Monday, September 01, 2008

Looking for a Sign, part II.

It's the first ever post featured both on the Life & Times and State of the Craft! I'm so efficient I can hardly stand myself.

Last year I asked my readers of the Life & Times of Michael5000 blog to suggest a neutral symbol for me to use as the dominant element of a new quilt. I wanted something that appeared to have meaning but that was actually meaningless, or that meant something completely trivial. I wanted a signifier without a signified, for all y'all who have dipped into semiotic theory. "Why?" you might ask. Reasonable question! I've got no answer for it, however.

The readers came back with some fabulous suggestions! But then the suggestions pretty much just laid around the studio floor for a year, until last week. Having put Symbol on my quilting to-do list, though, I clearly needed to start thinking about what the symbol in Symbol would be.

To review: Symbol is going to use a set of neutral batiks that BigSister5000 gave me for Christmas a few years ago. They will to be pieced together too form a very simple background, and then the symbol itself will be appliqued over the top of them, probably in scarlet. If all goes well, it should look attractive and interesting. With me? Good.

OK, so back to the question of the symbol. As I started chasing down the leads that readers had tossed me, I got kind of interested in the concept of the irony mark. I love the irony mark! Although, if people used it, it might reduce the impact of irony. Ironically. But anyway, in terms of this project, it is perhaps both too meaningful, and too graphically simple to be impressive when rendered at four feet tall.

Similar considerations torpedoed the interrobang.*

I flirted briefly with this symbol for something-or-other from mediaeval alchemy. I could have reversed it or something. But I ultimately rejected it for being, maybe, just a tiny bit too figurative. Which is to say, it looks just a little too much like a critter.

Heather's suggestion of letters from the ancient Soyombo alphabet of the Mongolian language -- see why I pose these questions to readers? -- was pretty awesome. I think they are lovely. I was afraid of what the straight lines of the right and top sides would look like at large scale, though. It seemed like they might be too rigid.

Then, I thought I had it! The letter "aum" in the Devanagari alphabet, used in Hindi and several other languages:

It's lovely! It's curvy! It's simple! It's arbitrary! But... as I soon found out... it is the most common graphical symbol of Hinduism out there. My "arbitrary" symbol was just as content-free as a crucifix, star of David, or yin-and-yang symbol.

Back to the drawing board.

Another reader, G, had suggested I look into Maori design, and I was taken by this pendant I had found:

I don't know if that shape conveys meaning in a Maori context or not, but I wasn't taking any chances. I took out the details on the top left to reduce it to a more graphic level, flipped it around the vertical axis, and "cut a hole" to make it look slightly more caligraphic. Here's what I came up with:

Now, here's the question: Have I successfully come up with a completely arbitrary symbol? In other words, have you ever seen this shape in a corporate logo, in religious iconography, in a foreign alphabet, or anyplace else? 'Cause I don't want to make this thing and discover I've just made an elaborate advertisement for the Americaplump MegaAgriCorp, Inc., or whatever.

* Very possibly the first ever use of this sentence in human history.


quiltedepee said...

It looks cool - I can't say that I've seen anything quite like it. It reminds me of fire, though. Which, of course, people throughout the ages have found symbolism within on all sorts of levels.

I'm looking forward to seeing the quilt when all is said and done!

Rebel said...

It reminds me of fire too. Which is good if it'll be rendered in red. I like it, and haven't seen it as a hood ornament or anything.

jovaliquilts said...

I have not seen this, I'm guessing it's the Exxon of the symbol world --thoroughly vetted, found meaningless. But it's interesting how desperate we are to invest things with meaning -- I too saw fire first, then a sideways face, and it seemed from India. Cultural overlay on a no-meaning symbol. Interesting.

I like the shape a lot.

Bridget B. said...

Ah, but we are meaning-making creatures! And doesn't it sort of go slap-in-the-face of the meaning of symbol to have a symbol with no known meaning? (which, of course, is part of the point). Yes, I saw fire, and, frankly, a really cool pair of earrings . . .

GMPNZ said...

I think the Maori symbols (both the original one with the paua shell eye and your redesigned version) you have displayed represent a fish hook. They are often seen as bone carvings and I have read they are given to wish the wearer abundance. I am not Maori and prepared to be corrected. If you research Maori bone carvings you may find more information.
I love your quilts, thanks for the opportunity to see them.
You are abundant in your production of them.