Lina Hermdorf’s latest multidisciplinary exhibition “The Best Answer You Can Give Is Symmetry” takes its starting point from Gregory Bateson’s book Mind and Nature – A Necessary Unit – in which the American biologist, anthropologist, and philosopher asks his students for ways to identify living creatures.
Through performance and sound-based installation, the exhibition proposes that symmetry, and the balanced distribution of duplicate body parts are the key facets of which unison is found in all living things.
Hermdorf’s first performance with Andrew Hardwidge invites audiences to explore the tangibility of reality. We hear a song and think it is there to ease the drear of waiting: slow paced, dull rhythmic patterns, almost imperceptible sounds that resemble the static atmosphere of a waiting room. A voice addresses the viewer. It belongs to someone who looks in from the outside. The person introduces himself: he talks about how he had met with a friend who asked him to perform, their exchange and what they got up to. He says that where he stands is colder than where we stood, making you feel as if he is talking to you from far away in time and space. His presence seems holographic. Sometimes he walks around, looking for a word by staring at the ground, stretch- ing a limb in one direction or an other: imitating an animal or showing the invisible connections that go from the tips of your fingers to your legs. His words are elliptical. He jumps from one thing to another, following a logic that those present cannot fully grasp.
The episode unburies the common-place problem of being alive, the uncertainty of what being alive really means. For a long time we supposed that by looking at our reflection in a mirror confirmed our livelihood.
The artist suggests instead, that a mirror is a monster. Monster derives from the Latin Monstrare, which is “to show”. The mirror induces fear because it supposedly shows what we really are; that we are alive. It is a systemic frame for defining a status.
Symmetry derives from the Greek symmetria, which means “agreement in dimensions”. It clearly shows that the use of symmetry and by extension, any system based on logic, responds to a set of rules or conditions. The theory of symmetry within biology is founded on the basis that multicellular organisms are made of duplicate shapes and body parts. A causal logic would assume that if multicellular organisms present symmetry, then what is symmetrical must be alive.
Of course, such a statement is dubious, as in nature, symmetry is approximate and asymmetrical organisms do exist. Invoking symmetry or any system based on language for saying what things are, is in fact a way of revealing more of what we don’t know than what we do know. This has become particularly vivid now: where the real and virtual merge; where the world is being defined by some as “liquid” or “atmospheric”; where things can hardly be mapped because of their fluidity and elasticity.
Today, languages and systems seem to be overwhelmed by the constant mass of information we are provided with and the relative stability of knowledge. Even looking in the mirror is not sufficient anymore. The mirror and its symmetry shows what we think we know and at the same time, reflecting all the gaps and holes. How can we be sure of being alive when we cannot find ourselves in the mirror?