Dmitry Kawarga’s Polymer Sculptures and Model of Biomorphic Consciousness
By Joel Simpson
Dmitry Kawarga is a visionary in abstract polymer plastic, an extremely malleable medium that allows exquisitely detailed nuance of shape, edge and texture. It is completely white, so that form and shadow are the entire drama (except for his installation, see below). His art seems to be that of molding the rich store of forms generated by turbulent heating and pulling the medium, ending up with frozen (or “crystallized” in his terminology) forms that—if the viewer permits herself to see beyond the chaos—are marvelously expressive.
This article will consider three bodies of Kawarga’s work: Crystallized Thought Forms (2008), The Diffusion of Form Creation (2009), and A Model of Biomorphic Consciousness (2007). It will become apparent later on why we take them out of chronological order.
Kawarga’s Crystallized Thought Forms first present themselves as frozen flux—white polymer extrusions suspended in space or sitting on clear glass—but there are certain formal recurrences that can us lead to an understanding of Kawarga’s vocabulary in the medium, and ultimately of his themes.
Take #985, for example. The center of gravity is a ponderous mass, like a half-deflated spider’s abdomen, with a smoothly folding surface. This extends by thick extrusion into a kind of proboscis that sports two round enclosed extensions, like folded back antennae. Threads of plastic. like thin streams of pulled taffy, emerge from the central mass, as if shot out like firework streamers, losing their straightness in squashvinelike or smokelike curlicues, the most forward one ending by hold a tiny outline of a cube. If we accept that this is a “thought form,” we can make a number of humorous inferences concerning Kawarga’s insights into human cognitive products. The center is an emotional mass, easily imagined to be expanding, contracting, morphing (but “crystallized” for now into immobility) into an endless series of undifferentiated random shapes, held together by forces akin to the mental counterparts of gravity, inertia and molecular cohesion, powered by habit, need, and desire. We catch it in the process of metamorphosing into the beginning of another thought. The streamers are distractions, fleeting velleities, hopeless wishes that burst out from the center and mostly fizzle out in the surrounding space. The little box outline is a small gestures of logic—appendages, afterthoughts to the main mass.
Armed with such a gloss, the more complex #292 appears to be a large-scale thought-action, possibly a conflict between two or more thought-originators in verbal combat or trying to solve a problem from different perspectives. Denuded of their human bearers, who normally clothe their thoughts in decorous physical appearance and gestures of politeness (“Speech was given to man to disguise his thought”—Talleyrand), the thoughts by themselves appear quite monstrous, vaguely evoking dinosaurs, primitive fish, foetuses. As in #985, the central masses project smaller masses (“thought development”) as well as thin streamers. Here, however, there are many more outlines of cubes, and they are much larger. Some are bent. We can imagine that the contentious dialogue among these thinking entities invokes logic when appropriate, but it is just a tool and often distorted.
Number 498 uses these same tropes, but there is a ragged hole in the middle of the central mass and what seem to be more and shorter projecting threads. The thinking entity has apparently just experienced a devastating rejection or refutation. The distractions are apparently more numerous but more futile.
Elsewhere in this body of work, Kawarga seems to explore more extreme forms of thought. Sometimes the weighty emotional mass is absent, and all there is, is a twisted vertical cling-structure, with solid cube “roots” (a cute visual pun), and a flowering top with rows of button-like nubs (#979). I could see the thought form a true believer, a zealot, whose position is rooted logic, grows through narrow, anxious focus upon itself, and flowers in a repugnant blossom. Or what about #111, which extends like a reptilian jawbone with sharp but bent teeth, while the “head” is an interlacing of mostly thick doughy snakes culminating in a miniature abstract of the skull of a hammerhead shark? One senses that this piece describes intense, vengeful anger.
After working on this series for about a year, Kawarga was well equipped to represent a subject as large as the Financial Crisis as one of his thought forms. His version of it seems perfectly clear. The main mass is collapsed and folded onto itself, forming an off-balance “S” with multi-form detritus on top and bottom, that includes rings, bars and projecting prickles, with a frozen drip vaguely resembling a human figure hung by the feet, extending from the back of the top curve down towards the end of the lower upsweep—a picture of structural collapse and its dire effects on the Investor. Then projecting out from this structure is a crowd of cube outlines, surmounted by two large solid cubes and intercalated with a few smaller solid ones. The “S” structure to one side is the loss, the pain, the bankrupt investment houses, the vaporized savings, loss of wealth and collapsed social class and non-profit organization—all at the mercy of a breaking wave of empty value. The cubes, once again, are the arguments, the principles, the logic on which the unstable structure was built, now revealed to be overwhelmingly empty, with a few floating exceptions.
This last piece confirms Kawarga’s mastery of the visual language of his polymers. In a second body of work in the same medium, Diffusion of Form Creation, he takes it a step farther, unconstrained by the limits of his imagined topography of thought. Here Kawarga creates more convoluted and sometimes larger scale forms, using the shapes, twists, extrusions, snakes and cubes he had developed in his prior work. Thought, after all, may be physically formless, but it has its own emotional coherence generated by a virtual human subject. The works in his Diffusion of Form Creation series, however, begin to adumbrate a much more diversely formed natural world, the world that is outside the human mind.
The first one on display from this series seems to present a screen surmounting a row of grotesque plants. Roots or succulents, their identity is left ambiguous, but their inhospitable muscularity is clear. The screen above them appears to be the water surface of a pond, whose milky liquid contains arthropod bodies, some of which poke up above the surface, in two cases in series of decreasing size. We see things resembling segmented curved abdomens, ruined wings, jointed insect feet, and strange body extensions. Kawarga is not trying to be literal, but he evokes the pond as metaphor for a self-contained ecosystem on three levels: under water, above water, and outside the range of the water (the “plants”). Grotesque growth has been followed by death and decay—not that dissimilar from the economic meltdown.
The succeeding works in this series take the viewer into bizarre realms of plasticity well beyond those of the Thought Forms. Their elements include lines, braided twists, lipped tubes, bands, belts, clawlike fingers, rods, cube skeletons, apparent references to plant stems, sheathes, insect legs, intestines and other internal organs. Each sculpture is suspended on a meat hook, so floats in space, dramatizing its “rawness,” which here stands for Kawarga’s unmediated vision. Kawarga calls himself a “radical of biological morphs,” but this designation only conveys the nature of his sculptural language and does not hint at their power.
The sculptures themselves, without requiring the viewer to analyze them, heave their meanings at us, and we may recoil from their ferocity, abstract though they are. Their biomorphic vocabulary grabs us in those places where we store our emotional connections to bodily and natural forms, including some very deep, intuitive places; then they twist and combine them in radical and violent ways, to convey their savage warnings. His grotesque creations seem to be saying that we have betrayed our natural environment and our biological nature.
But Kawarga does offer some hope. His installation A Model of Biomorphic Consciousness, completed in 2007, precedes his other two bodies of work discussed above, but it offers an indirect affirmation of the possibility of connection with natural things outside ourselves, wherein may lie our redemption. It proposes no less than the exercise of empathy with an awareness that is entirely Other, entirely outside ourselves, that of a humble land snail. On a deeper level it connects us to our purely natural, pre-verbal origins.
Visually, the installation consists of a series of black boxes, open at one end mount on poles at different heights, steadied with guy wires, with smaller boxes acting as counter-weights. Polymer ascendants twist and tease out tendrils, resembling ginseng roots and brain cells, while heaps of the plastic suggest moribund arthropods, and a petrified octopus. It’s extensively interactive. As the viewer looks inside the various boxes and touches sensors, her pulse, breath, emotional excitement level, hand temperature among other vital signs are registered and communicated to the virtual snails through the conditions of their “habitat”: temperature, level of light, physical vibrations, and the frequency and intensity of faint electric currents. The snails react by speeding up or slowing down, by hiding in their shells and altering their muscle tension. Microphones and video cameras record the reactions of the snails inside the sculptures, which the spectator observes, and which in tern may provoke changes in the physical state of the spectator, which then, following the loop, are fed back to the environment of snails, and so forth.
Kawarga has thus permitted human spectators and virtual mollusks to interact in an intersubjective cybernetic system, harnessing each one’s “otherness” to each other at a reflexive, that is, involuntary level. It is an intensified, magnified demonstration of what happens at every moment between humans and the natural world that supports us, though most of us prefer to remain unaware. But it is also the implicit reply—if not a solution—to the conundrum posed by his later work, a 21st Century version of Voltaire’s injunction to cultivate one’s garden. We are creatures of nature. If we attune ourselves to our interdependence on the planet and all its systems which gave us our existence, and reign in our humanocentric, dominating attitudes (and the heedless greed of a very few) we can prosper. If not, we all perish.
Joel Simpson holds a Ph. D. in comparative literature from Brown University and a Master of Music from Loyola University in New Orleans. He has variously taught English, French Italian, and jazz history at a number of universities, including Tulane, the University of New Orleans, Montclair State University, Drew University, Columbia and Fordham. Currently he writes art reviews for several publications and practices fine art photography, with recent shows in New York, Paris, and Tours, France. He is the creator of Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano CD-ROM (1999). His photographic work may be seen at
www.barbarian-art.com and www.joelsimpsonart.com