John Ward Knox: Seasame Seeds

This essay was first published alongside a publication of John Ward Knox's photographs and text pieces, published by the Physics Room.


My grandmother has asked me if I am interested in waves. Of course I am interested in waves. Would I like to accompany her to the top of a volcanic cone on a still day and watch the patterns in the incoming tide peel around rocks in a liquid refraction? Of course I do. 

And so they go up the volcano, the two of them together. They have chosen a very still day; there is no wind and the trees are quiet and green, they do not rush with energy. The trees are listing themselves: endless and patient and strange. They overlap and pleat across the side of the volcano. They repeat and mimic each other as the two climbers walk past.

They are two: the artist and his grandmother. They move and sound like a fairy tale—they can’t help it. They began in the text but now they define and register in multiple ways. Now, they are shored up by their own proliferating meanings; by their own substantiating progress up the side of the volcano.

‘Ideally, I’d like to repeat less,’ says the grandmother. ‘I’d like to just say something and for that to be the end of it. It’s as if I always need a structure to communicate within, and once I have it, I could go on endlessly, but I’m never sure whether this is useful or not. In fact, sometimes I’m completely sure it isn’t, but I still can’t stop myself…The sentence I just said is a series of awkward repetitions. Why am I compelled to do this?’

The artist cannot reply because he is out of breath, they are at the steepest and most difficult part of the climb. In time they reach the summit, but the top of the volcano is too dangerous to linger close to. It is crisp and paper-thin; a sharp, precarious spine of ground. The artist and his grandmother try to balance for a moment on the unstable ridge. The land drops away on their right, down to the ocean below and their footsteps send rocks rumbling down the side of the mountain. The sound of their fall echoes upwards and repeats, enunciating itself ten times over again. The sound repeats and fades and ends. The volcano rumbles, a plume of dark smoke rises into the air. These objects are enacting themselves.

The grandmother and the artist move down to the safer curve of the mountain’s opposing side. They are an unlikely pair; a static doubling.

‘Your repetition is necessary,’ says the artist, taking up their conversation after regaining his breath. ‘We need to build structures for content and the process of repeating allows this content to assemble and order itself. The repetitions have a self-perpetuating logic. They are a guide, a prop, a peace maker for content—a real and productive practicality.’[1]

The grandmother considers this, ‘But I also want the repetition to be social,’ she says. ‘I want the repetition to be understood and open. I want its borders to be loosely defined and punctuated with questions and reversals.’[2]

‘Can this disintegration be generated by people? And their encounter?’ the artist asks.[3]

‘Yes, by people, but also by memory, or by place. A site can make unforseen demands of its own. In fact, it is good to encourage this. None of us live in a vacuum,’ replies the grandmother. She looks out across the sea, she is copying this behaviour from a TV show she has seen before. ‘Let’s go,’  she says.

The pair traverse the side of the volcano. They sit down in a space where old pine needles have collected close to some large rocks. They are shaded from the sun and the non-existent wind. If it was here it would be ‘ill tempered’. The artist plucks at some long grass. The ocean below rushes against the craggy base of the volcano. The artist and the grandmother look down and watch it for a while, this is the purpose of their trip.

‘We are here, now,’ says the grandmother. Her words are almost lost in the sound of the waves below, which are pulled forward by some force. Of course, they know what this force is: the moon, gravity, the spinning of the earth. It is something they don’t quite understand, this process, but they have heard of it. They are unromantic, prosaic about this.

The waves break on the rocks and retreat backwards, sucked down by the weight of the ocean. The waves replicate and proliferate into smaller versions of themselves. They bite persistently at the edge of the mountain like an angry dog.

‘Would you say that those small waves ‘bite’ at the coastline?’ the artist asks.

‘It seems like a weighty phrase,’ says the grandmother, ‘but necessary I guess, necessary it an expected kind of a way.’

‘Would you say they are like ‘an angry dog’?’ the artist asks.

‘What is the place of metaphor?’ wonders the grandmother. ‘Can one thing ever be like another? Can a thing ever be emptied of its associations? Will we allow it to speak solely about itself?’

‘Like a blank page?’ asks the artist.

‘One could say that the blank page is the most metaphor-riddled object of them all.’

‘What about a blank page that cannot be written on? It resists any enscription.’

‘The lack of text is in itself a metaphor.’

‘It is a conundrum.’

‘The best things are,’ says the grandmother.

‘That is an uneasy way to end,’ says the artist.

The sea is collective beneath them. The waves curve around each other and negotiate the edges of the land. They are endless and busy in their multiplication.The land determines their behaviours. They follow the same predicted pathways but they also experiment, change, rapidly decay and shape new identities around their former selves.[4]

‘Is it interesting for one thing to be substituted for a whole, complex system?’ asks the grandmother.

‘I think this is a difficult but necessary investigation,’ says the artist. ‘Looking for ways to understand the world, this seems to be a promising approach.’

‘Or is it extension of the Englightenment project to record and distill and map? Why do we continue with this? Shouldn’t we just reflect the complexity and messiness of the world we inhabit?’ asks the grandmother. While she talks she is picking up the dry pine needles and placing them in a grid. The first layer lies lengthways and she places another layer at right angles on top. They form a elegant map. ‘As an aside, visual props can be everywhere,’ says the grandmother, indicating the little pine needle web she built.[5]

The artist doesn’t pay much attention. He continues: ‘To pare objects back to their bare minimum doesn’t have to be overly prescriptive. No one can never stop an object’s endless signifying, things repeat and open and continue, whether you want them to or not.’

‘Then what is the purpose?’ asks the grandmother.

‘I don’t know, but I think to turn something outward is a bold and useful proposition. To turn something outward is to hold its many facets up to the expectations of the social.’[6]

‘The expectations of the social?’ the grandmother is laughing softly.

The artist looks sheepish. ‘Yes, that was naff. But what I mean is…what do I mean?’ The artist pauses. ‘If an object in its singularity is replete with meaning, why not hold this up to be looked at? Why not strip away extraneous information and really look at its operations. This isn’t about naming: the object doesn’t need to be named, this is one part of its empty, extraneous information.’

‘So,’ the grandmother interjects, ‘I am hesitant to use the word, but the world is ‘complex’. This is surely understood. We should be constructing moments to take space from this ‘complexity’ or approach it tangentially, from another, unknown angle.’

‘Yes, and it is in these moments that more egalitarian structures can be proposed—in opposition to those systems that we currently live within.’

‘This is quite a leap,’ says the grandmother. ‘Your politics is amorphous.’

‘Poetics has a lot to teach politics,’ the artist says confidently.

‘Let’s go,’ says the grandmother.

The artist and the grandmother leave the pine needle lattice and climb back down the mountain. It is the end, so of course the sun is setting. The sun sets. The trees on the mountainside remember their role in the introduction to the story and try to recreate these patterns again: they jostle and copy each other as the pair walk past.

The terrain is uneven and some of the trees are growing at awkward angles; some have toppled over, pushed up by the shifting of the volcanic land, and are propped against each other. They form elegant triangles and the dark of the evening collects in the interstices.

The artist and his grandmother stand at the bottom of the volcano and look back up at the peak high above them.

‘I don’t feel a bit tired now,’ says the grandmother.

‘Neither am I,’ says the artist, ‘shall we climb up again? We might see something new.’

So they do.

[1] ‘It is important to acknowledge that this minimal and elegant gesture is not conjured as some kind of sleigh-of-hand trick but instead draws out attention, simply and patiently, to the prevalence of material forces and practical reliances always at play.’ Kate Montgomery writing on John Ward Knox’s work ‘Untitled’ in Prospect 2011 at City Gallery Wellington, from the exhibition’s accompanying notes.

[2] ‘It is always changing. It has order. It doesn’t have a specific place. Its boundaries are not fixed. It affects other things. It may be accessible but go unnoticed. Part of it may also be part of something else. Some of it is familiar. Some of it is strange. Knowing of it changes it.’ Robert Barry, talking about his work Art Work (1970) in Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object…(Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973) p. 178

[3] ‘The ambition of minimalism was, then, to relocate the origins of sculpture’s meaning to the outside, no longer modeling its structure on the privacy of psychological space but on the public, conventional nature of what might be called cultural space.’ Rosalind Krauss in Passages in Modern Sculpture (United States: Viking Press, 1977) p. 270.

[4] ‘As long as you keep looking, she keeps forming, and re-forming.’ Anna Sanderson writing about the painting Haesje van Cleyburgh by Rembrandt in her collection of essays, Brainpark, (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006) p. 16.

[5] ‘Every matter; every material has latent energy. Art at its best can transform latent gravitational matters into nascent social ones. This comes about by deferring meaning from singular occurrences or arrangements to spaces of plurality. Corporeal, social, theoretical: catalytic agents implicate their surroundings.’ John Ward Knox writing on his blog, retrieved 6 January 2013,

[6] ‘I am a sensual artist. I am involved with the sensual relationships of materials. That seems to be the nature of art and I don’t think curtailing that nature is going to make it any more rigorous per se, because essentially it is still about the communication of one human being’s observations to another human being with the intent of bringing about a change of state.’ Lawrence Weiner talking about his work in Lawrence Weiner, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998) p. 22.

Thomasin Sleigh