Robin Rhode: The Mysteries

By Ashraf Jamal

Einstein famously said that God does not play with dice. He was expressing a belief (a faith? A hope?) that the laws governing the universe have a deterministic rather than a probabilistic character. To most physicists today, Einstein’s notion of what constitutes a physical law seems a little naïve. Nevertheless, Einstein is a formidable ally to call upon for those whose suspicions about probabilistic statements and their explanatory value will not go away.

J.M. Coetzee – ‘On probability’, Diary of a Bad Year.

In a world ground down by reductive absolutes, cynical essences, or by devastating relativism and crippling uncertainty, the artist that dares to scale this crux, and, therein, find a way out is utterly remarkable. For there is no doubt that ours is a world corrosively divided, conflicted, violent in its refusal to think beyond the viral maw that has rent it asunder. The obsessive-compulsive return to race, the chillingly exclusionary nature of identity politics, the ghoulish rise of populism, nativism, and the blind defiance of any inclusionary and planetary humanism, has meant that today we find ourselves willingly entrapped in internment camps. Simphiwe Ndzube summarised our divided world in a 2016 work entitled Us and Them: Killer of the WorldIn his essay, ‘Difference and Repetition. Reflections on South Africa Today’, published in 2017 by Fondation Louis Vuitton, Achille Mbembe warns us against a divisive and oppositional logic. ‘Unless we extend our imagination and properly articulate what must stand in lieu of what has been overthrown, we might end up privileging a politics of ruin over the politics of anticipation’, writes Mbembe. He then proffers the following wager:

We will have to rediscover the centrality of the social in any future-oriented political or economic project. We will have to learn how to not squander what belongs to the future generations and how to ring-fence what is commonplace, and therefore priceless, precisely because its value exceeds any forms of measurement (education, arts, culture, health care and imagination).

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Robin Rhode and Mandla Sibeko

Mbembe’s wager, today, is of vital importance, for what matters to the Cameroonian philosopher is a world best informed by ‘the politics of anticipation’ rather than that which is currently and devastatingly in place – ‘a politics of ruin’. His ‘future-oriented vision’ stands as a bulwark against those who seek to regressively enshrine a misbegotten absolutism, or those who choose to delinquently play in the killing fields of doubt. For Mbembe, life in all its dimensions – education, arts, culture, health care, imagination – asks that we sustain the ingredients that foster a more wholesome understanding of our present moment and, all importantly, our future. It is this wager which Robin Rhode has placed centre-stage in the works created between 2016 and 2017, works which the artist has dubbed the ‘new optimism’. Inspired by Pythagorean geometry, Rhode’s newest suite of works mark a seismic turn, for what is most striking about these new works is that they challenge both a reductive absolutism and a postmodern scepticism. In a career which began in 2000, Rhode has sought to undo the certainties which shaped the art world – the mimetic belief in the transparency of the object, the synoptic power of reason to explain its meaning. Deconstructive in its inclination, Rhode’s oeuvre has embraced the key tenets of a deconstructive universe – Ferdinand de Saussure’s arbitrariness of the sign and Jacques Derrida’s systemic scuppering of absolutes.

Conceived ‘under erasure’ – sous rature – Derrida’s partial conclusion is as follows: ‘Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible’. Which is why in Rhode’s oeuvre we find a driving desire to configure then disfigure, assign a form then rub it out, for what has always intrigued the artist is the impossibility of art to consecrate any final truth. Until now. For what has emerged out of this Derridean project is the artist’s gnawing realisation that beneath and beyond the seeming arbitrariness of meaning lies some inconsolable yet trenchant power – faith. Long before the cool evasiveness of postmodern lore – Sauusurian or Derridean – we find the thinking of Søren Kierkegaard, a man as sceptical, but for whom faith – the belief in God – could not be so easily dismissed. In his compelling concluding essay to Either/Or, ‘Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical’, Kierkegaard returns us to a gnawing conundrum – how, despite scepticism, hold fast to the existence of God? The Danish philosopher’s conclusion, despite the fact that it may, rationally, be unprovable, is that we must choose. ‘Only when one can get a person to stand at the crossroads in such a way that he has no expedient but to choose, does he choose what is right’. It is this choice, forged at a ‘crossroads’, which Rhode has now powerfully revealed. Against doubt there is hope, against the spectre of a crude absolutism there is a leap of faith. Kierkegaard’s perplexing summation is as follows:

Yet it is a matter of a choice, yes, an absolute choice, for only through choosing absolutely can one choose the ethical. Through the absolute choice, then, the ethical is posited, but from that it by no means follows that the aesthetic is excluded.

All importantly, the ethical and the aesthetic are not mutually exclusive. Rather, what matters is the way one fuses the two, and, in the fusing, reveals one’s truth. For it is clear that today, in this day and age, Rhode can longer shirk the creeping realisation that art is neither the servant of the Church nor the hapless handmaiden of a compromised secularism. Something else – a third way – impels him, a way he has discovered, or recovered, through an exploration of a sacred geometry. Geometry means ‘Earth-measure’ – it is a measure of our being in the world, a measure of whom and what we imagine ourselves to be in the world. There is doubtless a mysticism, a fantasy, which clings to this vision, however, and all importantly, it is a vision which, ethically and aesthetically, must refuse both the absolutism of monotheism and the scepticism of secularism. In Quadrivium: number, geometry, music, heaven, we read:

Everything is made of light, all matter is, and without matter there would be no sound. Atoms and planets arrange themselves in geometrical patterns. How profound then is a window, which allows the passage of light into an otherwise dark space.

It is this ‘window’ which ‘allows … light into an otherwise dark space’ that Robin Rhode has constructed. For as I’ve stated at the outset, ours is a world consumed by ‘a politics of ruin’, by overarching and dangerously misguided certainties, which has profoundly negated not only art’s complexity but also its simplicity. As Pythagoras has finely noted: 

The function of geometry is to draw us away from the sensible and the perishable to the intelligible and the eternal. For the contemplation of the eternal is the end of philosophy, as the contemplation of the mysteries is the end of religion.

It is this finely honed formulation which I think cuts to the core of Rhode’s current exploration. Indeed, it is a formulation which defines the crux of our age. For today, as I’ve noted at the outset, we find ourselves drawn-and-quartered, split between two opposed visions of the world; one which seeks to lure us unthinkingly towards absolutism and its dark familiar, fascism, and another which seeks to hold fast to a bare-forked materiality, the ‘sensible and the perishable’. However Rhode, like Pythagoras, like Kierkegaard, seeks to wrench us away from both camps. For the ‘eternal’, the sacredness that is geometry, signals ‘the end of philosophy’ and ‘the end of religion’. These ends, however, are also a new beginning, ‘a window, which allows the passage of light into an otherwise dark space’. This too is Achille Mbembe’s wager, for as the Cameroonian philosopher has also reminded us, to recover a world morally and spiritually in tatters requires that we hold fast to benign ‘mysteries’, that we recognise the insufficiency and dangers that beset the stark and lethal choices we are making, that we remain ‘future-oriented’. Robin Rhode’s newest works are the configurations of that future, the product of an ethic and an aesthetic which must, against all odds, sustain some state of grace, some well-being, some hope and optimism – some mystery.

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Robin Rhode | Paradise

Which is why I began this reflection with the conflicted excerpt from J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year. If for George Mallarme a throw of the dice could not abolish hazard, if for this secular-minded poet chaos was inescapable, then for Albert Einstein, and Søren Kierkegaard, there remained a sentient mystery, a God, who preceded chaos, ‘a belief (a faith? A hope?)’ which, despite its parenthetical nature, could sustain us. For if we now find ourselves caught between the ‘deterministic’ and the ‘probabilistic’ there remains, still, what Kierkegaard termed ‘a baptism of choice’ to embrace a realm beyond – and within. This choice, which Robin Rhode has presented to us, signals a life that we must live; a life beyond the corruptions of Church and State, monotheism and secularism, which, in sum, we can now celebrate as notations from a diary of a good year.

For more reading: 

J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year, London: Viking, 2007.

Benjamin Farrington, Greek Science, London: Penguin Books, 1944.

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, London: Penguin Books, 1992.

John Martineau (ed.), Quadrivium: Number, geometry, music, heaven, Glastonbury: Wooden Books, 2010.

Achille Mbembe, ‘Differenceand Repetition. Reflections on South Africa Today’, Being There: South Africa, a Contemporary Art Scene, Editions Dilecta: Fondation Louis Vuitton, 2017.

For more information about the FNB JoburgArtFair have a look at these articles:

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Robin Rhode: The Mysteries
Looking Both Ways by Sean O’Toole
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