The Significance of Reflexive or “Figure-Figure” Art
In Godel, Escher, Bach, before his revelation about the makeup of consciousness, Hofstadter explores the importance of reflexivity (self-reference) and recursion (when the definition of something is contained within itself) in defining meaning. His focus is drawing comparisons between the artwork of Bach and Escher. Bach is known for composing reiterating fugues that contained themselves at different scales and even encoded the name of the author. Escher is famous for his drawings that look reasonable, even realistic, but defy the laws of nature and physics (thus invoking the viewer’s total “sense of things” into conflict with the art). Escher is also known for his “tesselating” drawings, such as “Sky and Water I,” in which the form of one type of animal (birds) serves as the context for the form of another (fish). Both Bach’s and Escher’s creations, Hofstadter characterizes as “figure-figure.” In a traditional piece of art, you have a “figure”–for example, a melody–against the “ground”–for example, the medium of “music,” the physical context in which you are hearing, etc. The ground is supposed to be invisible while you emotionally consume the experience of the figure. In figure-figure artwork, the artwork draws attention to its background as another figure. Yet–interestingly–because of the way the human brain works, you can never see both figures simultaneously.
“A recursive figure is one whose ground can be seen as a figure in its own right. Usually this is quite deliberate on the part of the artist. The “re” in “recursive” represents the fact that both foreground and background are cursively drawable–the figure is “twice-cursive.” Each figure-ground boundary in a recursive figure is a double-edged sword.”2
In figure-figure artwork, there is no ground, only multiple layers of meaning. (I am willing to guess that this kind of art is going to become increasingly popular, intrinsically appealing, as our sense of hard boundaries between systems–like economy and ecosystem, for instance–begin to dissolve.)