The world through many angles

Suppose earth's continents were spread over a doughnut or a hot dog instead of a sphere, as modern science shows them to be. Think of the centuries of belief that the world was flat, and of all the attendant fears that influenced people's action. Or say the world was carried on the back of a tortoise. Or that the earth was separated from sky by a river of water.

These are religious beliefs, or myths if you like, or perhaps just plain conceptions deducible from available facts. Maybe all there is to the whole business is a mind-set.

Wherein lies the truth?

Agnes Denes, an artist, declares that art deals directly with reality and illusion.She has been exploring the sciences, religion, philosophy and other fields of thought in the hope of understanding what they are all about, what they add up to. Being a visualizer, she produces a variety of photographs, prints, objects, modifications of landscape which pin down "moments of truth" as she calls them -- things that happen or ideas she can crystallize in visible form as she studies and analyzes. She is even attempting to use theoretical crystallography to see if thought processes can be predicted.

Her art is the visual progress report of her thinking. She makes use of whatever medium serves the purpose and invents what she needs if it doesn't exist already. For instance, she invented a photographic printing process to make seventeen-foot long prints from positives rather than negatives.

One of these great long visualizations is called "Introspection II -- Machines, Tools, Weapons" ("Introspection I" is "Evolution" and "Introspection III" is "Aesthetics"). It traces technological development from the Stone Age to the present, concluding with her own "Human Hang-Up Machine."

When students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked Denes why she made fun of something she also takes so seriously, she replied that she wants to break through the miasma of "errors, dehumanization, mind control, fear" that seem to grip contemporary thinking.

She observed that one has to keep a perspective: "Humanity always says, 'This is the crucial moment.' But what if this ism the crucial point? Evolution hasn't kept up. Socially, psychologically, emotionally, humanity is just the same as it always was. Here is the creature having to make crucial decisions about something he himself creates. But humanity will find a way. It always does. You have to laugh. What else could you do? Humanity all together could make the change, but one person cannot change the world."

Yet individuals have penetrated the fog of errors to arrive at some truth from time to time and have tried to pass along their findings in the hope of changing something. People have tried to codify these insights in an effort to preserve them. After reading the sacred writings of the major world religions, Denes thinks that, "Religion is a language of message, a universal language. Humanity has an incredible need for . . . a supreme power. I have now more of a concept of God."

In one phase of this study, she decided to collect all the predictions in the Bible and put them on a tablet in the dots and dashes of Morse code. She comments, "You know the words but not the meaning. What is important is the feelingm that you get -- if it makes you think or ask questions. In any art experience it's what you bring to it."

I've heard some of this Morse-coded sound and my first thought was a recollection of a dinner gong. A summons to the bread of life? Music to my ears, in any case, a harmonious sensation with an intriguing rhythm.

The problem with science, religion, philosophy -- or art, for that matter -- is one of communication. Denes says it is "to improve rapport: the truth of a person as connected with the truth of another person." What one brings to a communication effort is never quite what another brings to it. Denes is very interested in the gaps, what does not get communicated, and the distortions that result.

Hence her "Study of Distortion" series. In one part of the series latitude and longitude information fed into a computer create a grid system for output of continents in various shapes. It shows vividly what different conceptions can result from the same information.

In her investigation of philosophy ("Sculptures of the Mind"), Denes began with Pascal's triangle. She plotted it on a circular grid, drew the pyramid derived from Pascal's triangle in perspective with blocks substituted for numbers, used the triangle for a study of logic, transformed that into "The Human Argument" which divides itself neatly into a lie table and a truth table, and continued with the statement of her own intent which she calls "4,000 years." It puts Egyptian hieroglyphics into the triangle, thus spanning millenia and cultures to transliterate her words, "If the mind possesses universal validity, art reveals a universal truth. I want that truth."

She also wants to re-integrate art with the other disciplines. After all, the oldest meaning of the word "art" is "to fit together."

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