We live in a composite world and the many facets of meeting elements in conjunction outside a museum or gallery influences our perception of art, in particular when we are confronted by an assemblage. This essay will examine the dynamics and effects that occur when assembling objects to become parts of a new piece of art. And it will try to decipher some of the emotions that may be triggered by elementary features of assemblage.
Keywords: art – assemblage – process – creation – elements – layers – composition
Placing a boiled egg on a slice of bread can be seen as an assemblage. Only in hungry people will this stir emotion and not in most spectators who are craving for creations that fit in the ill-defined description of 'art'. Already now, on commencing to write this essay, I'm entering quicksand. Indeed, if an artist had arranged a place in a museum of contemporary art (MOCA) for this boiled egg on a slice of bread - instead of eating it - then it could be seen as an artistic assemblage, and a cause for a headache for the conservator.
This essay, written by a - in terms of experience - 'young' artist, will not try to provide a travel guide leading the reader through the last century of art creation through the medium of assemblage. Rather, it will examine the dynamics and effects that occur when assembling objects to become parts in a new artwork. And it will try to decipher some of the emotions that may be triggered by elementary features of assemblage.
Looking at the meaning of the word assemblage, it is an entity made of separate, in themselves independent, elements. Note, if one speaks of an element, it already hints at something that may become or is part of a larger whole.
Realms and boundaries
The human experience of a phenomenon in one field, sets stakes that may influence the perception of a second phenomenon that shares some features with the first, even under different circumstances. See this as resonance.
The word assemblage is used by actors of many different occupations. While the nucleus of the above definition of assemblage persists in various realms, such as that of paleontology, biology, industry, sociology and art, each realm attaches extra significance.
I start with the meaning of assemblage in paleontology. For those readers, not acquainted with this field of science, I provide a short explanation: if a former living place ('habitat') is discovered and explored, and remnants (fossils) of different forms of life are detected, then these forms together make part of a paleontological 'assemblage'. As such, the most ancient assemblage dates back - in its creation - to more than 500 million years ago. This so-called Ediacarian assemblage ‘comprises marine life forms first appearing in latest Precambrian times - about 575 Ma [million years ago] -, placing them among the oldest multicellular fossils known and persisting into the basal Cambrian’. It is fascinating, and even a pictorial sensation, to read about the ensemble of creatures representing the oldest known multicellular organisms of the Ediacarian fauna (Clowes 2012: n.pag.)
In biology and ecology, dynamical changes are determined by the occurrence and disappearance of different species in a defined environment; in other words, the composition (type, number) of different species that are present in a specific place - the species assemblage - is described (Tonn & Magnusson 1982).
It seems redundant to write about assemblage in industry, since nearly all of us will know that the T-ford gained much popularity when assemblage was accomplished in assembly lines at about 1908 (Eyewitness to history 2005).
It comes as no surprise that there is a music band named Assembly-23. The intimate relation between composition (‘things set together’) and assemblage is obvious. Wassily Kandinsky tried to let his paintings – see for instance his Komposition-V (1911) – follow the structure of a modern musical composition, as an echo of his friendship with Arnold Schönberg. I will come back to the relation of colour and tone.
For sociologists, the way friendships take shape, how people get in touch or become attached, is nowadays described as friendship assemblage, even though in the current internet era this has a different character than in the past (Bucher 2012). Could it be that Robert Rauschenberg looked at human relationships in a similar sociological way? Think of this: ‘The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operations’, a quotation from John Cage (1991). Indeed, one may look at society as the assemblage product of human nature. Unsurprisingly, Cage became a friend of Rauschenberg, who had crossed boundaries of separate media in art with his Combines.
A striking example of such a Combine is his ‘Untitled’ (circa 1954), a curious, expanded, assemblage of several found objects: texts, metal, glass (including mirror), paint, chicken, and photographs, all contained in three wooden boxes. This ‘Untitled’ depicts people and places as well as animals: daily life, so to speak, with social bonds made visible by photographs of family and his friend Jasper John (Craft 2013). One can accept that the artist used the medium of assemblage to offer an artistic reflection of his views on his society. With assemblage, the separate boxes - that are part of the assemblage - stand for the rooms that people pass through in life. These become more tangible than when depicted in a painting.
In literature, a collection of poems in, for instance, a journal, may be experienced as an assemblage, with juxtaposition (placing different items side by side for comparison or contrast) seen as characteristic both in writing as well as in three-dimensional material assemblages (Herd 2012).
When we are confronted by an art assemblage, our earlier experiences of compositions and assemblies all influence the way the new experience acts on our senses. Very likely the formation of humans as gatherers dictates how we manage our environment: it is so obvious that the assembly of separate elements has extra meaning, that we may tend to forget that a collection triggers a special feeling not activated by its separate elements.
Looking beyond the human experience, it is curious that specific marine snails of the genus Xenophora make an assemblage by collecting items - shells, rocks, and other debris - from their environment and attaching these to their shell (Figure 1). As fascinating as it may look, it is improbable that this snail made the assemblages in order to trigger an emotion - unconscious or conscious - that approaches that of humans exposed to comparable assemblages, even though these creatures have been called ‘Assemblage Artists from the Deep’ (Stewart 2008). Such shell assemblages may be for camouflage or other physical benefits. Another example from animal life is the way male Satin Bowerbirds gather and display colorful items in order to attract a hoped-for female partner through their display (Rudolph 2003).There seem to be no physical advantages in what they collect beyond this wooing of a potential partner; the items in their collections perform a sociological function in this bird society.
Xenophora Xenuis. A sea snail collecting shells and stones and assembling these on its own shell. Photograph used with permission from Iris Männig. http://irismaennig.de/xenophora-tenuis
The different facets of elements
What made Kandinsky strive for incorporation of sound in his paintings, such as in the famous 'Komposition' series? Kandinsky was able to experience and to formulate that perception of different elements, such as colours, by one sense, vision, was connected to the experience of another sense, hearing. In the almanac related to the 1912 exhibition ‘Die Blaue Reiter’, he states: ‘Die Mittel verschiedener Künste <sind> äußerlich vollkommen verschiedenen, Klang, Farbe, Wort! . . .’ (‘The media of different arts are on the outside totally different, sound, colour, word!’), but he continues: ‘Im letzten innerlichen Grunde sind diese Mittel volkommen gleich: das letzte Ziel löscht die Außeren Verschiedenheiten und entblößt die innere Identität’ ('In their final inner essence are these media completely equal: the final goal dissolves outer differences and exposes the inner identity’) (Kandinsky 1912: 190).
Elsewhere in the same almanac Kandinsky writes: ‘Die Form ist der äußere Ausdruck des inneren Inhaltes’ ('The shape is the outer expression of the inner content’) (Kandinsky 1912a: 137). Thus, a colour ('Farbe') has a specific inner content: sound ('Klang'). Kandinsky was not the first to propound this view, as can be read in the same almanac where Leonid Sabanejew explains the musical ideas of the composer Skrjabin that were brought into existence in the symphonic composition Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, in 1910 (Sabanejew, 1912). For the first time in history a composition included a notation for lights and colours, which, when played on a colour keyboard, were projected on screens in harmony with the music.
Both painting and music are compositions (…) of elements, that 'speak' from and to one another. An element used in one art medium may have a consonant from another medium. For both media, such compositions can be seen as assemblages, even if physically composed in two dimensions. Elements used in compositions (assemblages) may have extra meaning, beyond their first, superficial, appearance. This phenomenon is expressed even more strongly in the artistic medium of three-dimensional assemblage, which has multiple effects upon spectators.
The development of an experience
Motto: the creation of art, to me, is not work. The end-result is not seen as a piece, but as a whole. Since it brings me comfort and relieves stress, I call my assemblages 'art-peaces'
For many years in my spare time I used building and carpentry tools to repair or renovate a home, or to make furniture. In spring 2013 my tools progressively became more and more the instruments to create assemblages. In the 30 preceding years I had made three or four attempts in this direction; now the urge to create art was given free rein. It brought forth a big change in my assessment of items I encountered, which until then I had viewed as either 'functional' or as 'waste'. From that moment, I considered nearly every item as 'of potential use someday'. Soon, the remnants of earlier handiwork were not enough. My experiences of walking or driving in the city or its outskirts became enriched with the act of looking out for demolition material. This gathering of material rapidly became extended by visiting building sites, particularly in the quest for pieces of concrete iron. The items were not just accidental 'found objects', they were searched for, although not purchased...
(1) An item or element must grow familiar.
The importance of gathering material became palpable as I realised that the number of potential items needed to be superfluous, in order for me to be able to make the best choice of elements that fitted together. Last year, in the book David Smith by Karen Wilkin of the Abbeville Modern Masters series (Wilkin 1984) – a gift from a new friend in art – and subsequently in the book David Smith Invents (Behrends Frank 2011), published on occasion of the 2011 retrospective exhibition in Washington, I read that this giant in our field practised - much earlier - the same handling of material. He was conscious of the need to get accustomed to each item he collected through its prolonged presence in his studio at Bolton Landing, before actually trying to fit and weld the items to each other. His attraction to assemblage was likely formed by his experience in the automobile industry working on the Studebaker assembly line (Wilkin 1984: 21).
By taking items or parts in the hand and ‘getting the feel’ of them, the shape and state that stems from earlier use is registered through touch. If a change or 'damage' to shape (and functionality) has occurred, when considering an item's earlier function, the physics of the damage, as well as the change it produced, are all features that are sooner or later recognised. All these 'charge' the item with extra content, and let it 'put on extra layers'. Further on, I will examine these layers in more detail.
(2) Similarities of separate items with other beings add to their ‘weight’ in the final assemblage.
Each item may have a form that is not only an echo of a former function associated with its shape, but may directly, or because of the 'damage', have similarities with a completely different thing, or creature. Sometimes, faint hints of this different being can be slightly, or very much, enhanced by joining them to another thing. The vision of such newly acquired, or rather shaped form, can be described as recognition of a 'dream-state'.
In the next phase, the artist in me takes several items and changes the size or shape if deemed necessary. This act is interdependent with the desired end-form, which is attempted and assessed by placing items in one space, in a constant process of trial and error, until a good fit is achieved. It is difficult to explain when such a fit appears good. At times an easy fit of pieces in the puzzle may be indicative of a good outcome. But when not easily obtained, an interesting placement of items next to one another might still be reached with imagination combined with handicraft skills. In such circumstances I ask myself which adaptation of the items, and what type of construction, might enable this artist to arrive at the desired three-dimensional state? Often, at night, I explore in my mind pathways which I might travel: which items and materials are felt to be synergic, or of sufficiently strong contrast; and which forms should I strive for. The next day, while working, the stakes set at night are encountered and assessed for their efficacy in guiding the creative process.
(3) The echo of the process of creating the assemblage is a non-material element of the assemblage.
Once the technicalities seem resolvable, I have the option to hide all visible steps and tricks of construction that enabled me to arrive at my goal. However, the opposing option is to enhance the visibility of these acts of construction. The choice between hiding or enhancing the physics behind the assemblage-making becomes a significant extra element in realising the final product.
In 1961 this process was well understood by William C Seitz, curator of the ground-breaking exhibition on Assemblage, who wrote: 'Tearing, cutting, burning, pasting, stapling, nailing, sewing, welding, and the use of heavy plastic substances can do much more than separate or join' (Seitz 1961: 85).
The combination of different materials must follow some very basic physics. If one puts glass in a cleft piece of wood, a safe fit can be produced. If one wants to put glass in iron or stone, it is advised to buffer the contact area. Soldering copper is easier than iron. Particular glues are needed for various materials. This is the handicraft part of creating assemblages, and can be easily discussed with a carpenter, a builder, or the owner of a handicraft shop. Why so many people view metal and wood as so very suited for assemblages, I can only guess. A functional relation is clear, with doors, locks and hinges having been combined for thousands of years. But even the look of the two materials in juxtaposition has an obvious appeal to many people, as is exemplified by the existence of a photography group named 'Metal and Wood – Combined for Good' at www.flickr.com.
Contrasting materials produce a different emotion, sometimes even a tension, when compared to material items of the same kind. Wood is more likely to be associated with 'warmth' and metal with 'cold', all this under conditions of ambient temperature, rather than in a heated state. Production of such tension (here by juxtaposition) is seen as a possible force to enhance 'beauty in art' (Jewell: 2012).
Assemblage: working in layers
The essence of working with found objects (or scrap material) is that their different natures will enrich the composition as they are expressed in its different layers. This effect is based upon the divergent origins, structures and functions of these elements: wood, metal, glass, stone, cloth, plastic, etc. As a consequence, each bears a different weight and ease for 'penetrance' (transparency), that will influence the final form of the composition. Some basic materials are easily reshaped in a more or less fluent form, with cloth at one end, and metal (in particular U-shaped constructions) at the other, being highly resistant. Each element also has a different affinity to secondary layers such as paint.
With found objects, former shape and function, often closely linked, may show wear and tear. As mentioned above, extra scars may have been added as remnants of a demolition process. In so far as these are not cut off from the items in question, and have not been obscured under extra layers of material, all three features leave an echo, which softly resonates in the new assemblage. Some artists, such as Joseph Cornell, in many of his works, choose to leave a found item unaltered in order to achieve such effects (Waldman 2002).
Karen Wilkin made a perceptive comparison of the approach followed by David Smith and that followed by possibly the first assemblagist in modern art, Pablo Picasso. The latter chose to let the elements ‘declare themselves frankly as what they were’ by keeping their original shape and size. In contrast, Smith ‘transformed his found objects in a way that completely subverts their role in the work of his predecessors’. In late works by Smith there was such transformation that the original shapes of objects became subdued by the final composition (Wilkin 1984: 21).
In many of my art-peaces, a significant transformation of original items takes place. Yet this is not the case in 'Black Wheel' (2013, Figure 2, the title is self-explanatory) in which the original grinding wheel and small soldering apparatus are easily recognised – although my composition with other items (including the inner part of a crane) makes the whole resemble either a fat man, or a record player. The assemblage ‘Reflexion’ (2014, Figure 3) displays items, that were at the start - as these were found - already elementary. These include pieces of wood, metal, stone and some rudiments of earlier, complex construction material, cut to the size that was fit for the assemblage. Their placement as multiple parts in the assemblage makes their original identity (shape) subsidiary to the composition as a whole. In the work, this 'effect' is reached fairly soon, with several items in the basic shape not bearing a prominent function, yet moderating (tempering) other items with more presence.
Figure 2. Assemblage 'Black Wheel', by Drager Meurtant, 2013 (private collection). Wood, metal, grinding wheel, betumen, paint,sand, size 50x36x20 cm.
Text to 'Black Wheel': The hardness stored / in a black wheel / cuts though iron. / And may, / if the needle finds the right groove / touch the soul / past marrow and bone. // Dedicated to a great assemblagist / sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro
Figure 3. Assemblage 'Reflexion', by Drager Meurtant, 2014 (owned by artist). Wood, metal, stone, mirror, paint, size 62x38x33 cm.
Text to 'Reflexion': the turnkey lightens / the backside of thought / or view. // But the elements / are entangled / with the space inside / and their reflexion / into the outside world.
As a third example, 'The Goddess Xyope' (2014, Figure 4) contains wood on board, epoxy - to stiffen cloth and cardboard - and metal, plus small pieces of wood as these were left from other productions. Most elements are in a basic shape that disappear in the whole composition – apart from the metal rods, which stand out. I In both ‘Reflexion’ and ‘The Goddess Xyope’ figurative elements appear, formed by combining minor parts and following their intrinsic suggestion of figuration, or by explicitly giving shape to a figural component.
Figure 4. Assemblage 'The Goddess Xyope', by Drager Meurtant, 2014 (owned by artist). Wood, cloth, epoxy, metal, paint, size 40x33x14 cm.
Text to 'The Goddess Xyope': The goddess Xyope hides in me / and just once a rare while / does she reveal her existence. // On few such occasions / is she accompanied by the It-With-the-Sharp-Beak. // At such moments / she remains silent.
A number of artists, including Man Ray and Juan Gris, have employed pieces of mirror in their assemblages. My experience is that the reflection of pure glass, or even stronger reflections from a mirror, bring part of the outer world into the art-work. Communication with some parts may be indirect, since the mirror helps to expose sides (backsides) of elements otherwise invisible to the spectator (see ‘Reflexion’).
In these three works, the use of recognisable original components or the pursuit of a figurative impression prevents them from being fully abstract. I quote William C Seitz: ‘Nearly every work of assemblage, in its relational structure, approaches abstract art’ (Seitz 1961: p25), but ‘the practice of assemblage raises materials from the level of formal relations to that of associational poetry’ (Seitz 1961: 84).
As well as the choice and transformation of elements, the position of the elements as steered by the artist profoundly affects the nature and complexity of the artwork composed. Thus, for one artwork, a firm ground like a multiplex wooden panel may be chosen, with subsequent build-up of smaller or larger elements fixed with glue or screw. As a next step, other elements may be added, elevated upon a minute screw or nail as tiny supportive structure, allowing these elements to float above the underground.
By its very nature, assemblage is three-dimensional, and demands the exploration of multiple layers, and sometimes of transparency. While for many of Louise Nevelson's assemblages it is feasible to look into but not through them, David Smith achieved complete transparency in most of his welded assemblages. Working from a flat panel, or with a box as basis, such as extensively explored by Joseph Cornell (Waldmann 2002), and by Robert Rauschenberg in his assemblages (Craft 2013), such artworks present a confined space, room or even several rooms and reflect a life experience.
When Kurt Schwitters started with his ‘Merz’ artworks in the early 1920s, these were at first moderate-sized collages/assemblages. ‘Merz’ originated as the last four letters of the word Kommerz (Commerce) from an advertisement he had used in a collage. These artworks were soon followed by a large architectural construction of wood and cardboard in his home in Hannover, plus furniture-parts enriched with drawings and photographs. ‘Merzbau’ studio (Figure 5) developed continuously until 1937 when Schwitters escaped from the Nazi regime to Norway and, in 1940, to Great Britain. The Hannover ‘Merzbau’, also called ‘The Column’, or ‘The Cathedral of Erotic Misery’, was destroyed by a bomb raid in 1943. At present, a reconstruction of the main room can be viewed in the Sprengel Museum in Hannover. Schwitters started several times (in Oslo, in Britain) with new Merzbau creations, but these were not completed. Experiences and developing life by the artist came to existence in his studio, becoming a work of living art, or art lived. (For an extensive description on ‘Merzbau’, see Elizabeth Burns Garmard's book, Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, 2000).
Figure 5: Kurt Schwitters: Merzbau Hannover, 1923-1937, photograph 1933 by Wilhelm Redemann, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2013.
The sculptural form as exploited by David Smith, Juan Miro, and many others that formulate a more figurative or more abstract 'free-stand' will often be associated with a 'being' or 'thing'. A special form of assemblage is that of 'temporary sculpture'. Found objects are arranged into an assemblage, which is photographed, and then disassembled (Drager Meurtant ‘Five’, 2013, Figure 6).
Figure 6: Temporary assemblage 'Five', by Drager Meurtant, 2014. Found objects in abandoned factory: photographed 2014 (size framed 80x50 cm).
Text to 'Five': Says Harry to June / Ola, see you didn't come alone? // Well no, answers June / my father and my brother wanted to come along. // Asks Harry, I count five, / who is the tall one with crutches? // The neighbor, answers June, / by name of Drareg, / and he had a single ticket in supply.
Some artists make large-scale open-air exhibits of assemblages, employing discarded and/or found objects. The work in Los Angeles started by the Italian immigrant and tile setter Sabato (or Simon or Sam) Rodia in 1921 and continued till 1955 is an eminent example. Originally entitled ‘Nuestro Pueblo’ (Our People) the towers Rodia created (the largest of which is 100 feet in height) are now known as The Watts Towers. They were raised with steel rods and reinforced concrete, and the surface covered with mosaics made of tiles, pottery and bottles.
Another artist, Noah Purifoy was the first director of the Watts Tower Cultural Center established by local people in 1962 to safeguard the site. After retirement in 1989 Noah Purifoy moved to Joshua Tree, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, to create a large sculptural park. Sculptures and composites of broken household machinery, automobile parts and electronic equipment rattle in the wind, creating a musical piece in this desert that I unfortunately only know from the internet (Lee 2011). Both Rodia and Purifoy aimed to let art be part of their communities in order to stimulate creativity and strengthen the engagement of citizens with society (Cándida Smith 2009).
As pointed out earlier, juxtaposition is one of the most prominent features of the medium of assemblage: the placement of elements (materials) that by their shape or nature generate surprise and a sense of incongruence. No wonder surrealists like Man Ray, Max Ernst and Juan Miro employed the medium of assemblage. Various forms of incongruity relate well to the traumatic experiences many artists endured during World War One and which informed the Dada Movement and subsequently fueled surrealist views and interests. These artists, in trying to manifest or manage 'automatous' or 'unconscious' processes, created images that are experienced by the spectator as highly improbable or unreal (Seitz 1961: 39-41; Adams 1995).
A short note on the origin
In 1961 the medium of assemblage was given a boost by an exhibition, The Art of Assemblage, at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). William C Seitz, the curator, defined the medium of assemblages as follows: ‘entirely or in part, their constituent elements are preformed natural or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials.’ (Seitz 1961: 6)
Seitz, as well as many other authors since then, pointed to Pable Picasso as one of the first artists to make assemblages, the prime example being his ‘Still Life with Chair Caning’ (1912). Onto the painting Picasso added a section of oilcloth with a design imitating chair caning, making it a collage, similar to works made by Braque. The addition of a rope to frame the image makes it into an assemblage. Apart from Picasso and Kurt Schwitters, other early artists who fit into the group now considered as assemblage artists include Marcel Duchamp, Vladimir Tatlin, and the 'Dada Baroness', Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. The origin of the word (in its artistic sense) stems from later times and can be traced back to the early 1950s, when Jean Dubuffet created a series of collages of butterfly wings, which he titled assemblages d'empreintes (assemblage of prints) (Seitz 1961).
In Autumn of 2014 I visited the Agiou Dimetriou church in Thessaloniki, that dates from the 7th century, and was struck by sacral paintings onto which metal was added, such as silver for a hand, aura and shield. Photography was not allowed, but with perseverance, you may find images on the web. Of course, the metal added is not a found object, and the final work of art does not meet other requirements to entitle it as assemblage, yet the silver creates a specific effect that echoes that of 20th century collages and assemblages.
The catalogue to the exhibition ‘The Art of Assemblage’ includes some artefacts from well before the 20th century. One is a two-headed dog made heavy by dozens of nails penetrating body and head, which stemmed from Cabinda in Africa (Figure 7) and is thought to have had a ritual 'bewitchment' function as described some 100 years ago (Verneau 1916).
Figure 7: Two-headed dog, anonymous, Cabinda, Africa 19th century. Carved wood, nails, animal teeth, size 11x22.75 inch, Musée de l'homme Paris
The author thanks Jaap Joles for valuable help with grammar, and Bruce Kirckpatrick for digital solutions.
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