The Aviary – Exhibition Talk

My aim in this short talk was to outline some of the ideas that informed the structure of the The Aviary exhibition and the works in it. 

The main theme of the exhibition
The original inspiration for the exhibition was reading Martin Heidegger’s analysis of a work by Plato, The Theaetetus. This is a dialogue which seeks to answer the question, posed by Socrates to Theaetetus; “what is knowledge?” Heidegger interprets Greek understanding of knowledge as a form of truth (aletheia), which in turn means being as it presents itself to us. 

A constant theme of Heidegger’s work is the exploration of being, i.e. that which is there in addition to an entity’s physical presence. Heidegger identifies being as the excess, the existence of which he demonstrates through a thought experiment. He asks us to place ourselves in the imaginary situation of lying in a meadow, from which we can “see the blue of the sky, while simultaneously we hear the singing of the lark.” Asking, how do we perceive the sky and the bird? The answer; we first of all perceive them as existing. That they both exist is so obvious that we do not pay any attention to it. Their existence is their being, given as truth.

Yet it is not truth as such which forms the central theme of Heidegger’s analysis of The Theaetetus, but its opposite; untruth, pseudos, the false. This is expressed in the dialogue by the puzzling phenomenon of the false view, the pseudes doxa. This is the everyday experience, that we have all had, of being mistaken in our view of what we see. It is puzzling because what we see is present, and therefore true, and yet it is not what we think it is, therefore it is at the same time false. Expressed in this way the pseudes doxa would appear to be a conceptual impossibility, yet we know that the false view is an everyday occurrence. 

The exhibition title, the simile a clue for seeing
The title of the exhibition; “The Aviary,” is derived from an image that Plato creates, to help us understand how the distorted seeing of pseudes doxa, the false view, rather than being a conceptual impossibility, is intrinsic to the condition under which we are with things in the world. Ultimately it speaks about that moment of seeing between perception and cognition, when we draw upon memory to decide what it is that is present before us. 

Plato understands the enormity of the task of thinking inherent in acknowledging the existence of the false in the pseudes doxa. Rather than approaching it directly, through an analytical description, he instead places us before an image, in this case an image of an aviary, through which we directly experience the ambiguity of the false view. 

This image is not passive, it speaks to us, it signals that something is to be understood beyond that which it is an image of. This is the action of a simile, a “sensory image,” which presents its meaning to our senses rather than to our intellect. As such it stands between the viewer and the meaning it hints at, it provides us with what Heidegger calls a “clue for seeing.” When such an image is placed before us, we become detectives on the trail of understanding. While not disregarding the image, we look beyond it, towards what it points to.

Memory – the mnemonic
The aviary is the second of two similes that Plato uses to speak about the false, the other is the simile of the wax mass or block. Both do this by speaking about the capacity that we have to make-present the being of that which is absent. For the Greeks this is a faculty given to us by Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, the inspiration of artists – memory.

Why was memory thought to guide artistic production? Rather than understanding the action of Mnemosyne, the mnemonic, as one of recalling past experiences, we should instead understand memory as the capacity to bring before ourselves the being of that which is absent. Understood in this way, we can see that the mnemonic is what enables artists to visualise their work, prior to its production. This process of visualisation is not one in which an image of the finished work is created in our heads. Rather the actual work is itself made-present before us, as the being it is. From this we can then understand memory as the capacity to make-present the being of that which we once had before us, but which is now absent. 

For the Greeks the truth of being is grasped in what it appears as, in the immediate look (eidos) it offers. Yet in memory’s making-present of what is absent, we do not have the look of the concrete being present to draw upon. Therefore its look must come from ourselves, imprinted in the wax block we have in our souls. Rather than its full look, its eidos, we draw upon its eidolon, its look-alike or simulacrum. The simulacrum is the false image, therefore in making present through memory, the mnemonic, we appear to derive what we make-present, i.e. the true, directly from the false.

The Exhibition – enactment re-enactment
My ambition for this exhibition is to enact the aviary simile in the gallery. By this I mean that the gallery becomes the concrete embodiment of the simile, this is a process of enactment, once enacted the spectator then re-enacts it.

The word “enact” means to bring into being, once brought into being, once installed the exhibition is passive, it is made active by the spectator viewing the work in a process of re-enactment. It is the role of the spectator to re-enact the aviary simile, by actively living it, again and again. 

The spectator in viewing the exhibition makes each work, in turn, present. On moving away from the work it is no longer present, it is instead stored in memory, from where it can be made present, or the work can be returned to, making it present again and again, or forgotten.

Derek Hampson