It has often struck me that what is hard to grasp in an exhibition (any exhibition) is the sequence of time-consuming, highly involved processes an artist can go through to make a piece of work. The finished image/artefact appears in a gallery: self-contained, “perfected” and presented. The toil and the anguish are invisible. For John Cage, the process of creating the work was more important the finished image. He was interested in the adventure of defining a set of rules for himself and then setting off to explore where they took him. The objective was not to create a brilliant piece of art, but to devise an interesting game.

For my interaction with this quietly inspiring exhibition, I wanted to take the participants right inside the actual process Cage utilised to create images such as the Ryoanji (Zen rock garden) series. Cage used incredibly meticulous chance operations, based around the ancient Chinese divination tool, the I Ching, repeated over and over to create a single image.

Sheet showing the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching

Throwing coins to create hexagrams

The I Ching is made up of 64 hexagrams (sets of different arrangements of six continuous and broken lines), each with its own meaning. The enquirer asks a question of the I Ching, while throwing three coins, six times. Chance provides an answer in the form of a hexagram, which is interpreted using the text of the ancient I Ching book. We were using the I Ching to find numbers rather than asking portentious questions. However, we did focus our minds on how we might want our images to turn out.

I introduced my participants to the coin throwing process, to make hexagrams which they checked against a list. They were also given a sheet of paper printed with a grid of 64 numbered squares, on which they used their hexagram numbers to plot a drawing.

  • Throw a set of three coins: record how they fall as a combination of heads and tails.
  • Repeat this six times to create a hexagram (there are 64 possible combinations of lines).
  • Identify the hexagram and its corresponding number.
  • Locate the number on the drawing grid.
  • Place a stone over numbered square on the grid and draw round it.
  • Repeat the process as many times as you wish. Cage might do this perhaps 100 times.
Drawing around stones

Faced with the highly structured nature of this interaction, the standard response from my participants was “…oh, I’ll just have a quick go.” But once they’d begun, everyone got drawn into the calm, repetitive process. Cage’s images in the gallery are recordings of a peaceful state of mind, free from the anxiety that creative decision-making can engender. I became aware of how this mindset overtook the participants as they settled into making their pictures. Many stayed for half an hour, or more. The playfulness of the process added to lightness with which the work was undertaken. We all laughed at lot.

Thank you to everyone who participated. I gained a greater insight into the exploratory potential of this type of process as a result of working with you. And to all of you who took extra sheets home to continue with your ideas, I hope you have had fun with it.

Posted by Ryan Coleman on Tuesday 3 May 2011