Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atqve technica historia : in duo volumina secundum cosmi differentiam diuisa, 1617.
A couple years ago I was working in Times Square when the power grid for much of the eastern seaboard failed. I ran down the eight flights of stairs from my office and stood in the middle of Times Square to see all the great LED signs go blank. There they were, huge, flat, black monsters, dead. The ultimate fail. The number and variety of black oblongs was awesome to behold. Each was carefully angled down for our optimal viewing although, in the bright sunlight, it seemed more like they were looking down at us. It was an affecting moment for me, revealing the huge structures of technology, our dependence on it, its day-to-day transparency, as well as its fragility, and our own
When these massive sign machines are lit up, their physicality disappears in great swaths of luminosity and color. When unpowered, they are threatening, spooky, still replete with potential power, but, also oddly vulnerable. They exist in a kind of vast, failed or unfulfilled state. The closest visual analog, for me, is a set of drawings done by Robert Fludd.
I’ve been looking Fludd’s diagrams for some time, as part of my fixation with metaphysical diagrams that try to describe a geometry of the spirit and mind. Robert Fludd was a 17th c. pansophic — a mystical scholar who wrote texts on and among diverse topics, everything from medicine, to war machinery, to the cosmos. His great work was an encyclopedia called Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia or The Metaphysical, Physical, and, Technical History of the Two Worlds, Namely the Greater and the Lesser. Here, Fludd catalogs the microcosm (us) and the macrocosm (the universe) and this work includes many of his greatest diagrams. His philosophy was much informed by the Greek “chain of being” model where all things have a fixed place in the cosmos, from the lowest base material to the apogee — the Word, God, Heavens. Overlaid with the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire), this medieval system was itself a machine for understanding things in terms of symmetrical position, opposition (microcosm vs macrocosm) and interaction. Politically, it clearly favored things such as nobility and servitude, but it was also a kind of “science,” or, in our terms, a paradigm. Fludd produced an extraordinary array of these diagrams describing how things like the mind, imagination, memory, the cosmos, vacuums, and mechanics worked, but they have such an exquisite matter-of-fact poetry about them that they are still revered today. Like medieval religious paintings, they are suffused with such purposeful design that we feel the creator was beyond any self-consciousness in terms of craft or style and worked in a wholly concentrated effort to create the devotional image. That might be a fantasy on my part, but I think that feeling of total single-minded rigor exists when looking at something so complete as one of the great 15th c. religious paintings.
Many of Fludd’s diagrams are all the more wonderful because they are intended to communicate an explicit message about how exactly something completely elusive works —the mechanics of the mind and spirit. In my own practice, I’ve tried at times to graph the ineffable and unmeasurable (home, pain, suffering, love, happiness, attention etc.) because I like to wade around in the tension between the authority and reasonableness of the graph and its impossible contents. We might look at Fludd’s works as fantastical drawings, but they are meant to function much as contemporary system diagrams or infographics do. I recently came across a terrific model of such systems called “doughnut economics” conceived by Kate Raworth. Here her diagram explains, basically, how everything works; it’s a concise expression of our economic worldview as embedded in the universal economy of thermodynamics in a beautifully compact and symmetrical piece of notation. I don’t think Joseph Beuys could have imagined better, and it’s in the very spirit of what Fludd’s cosmological diagrams try to achieve — albeit informed by more hard science.
Source: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich
A great diagram works because it concisely expresses a concept that a piece of text would take great lengths to explicate. The diagram here expresses how human economics are embedded in the world-as-a-system, and further, a belief that we can draw the way ineffable forces coalesce with discrete forces to produce a state of being. While a great drawing or painting can invoke the abject vulnerability of being human, the diagram is a kind of escape into the power of seeing beyond being. You might even say that a diagram such as this, and such as Fludd’s, is a glimpse into a reality that doesn’t require a body, physical mind, or ego. Yet, diagrams like Raworth’s and Fludd’s are filled with human and physical references. For example, think about what an arrow actually means and where it comes from as a symbol — three lines represent a weapon made of wood and metal or stone but denote direction, influence, connection, flow, dependence, affect, effect, collection, inspiration, force, and relationships of any number of further physical or human abstractions. Those three lines are infused with humanity.
I find the aspiration and inevitable failure to transcend ourselves within these ambitious semi-metaphysical diagrams to be inspiring. Ironically though, they fail as art per se because they don’t also acknowledge their own failure. Written into the ambition of art is that which also eludes us, and the artifice of these diagrams lies in their avoidance of that necessary doubt. But, by definition, the very purpose of a diagram is to remove doubt altogether.
Robert Fludd, Tractatus secundus de naturae simia seu technica macrocosmi historia, 1617-1618.
In Robert Fludd’s encyclopedia there is a section called “De metaphysico macrosmi” The Metaphysical Macrocosm, which contains a remarkable series of diagrams on the origins of the universe. One of these diagrams is a diabolically simple etching of a black square bordered on all four sides with the words “And so on [to infinity]”. The square is no perfect geometrical figure, but a crosshatched, almost black, squareish rhomboid on a much-aged vellum page. It is meant to represent the nothingness that came before light and dark. This vast conundrum stands in contrast to the handmade lines and, due to the printing, the gentle skewing of the square on the old yellowed paper, it is humbly beautiful. It is also thought to be a kind of ancestor, in spirit, to all black squares in art. This small black square was intended as a diagram in the strictest sense, an illustration of the infinite nothingness from which even the division of light and dark came. It is meant to represent what came before not only light, but darkness as well. What it tries to contain — an unimaginable nothingness — is so beyond its simple means that I can’t help but look at it in awe. It’s as if the great nothingness before anything at all makes us look closer at each black etched line for clues to better imagine what is beyond words. Would an empty square have been just as good? Probably not. We need the presence of a physical blackness to better feel the tension between trying to represent nothing with something. A hand-drawn black square trying to represent nothing is a beautiful and inevitable failure.
Luke Murphy, Nothing Out, 2017, 5×7 32×32 4mm (P4) LED matrix panels, panels (80cm x 40cm, minimum size), computer, display boards, power supply, custom and commercial software drivers.
That black square and the experience of the blacked-out Times Square billboards led me to make a piece called Nothing Out. And while it is a piece of code displayed on LED boards, it is, in my mind, a painting. It’s a digital version of Fludd’s black square, but informed by Malevich and the work of friends Xylor Jane and Joanna Malinowska, admittedly a strange admixture, but a potent one for me. LED signage is something that commands attention — the low resolution, exploded imagery, and text burst out with crazy luminance. It’s an imperative that we spend a lot of time trying to ignore because so often it is trying to sell us something. As devices, electronic boards try to block out everything else, to be the only photons we see. But since we are so used to being sold something by these signs, it can take not just seconds, but minutes, or even hours, to see that Nothing Out is a sign for nothing. And nothing is something our minds can barely grasp; nothing stymies the mind and halts its endless busyness. Nothing is something we can point to and maybe even circumscribe but not really represent, except obliquely. Nothing pulls our minds into a vortex of contradictions. In terms of art, I think that is about as inspiring as it gets.
Luke Murphy is an artist and technologist. He works predominantly with digital and electronic media employing information systems, paint, radiation, code, and randomness and considers his work a kind of bridge between traditional media and newer digital forms. His work and installations have been shown in New York, Berlin, London, and Toronto and is represented by CANADA.
- Urszula Szulakowskam, Robert Fludd and His Images of the Divine, https://planet.okfn.org/category/robert—fludd/
- Eugene Thatcher, In The Dust of This Planet
- Eugene Thatcher, Black on Black, http://publicdomainreview.org/2015/04/09/black-on-black/
- Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/12/doughnut—growth—economics—book—economic—model