Monday, June 5, 2023

Greg Bem : The Atom, by Sarah Mangold

The Atom, Sarah Mangold
Wave, 2023



are a repetition
of familiar forms.

(from Number 17)


Sarah Mangold’s latest work is a foray through a century-old series of drawings by Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint: The Atom Series. Mangold has responded through book length form with her own series, a short interpretation and processing of the works that pushes forward Mangold’s powerful commitments to a contemporary feminist poetics across time and space. Mangold’s writings here are wondrously charged poem responses that bring Klint into 2023 through ekphrasis, existentialism, and literary conversation.

Klint’s The Atom Series was released in 1917, and according to Mangold in her chapbook’s afterword, they “illustrate two images of an atom on each page: one image shows the atom as it exists on the etheric plane and the other shows the atom’s state of energy on the physical plane enlarged four times.” A brief look at these works through a Google search reveals something between geometric elegance and hallucinogenic mutation. Klint is known to many art historians as the first painter to create abstract art, and we see in The Atom Series a fantastical journey between abstraction and representation by way of the painter’s personal relationship to and description of the works as a process, of an opened door.

Klint included captions to each, brief lines of poetry that offered a semblance of representation to otherwise superbly abstract and revelatory works of mysticism. Lines like “Through its longing to create ever more beautiful forms / first on the etheric plane, and then in matter, the body / becomes capable of being penetrated by light” (from The Atom Series, Number 4) accompany the beautiful and colorful artworks. Mangold provides every one of the captions alongside her original works: an awesome offer of reawakening and rejuvenation for Klint’s words, which stand up and feel current, fresh, living.

bodies of
the same kind serve
the substance.

(from Number 9)

The words offer a pathway to the core of each drawing, exploring the essence of “the atomic” through abstraction and poetry. Alongside contemporary discoveries and cultural phenomena including the X-Ray, Radio, and Science Fiction, Klint’s poems and paintings feel both ancient and futuristic, getting to the core questions of humanity. Indeed, they fit into that phantasmagorical period between romancing the pastoral and becoming inundated with the techno-industrial: where do humans, where does the human spirit, fit into this wild and perplexing world? Klint’s atoms are as much about atoms as they are about the awestriking impact of creation, where the minuscule and the infinite coexist somewhere in our minds.

Enter Mangold, at a time where the world continues to brace itself amidst ecological disaster, human rights abuse, and the complete and utter breakdown of consciousness into technological addiction and deadening. Mangold’s The Atom fits right in as a foil to the everyday horror we, global humans, face daily. Sarah Mangold’s small publication is a small siren or horn that beckons us to return to the radical exploration of the self as we move through a historical landscape of trauma and systemic pressure.

In addition to including all twenty captions from The Atom Series, Mangold offers her own interpretations of each work. Her writings capture a uniquely hybrid form that evokes a variety of poetry forms and aesthetics: vispo meets haiku meets confession meets tweet here. Each poem is circular, roughly 9-10 lines in length moving from short to long to short again. The twenty poems correspond with the twenty drawings and are also reciprocal to Klint’s captions.

am a pressure
gauge with a circular

(from Number 3)

Like her previous works, Mangold brings personal voice into her atoms. There are many unknowns to Mangold’s words, but they are calm, collected, and despite their curious qualities feel direct and precise. This is a striking difference from Klint’s writing, which feels omniscient, guardian-like, the chorus or philosopher passing along flutters of wisdom. But Mangold’s words, her reflections and responses, her translations, read as wisdom too. They feel her own, and also universal. They have their own sense of mysticism in the era of the internet. As they bridge experience with field, the mystical is a return to seeking the raw, the harmonious, verisimilitude over delusion and consumption. They are open, mysterious, raw, and inviting.

Mangold isn’t the only artist to be entranced and inspired by Klint’s cosmic and awe-inducing visual works, but her poetry finds an element of relationship that connects to Klint’s voice be it through word or picture. She has positioned both the original works and her own into a new space that asks us to consider and reconsider the role of abstraction in our daily world of understanding, alongside the role of history. This aspect of the longitudinal emerges beyond previous postmodern disintegration and instead feels welcome in our shared global contexts.





Poet and artist and librarian and union organizer in Seattle Metro since 2010, Greg Bem lives on a ridge, explores ambience, peripherals, artificiality, and mountains.

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