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Room: Von Wersins Kitchen

The Redemptive Qualities Of Ornament

‘The Redemptive Qualities Of Ornament’, designed by Rietlanden Women's Office, 2022

Located at the rear of the Ornamental portal by the Rietlanden Women’s Office, is the written work of author, editor and tutor Dirk Vis. The author spent a month in the hermitage he himself built in the palace garden, after which he reports back to the Initiator (whom Vis calls the Governor in the text) at the kitchen table. With the essay The Redemptive Qualities Of Ornament, which describes this meeting, he seems to aim to redeem the ornament from the diminishing judgement by Adolf Loos, in his renowned “Ornament and Crime” from 1910, and to strengthen the somewhat naive plea in favour of its added value by Alice Twemlow, in the the article “The decriminalisation of ornament” published in Eye Magazine in 2005. You can read the text here or get carried away by the author's own recitation of it.

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What has being a hermit brought you? asked the Governor of The Palace of Typographic Masonry.
We were sitting in his palace kitchen, which was filled with mosaics, carpets and other richly decorated attributes. The kitche
n was surrounded by many halls filled with objects, posters, and other images that told of the histories of various visual motifs. In this building, people came together to admire works of art, and ask all kinds of questions about design.

One month earlier, I had suggested building a hut in the palace garden. Your palace is not complete without a hermitage, I had said. The Governor had been receptive to this, because every half decent castle has a zen stone garden, cosmetic mosque, faux ruin, or other place of contemplation.

I built the hut from pollarded willow branches, which I had woven around young willow trunks set in a circle in the ground. A layer of flax provided insulation, and a tent cloth would keep out the rain. Here, for a month, I would do nothing, I would not read, nor speak. I had been curious as to what I would come into contact with when I was no longer connected to anything.

What being a hermit has brought me? I answered to gain some time. As I spoke, I saw red cogs turning in front of the friendly, puffy Governor's face. After a month of silence, on my own, the proximity of another human being with whom I could finally speak filled me with emotion that I could barely contain.

After not even a week had passed I began to see patterns, I said, and I was still seeing them, though by now the dark purple wheels and sails above the kitchen table that appeared only in my mind were fading: our fabric of words had covered them. Soon – when I would turn on my worldly screens again – my newly found internal pattern flow would be completely flooded by external, material images.

The recognition of a pattern is a source of joy, said the Governor.

In the darkness of the hut, and after only a few days, I began to see endlessly varying things: a ship with a chimney narrowing and turning into an arrow, shot into a body of flesh, the structure of which appeared to be an apple, from which a black drop was squeezed. In the daytime, these forms merged with the physical world around me: in the sand outside the hut, shoots of horsetail swirled in a fan of colours and rose like miniature propellors. Inside, illegible letterforms interwove with the braided willow wall of the hut.

With nothing else to do, I could watch this screen in the mind for hours. I recognised prehistoric series of painted dots on rock walls, red prints made by lightning-fast fingers. I saw iconic cartoony creatures appear that reminded me of the drawing styles of cultures much older than ours.

In the outside world, I became used to checking the image flows on my screens during bathroom breaks. When there is nothing else to do, going to the toilet turns into a remarkable event. Using a composting toilet requires so much care, that I could occupy what felt like whole mornings with these mundane tasks and, in an unexpected reversal, venturing to the toilet in the very back of the palace garden meant taking a break from my otherwise constant feed of internal images.

Finally allowing myself to do nothing for an extended period of time, I realised that without knowing it, I had spent years preparing for this moment, by studying countless ornaments. Their effect mesmerised me: they made me dizzy. Pixel calligraphies above mosque gates, mosaics in metro stations, and reflectors with which lorries were stickered. I delved into histories of adornment, trying to understand something of my ecstasy.

Of course I had learned nothing from all this toil, and only now, inactively sitting cross-legged on the dried twigs with which I formed a carpet of sorts, did I start to see things differently. If you can let yourself be carried away by the delight that went into an ornament when it was made, if you can recognise the hand of its maker, then what you are looking at is never kitsch. Pleasure and peace are necessary conditions for the creation of an ornament.

And yet there were also critics, who – in whipped up language that contradicted their statements – saw waste in all those pleasing patterns. For more than a hundred years, modernity had condemned ornamentation as discarded energy that didn’t help society progress. Sober products were built to last as long as possible. Bare flatness was supposed to express equivalence. But a century later, by a twist of fate, a strict minimalist design language had become completely unconvincing: slick, metal consumer computers did not speak anymore of simple honesty, but of smoothing over, stripping bare, and flat out exploitation. Wastefulness had been elevated to the most important design principle of wrinkle-free products, to be thrown away and replaced as soon as possible. And so, a lack of ornamentation had become criminal: surreptitious minimalism could attempt to disguise the exploitation, extraction and pollution that underpinned the creation of laptops, interiors and lifestyles.

From the silence of the hermit hut that shielded me from the hustle of everyday life, I started to reflect on other cultural patterns as well. Even more reversals: while the complex, body-decorating tattoos of indigenous cultures had long been condemned as primitive, members of a dominant and so-called developed culture now had their tattoos applied en masse. Graffiti – mostly suppressed expressions of spontaneous desire for form – moved from illegal outdoor walls to canvases in indoor spaces. And the most high-minded, modernist oil paint compositions would, a hundred years after creation, decorate coffee mugs, souvenirs and train toilet doors in cheap print versions. Ornament had been decriminalised, wrote a critic-historian in solid academic language that, lacking any embellishment, kept a distance from its own thesis.

And so, quite a beautiful pattern can be discerned in the fluctuating value of decorations over time: from waste and crime, to beauty and redemption, and back again. A revival undulates into a decline, like a gargoyle cast in a concrete column. An ascent appears out of nowhere, like a plaster putto half hidden in the wall. The young willow branches with their newly formed leaves turned into a green crown just above the hut.

Ornaments seem to be attracted to transitions, to those zones where opposites meet, if not literal transitions then figurative ones: the top of a column is marked by sculptures, carved wood frames a picture, curly compositions on canvas mark the boundaries of painting. The motif of the changing appreciation of ornament indicates the transition between cultural criticism and naturalistic observation. Only angels and hermits unbound to time could enjoy this all-too-human pattern.

What happened to those patterns after your first week? asked the Governor opposite me at the kitchen table.

When, after my month of silence, I was collected from the hut by the Governor, I had started to blabber about some ‘primal pattern’. The Governor must have thought I had gone crazy. He took me to his palace kitchen which was filled with a number of patterned objects and other elements of ornamentation: forms that recur throughout time and on which various cultures build differently. From peasant fabrics to reliquaries. He did not know why he had put them in his kitchen, perhaps because they connected so well with the tiles, or because of the association with the spice rack, or because of the cook’s habit of creating new combinations out of all the ingredients and traditions from all over the world.

What happened to my patterns after the first week? I repeated the question. Well, after three days I thought I had lost it. I tried to ignore the phenomena, but of course they did not go away. As they blended with my surroundings, I found that they were simply an extension of them. I saw immaterial petals on real stems, and transparent leaf formations dancing around decayed tree branches. I will never forget that there is an image-making thing inside me, that sees life in every seemingly static object.

Do you have any idea where they came from, these hallucinations? asked the Governor, and did they have any meaning?

From my hut in the evenings, I would see the sun disappear behind the palace roof which sank into the shadows, accompanied by unimaginable, but clearly visible ripples that would rise up before my eyes. They passed into what I can only describe as the blue space-time flames that appear when someone teleports in a science fiction film. I felt wealthier than the Governor, who had neither this view nor the time to enjoy it, but did have the abundant worries of his property.

Those ripples reminded me of the ridges that quivered in the highpoint of paper money bills: colourful graphic codes that give worthless paper its alchemical value. In their highly functional, and at the same time weird visual language, these graphic guilder notes also indicated another imminent reversal: after this graphic orgasm, money encoded on the computer would take over the function of paper bills.

Not having to worry about money or food for one month, simply eating what was available from the stash of potted soups and dried nuts and fruits the Governor had made available to me, I recalled that beforehand, I had been quite afraid of spending so much time alone, without any companionship, any other body. Once inside, I somehow relaxed into it, and started to feel comfortable in solitude, enjoying the sole company of dreams and memories. To pass the time, I would reflect on memories and revisit art works I had seen in real life but not given the time they needed to be experienced fully. I even had the idea that I could let them interfere with the newly formed patterns in my imagination.

Another highpoint I recollected of graphic ornaments was formed by grey window surfaces with black and white frames of a series of digital, scalable images – pseudo-buttons in office baroque, based on the formal language of early computer interfaces. These faux user-interfaces were themselves surrounded by a virtual frame of unreadable computer codes that gave worthless jpegs their alchemical value. Like many works of art, they served as tools for financial speculation, pseudo-currencies. But for whoever they turned rich, these digital pictures could be appreciatedby anyone. To meditate on an ornament, you do not need to own it, they seemed to say.

And yet, every visual ornament is connected with money and power. At the very least, an ornament tells the story of the circumstances of its own creation. The high-baroque, late-capitalist, Gothic Revival towers in New York City, with their gargoyles and grotesques, have encased the exploitation logic, winner-takes-all mentality and ‘wealth rises’ ideology of their investors in dreary concrete forever. The fake marble wings and alien lobes of those buildings may divert attention from the waste and estrangement caused by the system from which they emerged, but they cannot hide it. Similarly, even the most sincerely drawn motifs of woven wisdom, when made for a famous global fabric supplier, are also linked in some way – accusation, regret, redemption – to the colonial history of the parent company. And, each most extraordinary printed book with its handmade, enchanting endpapers still appears from small pools of funds in the wake of, and depending on, much larger cash flows.

I had expected to miss reading, but soon I began to notice that there was more than enough around me to interpret instead. The branched walls of the hut, which started to look like alien letterforms, reminded me of a carefully calligraphed painting on the wall of a bank’s headquarters. A work that not only showed the strong hand of the painter, but also – in yet another breathtaking inversion – how much the work was part of a financial world, in which an invisible hand rules over opaque flash transactions carried out by shadow banking algorithms without any human interference.

Similarly, I had seen a Renaissance book in the palace library that was filled with calligraphies and showed the value of handwriting versus print. Another artist had added drawings of flowers, fruits and beasts and shown the value of image versus language. In both cases, the book had been paid for, possessed by, and made in honour of a Holy Roman Emperor. Once you look at ornament this way, there is no harmoniously-balanced decoration that can not also be seen as an image of inequality and chaos.

So to whom does an ornament belong? Ornaments are tributes made to the body or domain of a sovereign. Who or what is sovereign can be freely, imaginatively, even spiritually, filled in. The craftsperson has the pleasure of creation, the viewer has the pleasure of viewing, but there’s isn’t really such a thing as the pleasure of possession, for pleasure exists in the degree to which it is shared. Ownership is a category that is ridiculed by ornament. Perhaps that is why Tibetan monks blow away their coloured sand mandala dedicated to the Great Mystery after completion: it belongs to no one.

In my mind I thanked the Governor for his generosity in allowing me to stay in the hut, as ornament to the palace.

This little wavy line, I said, pointing to a detail in the colourful pattern of the fabric of the Governor's suit, as he sat across from me and rested his arms on the kitchen table, this already contains the entire story. The patterned fabric of your suit tells me how porous our bodies are to all those invisible wavelengths that float through the air and through us, all those codes, data streams, electromagnetic radio waves used for communication, continuously penetrating our bodies invisibly.

It marks the boundary with the invisible, said the Governor, stroking his sleeve with the back of his other hand. Ornament begins where communication ends, he went on, it uses forms in a seemingly useless way, and thus is able to address things beyond the functional everyday.

Talking and listening, I slowly returned to ordinary, patternless reality, and with the broken silence, and the beauty of the mind images overwritten by our conversation, I felt I was also slowly losing the clarity I had gained by not speaking for a month. I would have still liked to talk about how there is an end to everything we can know, how there are limits to rationality, and how whole territories remain impenetrable to calculation, but I could no longer find the words.

In conclusion, the Governor said, ornament celebrates.

I did not answer and so the Governor asked, what did you see by the end of your month? What were your patterns celebrating?

At the edge of the palace garden, the undecipherable noise of the city in the distance sounded like a faint echo of a long-forgotten, fantastic jungle. I thought of those architectural urban decorations that reveal the boundary with the extreme strangeness of wild nature, so that the heat waves and floods would not alone force this reminder upon us. Blob-shaped, organically designed chairs and lamps, and algorithms based on plant growth had generated balcony railings and brick patterns. These were tweaked by designers whose hands were visible in automated, large-scale construction processes that otherwise remained obscure, detached from any human scale. I was reminded that ornament itself is a living thing, as organic as our nails and hair, an external part of internal processes, an extension of our living imagination.

I had grown used to the boredom, but I could not get used to sitting still for so long, and I kept going over memories and fantasies. Just as the dots and lines danced before my eyes, I had seen similar patterns moving on dozens of screens, seamlessly affixed to the walls of our national airport’s departure lounge. Every day, those drawings would vibrantly change into new form combinations. After a while, it seemed you were no longer looking at the images, but at a direct translation of the energetic connections in the hardware behind the screens.

This airport portal designed by an artist-programmer had, in fact, given me the idea for a hermitage in the first place. I had spent a full working day in front of all of its screens doing nothing, simply looking and trying to grasp what was going on behind those dynamic walls. The neural networks of computers encode, calculate, mutate and adapt, all invisibly, but when these actions are repeated in imagery, the pattern tells us something about its otherwise unfathomable origin. The multi-layered images, which had struck me as a weird user interface of some alien spaceship, made the most impenetrable inventions of our dark age transparent once more: the unbeatable chess computers with their inimitable strategies, the countless satellites that displaced the stars, and the dazzling results of artificial imagination.

This ornamental portal marked the transition from earth to heavenly space; just as the indecipherable inscriptions on the Viking gate Valgrind once marked the transition to Valhalla; just as the Cosmatesque mosaics in Catholic churches marked the transition from the secular world to the superhuman; just as the colourful image markers around the national TV archive building marked the transition between the here and now and the forever after. All of them transitions from our unequal, temporary, worldly empire to that other, at least in the mind, eternal, equal kingdom.

From the hut, my own captain’s cabin without a ship, the loose arrows, stripes and colour fields I saw soon appeared to me to be the smaller parts of a single, ever-changing and endlessly large primordial ornament. In silence and peace, I saw a busier, wilder and stranger image than I had ever seen in any city square full of advertising screens. A primeval pattern in which every motif, made or as yet unmade, had its place.

Something looked like a bull, its head turned away, standing on a rocky outcrop, rising up. An alien starship captain with the face of a 17th century grotesque. A spaceship made of points of light, with some sort of control panel, from which living algorithms could control people. Two machine elves curved into each other, holding something in their raised hands. A strange silence, like when a bullet shot upwards hangs still for a moment, and hovers, before falling down. Wordlessly, the elves communicated that structured skill and flamboyant pleasure blending into one another create a vertigo, in which, for a moment, a mystery normally hidden beneath the surface of the everyday can be enjoyed.

I could decide to interpret all these images, or simply let them pass for what they were: forms with an inescapable harmony, without meaning, without precedent, forms that simply are; a pattern with no message, like wormholes in deadwood, a pattern as message.

In the intertwining branches around me, I recognised the ancient scribblings of an alien species, writing their extraterrestrial fables, in a primordial language that somehow, through aeons of evolutionary processes, had found its way into the neurons of the human brain. But of course, I knew I could only look at it that way, because of the knowledge that what I had really seen were accidental forms, generated by an under-stimulated, lively imagination, filled with treasures of memory gained through experience and culture, and projected onto what it found of emptiness, silence and darkness.

By the end of the month, I learned to let the apparitions come and go. The flying snowflakes and falling flower petals swirled freely, but I noticed that they too marked a transition. The shapes darted into the corner of my eye, but I wanted to jump into the emptiness that I observed behind them. That was how most of our universe looked. Emptiness is normal, the richness of our own environment is the exception. Zooming in, there is an alternating pattern of great activity and relative inactivity that goes on from the furthest galaxies to the smallest particle nuclei under the skin of a human sitting still in a hut. I felt at peace, as if I had become a field of blinking dots myself, as part of that endless weave, the primal ornament celebrating that everything around us is animated.

A bell rang in the hall, and the Governor excused himself. On my own again, I felt a remnant of the calmness of the past month. I looked at the decorated tiles above the sink with new sobriety. No maker could deny being part of a system based on extraction and exploitation. Decriminalisation of ornament was a dream. Yet there were also makers who managed to cultivate the abundance of their time period and spread it out. And because most of what was produced now would be wiped out, except for those things that proved worth preserving, future historians would inherita distorted picture of our age of decadence, as the age in which sustainability emerged. As with erotics, the art is not to waste your excess, but to transform it into the pleasure of others.

In the kitchen, I could hear enthusiastic chatter from the hall. By now I knew my way around and I sneaked out of the palace through the terrace doors. Fortunately, the Governor had not asked me what I had come into contact with by having no contact for a month. Because frankly, the mystery of the source of this desire for form had only increased. The richness of the celestial primal ornament I had seen, however, would be always accessible to anyone who would sit still long enough in silence.

As I walked out of the palace garden, I could see the irregular silhouette of my willow hut contrasting with the sleek palace wall, and in the strange play of branches I suddenly read: ornament is abundance, dreaming of a world without scarcity.

Sources and acknowledgements: Various ideas and phrases come from E. H. Gombrich (The Sense of Order), Alice Twemlow (The Decriminalisation of Ornament), Adolf Loos (Ornament und Verbrechen), Wolfgang Von Wersin (The Elementary Ornament and its Laws ), Roger Caillois (The Writing of Stones), Pi Ch’en Chao (Taoist Yoga), Charles and Ray Eames (Powers of Ten), Laurens van der Post (Patterns of Renewal), and William Morris (Useful Work versus Useless Toil). I wish to express my gratitude to Richard Niessen for his trust, sources and conversations, to Ruben Pater, and Clemency Newman, for their critical commentary and warm support, to the students of the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam for sitting through and commenting on earlier versions of this text, and to an old man in the woods for his sources, patient reading, and precise reactions.