|La Mandoline, l’Oeillet et le Bambou, Guillaume Apollinaire, 1914 (source)
||MM-HM, Tauba Auerbach, 2007 (source)
Concrete represents permanence and solidity. It is possible to claim that its enduring form in the ruins of the Ancient Rome, delivering the ideas of the empire, accounts for much of Western civilization, as we understand it. As architects, we know about its durability, strength, and power to render form sharply. But the material tells a more complex story.
The word ‘concrete’ originates in the Latin concrescere, meaning ‘to grow together’. Inherent to itself, concrete describes a fundamental drama about transformation. In its vague, liquid-like form, concrete is much like fat: malleable, composite matter lacking internal structure. Its shape emerges from its container, without which it dissolves into uselessness, like a chameleon without a background. To seep and to mirror are its functions. It is the toti-potentiality of the formless that Joseph Beuys sought in his frequent use of fat in his art. Chaotic and fundamentally dense to comprehension, fat signified a void of form that could be either filled by transcendent potential or remain nothingness. Liquid concrete is much the same as fat, until it achieves its second life.
In solid form, concrete is in every way the opposite, epitomizing immutability and structure. It is helpful to describe it by discussing ‘concrete’ in a related use. Concrete poetry is a form of poetry where words aggregate to become an image. Ash and limestone are replaced by language. It is this moment of achieving the gestalt of the image that makes it concrete, when an alternate reading of the poem opens up, which collapses time to the instant of recognition. In reference to language and ideas, ‘concrete’ describes that which has realized a material form or reality, and is thus opposed to the ‘abstract’. The same is true for concrete as a material. When concrete is poured to create a block or beam, it becomes real, and the liquid void is filled by a timeless certainty. And so, concrete tells the story of transformation from non-form to form, of coming into being.
‘Dich aber, süße Sprache Deutschlands,
-Jorge Luis Borges
Etymology always poses the greatest stumbling block to theory: because when it comes down to it, what do we really mean by Geist? But Hegel hasn’t been the only thinker to regress into language for solutions to philosophical problems (although German as the Science of Logic is a compelling argument indeed). Whereas Virno laments the multitude’s ever-shrinking grammar, pooling around inane topoi koinoi, the field of hermeneutics would cease to exist if it weren’t for Greek and Latin roots. When reaching into the abstract for theories sandwiched somewhere in between intuition and rational thought, words fall easily enough into place, explaining concepts in a manner that is deceptively concrete.
But how stable is language, and the meanings of words, after all? The beauty of poetry is that it can contain contradictions without ever losing inner consistency. And yet, before I had any sort of fluency in a second language, I felt drawn to the poetic edge of the concrete arts (from the postwar era and thus after Apollinaire, because who wasn’t?) drawn up by Emmett Williams, Eugen Gomringer and Augusto de Campos. But the more I became engaged with feeling out the cultural echoes of the conversational everyday, the less enraptured I was by concrete poetry’s typographical delights. Imagine the word ‘apple’ typed repeatedly into lines tracing a perfectly-formed–well, apple. Word and image have struggled enough on the plane of the representational as it is, and the concrete poem finally seemed like too much brittle surface, sealing me off from more fluid constructions without any means to gauge the depth of discourse layered beneath. So I gave up. No matter how dried-out or defined, words will never be bricks for me.
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