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The Room is Sound, The Objects Abstractions: The Art of Catherine Christer Hennix

With rare performances at Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery, and exhibiting now in Düsseldorf, the polymath has long worked at the thresholds of perception 

In March 1928, the Dutch mathematician Luitzen Egbertus Jan Brouwer went to Vienna to expound his ideas on topology (the branch of mathematics dealing with changes of shape), which were causing some disruption at the time. On two chilly evenings, Brouwer presented arguments that loosened some of the surest footholds in the philosophy of mathematics. Maths, as Brouwer argued, is not an activity that exists ‘out there’, in the laws of empirical science and logic; for Brouwer, mathematics is what we can imagine: a creation of the mind, and an activity prior to both language and logic.

Attending his lecture one evening, alongside members of the Vienna Circle, were the phenomenologist Edward Husserl, the young logician Kurt Gödel and Ludwig Wittgenstein. After the talk, Wittgenstein, who had famously renounced philosophical work, went to a café and surprised a friend with his excitement at Brouwer’s propositions. That evening, he began to sketch the ideas that would make up his return masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations (1953), a book exploring puzzles of language and mind, with implications in logic, metaphysics, number theory, therapy, music and colour theory. Though his Vienna lectures were heretical at the time, today Brouwer is seen as a founder of modern topology, while his Fixed-Point Theorem, one of the most elegant in mathematics, is used by astrophysicists to send objects into space.

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Christer Hennix, Nur (For Marian Zazeela), 2005, installation view. Courtesy: Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

Christer Hennix, Nur (For Marian Zazeela), 2005, exhibition view. Courtesy: Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

In the culturally extra-orbital 1970s, a young composer working at the electronic music studio in Stockholm, named at the time Christer Hennix, found that Brouwer’s intuitionist mathematics had a practical yet rigorous philosophical application: for electronic music and the search for elevated experience. Hennix, influenced by free jazz modalities (Hennix saw Miles Davis and John Coltrane play in Stockholm in the early 1960s), opened an installation at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 1976 drawing on Brouwer’s theories of mathematical intuition, for an eight-day festival, titled ‘Brouwer’s Lattice’. Whereas Brouwer’s arguments relied upon a thought device, an ideal mathematician travelling through sequences of time identified as the ‘Creating Subject’, Hennix discovered that, through algorithms and computers, we could set Breuwer’s ideas into waveforms transcending both subjectivity and objectivity.

Hennix, a polymath composer who worked for years as a professor of mathematics in the US, has long been sidelined artistically, after her sole exhibition of visual art, Topos and Adjoints, at the Moderna Museet. This year especially, her musical and artistic output has gained second life, first with her retrospective of algebra paintings at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum (Traversée du Fantasme, 2018) and recently at Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery. Largely through the work of the New York-based curatorial platform dedicated to experimental performance, Blank Forms, and Empty Gallery, her original, entrancing musical works are being reissued as Selected Early Keyboard Works (Blank Forms/Empty Editions, 2018), out this month, and a collection of her writings is underway. Her show of objects, visuals and music, ‘The Threshholds of Perception’ – presenting works from her Moderna Museet exhibition, such as – ended last weekend in Hong Kong, just as she opened a new show at Max Mayer Gallery in Düsseldorf (as part of the gallery share Okey Dokey II). Yet it’s unclear where Hennix, a quintessential outsider, should stand, historically, philosophically or musically.

In the late 1970s, Hennix showed for a few years in the experimental art context in New York, at The Kitchen and Redbird Gallery, falling under the influence of La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, the ‘anti-art’ of collaborator Henry Flynt and the musical teachings of Hindustani classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. But it seems insufficient and reductive to distill Hennix’s highly original work on the basis of these alliances. As well as computer-based and autonomous art, and today’s resurgence of artistic eclecticism, Hennix’s practice can be seen as an attempt to formulate a philosophy of knowledge through objects as well as images, bridging aesthetics and ethics. Flynt has written that central to Hennix’s work is the ‘accession to a psychic enclave’, which Hennix called a ‘topos’. More colloquially, Wittgenstein once described philosophy as the therapeutic act of ‘tidying up a room’. For Hennix, that room is sound, and the objects it contains are abstractions.

Hennix, who now lives in Berlin, performs herself only seldom, but for a couple of nights in late August in Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery, she gave three rare performances with her six-member ensemble, The Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage. Her exhibition ‘The Threshold of Perception’ presented her two and three-dimensional works – I hesitate to call them sculptures and paintings, since their intention seems so beyond ‘art’ – that are visual instantiations of her ideas about number, intuition, abstraction and uncertainty. Like her computer-created waveforms and oscillators, these works are direct extensions of her mathematical and musical interests. But what makes her work compelling is her monadistic attempt to shape these into an experiential result: a pure state of altered consciousness. Psychotropics welcome here; high abstract thought, equally so.

The Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage plays in just intonation, true to the mathematical intervals of musical theory and ancient music, and includes brass, electronics and voice. At Empty Gallery, the performances began with the low, vibrating hum of a computer-generated sine wave (Two Topologies, 1976/2018, a series of drones originally made for the Moderna Museet show was presented visually, in the exhibition) – imagine the lowest possible frequency of an organ, clucking with oscillatory charge. Hennix began to sing some words from the Qu’ran, and other voices entered, though the sound quickly suffused into a musical form in which the initial waveform was extended to a form of spatial vibration. ‘Every motion that springs forth from this silent life is a vibration and a creator of vibrations’, wrote Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan, and here, quite literally so.

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Christer Hennix, Brackets, 1976/2018, installation view. Courtesy: Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

Christer Hennix, Brackets, 1976/2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: Empty Gallery; photograph: Michael Yu

The sweeping, two-hour long performance was equal parts raga, blues and Iraqi maqam, using the muted trumpets and trombones of jazz and eastern music. The drone effect – augmented with the horns of the playing of Hilary and Amir El Saffar – was loud, incantatory yet musically precise. As Hennix suggested to me, the three components of sine wave, voice, and brass are mechanisms capable of producing the purest sounds. In the performance, these sounds were sufficiently pure as to smudge, delightfully, between voice, instrument and electronics merging into a forceful, meditative raga, stripped completely free of timbre. To whatever degree there is a ‘pure’ music, this is the closest I’ve heard, meandering through minor tonalities, and the vibrating atonalities of proximate notes. Somewhat to my surprise, over two hours, it was a form of mind-wandering that was never boring, philosophical if not conceptual. It concluded with the throbbing, constant drone of the wave generator with which it began.

Much of Hennix’s project depends on the generative intensity, and virtuosity, of improvisation. The result is somewhere between an invitation and an imposition to consider art entirely devoid of Western aesthetic categories of tonality, form, substance and duration (each performance is an iteration of the same mathematical structure). In our age of eclecticism, Hennix’s project could seem a strange hodgepodge of New York musical experimentalism, anti-art, Sufism, and technical mathematics. But what was apparent to me is the consistency and rigour of her production: a unified, if roving, attempt of quietist philosophy, sketching the fundamentals of possible experience. The work approached the expansivity of meditation and I don’t mean this pejoratively.

Hennix’s article ‘Modalities and Languages for Algorithms’, from 1983, begins with a quotation from Alain Robbe-Grillet: ‘Nothing is more fantastic, ultimately, than precision’. It’s a phrase that she might like because it conjoins the outwardness of limit-experiences with the technical precision of music. Hennix’s work contains both, and therein lies its difficult generosity. ‘To abstract the world of objects’, wrote Brouwer, ‘is possible only by experiencing life as a dream’, and Hennix has succeeded in making a unique, oneiric world from a life of felt abstractions.

Catherine Christer Hennix is showing at Galerie Max Mayer, Düsseldorf, until 30 September – in collaboration with Blank Forms, New York, and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, as part of Okey Dokey II.

Main image: ‘Catherine Christer Hennix’, 2018, exhibition view, Galerie Max Mayer, Düsseldorf. Courtesy: the artist, Empty Gallery, Hong Kong and Galerie Max Mayer, Düsseldorf

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin.

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