Why I like the word ‘rhizome’

The great Gilles Deleuze introduced me recently, not personally, to the concept of the rhizome. A rhizome has two different meanings: a biological one and a philosophical one.

Gilles Deleuze and his cat

Gilles Deleuze and his cat

The biological rhizome interests me because it is so beautiful. See the image below. Do you see what I mean?

The beauty of the rhizome

The beauty of the rhizome

However, the philosophical concept has more far-reaching consequences.

Deleuze and his friend, Felix Guattari, borrowed the terms “rhizome” and “rhizomatic” from biology to describe something that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. In more basic terms, the structure of a rhizome in society or politics mirrors that of the structure of a rhizome in biology. There is no top, no bottom, no centre, no branches from a top or centre. The structure is multiple. It resembles this image below.

Can you find the centre?

Can you find the centre?

The traditional, Western structure of operation looks more like a tree.

A Tree - most things you know operate like a tree

A Tree – most things you know operate like a tree

This structure has been in existence since time began. Deleuze and Guattari were groundbreaking (I am loathe to use that term but I can’t think of another) for suggesting for a different way to operate. Rather than a narrative view of history and culture, the rhizome presents as a mass of points and highlights with no specific origin or genesis.

There’s something terribly attractive about this idea. However, as Deleauze and Guattari came up with this concept in the late 1980s, it is now not a new idea by any means (it is just new to me). Rhizomic structures can be found in all sorts of places and aspects of 21st-century life. Think about the whole notion of globalization and how that has exploded over the last couple of decades, the Internet, data, social media, relational aesthetics and crowd-funding to name just a few. The rhizome is everywhere (literally and metaphorically). It is, more importantly to me at the moment, very much present in art practice.

Not many artists these days pigeon hole themselves into the roles of ‘painter’, ‘video maker’, ‘sculptor’, or ‘photographer’, or even ‘performance artist’. Most contemporary artists dip in and out of many different media and many different roles. Taking myself as an example. I started off my art education considering myself a painter, then a video maker, I dabbled in animation, I returned to painting, I’ve also dipped my toe in anthropological art, and now pop art and drawing. I haven’t been able to stick to one media since I returned to art in 2012. But, why should I? It is far more entertaining to move around and play with anything that comes to mind. As I’ve said in the past, the concept is more important than the media. I decided recently that rather than a ‘painter’ or a ‘video-maker’, I was a process artist. I’m not the only one who acts in this way. There is now no single way to be an artist, which is a Good Thing in my opinion.

It isn’t only the media used that has turned art into a rhizomic activity, it is the subjects covered. Today’s artist can examine anything they like: politics, culture, society, archiving, flowers, cat selfies, space, stars, the Stock Exchange, cheese burgers, man’s existentialist dilemma, tables, sleep, and so on and so on.

But this has given artists, and anyone else who engages in creative activity or who wants to make a statement or influence people, a valuable freedom.

Go forth, and create, I say, no matter which way how or what!


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