The harmonious

Escher and the origin
of complexity

Nausica Manzi

Each is a bond of union, an embodied bond of skin as in Escher’s drawings, is transformed into an orange peel without beginning or ending; into a staircase that confounds, a panorama that misleads, or into an element that is both detached and linked to another.  

A society in the midst of staircases that climb and fall at the same time, on slippery and fragile floors that appear to be ceilings of freedom and, at the same time, claustrophobic rooftops; a lost humanity among spatial objects that also act as mirrors deceiving but also allowing us to find ourselves once more. An entire world suspended between bodies and minds that are marvellously divergent yet disassembled and intertwined like coiled orange peels. Escher’s complexity, his complex reality.

Used linguistically in different fields, the word ‘complexity‘ expresses the characteristic of that which is composed of several different parts but are still able to interact with each other. Contrasting elements that connect and struggle. Complexity is frightening and associated with confusion and anguish, yet it reveals a way to reinvent reality. Between the possible and the impossible, the brilliant Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, with his works, wanted to pave this path by identifying its origin and meaning. Hence, what is the origin of complexity? How should it be interpreted?

Complexity arises as the impossibility of resolution and simplification, it particularly emerges as unprecedented, disarranged, uncertain and dilemmatic. This characteristic consequently reveals a profound cognitive crisis, an extreme difficulty for contemporary mentalities to accept and develop – everything is difficult and intertwined in a constantly expanding ecumene. Complex, however, does not mean complicated, i.e. sum of parts; it rather entails different elements relating to one another. Therefore, what needs to be considered is the relationship. In overcoming classical determinism, Escher’s works show how there is a continuous circumference between different elements and how complexity reveals the profound meaning of our time. A meaning that is uncertain because nothing is predictable, and contradictory because every element of reality is something more than what it simply appears to be. It represents everything and the opposite of everything; and finally, emergent because there is something moving underneath every interweaving, something that originates it.

There is, therefore,an origin of complexity. Finding it is the challenge that Escher presents, making himself master and promoter of the beauty of the thinking eye :

“During solitary walks through the woods what happened was […] I suddenly stopped in my tracks, seized by an alarming, unreal and at the same time charming sensation: I found myself face to face with the inexplicable. That tree in front of me, as an object, as a part of the woods, may not turn out to be surprising. The distance, the space between us seemed, however, suddenly enigmatic. We do not know the space. We don’t see it, we don’t hear it, we don’t feel it. We are in the midst of it, we are part of it, but we know nothing about it […] I only see borders, signs; I don’t see the actual space. The wind blowing on my face stinging my skin is not space. When I hold an object in my hands, I don’t feel the space object itself. Space remains impenetrable, a miracle.“.[1]

Reality is therefore a miracle, a complex system consisting of elements whose relationship is characterised by non-linearity and capable of producing emergent behaviour, in the sense of not being predictable or resulting from the simple sum of its parts: “it is the miracle of that same three-dimensionality of the space in which we struggle day by day, as if we were exerting the wheel of a mill”[2]. A complex miracle thus embraces and engages human beings, and the world at large: each is a bond of union, an embodied bond of skin which, as in Escher’s drawings, is transformed into an orange peel without beginning or ending; into a staircase that confounds, a panorama that misleads, or into an element that is both detached and linked to another. The other limits the movements, but paradoxically it is the only means that allows ‘consciousness’ of the spatial world, the devouring ecumene, which is floor and ceiling, depth and surface, focal point and loss of horizon, pencil drawing and soul that comes to life: “the miracle we call ‘reality’ closely concerns our consciousness of space”[3]. Origin is a state of a relationship. In his graphic puzzles, Escher makes this kind of origin obvious to all.

The origin of complexity is therefore a state of mind consisting of conflicting contrasts, in relation, which – by abducting interiority – gives rise to a disorderly harmony. This state of mind is nothing else but wonder. Wonder is the principle of interiority and exteriority, i.e. dimensions merged together, and thus the origin of complexity. By producing an interior harmonious disorder and a conscious action in reality, wonder generates a miracle. Through it, even if intertwined, lost in doubts and illusions, everyone finds themselves thinking, and they are therefore alive: this is the ‘beauty of the thinking eye’, an answer that Escher always gave to anyone who asked him what the meaning of his works was: “The ideas underlying my works derive from my admiration and amazement at the laws that govern the world in which we live. Whoever marvels at something becomes aware of that wonder”[4]. Escher pursued the wonder contained in every bond of complexity. Complexity is the guardian of essence.

All contemporary reality is therefore a miraculous and disturbing drawing by Escher: still not understanding, lost in illusory perspectives, everyone focuses on looking at the knots in those paradoxes without beginning or ending. However, recognition then occurs and saves. In fact, when wonder intervenes and leaves us breathless, generating smiles and wrinkles of doubt or even surrendering to the mystery, a miracle happens. By igniting, in different ways, thought and dormant lives. That same state of mind becomes the principle of interiority and exteriority at the same time. Everyone finds themselves bonded by the union of breaths, thoughts and steps, eyes that know how to think and invent. 

Through wonder, one discovers the sense that awakens and changes perspective, just like the skeleton that Escher draws in the pupil of the eye, standing still to remind observers that it is a combination of contrasts and that they must stop complaining and hating complexity, remaining defenceless, and instead commit themselves to making those contrasts come alive by surprising themselves with the disordered harmony they generate. The human being must ‘come out’, it must become a sign of contradiction like the animals that Escher drew out of his drawings of static forms: “Flat spots irritate me […] ‘You are too fake for me; you stand there motionless and firmly embedded; do something, come out, show me what you are capable of!’. So, I allow them to pop out of the plan”[5] . The world and humanity are therefore a bond of union, a complex bond, its origin a miracle of existence generated by the wonder that shocks yet makes us breathe and reflect once again.

[1]  Translated from Maurits Cornelis Escher, p.151 L’impossibile in Esplorando l’infinito, Garzanti, Milano 1991

[2] Ibidem

[3] Translated from a quote found on p. 132 in M.C.Escher, La divisione regolare del piano, 1958, in Esplorando l’infinito.

[4] From the original English translation found in p. 6 M.C.Escher, Grafica e disegni, Taschen, Köln, 1992.

[5] Translated from quote foun on p. 132 M.C.Escher, La divisione regolare del piano, 1958, in Esplorando l’infinito.

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