Seeing Feelingly

Steven Connor

Peter Randall-Page

This essay will be published with with illustrations in the catalogue of the exhibition organised by the Djanogly Art Gallery: Nature of the Beast: Peter Randall- Page: New sculpture, drawings and prints, published by the Djanogly Art Gallery ISBN 1 900809 85 0.
Exhibition Dates: Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham 13 January - 25 February 2001, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 3 March - 14 April 2001, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne 21 April 16 June 2001

Peter Randall-Page Links


How do things change? We live with the reality of changing things all the time, and all our arts and crafts depend upon our power to change one thing into another - in gardening and cooking, for example. But what is change itself?

At the south-east end of Chesil Bank, on the Dorset coast, the stones can be large enough for children to clamber over and hide behind. At the Bridport end, eighteen miles to the north and west, the predominantly flint and chert pebbles are small and smooth and regular enough that you can sink down into them, as into those tanks of multi-coloured balls found in children’s indoor play centres. This process of miniaturisation and regularisation and rounding off is due to the ceaseless ruminations of the tide, rolling these stones around in its mouth, milling the big down into the small. It has been said that ‘water wants to be round’. The lumpy potatoes dumped at one end of the milling machine clearly provoke the waves’ dissatisfaction. Something, it does not quite know what, is wrong at the Portland end. On Chesil Bank it appears that, if water cannot itself be round, then the next best thing for it is to make everything else round.

But it appears that the other thing Chesil Bank wants to be is straight. As though a ruler’s edge had been laid against the landscape, it runs from northwest to southeast. On one side, the ceaseless fidgets of the sea: on the other hand, the land, solicited by water, though the individual components of the line are not fixed but themselves in motion. Lines represent to us the act of abstraction. When we connect up any two points in the world, we do so by means of an imaginary line. When we draw lines, either on the ground, or by connecting up events in a meaningful series, we are both simplifying things and adding something to nature. This is perhaps why, when straight lines happen to appear in nature - the striations on the surface of Mars that for a long time were thought of as canals - they strike us as the expression of unnatural and somewhat alarming intelligence, as though a line had been crossed separating the world of phenomena from the world of thought. Lines in nature are as though nature had found a way of taking thought, thinking about itself, without the intermediary of thoughtful creatures like us. Chesil Bank may strike us as so unnerving, because it looks like the map it is thinking up for itself.

So Chesil Bank appears to be a riddle (a riddle is itself a device for sorting the large from the small) posed and solved and sifted untiringly by a land and sea that can never remember the answer: how can round get straight? How can you make straight round? The riddle and its own answer actually extend far beyond Chesil Beach. For, if we could imagine the line formed by the beach extending infinitely, then it would eventually loop back round the earth and join up with itself. The line will have wrapped round on itself. On itself.

Peter Randall-Page has lately taken to echoing this kind of puzzle, in two different, but overlapping kinds of activity: wrapping and sequencing. In an example of the first kind of activity, a glacial boulder was wrapped round by ropes soaked in hot wax, forming a shell or simulacrum of it, an outside of its outside. An iron cast has then been taken of this shell, creating a husk from which the stone or fruit has been removed. In shape, the resulting form looks like a discarded shellcase, but the whorling lines of which it is composed seem like the frozen fossils of a fingerprint, a ripple, a magnetic field, or weather system.

The play between the inside and the outside is at work in many of these pieces. Perhaps this distinction and the paradoxes to which it can give rise can only matter as much as it does to intensely sighted beings like humans. In the world as apprehended by the proximity senses, or by creatures who rely on them, we may surmise, the insides and the outsides of things are continuous with each other. Close your eyes and feel your way round a shell, and what is presented to you is information presented in sequence about texture and weight and size and shape, that it requires an inner eye to assemble into an all-in-one-go picture for the radical division between its inside and its outside to become apparent. The hand and the tongue only perceive inside and outside, back and front, top and bottom, as a result of this supplementary optical orientation. What they receive otherwise is information about an ever-changing surface, which has pits, and dips and snags and folds in plenty, but no definitive orientation.

From Classical times until well into the seventeenth century, people believed that seeing involved more than the reception of the light reflected off objects. It was believed that objects gave off simulacra, or ghostly skin-facsimiles, which made direct contact with the eyes. Even Newton entertained this theory, according to which we are literally touched by vision, well into the seventeenth century. It may be that sculptors are particularly sensitive to this cooperation between the sense of sight and the sense of touch, between vision and impression, in which we can, in Shakespeare’s words in King Lear ‘see feelingly’, in which the eye can become a skin, the skin an eye. Where eye and its object meet, there is not collision but interpenetration. To mould or manipulate an object or substance into a form that neither you nor it could previously imagine, is to meet and merge with it.

Peter Randall-Page’s way of making out the interiority of things is to feel his way seeingly across their surfaces. Sometimes the patterns swirl in tight, repeated loops; sometimes, as in his three monumental, planetary spheres produced for the Millennium Seed Project, they consist of broader, deeper scorings, seemingly toothed upon the outside of the seed-balls as a result of external impingements and abrasions, but also, one can imagine, rifts and flaws arising from their hot and pressing insides. If there is something dissective in the process of making rocks and stones yield up, or hint at their hidden insides, like eggs, or treasure chests or human bodies, exposed to the searching light of curiosity, there is also a kind of listening at work. Walter Ong has observed of hearing that it is the sense that us the apprehension of interiority: only through hearing can we apprehend the inside of things without violating their outsides. [Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Religious and Cultural History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), p. 117.] Perhaps Randall-Page’s work involves not only the crossing of sight and touch, but also a kind of tacful listening to substances, or a mutual sounding out. Finding the lines and patterns which will make most sense of the mute form is like finding the boulder’s resonant frequency.

Fossils and stones in general stand for us as the arresting of time and change, but Randall Page’s way of working them reactivates and cooperatively anticipates the processes of change that have produced them and are continuing to act upon them. Rarely, in his recent work, is the surface buffed up into seductive lustre. The eye, like the light, does not simply touch on and glance off these forms as it would from a slicker surface, but is detained and entertained in the intrigue and accident of its grain. Seeing these works is seeing feelingly, following out a form rather than simply registering it, all in one go. Of all the senses, only the eye sees and holds things instantaneously, and all at once. The hand, the tongue, the nose, the ear, make things out in series.

A spider is perhaps a geomantic creature; made up almost entirely of jointed lines, it hungers to join things up. Just as Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson cannot see an open expanse without longing to cover it with paint, so, perhaps, the spider sees the world in terms of jutting, disjoined points between which lines can be run. Peter Randall-Page, it seems, cannot see two, or preferably three rocks without wondering how they might be tuned together, in fifths or octaves. One remarkable piece uses three granite spheres to create such an evolutionary sequence. The first boulder is not quite spherical, for its surface has been ground away in segments, to lift out a dozen or so rough lobes. In the second boulder, the lobes have become more uniform in shape and size. In the third, the shape is much closer to that of a sphere, though paradoxically the surface is not smoother, but more ridged and broken up. by what has become a lattice-work of blisters. As in other pieces of work, there is uncertainty about what has caused these changes. Are we to imagine the rocks being formed from the outside, like a planet, buffeted by cosmic collisions? Or are they more like skulls in the phrenological imagination, in which the swellings of some inner brain are being expressed on the cranium? Or perhaps we are to imagine some other, intermediary process of growing by accretion from the inside out, like a snowball, or a stick of candy floss?

Peter Randall-Page’s work gives us to reflect on how things have been changed, how things change into one another, change into themselves. Among the pieces in this exhibition is a small lump of doughy wax, that has been swiftly manipulated between thumbs and palms. One could call it a kind of impressionism, much more literal than the painting kind. In this kind of piece, the wax has been kneaded and thumbed and then left alone, just at the point at which it seems to have begun to reflect on itself. Any less and it would seem slack and formless; any more and it would have taken too definitive a print of a human conception. What is it? It is like a cast of something, the inside of some outside, neither quite incipient nor residual. The wax has been touched: but it has also touched on itself. It has begun to become reflexive. The philosopher Michel Serres has suggested that the soul is to be found in the body not, as Descartes thought, in any one particular location, like the pineal gland, but wherever we are able to touch ourselves, palm on palm, lip on lip, the crossing of knees and ankles [Michel Serres, Les Cinq sens (Paris: Hachette, 1998), pp. 19-21]. Our reflexivity is a matter of folding, self-touching. The soul dances at our fingers’ ends. This piece has begun to take thought by touching on itself, folding into some kind of self-knowledge. It is like a hand, in particular one of those hands in Disney cartoons that is busy at work drawing itself a body. It is like a tongue on the tip of which its own name hangs.

Long after Descartes’s puzzled sundering of mind and body, ordinary usages in all languages seem to preserve the sense of the corporeality of thought, especially in so far as thinking is related to speaking. We attempt to grasp ideas or mull things over; we are struck by thoughts, we probe issues. When we conspire, we are etymologically ‘breathing together’. The words for metaphor and translation encode memories of the literal carrying of things across, while the words for our word ‘word’ in many Romance languages, parole, parola, are from Greek parabola, meaning a throwing or setting of things up against each other. Most persisting and ramified of all these corporeal metaphors are oral-alimentary ones, that run together thinking with actions of taking in and giving out. We ruminate, we chew things over, we take them in. Metaphors like this are the traces of the corporeal dream-work of thought in ordinary language.

So many of Peter Randall-Page’s pieces seem to evoke the alimentary processes of thought, seem to need to be seen with the mouth. (When Jean Piaget asked a group of children where they dreamed, one indeed answered that he dreamed in his mouth.) These are pieces that are working out their names, but perhaps also on their way beyond them. Mother Tongue plays on the two principal functions of the tongue, licking and speech. The shaping of things and the turning of things to use at which higher primates are so adept has as its support a primary experience of the skin, which is almost entirely exposed to the shaping force of the world. The young of mammals seem particularly at risk from early death or developmental difficulty if they are not adequately touched in their early minutes. Before we begin to confer shape on things, before we begin to shape words themselves in our mouths, we are ourselves licked into shape by the world. In Mother Tongue, we have a stone-picturing of the process whereby a form might lick itself into shape, a feeling-image of that first, most literal, language, the language we revert to in dealings with ice-cream, mashed potato and mud pies. What shall we call it? Linguefaction. If much of the work that Peter Randall-Page makes is abundantly erotic, it does not offer opportunities for penetration, but rather hints at the more tactful erotics of the tongue, which mimics the forms which it follows out.

Among the most remarkable work that Peter Randall Page has recently produced is a series of drawings of walnuts. They are at once faithful and dreamily unfaithful renderings of the walnut’s form. The more closely and attentively the loops and lobes of the original object are followed, the more the shape seems to mutate, seems to be looking to squirm into some other shape. There is no obvious or evolutionary order in these drawings, but the eye cannot help being drawn between them, looking for the pattern which the patterns themselves are striving to reach. The more closely they resemble walnuts, they more they resemble walnuts’ way of resembling other things, writhing into other, wildly different, weirdly alike forms. The logic in which we are subtly educated here is the dream-pedagogy spoken of in Alice, in which reading and writing mutate into reeling and writhing. So what they look like is the way walnuts look like digestive organs, or the reproductive system, or the bronchial tree. They are like twin foetuses, brooding, nose to tail and bulby brow to brow. They are submarine, or subterranean forms: shrimps, pulpy larvae, groping white tubers. They are Rorschach drawings, folded down the middle, but with the symmetry gone wrong. It is not clear whether they are contents or containers: moles or mole passages, intestines or tape-worms, hands or gloves. They are both young and old; you are not sure whether to read their wizened incipience as moist new buddings or gnarled old root-systems. Even here, the play between surface markings and volume is apparent: the forms are made to loom intricately out of patterns of shading, like a photographic negative. Lobes and limbs bulge out blindly but systematically.

Rather than drawings, which have passed through the eye, brain and hand of the artist, they seem like negatives, or contacts, as though the nuts have been pressed flat on the canvas, or the canvas wrapped round them. They are in fact drawings, and not prints. A drawing, etymologically, is a drawing out, a traction, an extrapolation, taking something outside itself. At the same time, drawing allows one to feel one’s way into the possibilities of form, the ways in which any form is always to be thought of as on its way into some other form. Far from capturing the form, drawing an object like this draws it out into mutability. It is not surprising that these walnuts also look like brain scans, an image of thought imaging itself, impressed by what cyberpunk novelists call the ‘wetware’. the soft machine of thinking itself.

More than any other art, perhaps, sculpture attempts to insinuate itself into this mode of thinking through things, these processes of self-making, the emergence of self. We think through things, think them over. Peter Randall-Page’s recent work seems to want us to see and to think feelingly, to feel thoughtfully.

| Steve Connor | School of English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |