Tom Friedman’s work has the ability to fascinate due to its conflation of simplicity with complexity, the mundane with the metaphysical. This aspect of his work is particularly evident in Untitled (Total), 2000, which was made by cutting up nine identical cereal packets into small squares which where then matched up against each other as if one were putting together nine identical jigsaw puzzles, but in three dimensions, creating a considerable spatial problem. In an interview Friedman noted: “It took me a while to figure out how to do this, but it’s based on matrices.” (in Cooper 2001: 27). This statement is informative because it indicates a significant understanding of mathematics, in particular the application of matrices to geometric transformations.
When one realizes that Friedman’s constructions are, at least in part, motivated by an understanding of mathematics it is possible to comprehend that his exploration of the relationship between simplicity and complexity is not entirely trivial; which is to say we are not dealing with grunge chic. Although the materials used are very ordinary the concept is not.
Elaborating on his giant cereal packet construction Friedman explains that he was also trying to express the intimate relationship between world of material objects and the imagination:
I was interested in the relationship between the static object and time, and the displacement of … [one’s] mind continually cooking and thinking about the static object. … what obviously comes into play is that separation between real space and mind space, and ideas have this kind of elusive nature to them in mind space. …You have a solidity inherent in the materials … But they are also like apparitions; they just appear but they are not real. (in Cooper, 2001: 29)
One can understand what Friedman is suggesting here if one takes the time to contemplate the fact that what we call reality is actually constructed by our mind. The problem of how raw data from multiple sense organs is interpreted, structured and interrelated to produce the coherent perceptions we call “reality” plays a central role in modern philosophy (e.g. Hume, Berkely, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger).
When we look at the cereal packet we no longer see an ordinary object instead we see an object that appears to be scintillating. Although it is a material object its visual surface expresses a pixilated immateriality. And one sees a similar effect in Friedman’s sister piece Untitled (Dollar Bill), 2000 illustrated below with a detail to demonstrate the construction.
Tom Friedman, Untitled (Dollar Bill), 2000. Thirty-six dollar bills cut into “pixel”-like segments and assembled into a single bill.
Friedman’s giant Total box and dollar bill are both based on very mundane everyday objects but his reconstruction of these objects was, in part, informed by his knowledge of mathematics thereby introducing an intellectual dimension notably absent from those aspects of contemporary grunge art which are fundamentally concerned with style.
Another piece by Friedman, Untitled (Eraser Shavings), 1990, (above) indicates the proximity of his work to grunge art. The work consists of red eraser shavings sprinkled on the gallery floor into a soft-edged circle. On its own this is not an especially impressive piece of work, it only gathers merit when placed in the context of Friedman’s oeuvre. But it is also useful due to the fact that it is an early work that provides us with an inside account of Friedman’s working process.
Friedman comments that through Untitled (Eraser Shavings): “I identified for myself four basic elements: the material I would choose, the process of altering the material, the form that it would take, and its presentation.” (in Cooper 2001: 12)
Friedman’s reference to “process” is especially interesting because process is a concept that came into prominence in art of the 1960s—the period of artistic revolution that is the bedrock of what is happening in art today.
Friedman also reports that contemplating the process involved in creating Untitled (Eraser Shavings) gave rise to the notion of “circular logic”. One might easily think that this is quite an obtuse connection. But it can be understood in terms of analogical as opposed to logical thought process. Friedman also explains that the concept of “circular logic” led him to another, more elaborate, work:
I made a pendulum out of a string and funnel. I filled it with laundry detergent and then swung the pendulum … The funnel sprinkled the detergent onto the floor in a spiral pattern. … there was the laundry detergent in relation to its form, like the spin cycle of a washing machine, and gravity in relation to a galaxy. … [I] liked the connection these materials made between daily mundane rituals and rituals for spiritual purification [cleansing]. (in Cooper 2001: 12-13)
Friedman’s report on his pendulum piece indicates the way in which his work swings from the everyday to the philosophical. This is especially evident in his connection between the spin cycle of a washing machine and the spiral configuration of a galaxy. In scientific terms he has a point and one is reminded of the famous story concerning Newton and the apple. What is remarkable about Newton’s apple is that the human imagination can extrapolate a simple everyday event into a generalisation that is mapped onto heavenly bodies. The force that causes the apple to drop is also the force that holds the universe together. This metaphorical/analogical process is not confined to Friedman it is a key feature of creative thinking in general.
It is interesting to note that in Hainley et al. (2001) a straightforward image of Friedman’s laundry detergent is reproduced in small scale, whereas what appears to be a version modified via the application of Photoshop filters is reproduced large scale. There is an obvious attempt to detach the image from its fundamentally mundane status and project it into a more metaphysical dimension. But this is a crude device because it makes the reference to a spiral galaxy all too obvious. Nevertheless, it does lead us to an important observation which is that in the context of post-Readymade art the very mundane it is not necessarily reducible to mundanity.
The simplicity of the Readymade is significant due to the complexity of its viral proliferation and mutation, and the diversity that it has spawned. The viral influence of the Readymade has certainly led to some very bad art, but it has also led to some remarkable art. We can consider the Readymade as an aesthetic game that offers a multiplicity of moves. But unlike an ordinary game the player not only has the capacity to create new moves, she or he also has the ability to change the rules; and it is at this point that variations on the Readymade theme become interesting.
Cooper, D. 2001. “Dennis Cooper in Conversation with Tom Friedman”. In Tom Friedman. B. Hainley, D. Cooper and A. Searle. London, New York, Phaidon Press.
Hainley, B et. al. 2001. Tom Friedman. London/New York, Phaidon Press.