Totalizing Systems

I picked up the July 2013 issue of Art in America last week  and read a piece by Camille Henrot, entitled “The Grasp of Totalizing Systems” under the magazine’s heading of “Muse”. In the opening paragraph, she describes a Mexican “mano poderosa”, a kind of votive painting showing an open palm with a bleeding stigmata, all digits outstretched, and fingertips capped by saints and angels. This kind of painting functions as a talisman in Roman Catholic Latin America, and is found printed on cards and on altars.

The mano poderosa leads Henrot to ideas about encompassing systems which she connects to her own creative investigation linking Ikebana, a Japanese flower arranging system built on Zen principles, and Western philosophy. Her installation entitled “Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?” (which, incidentally, I often ask myself) looks like a room-sized Ikebana arrangement gone Baroque. Ok, that’s cool.

She goes on to express her ambivalence toward big systems and taxonomies. She is interested in the tension between attraction to disorder and attraction to organization. I get that, too. I think that’s part of what I am grappling with in this blog and I’m intrigued.

She tells of an artist  research fellowship at the Smithsonian dealing with “schemas of totalizing knowledge”. She feels that the endeavour to try understand the vastness of the huge collections has a “certain madness”.Yes, we all want to understand the world with a unified theory. Is that so crazy? Our human need to organize and categorize in “totalizing schemas and super-systems” she says, are “overly rational projects that are therefore not reasonable” and “totalizing projects force things to stay together while the world is complex and heterogenous”. Hm. Do complexity and heterogeneity exist simultaneously? I think we can find evidence for that..I think…. Her musings clearly communicate her ambivalence.

However, the connections she makes next are no longer strong enough. The statement “every language is an ordering and every ordering is oppressive” is in itself oppressive. So was that statement a demonstration of itself?  My head is spinning. In my opinion, language is mostly liberating when used with a measure of sincerity. In this case, a little of that ordering oppression would help her readers understand her points better, even if it risked branding them as the suspicious products of a totalizing schema.

But my intent was not to critique Henrot’s writing. I wrote this to tell you that I bought that issue of Art in America because it had a review of Arne Glimcher’s book Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings and Remembrances. Amazon is already out of copies and it is very expensive.

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2 thoughts on “Totalizing Systems

  1. and did you read the agnes martin book review and was it useful? I connect with palm painting totally figuratively. It speaks to me for my love of Mexican art, the drama of Catholicism and also reminds me of the Ayurvedic system of having a different body element in each finger.

  2. I like the words “mano poderosa” and the idea of a powerful hand.
    Yes, the review was useful. You got a real clear sense of how reclusive she was and reluctant to engage with the public. She understood that the energy she poured into her work could not be diluted.
    It’s lonely, solipsistic living and not for everyone.

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