Giorgio de Chirico- Ariadne to artificial life

painting ariadne

On my recent excursion to the Met, I’ve had chance to sit in front of Giorgio de Chirico‘s painting Ariadne. On days like that I enjoy strolling among the vistas of my thoughts, sightseeing in my own mindscapes. Sometimes I reach some interesting idea, and I’d like to share this particular one with you. I start with the first hand observation and speculation on the painting, and goes on to the social contexts and perspective on the relationship between art and artificial life. Of course, I am in no way educated in matters of art, so what I say about the painting is purely personal and speculative. If you want proper information about the painting itself, I’d suggest the official Met description and associated sources.

Ariadne awaits outside the labyrinth, frozen cold as a statue. The towers and progresses of the world slip by outside, unnoticed by her and the observer locked within the wall. Ariadne is a statue, but as I look closer she begins to resemble a stone cover of an ancient sarcophagi. It would fit with the melancholy atmosphere pervading through the painting. Theseus walked into the labyrinth ages ago with the thread of Ariadne, and he is yet to emerge from its dark paths. Or perhaps he has left the empty husk of the labyrinth a long time ago? Defeating it of the ferocious monster inside, leaving it as an empty dark corridor. Only the desolation remains and shadows haunt the dark corridors of the labyrinth.

When did Ariadne pass away? What had happened to Theseus? Perhaps he met the same fate he would have met within the dark corridors of the labyrinth, as a desiccated corpse. The activity of the world surrounding the walls begins to throw an ominous hint as to the fate of our hero and heroine. The heroic and dramatic gives way to the tides of the mundane.

The sense of timeless waiting and longing, intermingled with the thick taste of isolation and desolate serenity fill the whole of the canvas with strange attraction, and makes it stand out among the numerous canvases displayed in the white halls of the modern art exhibition of the museum. As I stare into the painting the position of the observer becomes uneasy, as I begin to wonder whether to apply myself to Ariadne, Theseus, or even the bustling activity of the world outside the wall.

Depiction of Ariadne as a sculpture provides some interesting insight into the world of the painting. What was the fate of Ariadne? In the state she is in now she has become a symbol in the lexicon of the consciousness. As I consider the matter of Ariadne and the rich symbolism of labyrinth in human history, I feel as if the world of the painting is being spread from the mind of the artist to my own. Perhaps the inside of the wall (though it might be argued that the stage is set outside, there is no way to tell) can be understood as the collective unconsciousness of the human world. Maybe it is a desolate, timeless place buried within the waves of zeitgeist. Perhaps the place within the wall is an ancient, timeless place in our psyche, waiting for some sort of resolution that we know for certain will never be found.

It is no secret that the mythical labyrinth associated with Ariadne held a minotaur within its dark corridors, and is a frequently visited theme across variety of cultures depicting the primordial passages of the human psyche. As such, labyrinths of almost any cultural significance is a path to some sort of resolution, guarded by difficult ordeal or mythic beast that must be overcome. Even within the labyrinth depicted in the painting, quite clearly devoid of all life, one cannot help but to think that some sort of secret still lurks inside, throwing an overwhelming curiosity toward us that soon borders on obsession. In fact, beneath the veneer of timeless desolation and serenity, one cannot help but to perceive of certain intense quality of questioning, as our eyes drift toward between the archways of the entrance to the labyrinth. The whole painting begins to metamorphose into a question in the back of the observers psyche, isolated from the world yet longing for something, some kind of attainment.

Here is where the conventional notion of the classic and the modern splits. Being classical or modern in this case has nothing to do with timeline in this case, of course. Classic and the modern are mindsets, values impressed into the very fabric of our social consciousness. The classics are obsessed with the idealized patterns, the equation of the human with the superhuman, contemplation of the nature of superhumanity and underlying human pursuits, and so on. A kind of peculiar disdain toward contemporary human condition and urges to metamorphose is a common universal sentiment among the arts and ideas commonly referred to as classical. The prevalent attitude encompassing almost every single work of art and ideas considered classical, all superhuman, not because human is, but because the human strives to be.

Yet certain indefatigable essences of the modern runs directly contrary to such sentiments. Consider the works of Gustave Courbet and his realism. Gustave Courbet and his realism is widely considered to be the first step of the true modernism in painting, in a twilight zone where the classical begins to turn modern. The most conspicuous feature of the modern is the depiction of the human wants. No more hero becomes the motto of the day, either by making everything heroic or denying the concept of the heroic. And as the process continues the art increasingly becomes the depiction of the art rather than depiction of the human of art.

It almost feels as if there is some sort of cycle, propagating through the stages of Middle Ages-Renaissance-Baroque-Rococo-Neo Classic-Empire, which are not as clearly defined as they would appear on paper but still retains certain zeitgeist that is apparent to a methodical observer. They all seem to revert back and forth in the relationship between the art and the human. Is this a primarily European (thus Christian) fluctuation? I am beginning to doubt it, for many other cultures like those in the Far East, show similar fluctuations of the relationship between the art and the human.

Such fluctuation is interesting in light of the oncoming possibility of artificial life. What will the art of artificial life be like? Idealized pursuit or depiction of the basic principles of the life? Life-like physical system treated as an art is a valuable opportunity to clarify some of the dilemma facing the issue of art and art’s relationship to the world and the human, though the precise form it would take is difficult to predict at the moment. Art, real or ideal, is quite discontent to be sitting on canvas and velvet lined pedestals. The art will inevitably flow out into the world (in some sense it already has) and walk and talk with us. Perhaps the divide between the real and the ideal, the focus on the art of art and the art of the human would manifest as a debate on the form of artificial life in human world. Perhaps it will be a debate on whether the human should BE artificial life.

Why my ongoing interest/obsession with the artificial life and the art? Why do I believe in art as life and life as art? Why my belief that the science and art should, and will, become inseparable from each other?

There was an interesting accident a few years back, when a young child stuck a chewing gum on a priceless painting of modern art, and gave an excuse to the horrified museum authorities that he did not think it was art. It is true that art in modern times seem to be an acquired taste, which is very peculiar to me. Isn’t art, at its naked core, a search and depiction of beauty? The nature of beauty might remain as illusive as ever, but for all intends and purposes it is universal. And if the social conception is in such a way that capacity to feel beauty must be educated into someone’s head, we have a problem. This might be the root cause behind today’s absurd separation between the field and practices of arts and sciences. Art in its inception should be universal to all of us, and that means it should be universal to all senses and all brains, something fundamentally integrated into the human system’s architecture that might even be replicated in non human life forms. The true nature of the origin that powers people to perform art and the true nature of the beauty that cativates us and evokes things and ideas that we never consciously thought of before, must in someway be related to our own physique, for life and consciousness cannot manifest without a body.

If the existence of the physiology and metabolism of life is essential to the process of art and aesthetic fulfillment, we have a pressing need for artificial life, both as scientists solving the great and observable problem of the human phenomena and as artists searching for the manifestation of art. The art will walk and talk among us, and no child will dare to stick gum on their faces. Everyone, even those without the art education and art sensitivity drummed into their heads will be able to intuitively grasp the presence of beauty and revel in the process of aesthetic fulfillment, since, in the end, human beings best understand things that resemble them. And what better resembles us than life, staring at us in the eye?

Solemn dictations

This is a cross post of something I wrote before. I liked this post too much to leave it in middle of nowhere, so I’m moving it here.

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This is something I ran across in my visit to the Met today. It’s a funeral marker of the ancient Greece, around 500 B.C. or so. According to the description given by the little placard at the bottom, there was an inscription on the stele at the original site. The translated version of the inscription reads like this.

“My daughter’s beloved child is the one I hold here, the one that I held on my lap while we looked at the light of the sun when we were alive and that I still hold now that we are both dead.”

The time was almost three thousand years ago, but the human sentiment runs the same. I might even argue that the dying grandmothers of the old were much more articulate than the living young ones we have right now. Nonetheless, I feel saddened and glad at the same time when I remember this scene, bathed in a solemn and melancholy light, phrases and situations telling its story through subtle hints which later echo in the heart of a young man from three thousand years in the future. Will we leave something behind as such? Will we leave behind something so that people living in three thousand years in the future would shed a tear or feel their heart wrench at the tales of people long gone and forgotten? Will the human identity remain resonant throughout the times?

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Another something I picked up. It’s from roughly the same era as the above funeral marker. This one depicts a little girl saddened to let her pet pigeons go. This clumsy photo of mine doesn’t do justice to the subtle nuances and expressions that were retained in this piece despite its age. People talk of evolution and change all the time, but what we consider to be fundamentally human trait doesn’t seem to have changed much, if we can communicate across space and time like this through frozen motions and facial expressions.

I am beginning to suspect that the fundamental nature of what we consider to be humanity is more closely linked with the body at deeper levels. Perhaps the overall nervous structure and its extent affects the development of consciousness itself to some degree. Perhaps there is a minimal template of what we can consider to be a ‘mind’ just like the minimal framework of gene for the base artificial life, and the traits we consider to be human consciousness arises from there just like how the base gene later expresses itself in multiple ways, as a complex synthetic life form. If so, human psychology, and much of the subtle traits of being a human being, is locked with the type of body to certain extent, and therefore can be engineered like genes and engines.