Robert Mirek’s Idols

We live in a certain world-picture, it is said, and from this view we take our main concepts and rules for action. Psychology teaches us that our behavior depends on our understanding of things and situations. As far as the world is depending of our senses, and our senses are part of our nervous system, the world becomes the result of our perception, an image conditioned by the subject who represents and structures the reality. Thus external facts beyond us are subordinated by our expectations, and we cannot separate empirical data from theories, since the world is related to our way of seeing it. The brain interprets the matter given through senses and transforms it into kinds of ideas. The world is a reflection of reality, the picture we make of it. We have ideas but we cannot access to the real content of external world. We are basically brains interpreting external data… Is it true?

Francis Bacon, in his New Organum (1620), defines idols as «false notions which are now in possession of the human understanding». According to him, men are «like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.» Idols are those previous concepts we project into external things. They come from the tradition, from our social class, from our race, from our personal opinions. We must get rid of these previous ideas in order to see the real nature of things. By keeping off prejudices and anticipations we may obtain a clear impression of what Nature really is. No presupposed theory or framework can offer us the simple ideas we get from experience. So we must begin again, on new foundations, towards a new epistemology leading us to the knowledge of external world. As idols are the obstacles to the clear understanding they must be removed.

But in what sense can idols affect our perception? What are they in reality? We say they are previous notions about the world. They are the basic categories by means of which we see the world. They are dispositions for our life, the background on which we grow, in relation with our race, sex, social class, nationality, religion, economical interests, hobbies, fears, family, etc. They affect us in the sense they predispose our future behavior and give us a particular direction to perform acts. Moreover, they help to form our identity and reality, since from them we obtain a picture of the world and with reference to them the rest of men may look at us on sight. Idols are our first nature, like a letter of introduction in the eyes of others. But from the moment they are only products and consequences of our circumstances, they are not necessary things for science. We know idols are nothing absolute, that they depend on where we were born or what we have experienced before. They are relative things, not universal ones. Science resides in universal statements, so they cannot be part of it. This is one of the reasons Bacon says idols must be removed, and this is why science must begin again without them.

Another reason for detaching us from idols, perhaps more important, is that idols may come to substitute our real essence, not only in the eyes of others, but respect to our own ones. They can be like masks hiding our real face, material frontiers obstructing our way to what we really wish or know. The mask can protect us from inconvenient eyes, but at the same time prevent others from looking behind its surface, deeper into us. Idols may not allow the rest of men look behind them towards our essence. Even worse, idols might not let us see beyond the mask too; they can impede our sight to the external and real world. In both cases idols may be causes of lack of communication, invincible obstacles to the reality of things. Idols are masks, and because of that they only show the surface, their external aspect.

In The Aluminum Series Robert Mirek presents many kind of these idols. They are not only social objects, but also corporeal and organic ones. In this collection we find shields, clothes, hearts, brains, insects, stones… We recognize them because they have a similar aspect with things surrounding us, with objects everyday we use or see and which we are familiarized with. They look like they are: masks, powerful and suggestive physical symbols looking at us while we remain looking at them. Such as Bacon described them, they are either Idols of Tribe, relative to our race, Idols of the Cave, having to do with our individual beliefs, Idols of the Market Place, due to the association of men, or Idols of the Theatre, received systems representing unreal worlds of our creation. All of them are sensible images of what we are, faces of the same human reality conforming our first impression of things.

But there is a fundamental difference between Bacon and Mirek in their consideration about idols. What in the first case were false and previous notions we bear in mind to complete our picture about the world, in Mirek’s conception are real objects not only forming our individual essence, but being our complete essence. Looking at these fabulous idols we have the impression that they are not common concepts on which we construct, by means of anticipation, our perception. They are not either tools or instruments we use to transform the reality. Idols are not technology, artifacts or utensils. They are something else: they are real, solid bodies subjected to physical laws; they do not have only shape or form, but also weight and mass. Idols are not illusions, ideal grounds on which we build the world; they are substances, and that means they do not need anything else to persist. They are self-evident, indivisible, impenetrable bodies not related to some other thing. They are not properties we can find in such and such a thing, but the last elements in which we can divide the matter. Still more, they exist with independence of our perception, not needing us to be. Rather that they belong to us, it seems, on the contrary, that we belong to them.

In what sense do we belong to them? In the ancient Greek atomism, represented by Democritus of Abdera and Leucippos (5th century B.C.), atoms are the last parts of which things are made. Atoms are infinite in number, with the same material, but different in shape. They are eternal, indivisible, solid, and perfect. Unlike the rest of beings, they do not change: they are always the same, not subjected to corruption. Atoms are in eternal motion through the infinite empty space. From time to time, they collide with each other, joining and forming different beings and worlds. As everything is made of these atoms, universes are attached to mechanical rules, but since combinations, unions and disintegrations are due to the hazard, the multiple worlds are not necessary, but created by chance, in an accidental way.

This is the meaning of Mirek’s idols: they are not only logical forms or pictures: they are physical, substance, original and primitive elements, to which all things are made and finally related. Atoms must be real, corporeal, and have volume, mass and extension, as their own nature requires. Atoms are of the same material and their only differences are in the particular shape and arrangement they can present. Idols, like atoms, are independent; none of them can be more important that others. An idol in form of heart has the same weight than another being an insect, a brain or a stone. They are similar, but cannot be reduced one to another. As atoms or basic elements, icons also move through the void to create infinite worlds and different modes of reality. We live in one of these worlds, but that does not mean we are necessary things. We can be or not be: we can happen or not. Idols are the only necessary things. So we belong to them not only because they found our particular world (society, body, intelligence, sex or race), but mainly because we are they, and we are not anything but idols. We are these atoms, and they constitute our true essence.

We saw before sometimes masks do not let us see beyond its surface. It depends on their thickness, on the profundity they have. But we clearly see that Mirek’s masks are not transparent but opaque. That does not’t mean they are obscure; on the contrary, they illuminate themselves, and they would do it even in darkness. But the black silicon has closed the possibilities to open these idols in order to see what they hide. Their essence is not visible for us. Idols remain hermetically closed, and in this state subsisted and will stay forever. Besides, how can atoms have an essence, anything within them? The universe is made of void and atoms. Things with void, like man, mountains, or computers, are divisible. But atoms have no void in them; that is the reason they are indivisible and indestructible. So they do not keep anything inside. Idols, like masks, are only surface, appearance, superficial extent, but as symbols they are charged of signification, and in this way idols result complete and self-sufficient units of meaning, even prior to the unions of shape and matter that we see in what we call the real world.

We are not allowed to look for something further than these primordial and outward masks. Behind them, around them, there is nothing but appearance. It is absurd to wonder about the reality they represent, because they do not represent anything: idols are the unique and compact reality. There are no faces behind them, and there is no world apart from them. Idols, according to Mirek, are not metaphors, not theoretical frames to support our main ideas about the world we live. They are real, existing in fact, original elements of the universe whose combination and recombination produces multiple beings we observe. They are the last elements in which we can divide the structure of reality. Thus the earth, coats of arms, the basic forms of beings, organic and inorganic matter, human symbols, all are included in these icons, as primary components of which the things are made and to which these same things come back when they become exhausted, once they have completed their vital cycle and the atoms separate again to constitute, in a new coalition, another form of reality. There is no loss in the quantity of atoms, for they are infinite and everlasting. But the rest of things are mortal and contingent. Something dies there and another thing is born wherever. Things replace one another reciprocally. This is the sense of justice for presocratic Greek philosophy, and this is how we can understand the main mechanism in an atomist conception.

In physics we separate matter going as far as the atom. Observable effects on the surface are explained by the structure of matter, which is organized in several levels. Differences in the behavior of objects are explained by exact variations in their composition. In the end physics reduces appearances to numerical amounts indicating changes in the structure. But Mirek’s atoms are not only question of quantities. Some properties are not separable of the last elements. Being one unit of composition means one unit of meaning, and this refers to the main quality each of these atoms exhibits in relation to the others. Thus the difference in the form, design or figure means a difference in the essential property of the object, in its function. Every atom has its suitable task, its proper way of being presented, and with this typical contribution partakes of the construction of the whole present world.

At the beginning I presented the explanation in neurology about learning and knowing. According to it, world is the result of our perception, an image finally generated by our brain, which interprets sense data according to fixed patterns result of evolution. In the atomist theory bodies emit their atoms (eidola) towards all directions, being received by our organs and exciting our senses. But that does not mean the world is a reflection or mirror of the reality. On the contrary, idols impress their shape in us and we know directly what they are. There is no representation here. Atoms move towards us and we take their form since we are open to them. We understand what things really are according to the atoms they are constituted of. We have that capacity, because there is a similarity between atoms and senses. That is the manner we know. In this way, to Mirek’s proposal the world never could be an image result of our perception, but something objective, substantial, physical. Art is not here the result of subjectivity or interpretation, but an investigation telling us the nature of things by showing the atoms from which the blind necessity construct the whole reality.

Despite these notions in common, there is something separating the ancient atomism and this Aluminum Series. In the first case man is result of casual and material collisions and coalitions among the atoms. He is not important in the successive chain of universes created by combination of atoms. As we have seen before, causes are mechanical, but without necessity. In Mirek’s objectivity, man is still the measure of things; he gives sense to the world, but under him there is a set of secret and strong motivations impelling him to act in a certain manner, though unpredictable. Icons are forces creating and destroying what they have built before. They are powerful elements of peace and war moving at random along the eternity without final direction or reason, immersed in an infinite void surrounding them. These are not mechanical causes. Masks can be beautiful, pleasant, wonderful, amazing, but they also may be horrible, uneasy, visceral, torturing. Idols are not neutral participants in the huge spectacle of infinite universes; they are masks doted of corporeal expression, almost human, but beyond scientific classifications or moral rules. Some of them are able to act mechanically, but others seem to be free to perceive and think. Idols are not machines since they don’t need logic to move. They may have will, or not; we cannot access to such knowledge. Mirek’s idols are like incomplete gods meeting and assembling among themselves without rules, just because of their natural tendency to move. It is their only tying: to combine with others to create new form of beings.

It is not strange our world is not stable or permanent. War, pain, commerce or hope dominates it: there is nothing fixed in the world as far as idols change constantly the materials of things. Rather than they are part of us, we are part of them. Idols live under us; they perceive and feed by means of us. One might be tempted to think of a man as a toy in his idols’ power. But we must not forget we are in essence they. So Bacon’s claim of removing idols through which we see and structure the reality seems to be impossible task in Mirek’s objectivity. We cannot get rid of idols because we are nothing without them except void. They do not depend on the experience we have of them. Still more, our own freedom seems to be a matter of illusion, a dream placed in an unstable conscience. Like in the Calderon’s seventeenth-century play Life is a Dream, we dream we live, and looking at Mirek’s idols we might say even dreams are made of atoms.

When we take our stand in front of these idols our senses are impressed with our last reality’s shape, as we feel illuminated by light-giving aluminum that models our way of perceiving itself. Therefore the possibility of seeing things in a simple manner, not conditioned by previous ideas, sounds an impossible task, even irrational, since the reasons why we live are idols’ aggregates and dissociations. Human understanding cannot be liberated of idols because first, they are not concepts, but physical, and second, they are the only things not needing anything else to subsist. Idols are not bad, or good, they are beyond our narrow appreciation of the world. They are not subjected to our particular point of view; they are not matter of opinion. Idols are, because by their nature masks, only surface, not metaphors, but literal and practical sense, filling with their presence theatres, nations and universes, not occupying space, but taking place and founding the space themselves.

The aluminum is not a heavy material, but strong. Idols need to be light and agile in order to transverse infinite space. They must be resistant too, in order to meet, fight and clash with their brothers. Mirek has detained for the present their incredible speed in order to show how they are and look. It is an unmatched opportunity to admire them reposing, because later they will leave and go over again. Moreover, Mirek has succeeded in increasing millions of times the atom’s real size. He took some of them into custody, keeping them at rest and enlarged, delaying their natural impulse to move. In this case the art, beyond abstraction and figuration, is able to bring us the last components of things. And we contemplate them as firm and immutable windows neither visible nor touchable by mortals, but now accessible to them by the miraculous hands of art and artist.