A Critical Analysis of David Batchelor’s ‘Plato’s Disco’

In this post Sabie, one of our volunteers, takes us through a critical analysis of David Batchelor’s ‘Plato’s Disco’ in relation to the allegory of the cave discussed in Plato’s ‘The Republic‘.

David Bachelor’s ‘Plato’s Disco’ at the Whitworth.

David Batchelor’s Plato’s Disco was designed for a site-specific location within the Whitworth. Its architectural scale complicates the definition of ‘sculpture’ and therefore must be analysed as an experience. This essay shall discuss the way in which the viewer interacts with the ‘sculpture’, the artificial and natural light that affects the piece and the mechanical features that work in conjunction with the surroundings. These topics specifically focus on the technique that Batchelor has employed, and they will be analysed in relation to Plato’s Cave allegory. Through this critical analysis I will explore how Batchelor has presented the human condition as being bound to sensibility.

Wider Historical Framework

Since the 1960’s sculpture has seen a widespread broadening of categories, from object-hood to environment.[1] Alex Potts highlights that this shift has changed the way the viewer interacts with sculpture.[2] Prior to the late 19th century, sculpture was mainly concerned with bodies and these objects of desire were set apart into their own world.[3] The viewer was therefore not a crucial aspect of sculpture until the 20th century, where we see the development of experiences that rely upon communal interaction.[4] Therefore, when interacting with Plato’s Disco, we are experiencing it kinetically, spatially and momentarily within our own time. As the sculpture is understood to be within our space, the viewer is associating a form of art with a reality. When understood in the context of Plato’s Cave allegory, it becomes evident that Batchelor is using this interaction to transform the observer into the cave dweller.

Plato’s Cave allegory was presented by Plato in The Republic and is written as a dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates.[5] The allegory tells the story of human beings who live within an underground den, they have been here since their childhood and are chained to face the cave wall.[6] As they have only ever experienced the shadows of themselves and those who pass behind them, Plato highlights that to them the truth has always been a reproduction of an original.[7] Plato’s Disco emulates this cave allegory, as it presents both a metaphysical sculpture and one that is created with iron welding and glass. However, unlike the cave dwellers we have access to both object and reflection. Whilst this may be seen as revealing the secrets of the cave, the strong spirituality the viewer experiences combined with a sense of reality highlights that we as observer are bound to sensibility just like the cave dwellers.  

Spirituality

Batchelor emphasises this feeling of spirituality through the use of stained glass windows, which are historically associated with Christianity.[8] Liana De Girolami Cheney discusses in the introduction to her book Radiance and Symbolism in Modern Stained Glass, that when stained glass is present within a Church it has the ability to transform natural light into heavenly light.[9] These stained-glass windows therefore emphasise a feeling of the numinous, and the believer feels a close spiritual connection. Within a secular location such as an art gallery, it is evident that this experience would not be associated with God. However, a sense of spirituality is still somewhat bound to this medium. Batchelor has explored this theme within previous works of art and aims to expunge a spiritual association by revealing their everyday nature.[10] Works such as Idiot Stick 1(2003) prevent a religious experience as they are clearly plugged into a wall, [11] which exposes their source of energy.

However, Plato’s Disco does not reveal any direct marks of technique and the mechanism above it is covered by a white opaque box which is not reflected onto the wall. This conceals how the sculpture moves and produces a mystical effect as the sculpture and the shadow seem to be in a world free from mechanics. Compared to some of Batchelor’s other works which emulate light from an artificial source, Plato’s Disco interacts mostly with natural light that shines through the sculpture and not from it. The window above the staircase allows natural light to shine down onto Plato’s Disco, alongside a low horizontal window below the piece. Whilst this low window does not allow any natural light to directly reach the sculpture, it nonetheless adds to the overall effect of an open and naturally well-lit space. As the triangles of colour interact with the light, they produce an even larger array of pastel colours in their shadow. This colour scheme enhances a spiritual association with stained glass as it is not a bright neon that we would associate with city lights.[12] In trying to separate the viewer from the familiar and the everyday, Batchelor is isolating the piece into its own world. The white walls that surround the piece engulf the sculpture and the viewer, which intensifies the feeling of isolation.

Whilst we are presented with both sculpture and reflection, the works concealed techniques, natural light source and isolation evidently elevate the spirituality of Plato’s Disco. As the viewer is experiencing the work within their own time, the use of spirituality works to bind them further to the sensible world of the shadows. By metaphorically placing the observer within the cave, Batchelor seems to be exposing how the modern man is accepting artifice as nature. It is only through knowledge and true observation that he can escape.

Knowledge

When examining Plato’s Disco, it is evident that the observer is being controlled during their interaction. The sculpture is located within the intersection of two staircases, it is central to this space and is directly opposite to the architectural feature of the bannister. The viewer can approach the piece in two ways, meeting it at a distance and walking down the stairs, or from below where they are looking up to the vertically suspended sculpture. This architecture naturally dictates how we encounter Plato’s Disco, andit is only when we approach the piece from below that the artificial light is revealed at the left of the horizontal window opposite the work. As this sculpture was designed for The Whitworth, we cannot ignore that the learning centre is located at the bottom of the staircase. Batchelor is therefore highlighting that through education man is exposed to truth.

N. R Murphy interprets Plato’s Cave allegory literally and highlights that the light in the story is representative of knowledge.[13] Once the cave dweller is free, he would turn his head and walk towards the light.[14] Through the simile of the sun, Plato has revealed that true knowledge is only found outside of the visual realm beyond the shadows.[16] Martin Heidegger explores this interpretation of de-concealment in highlighting that true freedom is not achieved instantaneously as it takes time to heal a delusion.[16] When experiencing Plato’s Disco, the observer encounters both delusion and de-concealment through their journey of education. In revealing the artificial source of controlled light, the viewer has encountered truth. The observer is no longer a cave dweller but a philosopher who is aware of the controlled artifice.

Plato views this transition to philosopher as being crucial for kallipolis ‘the ideal community’. [17] Heidegger highlights that within the cave, man is starved of philosophy as everyone agrees with what they are conditioned to believe.[18] As Plato’s Disco was commissioned for a site-specific location within a contemporary art gallery, the notion of a philosopher who strives for truth and debates knowledge seems to be importance. It is evident that Batchelor’s use of Plato’s Cave allegory has worked to establish an ideal society for the renovated Whitworth. This contemporary art space is one where debates should occur as individuals strive to reveal the truth. In placing the observer within the cave, Batchelor has exposed how man is bound to the sensible world and believes that in artifice there is reality. Therefore, once the viewer has encountered education, they are led back up the staircase where the truth is revealed. In escaping the agreement and delusion of the cave, man begins to question his surroundings and in doing so exposes the intellectual world.


[1] Cliff Lauson, Light Show, London, 2013, 17.

[2] Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist, London, 2000, 4.

[3] Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist, 5.

[4] Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist, 6.

[5] Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, London, 2002, 17.

[6] Plato, The Republic, cited in. Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, London, 2002, 18.

[7] Plato, The Republic, cited in. Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, 132.

[8] Liana De Girolami Cheney, Radiance and Symbolism in Modern Stained Glass, Cambridge, 2016, 1.

[9] Cheney, Radiance and Symbolism in Modern Stained Glass, 2.

[10] Lauson, Light Show, 58.

[11] Lauson, Light Show, 58.

[12] David Batchelor interviewed for Tate, 21st August 2009, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sD7ZHwBH10I on 17/05/18.

[13] N.R Murphy, ‘The “Simile of Light” In Plato’s Republic’, The Classical Quarterly 26, 1932, 93.

[14] Plato, The Republic, citedin. Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, 24.

[15] Murphy, ‘The “Simile of Light” In Plato’s Republic’, 97.

[16] Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, 27.

[17] Dale Hall, ‘Interpreting Plato’s Cave as an Allegory of the Human Condition’, Apeiron 14, 1980, 77.

[18] Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, 27.

Bibliography

Cheney, Liana De Girolami, Radiance and Symbolism in Modern Stained Glass, Cambridge, 2016.

Dale Hall, ‘Interpreting Plato’s Cave as an Allegory of the Human Condition’, Apeiron 14, 1980, 74-86.

Heidegger, Martin, The Essence of Truth, London, 2002.

Lauson, Cliff, Light Show, London, 2013.

Murphy, N.R, ‘The “Simile of Light” In Plato’s Republic’, The Classical Quarterly 26, 1932, 93-102.

Potts, Alex, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist, London, 2000.

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