Thoughts on “Caput Mortuum: Create Yourself from Darkness”
Bo Joseph

This sculpture started with the idea of a modular system for building drawings in space, a system that would allow for disparities, incongruities and the unexpected to enter with the same spontaneity and immediacy as drawing on paper. As I pondered solutions, I recalled from childhood the sense of play and freewheeling imagination I experienced with Legos, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets and Tinker Toys. Like intuitive drawings, these systems allowed for invention and experimentation, and facilitated “feeling around” for a gestalt—intuiting an object’s “rightness” through a coalescing of parts. Because they are linear in nature, and allow for lean tinsel structures to be constructed and deconstructed quickly and easily, I settled on Tinker Toys as the system I would employ. 

Since my youth, I have also been enthralled with art from many cultures, in particular, objects related to ritual and religious use. Back then, I encountered these in terms of form, with only a vague grasp of their cultural meaning. This allowed me to embrace them without any hierarchical or chronological prejudice, and to appreciate archetypal connections that transcend era and locale. As time went on though, I learned how much of this material found its way into my purview as a result of colonization and plunder. This paradox became troubling: that I am an aesthetic and experiential beneficiary of destruction. I could not change the fact that these powerful artworks had roused my admiration, influenced my vocabulary, and changed the way I see the world. But learning the extent of traumas associated with the arrival of so many cultural icons before my eyes has compelled me to look harder at how the charge in objects shifts as context shifts. I have come to appreciate how much creation can emerge from destruction, from rubble, from loss, even that creation may not be possible without loss, without casualty. As I strive to embrace the intrinsic power and autonomy of these cultural icons in tandem with the inevitability of loss, of destruction, of what I refer to as “cultural entropy,” re-contextualization has become a means to reconciliation.

Similarly to the way I work in my two dimensional drawings, I wanted to incorporate within this three dimensional drawing system an array of imagery appropriated from many cultures through history and from nature. These objects would provide points of reorientation, referential abstractions and associative triggers, speaking to each other and to the viewer about the dichotomies, interdependencies and intrigue in the world beyond the object, beyond ourselves. The first piece in this body of work, entitled Caput Mortuum: Create Yourself from Darkness, 2018, would be made of bronze based on a maquette, or model, built from these Tinker Toys and incorporating fragments of African masks.

Alluding to the transient grasp we maintain on the complex and fragile interdependence of the world, the maquette evolved as a network that is tenuous but structurally self-reinforced. The African masks were selected because of their simplicity, and their similarity to masks from other cultures, such as Himalayan and Native American tribes. They were also intended to allude to homo sapiens’ African origins, as evidenced in the fossil record. Splitting these masks, incorporating only fragments, refers to absence and loss, but also reduces them to abstractions. When we contemplate what is missing, we often project into that absence something seemingly more vivid than what is present, opening a door to free association and perhaps unconsciously filling in and reconciling the loss. 

Reminiscent of both molecular and celestial models, as it evolved, the maquette stirred thoughts about the micro and the macro. The maquette’s similarity to constellations also evoked thoughts about the humbling yet reaffirming experience of stargazing. Staring into the night sky, we contemplate our relationship to the universe, free associating ourselves into insignificance and oblivion on the one hand, but returning inevitably to our concrete factuality on the other. This act of perception can also be viewed as an act of creation. The field of quantum physics has documented that observation affects the observed subject. Greek philosophers speculated that, like in a dream, all of “reality” could conceivably be an invention of the mind, begging the questions: does anything exist before it is perceived and does the act of perception bring the observed into being? Facing the vast abstraction of the night sky, what one observes as a void thus becomes a field of potentiality, a vast field of black matter from which the observer “creates” themselves through the act of perception.

With all of this in mind, I was reminded of Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and his use of metaphors from alchemy to elucidate his principles about the evolution of the self. In alchemy, the Latin term “caput mortuum” (translating to “dead head” or “worthless remains”) referred to a seemingly useless black substance left over from a chemical operation, the epitome of decline or decay, signified by a stylized human skull. Many alchemists believed this blackened matter to be the the first step in the pathway to the “philosopher’s stone” which symbolized enlightenment and self actualization. This black matter was alternatively called “nigredo,” which Jung adopted as a metaphor for “the dark night of the soul,” when an individual confronts their shadow aspect within, a “moment of maximum despair that is a prerequisite to personal development.” Along with Jung’s appreciation for the archetypal nature of visual form, these references resonated with endeavors in my larger artistic practice as well as personal experiences I was having during the making of this piece.

Art making in the truest sense started for me with the question: “what do I know, really?” In other words, after I strip away the information I have accepted as true, what do I know that is factual, direct knowledge that I have discovered and figured out for myself? I attempt to answer that question visually, by posing a premise and subjecting it to methods that deconstruct it and break it down to an elemental residue, an essence that persists despite those methods. I also attempt to answer that question by returning to basic discoveries of the kind we each make as individuals from a very young age, through trial and error, accidents and experimentation—not the things we are told and accept as truth but the truths we discover entirely on own. The work I make remains as a byproduct of that endeavor, a field of potentiality from which the viewer might recreate and reconsider their truths.
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