As Above So Below
An installation made for the second Grinlow Art Trail, held in Grinlow Woods, Buxton, Derbyshire, on Saturday 18th & Sunday 19th July 2015
CJ Robinson interviewed by James Merrick
James Merrick: So, maybe we should start with a brief description of the piece. “As Above So Below” is a grid of variably sized mirrored tiles arranged into a four foot square, placed on a roughly forty-five degree slope next to a path in a public woodland. What were your immediate aims for the piece?
Chris Robinson: Well, I suppose I was hoping for a transformation of the familiar, an unusual view of something we are so used to that we maybe take it for granted without even realising we are taking it for granted, and so offer an opportunity to shake us out of our complacency and consider it afresh. I mean, I live locally and I walk through these woods regularly, and I like to think I appreciate them, but I’m sure sometimes I’m so wrapped up in my day-to-day life and problems that go with that, that I don’t really see the woods. I know them, I look at them, but I don’t really see them.
JM: There’s a lightness of touch to the work, a simplicity, that automatically evokes Minimalism, and in particular the square grid pieces of Carl Andre. Was that intentional?
CR: Of course. I admire the work of Carl Andre, and Minimalism generally. One can’t lay squares on the ground calling it an artwork and not reference Carl Andre. And I suppose in my own work I’m increasingly looking for the simplest means to create the most profound transformation. That’s what I admire about Minimalism, it’s ability to address complex ideas with the lightest of touches. There’s a reduction, a stripping away of the unnecessary, in a search for the essential. There’s a purity to the best of Minimalism – the artist, by the subtlety of his or her intervention, is almost absent from it.
JM: And I can also see references to James Turrell’s Skyrooms in the way the mirrors frame a small section of the woods and sky, drawing attention to and inviting a slow contemplation of a possibly overlooked, or neglected, detail.
CR: Yes, I’m glad you saw that. I didn’t consciously reference James Turrell, but I am a fan. I would love to visit his volcano in the states. The work also references that whole Land Art thing of Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, or the geometry-in-nature of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, or Agnes Denes’ “Tree Mountain”.
JM: We should talk about the title as well, which inevitably brings us into the realms of Conceptual Art, where a carefully chosen object and title can combine to provoke all sorts of associations and meanings. Do you want to tell us where the title comes from and why you chose it for this piece?
CR: “As Above So Below” comes from the opening section of “The Emerald Tablet”, a rather strange and esoteric ancient text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, who may or may not have been the Greek equivalent to the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth. Anyway, Trismegistus (which means ‘thrice great’) developed the magical system of Hermeticism, which went on to influence the whole of Western occultism. People as diverse as Isaac Newton, William Blake and Aleister Crowley were, to varying degrees, followers, or, in the cases of Newton and Crowley, practitioners. Now, I’m not particularly interested in occultism or magic, I am a rationalist and a materialist, but I appreciate how the natural world, and in particular here in this instance a woodland, can heighten that sense of the spiritual and pagan in a person, it can heighten our wonder at the natural world and our place within it. But it is what that first section of the Emerald Tablet says and how it links to me placing mirrors in a wood that I’d like to draw attention to here. And in particular the phrase “as above so below” which in this tradition is said to “hold the key to all mysteries.”
JM: Maybe at this point it would be useful to insert the relevant quote before carrying on?
CR: Yes, of course.
This comes from a website called themystica.com:
“’That which is above is the same as that which is below’…Macrocosmos is the same as microcosmos. The universe is the same as God, God is the same as man, man is the same as the cell, the cell is the same as the atom, the atom is the same as…and so on, ad infinitum.”
So, contained in this quote is the idea that the really, really big looks the same as the really, really small.
JM: Like Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand”.
CR: Exactly. In that poem Blake was directly referencing “The Emerald Tablet”. And it is an idea that science has only relatively recently discovered. An atom has a similar structure to a solar system or a galaxy for example. In fact we find the natural world has managed to produce infinitely varied complexity out of the simplest of rules.
JM: We’re entering the realms of chaos theory here aren’t we, along with fractals and particle physics.
CR: Indeed we are. The Mystica goes on to say with reference to ‘as above so below’, as well as Hermeticism more generally:
“To the magician the magical act, that of causing a transformation in a thing or things without any physical contact, is accomplished by an imaginative act accompanied by the will that the wanted change will occur. The magical act and imaginative act becomes one and the same. The magician knows with certainty that for the change to occur he must will it to happen and firmly believe it will happen. Here it may be noted that magic and religion are akin: both require belief that a miracle will occur.”
I would like to posit that were we to replace the words ‘magician’ and ‘magical act’ with the words ‘artist’ and ‘artistic gesture’ this paragraph would still hold true. So if the magical act can cause transformation without physical contact, and the artistic gesture (say, by placing mirrors in a wood) can do the same, we are left with an equation:
if magic = transformation, and art = transformation, then art = magic
And I would go further and suggest you could also replace those words with the words ‘scientist’ and ‘scientific experiment’.
JM: So, science and art are both modern day equivalents to magic and religion?
CR: Yes, it’s where we look for meaning in the world.
With that in mind I will leave you with one more quote from The Mystica, and, again, try replacing the word ‘magician’ with either ‘artist’ or ‘scientist’, and the word ‘witchcraft’ with either ‘art’ or ‘science’ and see what effect, if any, this has on the paragraph’s meaning:
“To bring about such a change the magician uses the conception of ‘dynamic interconnectedness to describe the physical world as the sort of thing that imagination and desire can effect. The magician’s world is an independent whole, a web of which no strand is autonomous. Mind and body, galaxy and atom, sensation and stimulus, are intimately bound. Witchcraft strongly imbues the view that all things are independent and interrelated.’”
JM: And all that just from sticking some mirrored tiles in a wood. Chris Robinson, thank you very much.
CR: Thank you.
James Merrick is an independent writer, curator and critic. A series of his essays can be viewed at: www.jamesmerrick.blogspot.com and his self-published books can be viewed and bought from: www.blurb.co.uk/user/JamesMerrick