Regarding the Art Atom Tom Morton

‘Well, my dear Pangloss,’ said Candide to him, ‘when you had been
hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you
always think that everything happens for the best?’
‘I am still of my first opinion,’ answered Pangloss, ‘for I am a
philosopher and I cannot retract…’
–Voltaire, Candide, (1759)

Knowledge has a problem, and that problem is the fatal exception. This is the fact that insists—brutally, unassailably—on ‘yes, but’. It is a fossil studded cliff, a flock of Karl Popper’s famous black swans. It comes in the night, gnawing away at the world we know. It is a dangerous thing (it kills old certainties dead); it is fatal.

In Charles Avery’s series of drawings The Art Atom (2003), a curvilinear two-dimensional universe is visited by a ‘yes, but’ object: the ‘art atom’, a 3-D tetrahedron with four different-coloured facets. Given the way knowledge takes exception to exceptions, the passage of this apostate Euclidean solid through the series is perhaps unsurprising. Following its discovery by a young woman it is taken, for interpretative purposes, to a powerful, Panglossian cleric, who convenes a pow-pow of the great and good. This 2-D sinod, recognising the tetrahedron’s reality-bending potential, plan to suppress it by burying it deep underground, an action they hope to disguise as the interment of the cleric’s late cat. Wise to this cover-up, the young woman attempts to recover the ‘art atom’. She disrupts the mock funeral procession, is apparently fired on by the cleric, and falls dying to the ground, the ‘art atom’ splintering into fifteen smaller units around her limp, fluid form.

At first glance, this seems to be a parable about how power wilts when the world becomes wider: a strange truth is discovered, then suppressed, the recovered, then finally transforms itself into something stranger yet. Avery’s drawings, however, aren’t merely parabolic; they’re also empirical objects, made up of the elegant impress of pencil on paper, of the call and response of line. They have the odd ontology of a fiction enfolded in a fact, and it’s on this, I suspect, that they turn. Look at the drawings closely and, from time to time, their flatland logic appears to slip. Take the seventh image in the series, in which the cleric, his crossed, slippered legs tenting his robe, contemplates the ‘art atom’ in private. Avery deftly foreshortens his limbs, lending them volume, lending them weight. By way of contrast the tetrahedron, placed precisely on the picture plane, appears unapologetically 2-D. On noticing this, the narrative recedes and other thoughts—art thoughts—occur to us. In a sense, the drawing poses similar problems to René Margritte’s The Treason of Images (19928-9), a painting of a pipe whose strap-line—‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’—points to the absurdity of pictorial illusion, but also to art’s semi-mystical dependence upon belief. Painted on the cleric’s flat planet (populated by drawings, by fictions) Margritte’s picture would, of course, be impossible to tell apart from its motif.

In the drawing preceding the young woman’s apparent shooting, the cleric stands side on, his long back arched like some balletic movie hit man. Palm to the floor, his right hand hovers in priestly beneficence, while his left hand (its thumb cocked, its fingers trigger hungry) curls around… around what, precisely? Not a gun, sure (there’s nothing in his hand), but not the absence of a gun, either. Rather, he grips the belief of a gun, and this, in his weird, flat world, is enough to bring the young woman down. The Art Atom, however, isn’t so much about blind faith as the unknowable being wisdom’s last, best hope. There’s a quiver of quantum uncertainty in the young woman’s stop-frame fall. Looking at the last few drawings in the series, we’re never quite sure whether or not she’s witnessed the atomisation of the ‘art atom’—the viral multiplication, from one to fifteen, of its hidden facets, its rampant, power-stripping complexity. Somehow, though, I think this is OK. She—like Schrödinger’s famous dead-and-alive cat (referenced, surely, in the cleric’s fake feline funeral), or the tetrahedron, or art itself—is a figure of uncertainty, a fatal exception, a flaw in the law of facts.

Tom Morton is a critic and curator, most recently of Anyway, a comic published by Alberta Press in October 2003. He is the author of a number of exhibition catalogues, and is a regular contributor to Frieze (where he is Curios Editor), Tank, Blueprint, Arena and Tate.

Essay copyright, Tom Morton, 2003