What I Learned About Truth in Pursuit of Reality

In response to Deven’s post regarding her journey toward archaeology via the pursuit of reality, I wanted to use the resonance I felt in her story as a jumping off point for my own post about the nature of reality. While I am compelled by approaches to understanding defined by logic and reason, I find myself sometimes working against both in my role as an artist. I make work in a system that allows for the full creation of possibility and ideas – a world that ascribes to sets and grouping but also readily casts them off in order to make great leaps and bounds of the imagination. Contemporary artists, unfettered by traditional labels that have served much of western art history (though still enriched by that history), move about from media to media, always seeking the best solution to visual questions. Art of the mind is valued as well as art of the hand, and at that juncture, pragmatic fixes need not be applied. As a printmaker interested in geology and compelled by the scientific method, I was searching for artistic solutions that had practical, empirical answers.  I wanted to find the place where art and science met. Perhaps after one too many philosophy papers, I decided to close the book on abstract ideas and go out into the field.

Much of my work deals with narrative and the quest for the truth in that space. Truth, for me, was about getting to the heart of what really happened on a cold day in December that has long since passed and can now only be accessed through memories. I have no observable data or evidence. The reality of each moment is a driving concern, and if I can create output of those moments, perhaps they will be easier to analyze and interpret. The prints that I create deal with specific times and places, and I can correlate that nicely with rocks in the field that I learned about through geological field exploration. For instance, pick a memory from your childhood, say, around fourth grade. Were there other people there?
What kind of day was it?
Can you recall what you were wearing?
In the epochs of the history of this earth, that blink in your existence could be akin to a river flooding in the Late Cretaceous. Perhaps some plant matter is trapped in with the sediments rushing over the banks, a picture of that day in the memory of the earth, now lithified. Literally, set in stone.

People will remember things differently, and focus on separate parts of events. Humans get details wrong and let their emotions dictate how they feel about certain memories. The earth, however, could only ever tell you the truth.  It records events as they happen, and if you wanted to find out the story – “the reality” – all you need to know is how to read the rocks.


Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, detail, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.
Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, detail, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.


Going forward with this proposition, in late 2012 I set about making an installation titled Wonders of the Rocks: Passages I – IV. It is a collection of various hand-collected granites, gypsum, shale and limestones, placed onto shelves of varying widths. Each shelf contains a set of rocks meant to signify some narrative or implied story amongst the grouping. Some of the rocks used in the piece were covered with my own interpretation, or memory, of that rock so that you could no longer see its real story underneath. The piece is hung low on the wall and arranged in a linear format, meant to be “read,” as one literally reads rocks in the field, looking ever downward. I wanted the viewer to come to this piece and kneel down or bend over as one does when searching for samples. If the meaning of some small passage was lost to the passerby who did not fully engage with the piece, to me this is symbolic of the geologist who loses sight of the details and fumbles even the smallest of notes. A misinterpreted strike and dip of strata could change how one reads a formation entirely, much the same with small intonations in the translation of a foreign text.

Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, Passages I-IV, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.
Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, Passages I-IV, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.


I am still working on the idea here between what is meant by the signs and signified, but now I am incorporating cues from language. Maps still play a role to me as guides in making meaning for geological work, but the idea that these rocks can transcend that and become a new language interested me. I’d attempted to construct a meaning, a language, and a truth from reality – actual pieces of the geological record of the earth. I specifically thought of the work One and Three Chairs, executed by Joseph Kosuth in 1965. He gives us an artifact, documentation, and an explanation, but wherein lies the truth?  At one point, a member of my committee had to tell me, “You need to let go of this idea of the truth.”  I had become stubbornly attached to the idea that each rock was telling me a true story. It is okay to walk away from a set of rocks and misunderstand them, as their language is multifunctional, in a constant state of change (literally from sedimentary to metamorphic to igneous), and open to vast interpretation. There is no one set of passages that can equal one meaning, much the same in language.


But the question persisted: What do we hold the most important? The thing or the idea of the thing?

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. MOMA.
Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. Wood Folding Chair, Mounted Photograph of a Chair, and Mounted Photographic Enlargement of the Dictionary Definition of “Chair,” Chair: 32.38 x 14.88 x 20.88 in. (82.00 x 37.80 x 53.00 cm.), Photographic Panel: 36.00 x 24.13 in. (91.50 x 61.10 cm.), Text Panel: 24.00 x 24.13 in. (61.00 x 61.30 cm.), Museum of Modern Art, New York, URL Link to Artwork


Along the way I began to think of reality and truth as the same. I could hold a rock physically in my hand, inspect it under a microscope, classify it, and make a very good estimation about how it was formed. Touching a rock was, to me, like picking up a page from the history book of the world. Each rock was a true statement, and if I collected enough of them, I would start to have an alphabet from which to begin a new language.

If these minerals and rocks are important to me as signs, so is what is signified. When I look back at Kosuth’s Chairs, I am reminded of a print that brings this entire endeavor back around again for me. Blue Print, 1992, by Abigail Lane is one of a series of inked chairs that has a felted inkpad in the seat. The placement of the chair so near the wall, the print of the bodily mark hung nearby, almost as evidence but more as connection, calls forth the Kosuth as an artistic antecedent. The print in this artwork acts on several levels: as a record of an action, as a tie-in to the sculpture, and as an image for visual consumption. There is a language beginning to take shape in the print, which is made directly from the body. Almost like a trace fossil found near an outcrop, you can safely guess that one came from the other.

Abigail Lane, Blue Print, 1992.  http://abigaillane.co.uk/
Abigail Lane, Blue Print, 1992.


I wanted to tell the story of place and of memory with 100% accuracy, but here’s the rub – even in geology you cannot do that. You can make very educated statements and qualified guesses, but there will always be some unknown factor. In the sciences, they warn of “observational bias” tainting your results, but in the art world, observational bias is the most important thing you’ve got.