Art, fragments and wholes

Making any artwork involves issues of relationships of various parts to the final object. The finished whole is determined by issues of composition, colour, emphasis, flow, light and shadow, perspective, and so on. These are artist decisions and skills brought variously into play as the work progresses. A number of art works will be considered, via this perspective of fragments and wholes.

In Nighthawks (1942), by Edward Hopper, each figure is significant within the overall composition; the focus is enhanced by the portrayal of fluorescent light indoors against the dull shadowy outside; all of which, together with the relative emptiness of much of the canvas, combine to give the piece its signature bleak sense of urban isolation.

In some works, the build-up of fragments is more overt. Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1715),contains a number of pictorial sections that could stand as cameos in their own right, but it is the compression of several of these into one image that creates a wider trenchant critique of society at the time.

It was around the end of the C19th, however, that so many scientific and industrial inventions were infusing society that artists sought new ways of responding through aesthetic processes of flux, of fracture and of fragmentation instead of the traditional focus on unity and wholeness. Depicting natural forms began to give way to a degree of abstraction and fragmentation of form.

In Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No 2 (1912), each figure exists in its own right but it is the flowing overlap of multiple images, against the staircase background, that gives the overall dynamism to the work. The artist’s intent, however, was less about depicting motion for its own sake as about decomposing the figure.

Fragmentation recurs as a device in the Futurists’ images, this time used to indicate speed. An example might be Natalia Goncharova The Cyclist (1913). Taking this further, Giacomo Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony (1912) not only has the repeated figure moving across the surface, but each figure is created – mosaic-like – from a few hundred small, coloured squares. The fragmented flow of the girl, each part itself fragmented, adds to an overall sense of running.

There are many more works that use fragments of a whole to depict a wider image eg the atomising effect of the machine age in Christopher Nevinson’s war painting Column on the March (1915) with its mechanised men moving as a splintered unit; or repeated items eg Warhol’s soup cans or Brillo boxes, to reflect 1950s growth in consumerism, commercialisation and popular culture; or the repeated use of his own bodyform in the ongoing work of Anthony Gormley.

Carl Andre’s (at the time, controversial) Equivalent VIII (1966) owes its rectangular whole to a particular arrangement of 120 low-stacked firebricks. Other works of his are similarly made up of repeated units creating a geometric whole.

In a similar way, in Briget Riley’s painting Hesitate (1964), it is the regular arrangement of around 400 not-quite-monotone circles/ellipses that create the illusion of an undulating surface. Her more colourful line paintings have an intended dazzling optical effect that relies on each individual line not only having its own effects but on a perceived colour-sense (itself drawing on colour theory) whereby each coloured stripe influences the perception of the stripes on either side of it, across the whole surface.

To take another example: In Jake and Dinos Chapman’s construction Hell (1998), it is the sheer repeated volume of the minutely sculpted imagery that creates a sense of inescapable brutality – leaving the viewer unsure how to deal with it all.

In these examples, each small element has an aesthetic contribution in its own right as well as aggregating to the whole.

In other recent pieces (an example would be A Thousand Years (1990) by Damien Hirst), there is little or no artistic sense to each separate fragment – a piece of rotting meat, some flies, an insect lamp, an incubator case. It is the interaction of these as an active system: the process of living and dying, that creates the subject of the work.

In all the cases above, however the interactions work, the whole relies on its parts to build up the impact of the finished work.

Along a different line, there are other kinds of art where the core intention is to explore fragmentation itself – the anxious fragmentation that is a key part of the contemporary experience.

There are certainly works where the physical separation of items itself constitutes a significant part of the art. Song Dong’s Waste Not (2010), laying out the categorised contents of his mother’s home, is a stark depiction of her life.  Michael Landy (Break Down 2001) carefully itemised the whole of his possessions as each went forward for destruction. In such works the fragmentation of the whole into component parts, and listing these individually, is an integral aspect of the work, but the final work is much more than that itemisation.

The act of fracturing, of breaking an established wholeness, can be a creative act.  In some contemporary works, it is this process of fragmentation itself that initiates the work – inviting the viewer to maybe see something different or in a different way. A number of contemporary artists very deliberately use visual fragmentation in their work in order to create the overall impact. One example would be Cold Dark Matter: An exploded view (1991) which Cornelia Parker created from an exploded shed, or Ai Wei Wei’s dropping of precious Chinese urns.

Other contemporary artists have similarly worked with the notion of ‘fragment’ being both a noun and a verb, exploring fragmentation and deconstruction (literally fragmenting the image across space, and metaphorically exploring fragments of memory etc) where shards, pieces, layers can be used graphically, pictorially or abstractedly.

Michaela Lattanzio cuts portraits into tiny pieces and reassembles these in compositions that represent the fragmentation of the female identity. This distinctive approach to collage creates expressive compositions as abstractions of the female form, where it is no longer possible to accurately attribute identity and where the viewer might be able to create alternative narratives.

Sandy Litchfield creates imaginary worlds from fragments of memory, producing her own emotional geography. Agnes Toth produces splintered forms that are left open to incomplete interpretation, inviting viewers to fill in the missing pieces to maintain some compelling narrative. Annette Messager is a widely exhibited French artist who uses fragmentation to explore contemporary themes. Her sculptural, photographic body parts become independent of the body they relate to, in a layering that creates an effect of jostling identities unable to be resolved into a single unified whole.

Certainly, the notion of fragments and wholes is significant enough within contemporary art for there to have been exhibitions with titles reflecting this concern (eg ‘Fragments’, Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014). In such exhibitions, fragmentation is taken as a powerful metaphor used in describing contemporary society. This is precise enough to capture something but broad enough to encompass issues around identity, marginalisation, the identification of social groups, the nature of electronic communication, and much more.

Within contemporary society, therefore, it feels as if there is further for art to go in exploring fragmentation and less value in returning to attempt a precise depiction of some unified whole.

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