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12  |   T I M E O
Wall piece ( in several parts ), 1984
Painted wood with brass fittings
147 x 110 x 35 cm.

 


In the most often reproduced of Raphael’s wall paintings in the Vatican Palace’s Stanza della Segnatura, an imposingly mantled Plato strides side by side with Aristotle through what might best be described as an alumni-day gathering at the School of Athens. Each of those attending is rendered readily recognizable to his fellow scholars not by a name tag, but by an idiosyncratic attribute, which he displays or demonstrates. Beneath his left arm, Socrates’ erstwhile disciple totes a tome upon whose spine the word “TIMEO,” writ large, in Latin letters, is easily decipherable.


The School of Athens, wall painting (detail), Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.

To the left, on the outside wall of this grandly decorated hall, in relative obscurity below the magnificent “Parnassus” (which presents Apollo and the nine Muses, together with nine ancient and nine modern poets), an incidental painting, in the lower lefthand corner, depicts a cabinet, its doors standing half-open, in which hang wooden models of two Platonic solids: a dodecahedron below an icosahedron.


Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.

In 1984, Eberhard Blum and I spent the months of July, August, and September (which, since we had just married, nicely coincided with our “honeymoon’”) at the Villa Serpentara in Olevano Romano, a town located a two-hour bus ride outside of Rome, where he was the guest of the Akademie der Künste Berlin. At least once a week, we took the local rattletrap bus—which negotiated the narrow roads of the hilly countryside at such breakneck speeds that anyone the least bit prone to motion sickness was ill-advised to sit too far towards the back—to the Eternal City (so called, we decided, because not one of its public chronometers ever showed the proper time ) and spent the day there visiting museums and monuments, as well as art supply and book shops. On one such outing, we looked in at the Vatican, and I came across and photographed the rather worse-for-wear trompe l’œil detail in the Stanza della Segnatura that I’ve just described.


Incidental wall painting (detail), Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.

Returning to Berlin that fall, I reconstructed the fresco’s elements as a three-dimensional object. To this end, I commandeered a sturdy, antique bookcase that had long served Blum as shelving for his reams of musical scores and parts,  substituting for it workaday, white “Billy” bookshelves, which I’d acquired you-know-where and which, crooked and sagging, remained menacingly in service for the next thirty years. I removed the older case’s three roughly cobbled shelves, repainted it, inside and out, and, mindful of retaining the ornamental patterns on its side pieces, reproduced them on the doors I’d added—above which I inscribed “REVELATION 4 :1,” a reference to a passage in the Book of Revelation, which, if you take the time to look it up, reads : After this I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven : and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me ; which said, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.


TIMEO, 1984.

I then tinkered with intricate wooden models of the Platonic bodies, which were to be suspended within my TIMEO, completing the classic quintet of ideal forms by adding a tetrahedron, an octahedron, and a cube to complement the icosahedron and dodecahedron visible in Raphael’s fresco. In the process of constructing them, I was awed to experience the truth of an ancient teaching that recommends such construction, manipulation, and examination of these geometric figures as a contemplative étude of somatic meditation. I discovered that the postures and positions required of one’s arms, head, hands, and fingers when holding and handling these shapes—attitudes not dissimilar to the mudra, or symbolic hand gestures that form a part of the attitudes and actions in Indic dance, Hindu ceremony, and Buddhist iconography —over time, did actually seem to release singular energies in both mind and body—energies perhaps akin to the  electrochemical impulses that acupuncture generates. Only by violating the flawlessness of the circle and sphere had polygons and polyhedra been created; through the work of the hands thought had become manifest .


The paint was barely dry—indeed, I seem to recall a tearful all-night session spent finishing up the ornamental painting on the doors—when I showed TIMEO for the first time, in a group exhibition at a private residence. But whereas I’ve since then always shown it mounted on the wall, there, I simply stood it on the floor, against a wall, allowing it to take its place among the house’s other furnishings. At the time, I enjoyed the way in which the piece was taken for just another piece of furniture, albeit one whose open doors, held permanently ajar , revealed somewhat puzzling contents. Indeed, it blended in so well with the rest of the décor that guests at the opening began to use it as a convenient place to rest their ashtrays and wine glasses.


TIMEO and EARTH AIR FIRE WATER ÆTHER at the Berlinische Galerie in Martin-Gropiu-Bau, 1992.

In 1992, in another group show—this time at the Berlinische Galerie in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin—I exhibited TIMEO for the first time as an ensemble with the five panels EARTH AIR FIRE WATER AETHER, which, as described in some detail below, depict the five regular polyhedra in two dimensions—doing so in such a way that the “virtual reality” of their illusory volumes seems truer than that of the actual, wooden models hanging in TIMEO. To my delight and satisfaction, I recognized that, together, these works represent an expression of Platonic dialectics more complete than I’d believed myself capable of fabricating—at least as far as I understand them—in this case, a dialogue between the universal and particular.

 

As the so-called Platonic solids appear a number of times in the works discussed throughout this catalogue, a short, explanatory word on them would seem to be in order. Although many no doubt correctly attribute their discovery to Pythagoras, a century and a half earlier, the five regular polyhedra appear more frequently associated with the name of Plato, as he deals with them in his dialogue Timaios, more or less explicitly, as the basic units of the four classical elements—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—plus a fifth, identified as Aether, Mind, or Cosmos [ see also THE HOUSE OF FAME].


THE HOUSE OF FAME, five montages, each 100 x 70 cm, 1984.

Mathematically, these figures are the only possible “perfect” geometric bodies in three dimensions: bodies, that is, all of whose faces and vertices are identical and which can contain a sphere that touches the center of each of its faces and itself be inscribed within a sphere that it touches all of its vertices. The cube is, of course, formed from six squares ; a tetrahedron has four equilateral triangular faces, an octahedron eight, and an icosahedron twenty-one ; while the dodecahedron is constructed from twelve pentagons.