PARMENIDES I
AND THE SEARCH FOR THE UNKNOWABLE

Dev Harlan


Two works are discussed in this writing, each from different times in my artistic practice. I attempt to outline their intent and the evolution of my thinking about them. Both works ultimately involve the act of future speculation but with very different consequences.

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Parmenides I
“The Astral Flight Hangar” Exhibition, 
Christopher Henry Gallery, New York, USA


Parmenides I is a light sculpture I produced early in my practice. A freestanding work of welded aluminum, it is about 8ft tall and digitally augmented with 3D video projection mapping. The shape is polyhedral, specifically a stellated rhombic triacontahedron.The projected light is constrained to the shape of the sculpture, creating the illusion of a self- illuminating surface rippling with color washes, gradients and patterns.

Polyhedra are not a product of man, but a product of nature. I like to think of them as cosmic mathematical ready-mades. Found in the atomic structure of minerals and implicit in the language of mathematics, polyhedra are anti-historical - they could be discovered by any intelligent life anywhere. In the work “Parmenides I” the polyhedron becomes a reference to the idea of universals that exist outside human experience, a part of “nature” that defies anthropocentrism.

There is another link to the idea of something “outside” human experience. The title of the work is Parmenides, who is the philosopher considered to be the “father of ontology.” From him extends a metaphysical line of thinking that proposes that all reality is based on pure archetypes existing in a perfect metaphysical universe that transcends the sullied reality of everyday life. Mathematically harmonious objects such as polyhedra seem to be a perfect fit for this perfect universe, and it is no surprise that some Greeks saw mathematics as a path to spiritual transcendence, famously, Pythagoras and his followers.

Perhaps for these reasons I am occasionally asked if there is some transcendental intention in my work. Certainly the way I am using light as a medium suggests to many a meditative and liminal mode of viewing. In fact, I owe a debt to artists such as James Turrell and others in the “Light and Space” movement, who considered light as a visceral substance to be shaped and modulated in a way that encourages rapt stillness.

Turrell is able to link the transcendental to his Quaker roots and their quiet practices of soul searching contemplation. I was raised Mormon, where, as a child, I also experienced the similar elation of religious conviction. Mormonism, however, is a very different and flawed brand of fundamentalism. While Mormons also achieve transcendental bliss by ritual, song and stillness, it is aided by being grossly out of touch with historical fact. The Mormon doctrine is a trove of “alternative facts.”

I left the mind-erasing practices of the Mormons when I was a teenager and it is probably because of that upbringing that I am today no mystic. The light works are not really intended to have spiritual or esoteric meaning, despite connection to Turrel or the Pythagoreans.

The meditative or transcendental state is actually to be understood as gateway to the imaginative subconscious. The work suggests a fictional object possessing its own radiant power and allows the imagination to speculate on the shape’s cosmic “otherness.” In this fictional space, “Parmenides I” represents a futurist transcendentalism where such objects are the source of an unknowable sublime luminosity - a technology that might as well be magic to us. Is this form the glowing presence of a conscious mind? A powerful gift from an advanced civilization? Or is that advanced civilization merely ourselves in the far future sending back a glimmering message in a bottle?

“In visual art the fiction is the “veil,” which, again, means nothing in itself since, surely, what it conceals is no more than art’s own fictionality. Its value for the perceiver lies in its power to activate and organize the movements of desire: in our desire to know what is behind it imaginative thought and knowledge are engendered.” 

-Jean Fisher, The Echoes of Enchantment

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And Other Things You Can Buy On The Internet.
Macintosh Computers and Bamboo Scale, “Eighteen” Exhibition,
Usagi Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, USA



If we pull back the “veil,” we see that this fiction requires an elaborate deceit. What the viewer experiences is a designed experience, using nascent technological and powerful computers. The technology is hidden away, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, with the intended effect of mesmerizing the senses. It is an “artistry” more related to the earlier form of the word, suggesting “artifice.” The transcendental gateway is man made.

Never mind the absurdity of creating a perfect geometric object. In the course of my practice I have crafted them by hand, by cutting and folding paper or carving tediously into soft stone. Far from perfect. I have relied on 3D printing, CNC milling and the expertise of professional welders. Like chasing a mirage, the closer one comes to perfection the farther it recedes into the distance.

Perhaps the only place where mathematically perfect polyhedra could live spinning in eternal harmony is the limitless expanse of pure idealism as imagined in enlightenment era ontology. More recent thinking on the nature of objects resists this fantasy. Timothy Morton states “Synthetic judgments a priori are made inside an object, not in some transcendental sphere of pure freedom.”

But this is not to strip away mystery and replace it with cynicism. We also read in Morton:

“We live in an infinite non-totalizable reality of unique objects, a reality that is infinitely rich and playful, enchanting, anarchic despite local pockets of hierarchy, infuriating, rippling with illusion and strangeness. In this reality, objects are perfectly straightforward, with no transcendental or hidden aspects. Yet precisely because of this very fact, objects are completely weird: they hide out in the open, under the spotlight. Their very appearance is a kind of miracle.”

-Timothy Morton, Realist Magic


And Other Things You Can Buy On The Internet,
Usagi Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, USA


The old computer and the artificial plant are such objects, situated together on the gallery floor, they are presented in their imperfect straightforwardness. They are small objects in a microcosm of things with related properties. The plant was purchased on the Internet via an affiliate of Lowe’s Hardware store. There are hundreds of plants to choose from, many with a high degree of realism for an affordable price. I took screen shots of dozens of them that I liked. The antique Apple computer flips through a slideshow of all sorts of other plants available from the same web site.

I began collecting the original Apple Macintosh computers in San Francisco in the late 90’s. I thought they were old then, but they had only just crossed into obsolescence. To me they are representative of a certain pre-internet technological idealism that played out in radical speculation and consumer marketing just at the cusp of the Internet’s immanence. It wasn’t just a personal computer, it was the dawn of “The Desktop Publishing Revolution!”

The predictions of our technological advances would spin off into dizzying a mountain of Utopian techno-sales hysteria. In the early 90s it became “The Information SuperHighway!” and digital transcendence through the coming of “Virtual Reality!” Lurking at the fringes was the even more radical euphoria of Mondo and Omni magazines: “Upload Your Wetware Into Cyberspace!”

The Internet we now know far exceeds some of its predictions, but also falls far short as well. In 1990, Ray Kurzweil (correctly) predicted the widespread adoption of the Internet by the early 21st century. “All human knowledge will be available to everyone!” Now we have Wikipedia, but it’s not always peer reviewed, often lacks citations and sometimes contains deliberate misinformation. Never mind that this Utopian gift is only relevant to people with access to the Internet in the first place, which now stands at only 45% of the global population.

The work And Other Things You Can Buy On The Internet is meant to remind us how we got to where we are (technologically) and asks us to consider: What are the validity of future speculations past and present? What are their consequences? How can we critique speculation in our own era?

Take for example Martian colonization as recently proposed by Elon Musk. I was at first caught up in his bold exuberance and technical problem solving. But on closer inspection, there seems to be a profound lack of thinking as to how his strategy would not simply replicate all the problems we already have here on Earth.

The justification that “becoming a space-faring race is a lot more interesting” can be accepted as the vacuous, but benign, ideal of a tech billionaire. The suggestion that it’s a solution to population growth, however, seems dim. Mars, for at least the next several hundred years, would actually be a really awful place for humans to have to live. For science? Great. For space tourism? Fun! To eat breakfast and gaze out at a rusty horizon knowing that you will never in your life again breath a gulp of fresh air because we carelessly destroyed the Earth? A bit dreary.

Some have thought more deeply about these problems. Kim Stanley Robinson, in his fictional Mars series, outlines the ethical conflict coming from terraforming this pristine planet. In a clever inversion of our political color coding, the “Greens” in his story are those wishing to dramatically terraform for human habitability while the “Reds” take the environmental extremist standpoint that the planet should not be altered in any way. The basis of the “Red” argument is to preserve the planet for scientific inquiry, but interestingly there is also a poetically human motivation—to not spoil the sublime awe found in natural landscapes, wherever in the solar system they may be found.

The economic enabler of Elon Musk’s strategy is actually resource extraction—a mining colony. Large industrial mining operations don’t tend to have such an altruistic track record on planet earth. They typically result in a uselessly enormous hole in the ground and a lot of toxic by-products. Robert Smithson’s thinking seems freshly appropriate in this context. Perhaps the proposal that derelict mining operations become ideal sites for large scale land art might be useful in connection to the Musk Mars scheme. In fact, Robinson already speculates optimistically about this. (“Mars As A Site For Radical Land Art!”) Attaching this cultural dimension to colonization is seductive but our track record for colonization is poor too. Within 20 years of the first Lunar or Martian colony, expect to also find the first interplanetary McDonald’s.

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Dev Harlan is a contemporary artist based in New York. His work has been presented in solo exhibitions at Christopher Henry Gallery (New York) and Vasquez Gallery (Brooklyn). Dev Harlan’s work operates at a point of increasing fluidity between physical and digital practices. Installations and sculptures are often constructed from geometric primitives, tessellated surfaces or appropriated objects.

www.devharlan.com