be viewed as a stone garden. Every garden is an exercise in reducing the complex distribution of naturally occurring life to an island of relative orderliness and simplicity. One of a Thousand Ways to Defeat Entropy proceeds according to this observation, addressing manmade environments in general.

The mere relativity of a garden’s orderly composition with respect to the entropic principle can be a fact either more or less repressed through symbolic and spatial design. The degree to which natural complexity and disorder is acknowledged effects a corresponding register of cosmic pathos. In unreflective arrangements bad faith is most apparent. Such is the thrust of Hans Op de Beeck’s Location 7. This ‘total installation’ stages an archetypical suburban garden in monotone as an object for contemplation. The viewer enters the work by a staircase which leads to a living room filled with the banal accoutrements of domestic life – cups, a bin, etc. – all rendered in grey concrete. In the middle of this space a chesterfield sofa is positioned in front of a window. From this vantage point the viewer surveys a dull garden vista – a grey series of tables and chairs, a grey barbecue, grey rubbish bags and the detritus from some kind of party, next to a sliver of grey grass surrounding a grey pond. It is as if some Vesuvius has frozen anywhere Western Europe in ash.

Op de Beeck’s concrete ‘evocation’ of a garden can only be seen from a single position, the window through which it is viewed functioning as a picture frame. In so doing the installation stages unified perspective – invented during the renaissance and, consequently, allied to rationalism – whose implication is control. The lack of colour in Location 7 seems to indict this scopic regime, echoing Goethe’s complaint against the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn: ‘Mendelssohn treats beauty as entomologists treat butterflies. He catches the poor animal, he pins it down, and as its exquisite colours drop off, there it lies, a lifeless corpse under the pin. This is aesthetics!’.15 Along such lines, Location 7’s rectilinear plan, symmetry and formal balance, as well as its subordination of plants and water to shapes corresponding to architecture critiques a traditional occidental approach to garden design – privileging stasis. The artist has said that this garden is supposed to be ‘typical’ in so far as it is ‘very structured and closed-in’. Representing a highly ‘tamed’ piece of the natural environment it is, he asserts, nothing more than a failed suppression of entropy and, therefore, a ridiculous index of human vanity. Such an aesthetic denial may be characterized as the post-romantic pseudo-sublime. Sitting on a grey sofa overlooking a prosaic vista the ‘presumable character’ constitutes a bathetic descendent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.

Location 7 also recalls Robert Smithson’s comments on lugubrious ‘urban sprawl and the infinite number of housing developments of the postwar boom’ whose defining features are vapidity and dullness, whose elements – such as pathetic gardens – announce a ‘future of humdrum practicality’. The work encapsulates this urban desert of ‘null structures and surfaces’ but whereas Smithson upheld sterile qualities as a symptom of the entropic end-state – stillness brought on by total loss of useable energy – Op de Beeck deploys them as a catalyst for meditation upon the dynamic aspect of the entropic process.17 At the centre of his petrified garden, in the middle of an oversized pond, a fountain bubbles and rushes. Likewise, Ponomarev’s Formula sets water against what Marc Augé has termed typical ‘non-places’ of ‘supermodernity’: highways encircling suburbs containing many a Location 7 – perhaps the quintessential expression of Smithson’s putative ‘architecture of entropy’.18 In the former work liquid is substituted for the inert concrete of the road, verticality for flatness – echoing Joseph Brodsky’s remark that water unsettles the principle of horizontality.19 Both operations constitute a reflection upon Venice, with its waterways, as a fateful mirror.

The metaphorical current continues in Ryoichi Kurokawa’s piece, which is closely related to Norbert Wiener’s image of unstoppable entropy – Niagara Falls.20 Rather than staging (super)modern scenography as an absurd denial of flowing disorder Kurokawa posits a synthesis between nature and digital structures, describing Octfalls as the technological successor to the Japanese garden.21 In production, complex sonic and visual algorithms generated by running water are ‘traced’ by his own custom computer program before being edited and arranged for broadcast on numerous monitors and speakers. In this way entropic flux serves as a co-author. At the level of spectatorship, Kurokawa also engineers a counterpoint to the monological vision parodied in Location 7. The elements of his self-described ‘garden’ surround the viewer, its LCD screens distributed in front, behind and alongside him/her at various heights. In these alternate locations representations of waterfalls and other natural scenes flicker on and off with corresponding soundtracks and numerous degrees of digital and sonic distortion approaching white noise, so that at any particular moment a complete view of the (un)natural landscape is impossible.22 The spectator is framed by this multiperspectival environment and not separated from it – a floating eye in a whirling excess of possible impressions. Though the sense effect is disorienting its conceptual payload is, in fact, reorientation – a drawing attention to oneself as a hollow vessel in a shifting manifold, a site of only partial control and comprehension.

Kurokawa’s attempt at synthetic contention with flux calls to mind Ghenie’s comments on his painterly process and, specifically, the dynamic nature of his liquid medium. Paint is, he states, ‘basically uncontrollable’, having its own entropic ‘autonomy’; through its drips and splashes disorder is ‘communicating with you’. In his view the most appropriate response to this phenomenon is dialogue – an altered course or, one may suggest, the good sense not to swim against its current. Notwithstanding this practical attitude, Ghenie pursues a figurative destination. Perhaps, therefore, the most appropriate nautical metaphor for his practice is not swimming but the movement of a sailing boat travelling against the wind.23 In light of this image one must note that Venetian artists were among the first to paint on canvas, and that their uptake of this material was conditioned by a surplus supply of ship sails. Continuing with this mimetic tack, let us recognize the continuum between the sail and the shroud, which returns us to both the white drapes of Lenin at Smolny and the painted fabric swathe adorning Duchamp’s coffin. All warriors with cosmic noise, such as those who would go to war with painting in the name of all-controlling intellect, must be killed in action.

*

Art writers have made quixotic and misrepresentative use of entropy since Rudolf Arnheim’s seminal text Entropy and Art (1971).24 Not least, because they have lacked adequate scientific training. For this reason they have been advised by scientists them to move on to another topic. But this is not so easily done. Entropy is a physical law and, as such, an inescapable condition. Furthermore, its definition in the field of information theory indicates that our abuse of the term may be predestined, as redundant data and ‘noise’ necessarily increases as a discourse continues.25 Or, as it has been put elsewhere, ‘all information, and that includes anything that is visible, has its entropic side.26 Wiener has also taken up this thread.27 Accordingly, the entropic process occurs at the level of culture, where the scientific utility of a given concept – including entropy itself – is transposed into relatively ‘useless’ or false images. Our slippery way with metaphor – including our mixing of metaphors – pays the ultimate tribute to this liquid meaning, and any further apology that we may owe can only take the form of Joseph Brodsky’s preamble to his autobiographical ruminations on Venice:

Having risked the charge of depravity, I won’t wince at that of superficiality either. Surfaces – which is what the eye registers first – are often more telling than their contents […] If I get sidetracked, it is because being sidetracked is literally a matter of course here and echoes water. What lies ahead, in other words, may amount not to a story but a flow of muddy water “at the wrong time of year.” At times it looks blue, at times gray or brown; invariably it is cold and [undrinkable]. The reason I am engaged in straining is that it contains reflections, among them my own.28

The author of these words is interred in San Michele, across the lagoon from the Arsenale, and the waters that touch him meet the walls of our exhibition site. For this reason, let us comprehend his manner of (self)reflection more deeply – if that is the right word. To do so, another voice from beyond the grave proves useful: Heraclitus. Long before the stillness of the ‘ultimate future’ entropy is experienced as a dynamic quality. The Second Law guarantees a unidirectional movement from a higher degree of usable energy to less, from simple arrangements of information to complexity, improbable to probable, order to disorder. In this respect it stipulates change in physical circumstances, like a river flowing away from us into the future.29 Bearing this in mind, a particular interpretation of the philosopher’s doctrine of flux allows us to conceptualize its quasi-paradoxical ‘defeat’. He famously stated ‘On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow’.30 The most profound implication of this claim is that we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters.31 As one commentator has it, ‘Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected’ – some things are by virtue of their varying constituent matter. Put otherwise, high-level material realities supervene on lower-level material flux. By this token, entropy is defeated by every supervening entity. However, perhaps an even higher form of victory is secured through their reflection upon the substrate: at the height of our powers, in the concrete geography of the non-place, near mummified ideologies, on TV screens, there is always flow.

One of a Thousand Ways To Defeat Entropy

Notes
1. (DK22B36). See Hermann Diels & Walther Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker.
2. The old Mongolian word ‘dalai’ translates as ‘ocean’ but carries an extra sense: oneness or totality. See R. N. Rahul Sheel, ‘The Institution of the Dalai Lama’, The Tibet Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 3. Autumn 1989, pp. 31-32.
3. ‘all-compassing sameness’ is Robert Smithson’s term. See Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, X, 19XX, p.11 .Yve-Alain Bois has asserted that melting ‘is an entropic process par excellence’ – for ‘liquid is what is always everywhere the same’. Accordingly, he reads Ed Rusha’s Liquid Words as demonstrating how melting ‘means falling into in-difference’. Bois has also upheld Michel Leris’ analysis of Miró’s so-called Portraits of 1929. They are said to approach entropy through “liquification”, the “implacable evaporation of structures” and a “flaccid leaking away of substance that makes everything – us, our ideas, and the ambience in which we live – like jellyfish or octopi”Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind Krauss, ‘A User’s Guide to Entropy’, October, Vol. 78, Autumn 1996, p.53,54.
4. The principle of entropy was discovered in 1850 by Rudolph Clausius, who spoke of ‘heat death’. See Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy: A New World View, Bantam, New York, 1981, p.33.
5. Norbert Wiener, The Use Use of Human Beings, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1950. Cited in Peter Lloyd Jones, ‘Some Thoughts on Rudolf Arheim’s Book “Entropy and Art”’, Leonardo, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1973, p.34.
6. Lost Venetian islands include Constanziaca, Terra dei Soleri and Terra dei Mani. Peter Ackroyd, Venice: Pure City, Vintage, London, 2010, p.189.
7. E.J.F. Payne (ed.), Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. I, Dover Publications, New York, 1969, pp.352-353.
8. Venice In Peril organization and campaign.
9. Peter Ackroyd, Venice: Pure City, p.6
10. This project was called The Northern Trace of Leonardo (1996).
11. Constitutive of this strategy, none of Ponomarev’s collaborations with the Russian navy or his works the public realm came about by filling out an application form. They were the result of intensely pragmatic journeys. The Northern Trace of Leonardo was only possible because of his dogged pursuit of serendipitous connections, protracted negotiations and important drinking sessions – typified by leading grizzled submariners in a vodkafuelled sing-a-long of Yellow Submarine before commandeering their craft for ‘the interests of art [and not war]’.
12. Smithson speaks of ‘all encompassing sameness’.
13. Ackroyd, p.60
14. Ackroyd, p.61
15. I quote Isaiah Berlin’s paraphrase in Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism, 2001, p.43.
16. Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, X, 19XX, p.13,15.
17. Ibid. p.14.
18. Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, X, 19XX, p.13.
19. Joseph Brodsky, Watermark, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992, p.14.
20. Ibid. p.307.
21. See interview with Ryoichi Kurokawa.
22. ‘Complexity, information and entropy are […] three facets of the same reality’. According to this definition ‘white noise’ – sonic hyper-complexity - is an entropic phenomenon. See Michel Mendès France and Alain Hénaut, ‘Art, Therefore Entropy’, Leonardo, Vol. 27, No. 3, MIT Press, 1994, p.219.
23. For ‘as long as a man’s goal is far off, he cannot steer straight for it; he must be content to make a course that is approximately right; and in following the direction in which he thinks he ought to go, he will often have occasion to tack’ Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims, Prometheus Books, New York, 1995, p.86.
24. ‘continuous shifts of meaning in the discussion of order, structure and form make the relationship (if any) between art and physics remarkably obscure. Unless order is defined with mathematical rigor and the limites of a system pertinently drawn, almost anything can be blamed on thermodynamics. This is where Arnheim is fatally vague’. Peter Lloyd Jones, ‘Some Thoughts on Rudolf Arnheim’s Book “Entropy and Art”, Leonardo, Vol.6, No. 1, MIT Press, 1973, p.31.
25. ‘information theory posits the idea that the longer the message is, the more numerous become the number of possible meanings carried within the code’, hence entropy. Lindsay Tucker, ‘Entropy and Information Theory in Heller’s “Something Happened”’, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 25, No. 3, University of Wisconsin Press, 1984, p.329. Citing Stanford Goldman, Information Theory, Dover, New York, 1953, pp.286-87.
26. Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, X, 19xx, p.18.
27. ‘the idea that indormation can be stored in a changing world without an overwhelming depreciation of its value is false’. See Norbert Wiener, The Use of Human Beings, Avan, New York, 1970, p.164.
28. Joseph Brodsky, Watermark, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 199X, p.21.
29. ‘Like energy, entropy is in the first instance a measure of something that happens when one state is transformed into another’ – P. W Bridgeman, The Nature of Thermodynamics, quoted in Robert Smithson, ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’ (1966) reprinted in Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, X, 19XX, p.21.
30. B12.
31. Graham, Daniel W., ‘Heraclitus’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Hans Op de Beeck, Location 7, 2011 (Interior view featuring the artist)
Hans Op de Beeck, Location 7, 2011 (Interior view)
Foreground: Ryoichi Kurokawa, Octfalls, 2011
Background: Adrian Ghenie, Duchamp Funeral 4. Foreground: Alexander Ponomarev, Formula, 2011