- The Ecology of Kandinsky's Abstraction:A Trembling World of Beings and Things
Everything "dead" trembled. Everything showed me its face, its innermost being, its secret soul, inclined more often to silence than speech—not only the stars, moon, words, flowers of which poets sing, but even a cigar butt lying in the ashtray, a patient white trouser-button looking up at you from a puddle on the street, a submissive piece of bark carried through the long grass in the ant's strong jaws to some uncertain and vital end, the page of a calendar, torn forcibly by one's consciously outstretched hand from the warm companionship of the block of remaining pages. Likewise, every still and every moving point (= line) became for me just as alive and revealed to me its soul. This was enough for me to "comprehend," with my entire being and with all my senses, the possibility and existence of that art which today is called "abstract," as opposed, to "objective"—Wassily Kandinsky (1994, 361).
In this revelatory passage from the autobiographical text Reminiscences published in 1913, Kandinsky clearly states his view on the organic and the inorganic world of objects. His approach seems to flatten the distinction between them as much as the distinction between art and nature, while at the same time it maintains the different possibilities and purposes of both. It seems that living and non-living things, when considered from the perspective of abstraction—where purpose becomes irrelevant and forgotten—reveal an extraneous quality that evades how humans organize their social and technological world. Things are released from their bondage to technological missions, to the mastery of the human body, and even to their circulatory value within human exchange modes. They become elements within a mysterious rhetoric of relationships, a new grammar of proximity between limits and shapes, and so require a new form of communication, which Kandinsky interprets as belonging to art, and in particular, abstraction. In this world, the human is released from the oppressiveness of its own frame, and thrown into an intense experience of the immanence of its own body existing among living and non-living bodies. In other words, by bypassing the question of life, Kandinsky poses an enlarged world that resists the mastery of the human and the prison of the actual. [End Page 237]
The trembling of which Kandinsky speaks is the instability inherent in this world because, as Jane Bennett notes in relation to her concept of "thing-power," it [the latter] "refuses to dissolve completely into the milieu of human knowledge" (Bennett 2010, 3). In Vibrant Matter, Bennett seeks to "highlight the extent to which human being and thinghood overlap, the extent to which the us and the it slip-slide into each other" (4). Similarly, Kandinsky is interested in the ways things mutually affect each other, in the perceived traces and resulting products of the contact between organic and inorganic, natural and human made. These traces and products have the potential of creating a different future, one that Kandinsky envisions in radical opposition to the materialism inherited from the nineteenth century. In his paintings, things are made to speak in the stripped language of space, time, and affect.
For Kandinsky, abstraction is a language of collusions and unities, contradictions and parallelisms, where the relations of order are not so much subverted as shattered. The mimetic and narrative sway of language as an explanatory force is replaced by the language of context and iconicity, as much as the language of the singular and the open form. The world of things alone may rupture the vices of use and abuse that gnaw Western society from the inside out. Already sensing the saturation of products, the aberrations of consumerism, and the inequalities of capitalism, Kandinsky deploys a political analogy to describe the possibilities of abstraction to shatter the known world of human organizations. Comparing the world of abstract art with anarchy, Kandinsky clarifies that he is not using the word in its derogatory and incorrect application as signifying "lack of order" (1994, 242). But rather, anarchy as "a certain systematicity and order that are created not by virtue of an...