Friday, October 30, 2009

Breaking symmetrical expectations and the history of nothing

So my school has been undergoing a massive restroom beautification program, which includes brand new doors, new stall doors and dividers with floral patterned wallpaper, some large fish and sea creatures stickers that appear to be swimming along the wall, nature photos with motivational quotes, some general rearrangements, and they even rigged up a speaker to pump in ultra-cheesy tranquil light classical music. The ultimate mind boggling aspect of this beautification project is that there's been a paper towel dispenser in the bathroom that has literally been empty for the past 15 months. And I don't mean it's usually empty, I mean, that, to my knowledge, there's never been one paper towel in there. And after all the work they've done in the bathroom, yesterday I still had to walk out of there to the light classical music with dripping wet hands. And today, in order to "fix" the problem, I found they just removed the towel dispenser all together and hung up some dirty mops in its place. The thing that I love about Korea is the same thing that I find most baffling about its building practices. At the outset, many structures and interior design appear to be organized and similar to buildings you'd find in the states, but then there is always one or two elements that completely destabilize this appearance.

All over this town there's these narrow, meandering dirt and rock paths running between buildings and gardens and fences. The paths look as if you're surely walking through someone's private property, but it's actually just a shortcut.

I really like this aspect of Korea's building practices, it just has so much more of an organic feel to it, as opposed to how master-planned everything has started feeling in the states. The structures here always seem to be incomplete in one manner or another. Our eyes always form expectations about the constructed spaces and natural spaces in our surroundings. We create a logic with which to anticipate visual patterns and the way we are supposed to move through the spaces, understand the intentions of the original builders, and grasp the area's various functionalities. In constructed spaces in Korea, so often all but one or two things support this equation. But there is always that one area that confuses my perception a bit. Something that doesn't quite add up and I can't quite understand the intentions that were behind it during the building process.

Speaking of the idea of the incomplete and way structures are built, this morning I was watching this TED talk lecture by Marcus Du Sautoy which was about symmetry in nature, design, art and architecture. As an artist, I think about symmetry a lot. Our minds and perceptions are designed to be attracted to symmetry. Whenever I look through the lens of my camera I always feel this pull to frame these really symmetrical compositions. It kind of sickens me actually, and it's something I fight with every time I'm making photographs. Because in many cases, something that's so symmetrical will become visually stale so fast. It just doesn't contain anything to keep you coming back to it.

Seeking out the symmetry is a completely natural thing to do, since apparently the more symmetrical an organism is, the higher its ability to reproduce. So people that are more symmetrical are usually seen as more attractive, and as more desirable mates. This is also the reason that viruses can spread so quickly and can be so dangerous: virus particles tend to be extremely symmetrical.

Marcus Du Sautoy said something I thought was really interesting which relates to that idea of artists fighting against symmetry: "Artists set up expectations for symmetry and then break them."

I can be down with that.

And another thing I've been pondering all day since I heard it this morning was what he quoted from these Japanese essays written by a monk in the 14th century called the "Essays in Idleness": "Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished."

I really have an affinity for that idea. Art that is too complete, symmetrical or slick and over-produced just gets tired so quickly. I want to look or listen to something that makes me feel like I need to keep coming back to it to fully grasp (I guess the only problem is that most people don't want to make half that effort, hence why the best art is left underappreciated).

Here's a link to his lecture if you're interested.

I learned about another thing that I've never really thought about before that is the origin of the number zero (coincidentally perhaps the most symmetrical of our number symbols). By that, I mean the concept of zero and nothingness in the collective consciousness. At least in recorded history the number zero never had a symbol until halfway through the 7th century. I guess no one really talked about nothing. When you think about it, zero and the idea of nothing is a really abstract concept, which is most useful only in terms of mathematics or philosophy. Many ancient civilizations only used numbers for counting and keeping track of their herds of food-animals and whatnot. Apparently, like many scientific and mathematical disciplines, zero was brought to Europe from the Arabs, who themselves learned it from people in India. "The history of nothing" has a nice ring to it. Here's a couple of links about the history of zero:

Furthermore: television snow. Rather than trying to explain it myself, here's three links which explain how about 1% of television white noise is actually the microwave radiation emanating through space from when the universe was created. After the big bang, there was energy expelled in the form of a microwave afterglow that is consistent everywhere and in every direction. Wow.
info 1
info 2
info 3

And lastly, a documentary about Tibetan Buddhism by Werner Herzog called "The Wheel of Time" got me thinking about what it would be like to measure the circumference of the world with my body. The film is about this huge Buddhist ceremony that hundreds of thousands of people make a pilgrimage to every few years when it takes place. Some extreme devotees walk hundreds or even thousands of miles there by praying and lying fully prostrate for every. single. step.

They attach wooden boards to their hands so they're not destroyed by the journey. This old monk from a remote area of China was interviewed who had travelled in this manner for 3000 miles. It took him somewhere around 3 years to make the entire journey. He said during the interview he didn't want to make a big thing about it, even though nodes had grown on the bones in his wrist from praying so much and lying prostrate across the ground. When they asked him about the distance being such an incredible feat, he just said yes, he knew how big the world was because he measured it with his arms, his legs, his head, and his body. He measured and felt every step. That's intense.

Here's the part of the documentary that shows their pilgrimage. This version is not in English though, but you can see what I'm talking about.

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