Mutatis Mutandis

Steven Connor is Professor of English at the University of Cambridge. Since 2018 he has been Director of CRASSH. His areas of interest include magical thinking; the history of medicine; the cultural life of objects and the material imagination; the relations between culture and science; the philosophy of animals; and the body, sense and sexuality. He has also written on contemporary art for Cabinet, Tate Etc, Modern Painters and others. His essay, ‘Mutantis Mutandis’, is on the work of Annie Cattrell.

Mutatis Mutandis

There are two forms of invariance, two ways in which something can persist in being amid the unceasing flight and flux of forms. There is that which is changeless, the cliff-face rigid and immutable against gale and tide, the frigid polestar-constancy of that which does not alter where it alteration finds. And there is that which, taking leave from itself, nevertheless is able to come back to itself. Unrelentingness: resilience. The one stands against and outside change, the other finds constancy in and through it. The rock that seems sternly to rebut the mutable; and then the boiling maelstrom that is never the same thing for one microsecond, but builds constancy through rotation, repetition. As Michel Serres has said, le dure ne dure pas; seul dure le doux – the hard does not endure, only softness survives. Hardness melts or is eroded, softness persists in being by yielding, by dying easily, like flies, like snow, giving way, expiring without a thought, like a breath, like a mist, like a thought. When the going gets tough, only the weak, giving way, going under, can last out. The condition of Annie Cattrell’s work is this oscillating condition of mutatis mutandis: the things that have been changed being in their turn changed.


Art is not the only way in which humans have battled against variation and inconstancy, though it is one of the emblematic ways, the way that affects to figure forth all efforts in general to instance the general, the unchanging.

Art long ago had to concede its claims to exactitude to what are sometimes, oddly and anachronistically, called the ‘hard sciences’. Exactness implies exaction, that is requirement, severity, coercion – exact being the past participle of Latin exagere, to drive out. Exactness is exigent, obdurate, hard to please. Exactitude used once to guarantee the authority of the absolute, of that which is exactly and precisely itself. To be exact always implies some correspondence, some exact fit between two measures or registers, between an original and a copy, an inside and an outside, a prescription and an action. But as exactitude increases, becoming ever more exacting, something unexpected happens. The closer one approaches to absolute exactitude, the more it recedes. No two measurements of a given phenomenon can ever be exactly the same, or only will be if those measurements are in fact inexact. No observation can take account of precisely all the positions and velocities of all the molecules in a given volume of gas. The only way to be exact is in fact to estimate statistically. To begin with, as certainty increases, variability declines, until that certain point at which it begins once again to increase. At very minute scales, exactness merges once again into approximation. Exactness begins by being hard and rigorous, but as it increases, it becomes ever more frail, and almost infinitely weak in its susceptibility to uncontrollable fluctuations. So what is called ‘art’ and what is called ‘science’ change places once again. Art, ethics, politics, can allow themselves to aspire to the absolute because they make fewer demands of exactitude on themselves. Science must nowadays earn its name through a precision that must expose the inevitability of fluctuation and the necessity of approximation. At its limits, finitude meets the infinitesimal.

Annie Cattrell’s works seem to be drawn towards this indeterminate zone where the exact and the fragile converge, at the point at the heart of every state of being at which there seems to be some tremor, some fading, flicker or deflection from itself. To be sure, her works are often characterised by a high-resolution, pinprick-sharp exactitude. They seem to offer the precision that we expect of perfectly-adjusted apparatus, in which form and function, appearance and effect, are locked tightly together, with neither residue nor deficit. The actions of casting and moulding are frequently employed or implied in her work, for example in the delicate bronze eggshell of From Within, which maps from the inside the delicate channels and filiations inscribed on the interior of the skull. The hard and the soft here  seem here to be brought into improbable association, the tough lustre of the bronze mingled with the buttery softness of an infant’s head. A cast seems like the ideal, absolute form of reproduction, in which some original form is induced to replicate itself exactly, without superfluity or omission, as though something could depart from itself while remaining itself, and 1+1 could magically still equal 1.  It is not surprising that the history of casting, seal-making and minting has such sacred associations, implying the divine power of self-divergence without diminution, of that which, like divine grace, or the head of the sovereign, can become many while never ceasing to be one.

But Annie Cattrell’s castings and rapid-prototype three-dimensional scans are so precise that they go beyond static exactitude to encompass variation. Depending on the light and angle of viewing, concavity and convexity change places in From Within, in a version of what is known as the Hollow Face illusion, which turns declivities into lines of relief. A similar passion of the surface is apparent in Currents, which is a rendering of some surface agitated by undulations, whether of a body of water pestered by a stiff breeze, or of the score of a complex piece of music, or the ripplings of a mountain range seen from above. The piece is not just a breathtakingly exact rendering of a natural process of fluctuation, it is itself a kind of fluctuation between possibilities. It seems struck off in and from a single moment, as though it were possible instantly to scan and cast all the infinite complexity of a single stretch of mild turbulence. But the prototype becomes protean – reminding us that the ungraspable Proteus derives his name from the fact that he was the first-born of the sea-god Poseidon. In the beginning, at the first, there was variation, the manying of the one.

Annie Cattrell’s drawings play variations on these processes of variation, the rippled striations of Pressure and the interlaced tendrils of Sustain instituting for example a shimmering quiver between plane and depth. Their titles hint at material processes, lifting, pouring, parting, rather than the forms of matter that effect them or that they affect. Annie Cattrell’s art not only attends closely to processes of variation within each piece of work, the works themselves enact variations across and between each other. The title of Process establishes an interchange between the alimentary process it figures and the process required to make it, as though it were in some sense figuring its own workings, a machine made to make itself.


As above, so below, writes Hermes Trismegistus in the Smaragdine Tablet, and continues,  in the translation of Isaac Newton, ‘to do the miracles of one only thing’. One might rotate this mystical formula (or turn it inside out), as many adherents of mystical doctrine have done, to assert likewise ‘as within, so without’, Much of Annie Cattrell’s work dwells in this logic of coincident contraries, in which the further inwards one goes, and especially into that interior of all interiors, the inside of the body, the more the forms seem to resemble the forms of the exterior world. Lungs, digestive system, cerebral tissue, bloom like clouds, and branch like coral-forests. Everywhere, there appears to be morphological rhyme: a brain swells like a mushroom, like a bomb burst, like a nebula, like the lacy fistulae of blood from a wound held underwater. Annie Cattrell’s collaborations, with neuroscientists, meteorologists and foresters, seem designed to limn these rhymings. And yet her forms seem to decline the unanimity of the ‘one only thing’, that mystical allergy to number, or to any number but one. The world of forms she patiently tracks is one that never quite becomes one or comes back to itself, in which the formative principle is endlessly branching and budding off.

Annie Cattrell is drawn and detained by secret, hidden, normally inaccessible spaces and forms, especially parts of the body which we not only rarely see, but of which can also form no real continuous conception. But these forms are not merely inward. They have the quality that Gilles Deleuze called ‘increscence’. They bloat and blister, but inwards as well as outwards, turning into, rolling over on themselves, delving inwards into the inner space they themselves scoop out. Where leaves and flowers seem to grow the very space they bud and branch out into, the bronchial and cerebral arborescences that draw Annie Cattrell’s eye and hand complexify space rather than rarefying it, multiplying it inwards. They brood and breed, they go on out in, curling, tucking in and doubling back on themselves even as they billow outwards.

The lungs that are figured in Capacity are an image of this astonishing involution. Small creatures, such as flies, do not have lungs, because they do not need them, their volume being small enough in relation to their outer surfaces to be able to absorb the oxygen they need directly from the air around them. But as creatures grow, their volume increases by the cube of their length, while their surface area increases by its square, so, the larger creatures grow, the greater their oxygen needs in proportion to their surface areas. For a creature the size of a human, or indeed for most creatures larger than Craseonycteris thonglongyai, or the bumblebee bat of Thailand, which weighs only a couple of grams, and is the smallest lung-breathing creature in the world, the only way to be able to absorb enough oxygen is in effect to turn themselves inside out, or outside in. They must, in the words of Marlowe’s Barabas, ‘enclose/Infinite riches in a little room’, approximating the effect of a large surface area within a very constrained space. This is achieved through millions of alveoli (Latin, ‘little alcoves’) which bud out from the end of capillaries to maximise the exposure of the blood to the tissues which extract oxygen from it. The human lung contains 700 million of these structures, the equivalent if opened out of a surface area of 70m2, or around the size of a tennis court. Capacity not only mimics the maximising of space through interior folding, it folds together time and space too; the work of countless hours is compressed into the image of a single inbreath, as though the work had spontaneously formed itself out of air made palpable and visible. We not only need room to breathe, it seems, but breathing also remakes space, burrows out room for itself.

Anne Cattrell’s works are a serenely seething contour map of prepositions, out, back, on, in, through, along, beside. Mystical materialists like Teilhard de Chardin have evoked a kind of awareness in introversion, as though an energy that turned towards itself rather than jetting out and away were all that were required for consciousness to stir, whether in the coiling of the molecule, or the slow wheelings of galaxies. But Anne Cattrell’s forms seem to have a kind of consciousness without self-consciousness. This is why there can sometimes seem to be a kind of fungal horror in this obese blooming, amid all its delicacy; we recoil from the blind, shoving nescience of what seems to teem without limit or plan, a becoming-other that wants to become everything and to go everywhere, making everything itself, making itself everything, yet without ever quite coming back to what it is.

Sense gives us sculptural reconstructions of the areas of the brain activated by the work of the five different senses. Where previous ages emblematised the senses with different animals – the monkey or the spider for touch, the lynx for sight – Annie Cattrell gives us a more abstract morphological bestiary, presenting each of the senses as though it were not just the animation of an idea, but also the idea of some kind of animal, flaring into intermittent being. The piece might seem to offer the same kind of reassurance that neuroscience can often seem to offer to the incautious, that there is an inner architecture that answers precisely and predictably to an outer, and that the ideas we have about ourselves – that we have precisely five senses, for example, and not four (as Aristotle thought), or as many psychologists would nowadays prefer to say, 9 – are verified point for point by what happens in the brain. But a sense is not the simple reflex in the brain of some equally simple cause in the world; it is the predisposition of a brain, acting, as brains always must, in complex concert with the body that it is both a part of and apart from, to make certain kinds of sense of the world. Few will now be surprised by the news that the brains of synaesthetes show more connectivity between different areas of the brain used to activate different sensory responses than non-synaesthetes. But the real question to ask may be why non-synaesthetes with no such immediate experience of, say, hearing colours or tasting shapes, can nevertheless can make perfect sense of such experiences in narrative or metaphor.

And where, one wonders, might coenesthesia – the powerful, yet oddly fluctuating sense of the mineness of my senses – have its seat? Responding to Descartes’s conviction that each of us have immediate and undoubtable access to what we must all infallibly recognise as a self, David Hume protests, with mischievous, magisterial coolness, ‘I am certain there is no such principle in me’. Where might that certainty reside, if not somewhere between the brain that formed these words and the words themselves? Does the idea of nowhere have a location? Where or what would be the ‘I’-ness that is so positive about its nonentity, so certain of its inaccessibility to itself? There can be no doubt that there must have been some kind of brain state at the moment at which David Hume inscribed these words, very likely one that would seem roundly to contradict his statement, and that there may be some kind of equivalence between equivalent brain states induced in various readers, including David Hume and me and you, reading these words at various times. But David Hume’s point is not that there is no such thing as perception, but that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ perception, or perception as such, since all perception is perception of something else.  What happens on the inside of brains is not a mere reaction to what happens to them, it is a construing of a relation to that exterior. The brain is constantly at work actively producing the forms of its responsiveness. It ceaselessly projects, from the inside, the kind of outside it takes there to be, just as it also constantly projects – for example in works like Sense – the kind of inside it takes itself to be, in relation to that outside.

Sense shows us what sensing neurologically is – seeing seems to have the form, for example, of a handkerchief suddenly ravelled by a gust of wind, or an egg splatted messily on a moving windscreen, while hearing is a pair of headphones or cauliflower ears. But we would be mistaken to see the sense regions as simple, invariant objects. As the brain functions modelled in a work such as Pleasure/Pain indicate, these apparent condensations of function are in fact the reified forms of connections, patterns of interchange between areas of the brain rather than sealed chambers. It is a stochastic silhouette formed by the possible thickening into the probable. It is the sculpting of a neurological conversation rather than a portrait of a single interlocutor, a telephone network rather than the profile of a speaking head.

And these connections ramify not only within but beyond the brain. As we look into and through the cool, translucent acrylic cubes of Sense in which these abstract sense-homunculi are suspended, we sense that there must be some kind of answering topology in our own perceptions, that our brains must be miming out some kind of anagram of what they are seeing. But this very action adds our perception to the series. Are we outside the series, as its observer, or an extension to it? Are we looking out of what we are looking in on? And when we see hearing, or tasting or smelling, what new neurological ravellings, what new forms of consensus, are being effected? Are we to read this sequence of shapes as primal engrams, the Platonic solids of sensing? Or do they form a sequence of variables, a meteorological phase space of feeling, contouring Dylan Thomas’s restless ‘process in the weather of the heart’?


As the title of the recent piece Conditions suggests, Anne Cattrell’s art exists in a world, (the world, there evidently being no other), of conditions. To say that some statement is true is to claim to define the conditions under which it will be true. To affirm that something exists is always also to assert the conditions under which its existence will be possible. Given certain conditions of existence, certain kinds of thing may exist. To say that something existed absolutely would be to say that no conditions exist or are conceivable under which it could not exist. And perhaps there are no such unconditional truths or existences. Everything is what it is only under certain conditions, certain forms of speaking or agreeing together, for, indeed, condition is from Latin condicere to speak together.  And that concordance is never complete, there are always at least two parties, the entity and its conditions, two halves to a compact that can never compact into simple unity. And, if things are what they are only under certain conditions, those conditions are never absolute or wholly and exactly specifiable, so there is never an exact fit between what something is and the conditions under which it comes to be that thing. All existence is, in this sense, as we say,  iffy, making the being of what is almost infinitely fragile, infinitely open to the shifting contingencies that alone permit or prohibit its being. This makes being both finite and fragile.

In the case of Conditions, there are many images of this conditional agreement. There are first of all the cloud-forms themselves, etched by the same kind of focussed laser that is used in some kinds of surgery to reach into the inaccessible heart of the brain and other areas of delicate tissue in the body. Our looking in on these forms is a similar kind of action-at-a-distance, the kind of optical tactility provoked by inviolable interiorities of the snow-globe or the ship in a bottle. The etched cloud-forms suggest that they may be variations on some primary form, a lexicon derivable from some degree-zero of in-itself vapour, prior to any deformation, swervings away from some elemental or archetypal or as-such state of cloud. This is in accord with our thinking about conditionality, in which there is a primary essence which is subject to this or that variation, this or that inflection in response to changing conditions. But there is no primary of ur-cloud, there are only states of cloud, translations without an original. Something can be what it is only on condition that it converses with that which it is not, with that which, as we may say, provides the conditions for the thing it is.

The transparent columns of Conditions enclose cloud-forms that are typical of (but never, of course, absolutely identified with or definitional of) particular times of the year: January’s clouds are low, dense and brooding, June’s cottony and clumped, July’s a hazy cirrocumulus. The angles of the glass columns splinter, refract and multiply the cloud-forms, creating commerce between the incommensurable orders of the edged and the edgeless. But the neat divisions between the columns and the prevailing conditions they signify are an illusion, for in reality the divisions between the cloud-forms characteristic of particular months are no more hard and fast than the divisions between clouds themselves and the clear air in which they are suspended.

All of Annie Cattrell’s work institutes a strange doubling whereby the material forms she represents seem to suggest the shapes of the thoughts we have about them, but none more so than the cerebral nebulae of Conditions. There is a long tradition which associates the intangible, ephemeral forms of clouds with the drifting play of thought itself. Clouds, like thoughts, are only there as long as they are there for us, and yet can be there only if they are over there, remote from us. Here, Annie Cattrell gives to thought a kind of impossible, imponderable materiality, giving us up to our own thought, and, returning our thinking to itself, the changed thing changed back, the fluctuating uncertainty of the exchange captured with tender, rapt exactitude.


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