Sean Slemon and Alfred Whitehead: on self-enjoyment and concern

Disclosure: South African-born and New York-based artist Sean Slemon is a long-time friend. That relationship grew precisely out of a mutual respect for each other’s work, and interesting conversation about cultural difference, politics, and life. When we met, he was a South African about to move to New York with his Jewish-American wife, while I was a New York Jew living in South Africa. And, bluntly: I think he and his work are brilliant.

As part of our work-friendship, I’ve had the pleasure of writing on, and around, Sean’s work for something like 15 years. I’ve penned a press release, a review, an academic essay, and two catalog essays, alongside his practice, which has continuously gained depth. There’s something to be said for this. While artists often think they need several voices across catalogs (etc) reflecting on their work (and I’ve certainly gained a great deal from the writings and thoughts of many others telling me what my work is doing, for them), there is also much to be gained from a lengthy engagement, from someone who has taken that journey with you.

Artists should have long-term conversations with writers, or theorists, or other artists, invested in their work. (More on this idea in a post in the next month or two, when I plan to preview a forthcoming book by philosopher Brian Massumi.)

I’m currently writing the catalog essay for Sean’s solo exhibition, Confluence Tree, which opens in Minnesota next month. And I’m also finishing up a section on his work, Goods for Me (also a bit on Public Property, above), for my forthcoming book. Here I’d like to briefly shine a light on his Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), and a few of the ideas I borrow from mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to think-with Sean in those other texts.

Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), 2015 African Padauk Hardwood 22 x 38-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches (55.9 x 95.3 x 115.6 cm.)
Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), 2015 African Padauk Hardwood 22 x 38-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches (55.9 x 95.3 x 115.6 cm.)

A paduak is a West African species of tree. Nowadays farmed, they grow about 160 feet tall, create bright red lumber, and get darker with age. Here Slemon extruded a two-dimensional drawing of a paduak into a sculpture, and then he simply made a paduak tree, at paduak scale, out of paduak wood. It’s fascinating to hear him talk about this memorial and celebration, this ludic attempt to turn a tree back into what it once was. Paduak is an especially hard wood, like nothing Slemon has ever worked with; he went through many saw blades for the show, had to cut it as if he were working with steel. It was a hard-won piece of art, where, in the end, the material itself speaks as loudly as Slemon’s intent with it, giving both him and “tree” some agency in that final piece.

Despite that Paduak will never again be a paduak, it re-members. That is, it embodies again. It remembers what it was, just as it is substantiated into what Slemon made it. Substantiated: given meaning like a substantiated argument, but also made into a material, and substantial, form. In this case, the two meanings are one and the same.

As viewers we have an immediately felt experience – what Alfred North Whitehead calls “self-enjoyment” (Modes of Thought 1968: 150) – which also has us “concern” ourselves with the before and after, with the outside that both made for this occasion of experience, and where, with our help, it might be heading afterwards (1968: 167). Film Scholar Steven Shaviro explains that Whitehead’s self-enjoyment “happens pre-reflexively in the moment itself. I enjoy my life as I am living it; my enjoyment of the very experience of living is precisely what it means to be alive” (in Beyond Metaphysics? 2010: 249). Self-enjoyment and life are processual – that is, ongoing rather than static – but are autonomous and individual events, each one “my” self-contained experience.

And while self-enjoyment is part of every isolated occurrence or experience, concern is for and with the things we experience – our outsides, and their befores and afters. Concern is “an involuntary experience of being affected by others. It opens me, in spite of myself, to the outside.” Concern thus “compromises my autonomy, leading me towards something beyond myself.” Concern is, Whitehead asserts, concern “with the universe” (1968: 167). It implies, Shaviro explains further, “a weight upon the spirit. When something concerns me, I cannot ignore it or walk away from it. It presses upon my being and compels me to respond” (2010: 249). Concern is always for and with things external to myself, with the many pasts in and of the world around me (which lead to this present moment of transition), and with the potential futures I may help to make.

Slemon draws and draws out a concern for matter and things, life and time.

While many painters, printmakers, and illustrators “think with ink,” sketch to produce new ideas, Slemon does so with his own matters of concern, as a sculptor. Wood with wood, each informing the other. In-form: in the process of being formed.

Goods for Me by Sean Slemon. 12 x 8 x 2 feet. 2011.
Goods for Me by Sean Slemon. 12 x 8 x 2 feet. 2011.

The artist recently told me, recalling his growing up in South Africa, “I come from a place where social equality and its very imbalance are always in the spotlight.” And he does not see this concern as distinct from that of the Paduak. When Sean Slemon is concerned with trees, he is also concerned with himself, with past and future, with resources, agency, and equality, with what they were, could have been, and still might be; he is concerned with how worlds and lives, things and selves, together practice their unfolding. Our experience of his art is an intensification, he says, of “ideas, people, parts of the country, attitudes, and points of view.”

Overall, in a long and beautiful body of work, Slemon re-places and re-presents different concepts of time and relation, people and peoples, matter and what matters. How does the Earth tell time? That tree show care? This nation flourish? We, as people, move forward? We are like children trying to sense and make sense of things we can never fully understand.

And yet, we can wonder at, and concern ourselves with, consequence and potential, style and aesthetics, compassion and beauty, so as to aim towards better futures.

Shaviro, Steven. 2010. “Self-Enjoyment and Concern: On Whitehead and Levinas.” In Beyond Metaphysics?: Explorations in Alfred North Whitehead’s Late Thought, edited by Roland Faber, Clinton Combs, and Brian G. Henning, 249-257. New York: Rodopi.
Whitehead, Alfred North. 1968. Modes of Thought. New York: Free Press.

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