Phenomenology. hermeneutics and metaphor
The experience of artmaking: body, self and word as ontological
Phenomenology, hermeneutics and metaphor
Relevant theories on the creative experience
Crossing over from memory and experience
A phenomenology of my consciousness: processes
of perception and introspection as they relate to my studio practice
My engagement as a creator
above left: Studio notes
centre and right: Details from The Ends of the Earth, 2003
Oil on panel
20 x 20 cm each
In this chapter, I will consider phenomenology, hermeneutics and
metaphor in relationship to witnessed introspection.
Ontology sets out to
trace the phenomenon of human existence, a task which calls upon the imagination
in quest of words to capture what fleeting picture comes to mind and define it.
Art and language are sometimes stretched to encapsulate all of the complexities
of an idea but this may result in expressing something other than what was
intended. The meaning of experience is challenging to express and some aspects
The definitions that we
have of words differ slightly from one another. Our perception of the world and
the way we interpret anything is based on our experience. Phenomenology,
hermeneutics and metaphor are the means through which I attempt to express my
own perception in my art practice.
There are countless human
faculties, interlaced and complex, that come into play when art making. Some
aspects are naturally implicated in the process, while others are consciously
chosen by the artist. I can decide whether or not I will focus on my
environment. I can choose or not to interpret the writings from my art journals
as a way to define my creative path. However, I cannot make art without
metaphor. Much like monkeys swinging from vine, to branch, to bush, we live
from metaphor to metaphor, joining words into meaning that will somewhat
reflect the contents of our inner existence.
through awareness of my own physicality describes to me the purest form of
reality. Language in the form of learned groupings of concepts that encompass
many domains has distorted my view of the world into a human construct (a
system of beliefs such as a language that has been abstracted from others' experiences).
A simple language with an unassuming vocabulary can be used to describe the
physical manifestations of thought (Merleau-Ponty, 1999, vii-xi).
Dream Interrupted, 2003, detail
"A ribbon-like shape twists and becomes as thin as the thinnest of lines and then untwists to
Phenomenology has been
discussed, defined and applied differently in several fields of interest since
Edmund Husserl (1982, c.1913) introduced the term. As a method of inquiry, it
is cognitive and physical perception put to the task of defining the object of
consideration. The phenomenological approach is based on the lived experience
rather than concept. It involves physical awareness, reflection and
To see a
World in a Grain of Sand
Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Infinity in the palm of your hand
Eternity in an hour.
In his poem, William
Blake (1800) came to express the unity of existence through a carefully
nurtured perceptual awareness. All life forms on earth interact with the
environment and in turn, the environment defines their natural forms. The
planetary surface I walk on is rich with remnants of creatures long-ago extinct
and the poet's "world within a world" has long been confirmed. Now and then
from among the great thinkers of the world, someone will turn our gaze ever so
gently from art toward scientific conjecture. Intuition is born of sheer sensitivity.
Blake simply sensed in all its complexity timely existence in the palm of his
A part of me remains
primal. There is a whole network of functions within me that make my heart
beat, my eyelids blink and change the food I consume into energy without my
awareness. This is the part of me that wants to live, eat, and sleep safely
protected from the elements. Once the idea of survival, sustenance, safety and
comfort is secured, I have the capacity to ponder my own existence and
everything else that such an idea might entail. Everything that I consciously
produce from these notions is human culture. Art constitutes culture. The
different things that I make through art define my passing through time and
When I think about my
physical self, I realise that the human body is an extraordinary organism that
can access a vast range of stimuli through the senses. I know that if I remain
in a darkened room long enough for my eyes to adapt, the smallest discrete
particles of matter, as few as five photons, become perceivable as sparks of
light. In the winter, away from the city, I can look up to the sky and see
constellations. The light that I perceive comes from stars, many of which have
been extinct for hundreds of millions of years. These empirical truths fill my
senses and my imagination. Is there such a thing as empty space? I know that
there are waves that fill the entirety of the universe. Human understanding has
allowed us to realise that the hissing sound on the telephone seconds after dialling
a number is the noise of the birth of the universe. Fossils in the earth mirror
the evolution of the planet (Gould, 1989), while coiled within my genetic
material is the history of my species (Cann and Wilson, 1992). The knowledge of
nature and the universe through all time is there for me to physically witness
through phenomena, the aggregate of human faculties that are used to define
what is being considered.
My body brings the
present moment to me. I touch my face and there, on the tips of my fingers, is
the outside surface of me. This place in which I live brings to my conscious
mind the exterior through my senses. As I live my life and go about my days, my
organism remains in the present. While many other thoughts come to mind, the
present lingers, and my body persists in reality. My body ages as the past
accumulates behind me but my self inside remains ageless.
My body is my presence in
reality. Perception, language, creativity and sexuality stem from the exterior
it creates. My consciousness with its own systems of rationality exists outside
of the "organic symmetry" of nature. Husserl's dialectic for a science of
consciousness excluded the self in an attempt to access pure subjective
perception. With Phenomenology of Perception (1962, c.1945), Maurice
Merleau-Ponty reintroduced the idea of self and experience to a doctrine that
would have otherwise remained stagnant. The self is in a material body in a
physical world but the projections from the mind are produced from energy
consumed by the nervous system. The object of perception and the sense of
me-in-the-world is a living connection identical with that existing between
parts of my body within itself (237). The body, as a sensitive organism, is
implicit perception. "In the same way we shall need to reawaken our experience
of the world as it appears to us in so far as we are in a world through our
body" (239). Through knowing the organism and, with it, the world, I am
reintroduced to myself, since perceiving makes the body a natural "I" and the subject
of perception (239).
Damasio (1999) provides a
scientific context for perception. Within the brain are areas that create an
imaged, nonverbal consciousness of everything happening outside the body. If
the body's sensory processing system requires further information, the image
becomes perceptually apparent (169). Pure perception, for example through the
visual cortex, occurs only through a combination of sensory mechanisms and body
adjustment signals (147). Past events and emotional experience are registered
in the memory within interrelated separate systems. The brain generates an
account of how the organism is processing an object, and enhances a stored
mental image of the object before situating it in a spatial and temporal
context (169). Damasio (1994) suspects that all activities within the human
mind occur in images. These neural representations differ from what we consider
to be pictures, in that they are "dispositional", which he defines as abstract
records of potentialities not directly accessible by the conscious mind.
Martin Heidegger (1977,
c.1927), in Being and Time, described phenomenology as the point of
departure for an analysis, access to the phenomenon and the passage through
what is "buried over" [verstellung] (84). As the means to understanding
perception, Merleau-Ponty (1999 c.1945) says that phenomenology can only be
defined from within ourselves through a phenomenological method. All knowledge,
including scientific knowledge, is experiential and from a subjective
viewpoint. Merleau-Ponty's approach consists of subjective description without
explanations or analysis. He cautions against the use of generalising
categories such as "living creature", "man" or "consciousness", all of which
stem from the languages of zoology, social anatomy or inductive psychology. The
"I" is the absolute source of knowledge without antecedents from the physical
and social environment. The "I" moves out towards the exterior and sustains it
(Merleau-Ponty, vii-xi). It is only from this carefully constructed ontological
space that phenomenology can proceed.
When I look around me, I
see the outside world in shapes and colours with objects near and far away and
at the same time, I have in mind thoughts and mental images. They
may be related (or not) to what I am looking at on the outside; my inner and
outer perceptions are both at work at the same time. I can be looking at a
flower when the position I am standing in feels suddenly uncomfortable, and
that changes the way I perceive the flower. The experience is not as meaningful
— discomfort distracts my attention. Being conscious of these physical
implications that come into my daily life opens my consciousness to my own
physical reality and offers further understanding into the origin and nature of
certain thoughts conducive to self-knowledge. If I perceive my physicality
without a spiritual or transcendental objective (such as in meditation, which
seeks to induce detachment from anxiety), it brings me closer to the reality of
the material world, that is, my own body sensing everything it can. The simple
act of looking out at the world around me as I sense my living organism takes
me into a different way of experiencing reality.
When I rationalize my
body's spatial state, I try to develop some sense of it from my perception. I
cannot find empty space within my organism. It is filled with fluids, blood,
muscle and bones. All within that I am capable of understanding is intelligible
space and if that comes from my mind then my mind is my body. It is my
continual interacting with the world in its reality and that which is within my
mind that gives my inner self its existence. However purely implicit in nature,
my inner space is familiar with the oriented space on the exterior because it
is the place from which I originated (Merleau-Ponty, 1999, 114-120).
I get a feeling of
longing when I consider that all of my recollections are stored in detail
somewhere in my mind. How I wish I could remember my own birth, coming home,
meeting my brothers and sisters. I know that my body remembers when I was born,
and when I was in my mother's womb. As soon as I was developed enough, I was
getting signals in my mind from my body. My earliest recognition of my
surroundings was when we were still living in the house my grandfather built.
It must have been early spring from the smell of thawing earth in warm sunshine
that owned my senses. The white clapboard was extremely bright to my eyes. Too
bright, and that is all I can remember of that moment.
Damasio explains how the
brain processes and stores neural images. He describes two areas, the image
space and the dispositional space, neurological structures that hold the
knowledge base and mechanisms of the images we see in our imagination and the
ones of which we remain unconscious. All of life's moments from birth remain
dormant until consciousness recalls them (Damasio, 332).
I walk on a busy street
and all at once the environment enters my senses and I become part of the
scenery, I am a participant in the action of walking along with others. I look
at them and they at me and I wonder what each of them is thinking. They are as
exclusive and authentic as I am. Levinas described the encounter with the Other
as an alterity that cannot be understood as an extension of myself. Through
this encounter, I realise that I am not alone and that the universe is not
subordinate to my needs and desires (Davis, 2003).
You are the Other and I
am me. I keep walking toward the metro station, occupying a space called my own
within a crowd of people. Down the stairs we go, winter boots in brown slush,
vicious wind blowing hair and scarves until the feeling of warm air draws us in
from the cold. Like a river facing rocks, we divide into our separate ways. In
the train, a whole new crowd awaits as I again claim that bit of space for
myself. I look around and sense tension in the air — or is it me? Of
course not! Most eyes are facing downward, either looking at others' shoes,
reading a novel or browsing through the metro paper. Some individuals chat with
acquaintances, while others listen to anonymous gossip. Cell phone users and
music lovers are busy tending to their gadgets.
Eye contact! I was being
observed, for how long I wonder? I have no idea. The observer is a stranger in
the other car. The train stops and a number of people get off to join the
passing flow of commuters going down staircases or hallways. The train is less
crowded and so I sit facing a lady clutching her hat and gloves. Her boots have
traces of yesterday's street salt. She is wearing a beige coat and a long scarf
that matches the hat she holds. Every once in a while she looks at me. I wonder
where she is going, if she is working or whether she might be retired and on
her way to see a friend at the hospital. She looks kind.
Observing others works
both ways. No less than a second goes by, when I am looking at someone, than
that person feels my gaze and looks in my direction. For that mysterious
reason, I cannot observe others that easily. I feel intrusive, and I am. I can
look at crowds in passing, but I cannot observe people at will for any length
of time without getting a questioning stare. We can permit ourselves to admire
and study at need all the creatures on earth, but have a sensitivity to the
other's gaze upon us. I feel as though I am invading someone's privacy when I
look at a person. A sudden glance from him or her may catch me in this act of
indiscretion. A person who suspects they are being stared at turns to check
— a head movement catches the eye of the starer, whose gaze confirms the
feeling of being stared at. Behaviourists rationalise this as a self-fulfilling
effect (Shermer, 2005). To what human faculty do I attribute this kind of
awareness, this sensitivity to someone's gaze?
When that person on the
metro caught me looking, a shock sensation ran through my body. It felt real, a
kind of electric touch where both our perceptions met in mid-air and connected.
I reacted as strongly as if the person had touched me. My gaze lunged quickly
to the floor, denying everything. Both observer and the observed become
involved in a peek-a-boo game.
When I look around,
whatever scenery happens to be there takes me in and colours my disposition.
Together with the other concerns that I might have, it seems as though everything
I feel inside and outside becomes that moment. In one instant, my perception
radiates the state that I find myself in, while my consciousness observes a
level of complexity beyond my comprehension. Attempting such an understanding
would require a separation of the many systems that constitute the kind of
awareness that I so enjoy. I let my senses shape my days as my thoughts go on
about life. Every once in a while, what I see, touch, smell or simply feel will
lead my thoughts to another place. Memories may steal my attention and flash as
a moment from another time within my mind's eye or, on another occasion, my
senses will conjure a solution to a problem.
When I am in the park on
the mountain, I am immersed within the seasonal cycles, an overarching reality
that humbles my physical existence while indulging both my curiosity and senses
entirely. The gradually ascending path that I follow as I walk broadens or
narrows in the distance like the stripe that I would paint with a flat square
brush. A ribbon-like shape twists and becomes as thin as the thinnest of lines
and then untwists to broaden again. I see in my mind's eye my thumb
and fingers turning that brush, pulling it gradually away from the canvas while
the bristles still touch the surface. Then, ever so gently, I can see my
fingers turning the flat square brush in the opposite direction, making the
thin line wider still, just like a ribbon flowing through the air. My path is
like a ribbon, my ribbon is a path.
The crossing over of path
and ribbon, of line in paint on canvas, to me, is a reflection of what my
senses have gathered from the conditions of reality outside my organism. This
can be construed as the sum, I suppose, or the common denominator of the result
of what my body and mind have gathered of what the outside is like for me. All
of this is manifested within me prior to my own intellect having a chance to
contribute through a conscious understanding of this metaphorical occurrence.
When I am working with
colour and I need to create pictorial tension or contrast, something other than
my sense of vision is called upon in my construction of meaning. Of course, my
aesthetic judgement is in the forefront of my thoughts, but as I step back and
look at my work, a sense of gravity, equilibrium as well as awareness and
knowledge of those physical realities become part of the decision-making
process. Attempting to draw a symmetrical shape plays upon the senses in that
peculiar way. When I try to draw a large circle in chalk on the board, as I am
halfway through, and need to make the second half perfectly symmetrical to
mirror the curve that I just completed, even my physical sense of balance comes
into play. My periphery widens and opens in the process. The whole of my
knowledge of what that circle is in all of its fullness is there to help my
I look at my hands at
work. They represent my will exercised through my practical and conceptual
skills that have been achieved through experience. Whatever knowledge and ideas
I have are put down on paper through these abilities. The process of trial and
error contributes to what I can do. I sketch and write to work things out for
myself and I see words and shapes that mean certain things to me, and they will
be there again tomorrow for me to continue. They represent a sense of my
thinking on paper. The existence of my body is defined by its tasks. It is
there for its tasks in the world. It is there to interact with the world
according to my will and my thinking (Merleau-Ponty, 117).
In terms of the plastic
appearance of my work, my capacity as a painter is entirely dependent on my
physical skills. My touch becomes sensitive to the weight of my brush when I
pick up some paint. My vision calibrates the tints or shades of colour, the thickness
of a line or the overall position of certain elements in a shape. Music, or
silence, opens my awareness to the subtleties that make moments of quietude and
reflection necessary. My body gives me perspective on the exterior while inside
myself my mind thinks constantly, either about something in the present or in
the future, through memories or in dreams (Merleau-Ponty, 114-120). Everything
I know of life and the world was gathered through my senses. My awareness is
what constitutes my sense of self.
The construct that I have
of reality is based on what my senses have gathered since the beginning of my
life. Even if I had been born blind, I would have built in my imagination an
understanding of a three-dimensional world created through my alternate senses.
My brain would simply be organised differently, enabling tissue that would
otherwise deal in vision to take on other sensory duties (Bower, 2003).
The application of
phenomenological approaches towards authentic self-knowledge is the closest I
have ever been to a conscious appreciation of the present moment as it unfolds.
We have separated ourselves from the natural world through language and what we
refer to as experience can be confused with a purely mental perspective.
When I read in my
sketchbook impressions that I have recorded at other times, I grasp in essence
the moment when I was writing. My
written descriptions of experiences, when read and reinterpreted genuinely
through hermeneutic writing, may uncover deeper truthful meaning. Simple
descriptions of actions and effects related to objects, expressed in plain
unadorned language, speak explicitly and clearly of the matter at hand.
Hermeneutics is not about the precision of a description of a human experience
but rather a way to uncover some form of truth through simple words.
the tools that I struggle with as a way to communicate whatever thought,
feeling or experience I deal with implicitly. In my imagination, I see rows
upon rows of drawers filled with words in the form of lead fonts in a printing
shop, classified as in a dictionary, but without definitions.
accumulate as we evolve and change. We are able to trace the etymology of many
words and are quick to adapt when a new one comes into use. For every new idea,
discovery, species or planet, we invent a word. AY278741 is meaningless until
recognised, defined and identified as a strange and deadly disease that is now
known as SARS. The anomaly that was Planet X is now named Pluto.
disciplines and specialisations have their own vocabulary. There are languages
like Esperanto, invented as a universal language, or C+, which is used to speak
with computer processors. We even use the structure of languages to trace
ethnic origins and patterns of human migration.
communicative skills are needed to put into words what must be expressed. Words
are strung together like beads in a necklace, they are stretched into
sentences, compressed or made bigger or smaller in importance depending on how
they are used. Words can be coupled with a prefix or a suffix to express all
kinds of things that might not be related to an initial definition. Some words
are like suitcases while others act like umbrellas. The words stored in my
imaginary printing shop have limited extension of meaning and there can be such
a thing as the literal significance of a word, where a spade is a spade
Because it is an abstract
construction, language itself is anchored in cultural subjectivity. Some
writing tasks such as instruction manuals require efficiency while others,
like a speech, rely on style and artistry to address different degrees
complexity. A complex language is made up of learned groupings of concepts
and notions that might encompass many domains. Word-fonts from my printing
only be laid out in a simple language. A simple language struggles to maintain
naiveté. Heidegger (1977) defines naiveté as accidental, immediate and
unreflective beholding (85). He says that what is intuitive may or may not
be related to spontaneity. There are situations where intuition is linked
something buried deep within where spontaneity might refer to something on
If I re-read a letter
from a friend over several days, I might find that I interpret it differently
each time. If someone else reads the letter, it can be interpreted in other
ways as well. Words are defined differently from one dictionary to another.
Social and cultural groups might also have different interpretations. These
nuances can make a world of difference when the meaning of a text is put into
question, for example, in a courtroom. Some words are ambiguous while others
are meant to be precise. Orientation words like "left", "right" or "up" and
"down" leave little room for interpretation. On the other hand the word
"sarcasm" is defined in various dictionaries as: a flaying or plucking off of
the skin; a cutting taunt (from the Greek, [sarkasmo], to flay, tear
flesh, speak bitterly); as a witty language used to convey insults or scorn
such as, "he used sarcasm to upset his opponent" and "irony is wasted on the
stupid". Sarcasm, in the sense of irony, can be a method to state humorously,
as truth, in an incredulous manner something that is known to be untrue. This
is associated with physical pantomime such as eye rolling (Wikipedia).
"Belligerence" for example can be synonymous with "sarcasm" but when defined as
a hostile or warlike attitude its sense is quite different. Even the symbols
that languages use are arbitrary. "Ciel bleu" and "sinine taevas" mean "blue
sky" but all three are different symbols for the same idea.
To establish some form of
understanding and permanence within an ever-changing state of chaotic external
forces, thinkers have tried to define existence and oneness in the perceived
world. Language is not merely a communications device but a method to bring the
world into existence (Heidegger, 2004, c.1945). Words and expressions are a
system of meaning that seems to make perception real and functional. As knowledge
expands and we create more and more explanations, it takes us away from our
original beginnings as intelligent life forms in the natural world. Homo
sapiens sapiens (wise man who thinks) lived in a natural world without
divisions between physical elements, the universe or human presence.
Palaeolithic drawings such as those at Lascaux are descriptions of observation
and experience. More than simple mark making, they reflect the scientific and
aesthetic record of human culture. At a time before the separation of art and
science, the structures of logic were within the aesthetic, which ultimately
developed into written language (Millette, 1997). For this reason the
relationship between language and the creative process is tenuous since the
object of art does not come from a written or spoken description.
If I could forget about
the common definitions of existing words, I would rediscover a place where all
is interrelated. My imaginary printing shop represents this proto-language,
where words are read as symbolic objects and from where I construct
Notes and drawings
Hermeneutics, which in
Greek means to
interpret or clarify, is a practice that has been in use for centuries for
religious texts, the classics or legal documents. Hermeneutic phenomenology has
been defined by Heidegger as a way to uncover the essence of what is hidden (buried over) in the meaning of one's written words.
Focus on physical
sensations as they are felt in the present opens a window to the nature of
consciousness. Maintaining a narrow concentration on the body itself changes
the position of perception from the intellect (thoughts about outside concerns)
to the physical state (into the closed, intimate inner world of being). In
written form and expressed in simple terms a text can be extracted from the
introspective process. Through the identification and bracketing of reflective
texts and images and through the analysis of these signs, I uncover meaning.
I begin a project with
sketches and written ideas that I pin to the wall at the studio.
I may also look at previous work to see where I was. Occasionally, I have a
clear idea of my objectives and will go right to work. Other times, however,
more thought is required. As my work develops, this process becomes more
difficult. Michel Foucault (1982) described symbolic associations as the
separation between plastic representation (which implies resemblance) and
linguistic reference (which excludes resemblance). The symbolic system of words
and the perceptual nature of representations can neither merge nor intersect;
subsequently, the subordination of one or the other must occur (32). In my art
process, I explore my experiences in the phenomena of symbolic associations
that occur within the imagination. Based on my capacities as an artist I will
begin to sketch and in due course, pictures, drawings and paintings will
materialise. I will find myself in the ongoing process of my
artwork. To perceive within my mind's eye a mental image and then to transpose
it into an image on a piece of paper or other medium is done without language.
I may think with words as I am creating but I do not need words to do it.
My journal and sketchbook
provide me with access to parts of my introspective process. My initial focus
is on my physical state. A simple written description records the present
moment as lived through my senses. I generate notes from questions to myself
like: What is that physical sensation? Do I feel it in a specific area of my
body? Would I qualify it as heavy or light? What does it look like to me? Can I
visualise a shape?
As a body of work
develops, I keep writing about physical sensations experienced while I am
looking at my progress. If I wish to take these writings further, the words can
be reinterpreted and further expressed to describe the mental images that words
of the text create. Words that can clarify can confuse as well. If I were to
ask several people the definition of the word "love", I would get varying
descriptions that revealed something related to their personal experience. If I
were to ask the same people to define the word "table", I might hear relatively
consistent and pragmatic accounts of furniture. It is necessary to be aware of
these intricacies when describing my physical state while being introspective.
Plain unadorned language, with descriptions of actions and effects, speaks
explicitly and clearly of the matter at hand.
Details of source images with details from The Ends of the Earth, 2002-2003
The words "What do you
feel in your body now?" call attention to the somatosensory state and where
consciousness is "scanning" the body now. Introspection is experience defined
through the physical reality of one's body. What makes the experience true is
that it is described as lived presently and this is being witnessed in the now
as it is being described. Impressions that I have recorded at other times
grasp, in essence, the moment when I was writing. I can remember the time of
the year, sometimes the weather; but mostly, I can recall the way I felt about
the artwork that I was doing, the questions I had in mind and the way I was
dealing with them. The physical effect of an experience felt through memory is
being lived presently.
Why do I occasionally
read letters that my mother sent me over twenty years ago? Unlike reading a
novel, or the newspaper, I think it is an experience of another order. A novel
provides an unfolding sequence of events that gives the reader an experience
that belongs to someone else. A newspaper is made of reports anchored in daily
reality. When reading the words of someone familiar, a certain kind of
reflection sets in, a thinking in accordance to the voice belonging to those
written words, as the reading is taking place (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, 208). When
I sort through e-mail, I delete most of my correspondence, keeping only the
messages that matter to me. I know that I will read them all again. Old
letters, postcards and my journals remain for me to relive and reinterpret.
When I read a page from
something that I wrote when I was nineteen, I am taken to a time when I was
inexperienced. As I read the words, I can recall what was going on around me at
the time, the place where I was, and the time of the year. I do not always
understand why I chose to write at certain times but I suppose that it had to
do with the way I was feeling.
My first diary is filled
with elaborate handwriting and occasionally I notice the spelling mistakes. It
is embellished with pressed flowers that once were adhered to the page with
Scotch tape but now have all but fallen and disappeared, except for the stem.
Flowers that I had placed in a plastic snack bag have transformed to dark
purple flakes and a curled pink ribbon has flattened and shifted to one corner
of the bag. I cannot remember the occasion related to what seems to have once
been a corsage. A dry, dishevelled maple leaf with the year written on it in
pen reminds me quite clearly of a particular event that I would prefer to
When I happen to come
across this book unwittingly, the sight of it might awaken certain feelings
within me. The thoughts that I wrote years ago express what I was living then,
but now they resonate meaning that embellishes and expands on the same words.
The greater the time that separates me from the journal, the more complex
becomes my understanding of it.
My body state will affect
my interpretation of words in the same manner as it changes my perception. My
physical being is continually subjected to its environment just as my conscious
self is subjected to a daily strain to deal with whatever disposition or mood
may surface from my body. This interaction, mediated through emotions,
ultimately influences my perspective on things. One day I may read ideas from
my past and begin to make comparative judgements between what I saw as common
sense in retrospect and my present view of the world. My stomach may twist in
knots as I try to come to terms with the text. On another occasion and for
other reasons, I may find the very same pages trivial.
Body and language
Language does not come
out of nothing (Damasio, 108). If language operates for the self and
consciousness, by symbolising in words and sentences what exists first
nonverbally, then there must be a self that is nonverbal and a nonverbal
knowing for which the word "I" or "me" or the words "I know" would have
appropriate meaning in any language (Merleau-Ponty, 1999, 215).
Marcel Proust, in a
celebrated passage from Remembrance of Things Past (1922), begins with,
"Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray... had any existence
for me." Suddenly he realises that his senses provoked memories from tea and
cake as he ate. He recalled childhood experiences in his aunt's room. She would
be there with tea and a little lemon cake, a madeleine. She would drop a little
piece of it into her tea and scoop out the madeleine soaked with tea and offer
it to him on a teaspoon. Years later, as he was having tea and madeleines, all
of a sudden memories started to tumble down into his consciousness and then, as
if through a chain reaction, it all fell together in his mind. Thus he recalled
that moment of the teaspoon and the moment in his aunt's room in Combray on
Sunday morning before Mass. It was like finding some lost truth at the bottom
of a chest. Proust realises finally that the truth that he searches for is not
in the tea but within himself. The perceived world is created from within.
explains that the body is perception. His observation becomes apparent through
conversation, where two people mutually involved in communication experience a
kind of physical switch-around, as if they are in each other's body, thinking,
conversing and simultaneously reading each other's body language and facial
Damasio (1999) describes
"body language" as the physical aspect of someone who is expressing background
emotions. The internal perspective on life is perceived on the outside through
body posture and the shaping of body movements (53). In my experience, the body
plays a significant role in the creative process. Asking someone, in
conversation, the question "What are you feeling right now?" brings the present
into focus and favours introspection over aesthetic discourse.
I remember talking to a
student of mine, whom I will call "Jessica", about a self-directed project. She
had decided to select the topic of her grandmother's fatal battle with cancer.
Her initial idea was to use the adage, "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no
evil", commonly represented by three monkeys symbolising the actions of the
phrases. Jessica intended to use three canvases to portray the sayings but
rather than monkeys they would be characterised by mermaids. She wondered if
her idea would adequately represent the experience of losing her grandmother to
cancer, a battle that she fought for several years.
When personal issues and
emotions come into play, it is not always about making art when making art.
Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, when working with disturbed young children,
watched their interaction with their mothers. These observations led to his
theory of transitional-object phenomena, which explicates the formation of a
virtual place within us, where creativity is born. In Playing and Reality (1971) he described an intermediate area of experience that exists between the
use made of an object that is not part of the body, for example a baby blanket,
and that is not yet recognised by a child as being part of the exterior world
(2). The third area of human experiencing, which is neither subjective fantasy,
nor objective knowledge, involves a combining of both (Winnicott). When
thinking, concepts (as cognitive abstractions) precede words and sentences. The
proposed art object was an abstraction that afforded Jessica an opening through
which communication was made possible. I questioned her about her choice for
that particular saying.
She explained that her
grandmother was a strong vivacious individual who had survived three remissions
of the disease and that her grandfather's suffering over losing her took him as
well. I could tell from her physical stance that she had been very close to her
grandparents and that it must have been a considerable strain to lose them. I
could commiserate with her because of my personal experience with family loss.
I also know that loss has been expressed in my work through symbols and
Introspection is when
consciousness turns to focus on the inside. Until thoughts are expressed they
remain in our minds at a subjective level where they are apt to change,
depending on our emotional state. These thoughts can be made manifest by
speaking and being heard by someone, or through written statements. I quite
naturally try to express in words images that I see in my mind's eye. I feel a
necessity to try out, through language, to externalise that which I feel needs
to come out. Psychoanalyst Walter Poland (2000) maintains that any other
individual, such as a close friend, can perform fragments of what an analyst
does with a patient. Focused understanding of meaning that arises from within
can be obtained from someone who has journeyed for some time deep within a
person's thoughts. Witnessing, says Poland, "is a vital psychoanalytic
function" (3). It takes two to witness the unconscious, as it matters that
someone else understands and appreciates the implications of access to personal
truth (11). Intersubjectivity, or the relation to the "other", addresses both
the interior and the exterior and looks at emotional interaction as an outcome
in itself (8). From Jessica's words, I began to understand that the three
monkeys symbolised her grandmother's remissions. "Why that saying with the
monkeys?" I asked, as I mimicked the words with my hands covering my eyes, then
my ears and my mouth.
She replied that it was
to symbolise the fact that she did not want to speak, nor hear nor talk about
what her grandmother had gone through.
I added, "It must have
been a difficult time for you."
She replied with a nod.
Language is only the
external accompaniment of thought (Merleau-Ponty, 205). It is only one form of
translation for the non-linguistic images reflecting events, relationships and
entities that we constantly see in our minds (Damasio, 1999, 107-112). Oral
communication possesses physical presence that also generates meaning through
gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and intonation.
Posture and gestures were
expressing Jessica's difficulty in discussing her experience. Her arms were
crossed tightly in front of her body and her weight shifted from leg to leg as
she talked. The slight tone of her voice hinted at a vulnerability and
sensitivity akin to creative individuals (Csikszentmihalyi; Getzels, 1976, 38).
As I listened carefully, her hands began to trace invisible lines in the air in
harmony with her words. Her facial expressions expanded on the meaning of her
words, with stresses and intonations where necessary. I sensed both of our
bodies engaged in communication. She was emphasising and expressing thoughts
that had never been put into words. She persisted and, for lack of words,
paused and looked at me with a questioning gaze, "Do you know what I mean?"
such an experience in terms of the other person's intention inhabiting my body
and mine her body. The witnessed gesture outlines an intentional object. This
object is genuinely present and fully comprehended when the powers of my body
adjust to it and overlap it. There is mutual confirmation between myself and
others when I assign a name to the external experience (215).
"What about the mermaids,
why those?" I asked.
She answered that, while
going through her ordeal, she had wanted to remain in her own "bubble". She
just wanted to be happy.
I asked her if she was
happy in that bubble world and she replied, "No."
I could see in her
expression the frustration of dealing with emotions that had not yet been
identified. The most familiar thing appears indeterminate as long as we have
not recalled its name (Merleau-Ponty, 206). Thoughts that remain unexpressed to
the outside seem undetermined until they have been put into words (207).
"Mermaids", she said,
"were in their own world."
Someone who speaks is not
translating what thoughts are in the mind but rather fulfilling thoughts as she
speaks (207). According to Merleau-Ponty, Jessica could not simultaneously
think while speaking, it was through her expression of words that her ideas
At that point, the
classic Anderson (1836) story, The Little Mermaid, came into my mind.
Jessica was aware of the mermaid's wish to have human legs and to be with the
prince she had saved from the ocean. Even though the little mermaid gets her
wish, the prince's love for another drives her first towards contemplation of
murder and then to suicide: "The little mermaid's hand trembled as it squeezed
the handle of the knife, then she threw the weapon out into the sea... She
threw herself into the sea and felt her body changing into foam" (236).
I suggested that her idea
of using three canvases mirrored the three times her grandmother fought the
disease. I asked her if the literal transposition of mermaids was necessary,
"What if you think of the words that describe a mermaid?"
"Fish and woman," she
replied and the term "fish-woman" pleased her. Thinking of a human amphibian
life form hiding somewhere, secluded in another world, seemed to inspire her.
In my more recent work, I
have chosen to create something that is about what is going on inside of me. I
choose spirals because they are a device that allows me to travel on the
picture plane, creating distance, height, bends, curves and even angles. When I
saw that Jessica wanted to choose something that had to do with mermaids I
could see her there, three steps behind me, trying to express what was inside.
She had gone to the very extent of her knowledge to conceive her idea and
through these fragments of thought she would conceptually express her implicit,
personal experience. She did not have the accumulated experience of years or an
extended art practice so she was still in the symbol world that, from her perspective,
was about mermaids. Obviously, when she said mermaids, I was instantly
transported into a media world with references to Walt Disney and so on. From
these particular mental images, I came to suggest that she look at the mermaid
from her alternate idea of a fish-woman. What would that be to her? It was a
way of introducing her to her own idea. I work the same way in my conceptual
and creative process. I could see through Jessica's gestures that she really
had started pondering these thoughts. Her mind's eye had chosen the mermaid
because the character was living in her own world. She was living in her own
bubble and wanted to be free to follow the mortal world. She wanted to leave
this place that to her seemed empty.
I did an artwork called Dialogue
muet (Silent Dialogue), 1994, that began with a photograph of a
drowning victim of a typhoon. The source image was a photograph taken from a
helicopter of a figure bent out of shape and floating on the ocean. Taken out
of context, in my version of the image, the body on the water doesn't look
morbid. The legs are bent a certain way and the elbows are out. It looks like a
small hovering character subjected to its environment. There is a relationship
between the image of a mermaid and this figure.
Loss is more directly
represented by another part of the piece. I transformed a small pad of paper
for a sculpture. I had cut out a shape through the entire thickness of the pad.
It would rest opened on a wooden school-desk-like table. To me there was
nothing to say, so I cut the centre out of a book that had nothing written in
it and I removed the place where you are supposed to write. To me there were no
words to express what I was feeling. It just left a big hole.
Creating and manipulating
the object; feeling its texture, its weight or the scent of paper, are all real
experiences for my senses. The object was in my reality. I could walk around
it, look at it from all sides; it cast a shadow. My representation was a
metaphor for a personal abstraction and could, as an object in itself, be the
source of subsequent metaphors for myself or for the viewer.
The existence of a
particular artwork means that something has been defined and answered. Creation
occurs away from what the world has judged and classified in terms of what art
is right now. Creation belongs solely to me. It starts with my body and
consciousness. The language of my organism suspended in the present through
writing brings my body to the forefront of consciousness. This is where my creative
Dialogue muet (Silent Dialogue),1994
8mm film, wood, glass, mirrors, paper, paint
90 x 76 x 86 cm
My memories project
powerful images that surface at different times, for different reasons. Life's
moments can never be quite the same since I find myself constantly in different
contexts. I am in motion through time and space (literally at about 320
kilometres per second relative to cosmic background radiation). When I am
interacting with the outside world, conscious memories do surface but do not
call upon my attention as much as when I am making art. I know that occurrences
are stored a certain way, and become interrelated, classified and reorganized
in my memory. However, I do not know which moment I will remember or how
different types or topics will be interrelated. This is how the mind works. But
as an artist, it is important for me to know that I have self-knowledge in an
extended consciousness that I cannot consciously access (Damasio, 195-196). My
mind is a "big attic" filled with my stuff and I draw metaphors from an
underlying pressure pushing to come out.
Everything is metaphor if
I want to look at the world for what it is. What I see out my window is a
metaphor because I don't know if it's really there. It is a construct of my
perception. While I contemplate, memories of my life experiences that I am unaware
of push to come out. I think that to a certain point that is what drives
me to make art, along with the desire to draw that I had as a child. From my
experience, all children like to draw. Some of them keep drawing because there
is some kind of satisfaction in putting something on paper that is really
theirs. As a child, I understood drawing as a whole world of possibilities.
Some children just keep on drawing beyond ten or twelve years old and they
become artists because they are sensitive to the fact that the activity is like
a mirror into themselves, an intermediate area of experiencing that keeps inner
reality and external life separate yet interrelated (Winnicott, 1971). Finding
a metaphor is the door to self-awareness—one way, at least for a painter.
Images precede words in
my thoughts and sometimes they are produced naturally by my senses — the
smell of bread might enter as an image. We think in mental images and they come
to mind prior to language, but there is no way of recognizing the difference
between words and images. Of course it seems like I think in language because
when I am thinking I am talking to myself. The images come but my thoughts
respond in words. For example, when I'm walking on the street and I say to
myself, "Oh gosh, who's that?" I'm getting images as well but they are mental
images and it doesn't mean that I can't talk. It all goes on at the same time
— and you also feel like going to the bathroom while this is going on and
you stub your foot. In addition, your heart is beating and you get a cramp and
the wind is blowing your hair in your face. What we do not know is whether or
not the representation in our brain resembles the object perceived. Mental
images are a record of our interaction with perception (Damasio, 312). The difference
between a mental image and language is that language is a formulation for the
When I say, "the planet
is vast," I see in my mind my arm describing the immensity of the planet. I
feel emotions related to that image of myself with my arms outstretched which I
can put into words. Psychiatrist Arnold Modell believes that the cognitive
capacity for metaphoric thought preceded language, with the conceptual metaphor
and the acquisition of language evolving separately (Modell, 2003, 15). Although
I might think in language, I barely see my thoughts go by in my mind as I
think. I do, however, feel what my thoughts entail emotionally. Mental images
come in sparks, barely noticeable. I wonder if early human beings, as primal
creatures, before language, could perceive these mental images more clearly or
slower than we do now?
I don't really give
myself a command to "think in language" when I think in language, nor do I
conjure up mental images. They simply appear in my mind's eye as the smell of
fresh bread or the scent of summer rain. Personally significant occurrences
might trigger a memory that will cause a rise in my emotions. If I expect to
see a certain person when I open the door, and it is someone else, I will get a
flash-like image in my mind's eye of the person that I was expecting.
I have always observed
nature. When I look at the sky I am reminded that I am on a planet
that is hurling through space on the edge of a galaxy and that it is only by
chance that I am here. So many things happen simultaneously, physically and
mentally, as you are looking outside your body, or you are thinking inside your
body. You have your five physical systems at work and your brain is at work. A
painting is a bit like that. There are all these manifestations in there plus
your thinking. My work represents my existence inside and my existence outside. It is my interaction with the "other", my dream, my
"dreams", my subconscious, my conscious, my own vocabulary, my life experience
— everything is there. I am on the canvas. What is really from the
exterior is art theory; that comes in sometimes — colour theory or other
practical concerns. All of my learning of art is also there, or not there if I
choose not to use it.
The metaphors that I have
created in my work echo the time and place when I conceived them. I look at my
entire production and memories come to mind. I can see my hands working, the
time of the year and what was going on in my life. When I take an objective
look at the content and the aesthetic appearance of these pieces, I have a
better idea of where I am now. What I mean by "an objective look at" my work is
to walk away from it and look at it a while later. When I come back in the
morning, having spent twelve hours without seeing it changes something.
Sometimes I will reflect my work in a mirror to look at it from a different
perspective or I will bring it home in a digital camera and compare it with
other things on the computer screen. The content and appearance of a work of
art is the objective look to a certain point; but, of course, I remain attached
to it because I am the one who produced it.
"I have always observed nature"
My paintings are
metaphors. They are images, objectified constructs, of my perception of the
time I live in. Within me is the sense I have of my surroundings, shaped by my
knowledge and experience. All that I embody fluctuates with the day's reality,
which colours my disposition as I paint. Words themselves, material and
ideational, are no more than the shadows of their own representations. Ever
present and infinite, metaphors seemingly distance us from the idea of true
reality. A world within a world, divided within ourselves, we communicate to
one another in metaphors. I paint not with words but with the images from my
Recurring symbols in
my work as primary metaphors
I remember when I became
a mother, looking at my baby and thinking that she had no language; no sense of
self, nor for that matter the conception of direction. Soon after she was born,
I began feeding her and in a very short time she realized that feeding was very
pleasant. I was amazed at how quickly she settled into her schedule, an
absolutely new experience. I now recognize that the very first learning for a
baby is related to survival and that the first mental association with the
world outside the womb is established before language. The newborn being fed
naturally discovers that "up" means more and that nourishment comes from "up".
A link between mother and nourishment creates a primary metaphor in the mind.
Most metaphors in
everyday language are structural in that they are about similarity and analogy,
for example, John Donne's "no man is an island". Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors
We Live By (1980) describe metaphors as cognitive cross-mappings built from
learned and forgotten primary mappings. What we refer to as "concepts" are
neural structures that allow us to mentally reason about abstractions. The
architecture of the brain's neural networks determines what concepts we have
and hence the kind of reasoning that we can do. A distinct class of metaphors
has to do with spatial orientation, for example, "happy is up; sad is down."
These metaphorical concepts, rather than structuring one concept in terms of
another, organise a whole system of concepts with respect to one another (14).
When you look into a spoon you see yourself upside down. The back of the eye is
curved very much the same way. Scientifically, we should see upside down. So
why do we see things the way we do? Cognitive linguist Joseph Grady (1997)
suggests that it could be explained through primary experience. For example, my
child's physical need provided her with the first information on the exterior
world. The nourishment that was needed to sustain life came from "up". When the
experiential sense of pleasure was compared with the physical perception in the
visual cortex, a primary metaphor was established for orientation. This is why
we see things the way we do rather than upside down.
Grady first used the term
"primary metaphor" to describe naturally acquired embodied associations that
are dependent on our interaction with the world (25-26). He felt that these
were the basis for the more elaborate blended constructions that we commonly
recognise as metaphors (Grady, Oakley and Coulson, 1999).
We say a river is like a
bed, a river is like a story, a person's life runs its course. A metaphor is a
comparison with something. Meaning comes from the metaphor. It is its intension
with all the possible things that the construct might refer to (extension).
Meaning can come from conversation. Meaning can happen spontaneously. Two
meanings can come together to reflect another significance. Meaning comes from
the meeting of ideas or from an extension on paper.
I think that the making
of art is the most direct transposition of a metaphor in the mind to a medium,
such as the image on the canvas.
There are many depictions
of the horizon that figure in my paintings and I know that if I were to stop
painting and resume a few years later, I would still paint horizons. This
subject is probably the tip of a deep root in me. Each time I choose to paint a
horizon, I see it as fresh and something novel in my production until I
recognize it repeated in my entire body of work; and then I begin to understand
its importance for me. The horizon is the kind of metaphor that persists as if
it had a will independent of mine — a flag or a sign trying to make
itself known to me. It is a kind of metaphor that is primary for me and
instinctive in that it recurs spontaneously. It hints at something experienced
that I am not normally conscious of, something that is either part of my
identity or part of my life. Are such metaphors fragments of recollections
deeper in me trying to signal their presence? Should I pay attention? I think
that they probably are, because in me is stored every physical perception I
have ever experienced (Damasio, 332). My entire life is recorded in some
mysterious corner of my mind while I remain conscious of only a few moments.
I try to produce a painting
that has emotion but emotions are intermediary to my mind and body. Damasio
surmised that emotions are about the life of an organism. They are
indispensable, found somewhere between the basic survival kit (the regulation
of metabolism) and the device of high reason. In terms of evolutionary
development, emotions are a fairly high-level component of the human body,
quirky adaptations of the machinery with which organisms regulate survival
My emotions are the
concurrent interaction of my mind and body and this is quite complex, so for
the purposes of my inquiry I will begin with my body because it is from within
that I create metaphors, at least those that I think are linked to my art
making. They are the ones that are based on my experience as a physical being.
This experience is stored in my central nervous system in minute detail. All
thoughts in my mind are somewhat interrelated.
I work with metaphors
that are either constructions from selective memories – those with a
source that I can trace, or metaphors that recur and that I have not yet
figured out. For example, why do I repeat certain things such as conical forms
or horizons? Why am I drawn to
specific objects or to certain colours? Of course, metaphors can be blended
from negative experiences as well. That some people are frightened of spiders
probably has something to do with a forgotten life experience. I consider the
creation of metaphors a natural occurrence that will gradually draw me in
deeper as I continue to develop my artwork and this process will lead to some
form of implicit truth.
In my conscious mind I
have memories that reflect to me who I am. My identity is based on
self-knowledge and my life experience. As these memories have accumulated, at
different times in my life, I have struggled with them by imagining extreme
scenarios, reversing facts and twisting perspectives, as a means to help me
determine who I am in different contexts. Many of these recollections have been
somewhat resolved and they find a chronological place within my life story and
reinforce my self-identity. They come to mind at will depending on outside
occurrences or they may simply appear in random sequences.
When I am painting, I am
oblivious to the intimate traces of subject matter that I am leaving on the
canvas. I would call these signs primary metaphors because they are from my
physicality and have not yet blended into complex meaning. As I work, images of
my past come to mind in a way similar to a slide show, affecting my mood and
making it fluctuate. These elements are simply rendered into my paintings and
only later will I recognise aspects of my past — natural elements and
motifs, objects or scenery that mean a great deal to me. I have traced much of
my subject matter to certain memories. I realise that reflective waters and
waterfalls appeared in several of my paintings and that these resembled the
river that passes through the centre of my hometown. It seems as
though the part of me that is closed to my awareness finds its way into my
artwork through meaningful symbols and metaphors and it is only after a while
that I capture their significance.
These representations are
particularly important in my experience as an artist. Painting is my natural
manifestation of a form of communication that is purely subjective and seems,
at the moment of conception, devoid of language. I am working with the frontal
lobe and I am a conscious entity. What I don't know is that when I paint a
waterfall it is a painting of the dam in my hometown. That came later and once
I realised where it came from, it strengthened my understanding of the image.
Then everything made sense. The profound subjectivity of a single perspective
of the world is a form of consciousness. Through the slow process of art making,
recognisable clues inform my self-awareness.
above left: Waterfall on the Yamaska river
right: From Sur naturel (On Nature), 1996
Oil on paper, glass, wood
23 x 23 cm
Meaning from mental
Time has determined the
shape of my artwork. Some elements that I require for art making are from
within me while others are related to the exterior world, the places and the
people that I interact with. Written and spoken words enable us to communicate
with others more efficiently than the mental images that are constantly being
produced in our minds.
Inner reality is known
through the imagination and outer reality by observation. In the third person
"I" witness my budding thoughts and I marvel and listen. When I think to myself
"I" in the first person singular, I imply a separation from within me. The
French poet Rimbaud (1871) said, Je est un autre , "I" is the other.
Defining "I" as distinct from "self" creates a discrepancy between self and the
other form of thinking that I engage in when my focus is towards the outside. I
think, when you say "I" there is a social identity in it. It is where I am
trying to define myself in situations where the self is being looked at from
the exterior. It echoes or supposes someone else listening. It also changes the
kind of thinking about oneself. You can turn it around and look at it. Even
when I am by myself writing a text, and I write "I" this and "I" that, I imply
someone else listening.
How does a mental image
that lingers in the mind's eye of an artist, put down on paper in the form of a
drawing, compare in terms of communication to the word that describes the same
object? I will use the example of a knife. You, as my reader, will have in mind
your own version of a knife as you read the word for that utensil. When you are
presented with a drawing of a knife, an artist's personal idea of a knife will
stylistically describe the object. The placement of the knife on the sheet of
paper has meaning, as does the material used to draw the knife. The artist
projected a subjective idea of a knife on a sheet of paper. The drawing of a
knife will give every detail of the knife: the style of knife, the make, even
the size of the blade, the size of the handle and the material of the handle.
Is it a serrated knife or is it a smooth blade? The word "knife" says knife. It
could be any kind of knife. It could be a machete, a fine piece of
cutlery or a potato knife. This is the essential difference between a written
representation and a rendering, where in the case of a knife, a picture is
worth a thousand words. The word and the drawing are metaphors of the object
knife. Both communicate in different modes respective meanings about the same
object but I don't think that it is the same kind of metaphor. A poetic
description of a knife might share, in essence, some similarities with the
drawing but most of the meaning remains in the mind of the individual who
receives the communication. A significant amount of information is transformed,
reinterpreted or completely shifted from what a real knife is about.
language as a translation converted from non-linguistic images (107).
Consciousness must pre-exist language because language cannot materialise from
nothing (108). Modell (2003) sees metaphors as being generated from within the
human body and then projected outward (75).
Latent mental images are
expressed both internally and externally through language, but internal
language in the form of dispositional images is only partially structured for
communication (Damasio, 1994, 102). It is important to remember that all spoken
and written words were originally abstracted from symbolic pictures. Our very
first attempt at a recorded permanent communication came in the form of
drawings, at least from any evidence that remains. As humans we must have had
sounds and gestures to communicate with each other in the moment, but in terms
of a message to be communicated later, drawing shapes seems to be right.
The same conceptual
structure that helps me rationalize and juxtapose mental images into ideas that
can be communicated is also present in common language (Lakoff and Johnson,
1980, 4). The kind of thinking conducive to creativity combines the domains of
language already categorized in the mind with the blending of conceptual
metaphors. A visible metaphor in the form of language or art embodies the sum
of many different mental associations, including a physical sense, in the
construction of a personal abstraction. For these reasons I tend to think that
mental images can be both rooted in the body and be the cause of physical
sensations that engender creation.
To have an awareness of
how a particular experience is felt through my body as it occurs requires me to
bypass emotional and reasoned interpretations to focus on the moment itself.
Consciousness is always preoccupied with the body but our mind keeps it in the
background except in extraordinary circumstances. An acknowledgement of now has the effect of slowing down my sense of time in the usual meaning, where the
future and the past make the present moment practically obsolete, invisible and
imperceptible. It is obsolete because when I am just living, going about my
day, I am involved with many things all at once. Of course, I'm in my body, but
I'm thinking, I'm painting, I could be walking on the street, going to school,
running errands; so I'm busy thinking and I'm busy in my body. My organism is
my vehicle and as long as it is healthy, I go about my day. If suddenly, I
sense a sharp pain in my side, I stop and for a while I'm really feeling my
body here and now and when my body draws my attention — I know that there
is something wrong. If I cut my finger, I'm right away in the present moment
watching the blood run out of my finger, looking for something to stop the
bleeding there in the moment. I can also pay attention to my body when I want
to listen to my thoughts, focus on mental images and the state of my body
standing there in the moment. My body lives in the present.
When I think that I am
sick I focus on my body's state. I become fully conscious of the present moment
as it comes, sensing my body. Only through my thoughts can I go into the past
and future. My perception of time is subjective, relative to my interaction
with the world. In contrast, time on a clock is objective.
We consider time as
something that is in constant "passing", in that it is leaving the past and in
the process of going towards the future while touching upon the present, in a
constant state of becoming. In Phenomenology of Perception (1945),
Merleau-Ponty outlines this state of the present in terms of our own cultural
and philosophical way of living life. He describes the nature of temporality
through a metaphor of a river. "The water I see before me prepared itself a
number of days ago in the mountains when the ice was melting. Now, it passes
before me in the river. It is heading towards the sea into which it will flow.
If time is like a river, it goes from the past towards the present and into the
future. The present is a consequence of the past and the future, a consequence
of the present" (470). According to Merleau-Ponty this understanding of time is
convoluted. In order to suppose this sequence of events, one must imagine an
observer watching the melting ice turn into water and flowing into the river.
This observer is placed within a "spatial-temporal" objectivity. The observer
is watching the piece of wood that he tossed into a stream a few days ago float
by on the river. The successive events are considered by an imaginary observer
who is placed within the finite totality of the spatial-temporal objective
world. If I consider this particular situation in itself, there is but one
observer. The idea of change, in this case, supposes that I stand in a given
spot where I watch things unfold. Based on this notion, one's perspective is
the basis of one's individuality. "Time is not like a flowing stream," says
Merleau-Ponty. We support this idea because we imagine an observer witnessing
the river running its course. The past does not push forward the present that
in turn pushes the future (471). The future is not being prepared behind the
observer; it is premeditating itself before him "like a storm on the horizon."
If the observer is placed in a rowboat on a river, we may say that he is
flowing towards his future. The future for the observer is the scenery that
awaits him around the bend. The passing of time is not within the flowing
stream itself but rather in the unfolding of the scenery for the moving
observer. It is unlike a successive occurrence of events. Time is born of my
own relationship to things:
Past and future exist only too unmistakably in the world, they exist in
the present, and what being itself lacks in order to be of the temporal order,
is the not-being of elsewhere, formerly and tomorrow. The objective world is
too much of a plenum for there to be time. Past and future withdraw of their own
accord from being and move over into subjectivity in search, not of some real
support, but, on the contrary, of a possibility of not-being which accords with
their nature. If we separate the objective world from the finite perspectives
which open upon it, and posit it in itself, we find everywhere in it only so
many instances of "now". These instances of "now", moreover, not being present
to anybody, have no temporal character and could not occur in sequence. The
definition of time which is implicit in the comparisons undertaken by common
sense, and which might be formulated as "a succession of instances of now" has
not even the disadvantage of treating past and future as presents: it is
inconsistent, since it destroys the very notion of "now", and that of succession
When I look out my studio
window, I think about time. My painting shows the moment-to-moment development
of the slow reflective process of my mind and hand at work. Whether my image is
painted or spontaneously taken with a camera, the particular time it was made
is recorded and time is frozen in the image.
left: Brush on Mount Royal
right: Sketch in chalk on slateboard
Words in an aesthetic
The art that I make
manifest through metaphors is a human phenomenon that reaches beyond intellect,
knowledge, experience and memory but it is brought to my consciousness through
all of these faculties. I am addressing ontology as an occurrence within a
specific work of art or through an artist's entire production. Visual art
manages to do something that language, in the sense of ordinary communication,
cannot touch upon. Only the poet can express the intricacy of the contents of
an art object in its fullness. Poet John Keats writes of the difference between
the art object and words in Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819):
unravishèd bride of quietness,
foster-child of silence and slow time,
historian, who canst thus express
tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
Poetry and literature
are, of course, art forms in the sense that they exhibit the nature of an
aesthetic object. Keats chose a vase for his subject (the precise vase of his
contemplation has never been identified). Some art works are aesthetically
interesting but not necessarily beautiful, some are troublesome or troubling.
There are works that I have seen that make me think about death, while others
make me think about how superficial, irresponsible or socially incompetent we
As I work at painting, I
think in plain words, not in poetry. I love words and I love writing, but at
the same time I see language as very structured in comparison to my thinking. I
look for words that at least touch upon what I am getting at. I write a text
about what my thoughts might look like through words, what I felt like, or what
I was trying to do as I worked. Writing hermeneutically is not like ordinary
writing. I don't use concepts, I stay away from hyphenated words, bracketed
words; I just explain everything. Even so, the words that I use have their own
meaning and where I place these words in a given sentence will influence
meaning. This can be frustrating because I am not a poet and when I do find the
right word, I am relieved. We use words to put across what is in our minds and
we think in language because we have been living with it for so long.
If I were to use words
and reach the expression that I think I have with my paintings, it would have
to be poetry. For the lack of mastery of words, or for my natural preference
for art materials, I have to make a drawing. But it is not the initial process
of drawing that will lead to my understanding of an image in my mind. It is
when I look at that drawing again later that it might reveal something useful
A poem does what a
painting does. A poet is someone who picks up meaning all the time and creates
new ideas as much as possible. All artists are meaning-makers. The meaning of
words in poetry radiate beyond the scope of the words themselves. Much like a
painting, they will reformulate conventional concepts and abstract the common
properties of visual representations.
For example, in Poem
in October (1946) Dylan Thomas relives a moment of his thirteenth birthday.
In this excerpt, the poem exemplifies the emotional implications of remembered
could I marvel
Away but the weather turned
It turned away from the
And down the other air and the
blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of
And I saw in the turning so
clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked
with his mother
And the legends of the
And the twice told fields
That his tears burned my cheeks
and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the
river and the sea
Where a boy
Summertime of the dead whispered
the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and
the fish in the tide.
The poet can make words
float like ghosts, as in the image of a momentary possession through the
sensation of tears and a felt presence. Dylan Thomas' words run into each other
transparently and suddenly meaning happens. Poets do that with words. They can
do it softly or they can do it with power. You can hear the echo of the
colliding and crashing together of words in Howl (1956) where Allan
Ginsberg writes, "with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and
cock and endless balls." The poet can undress words and the words can shock
you. Poets do extraordinary things with words.
When I read a poem the
words may say things to me that are far beyond the significance of any
particular word by itself. In The Tower (1928) W.B. Yeats' imagination
fuses with his mastery of language:
upon the battlements and stare
foundations of a house, or where
a sooty finger, starts from the earth;
day's declining beam, and call
or from ancient trees,
would ask a question of them all.
Thoor Ballyle was a tower that Yeats bought in 1915 and restored as a permanent
home. A battlement is the fortifying wall of a building. The author stares into
space as he thinks. He looks down upon the foundations of his tower as he
paces. He observes the structure surrounded by trees, dark perhaps because the
sky is overcast or the sun is setting. The twisted tree roots and branches
resemble contorted hands. One sooty finger draws in a gesture a black stroke
that carries the reader's eye from earth to sky, as do the trees themselves.
The fading light contrasts the shapes of stones and beams and the poet's
thoughts go back in time to when the forest was young and the Normans were
building the tower he so loves. Yeats muses about the questions that he would
ask of these ruins.
From an alternate
viewpoint, I read the poem as part of an artwork that a friend gave us when we
moved into our house. He is a sculptor with a background in architecture and
his work deals with structural interventions installed in existing public
interiors. Our piece is a small steel silhouette of a perfectly symmetrical
house. The sculpture suggests the harmony and equilibrium that most
households seek. One stanza from the poem The Tower hangs on the wall,
hand-written in soft grey pencil on graph paper. When I read the poem as part
of an artwork from someone I know, Yeats' words give way to strong images in my
mind's eye. I see my artist friend's work boots pacing the beams of Thoor
Ballyle. The trees in the poem are not so present to me; instead, I see a
builder and artist. I sense a love of building materials and an enthusiasm for
innovation. It is as if the sculptor slipped inside the poem, as one puts on an
overcoat, leaving little room left for the poet.
above left: Thoor Ballylee
Photo by Brian Thomas McElherron, 2001, adapted with permission.
above right: Murray Mac Donald, untitled, 2000, Welded steel, 14.5 x 21.x 0.5 cm (Private collection)
I think that we made
images before we invented language. Language is thought described through
communicable symbols that compare and define mental representations. It is the
metaphor for what we perceive of the outside world compared with our mind's
eye. Perception happens so quickly, simultaneously and in multiple layers that
we are compelled to separate and categorise stimuli into metaphors, signs and
symbols. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) described the conceptual system as primarily
metaphorical and what we fundamentally do and say is structured through
I know that I think in
images. They are there even before I make sense of them. The minute something
affects me, like the smell of fresh bread, there is typically an image in my
mind. When I hear a train, I see my father the railroad engineer. A mental
image comes with emotions so strong that they precede my realisation of the
stimulus. I sense the smell of creosote as I see the train yard. It's not that
a train reminds me of my father but when I hear the whistle of a train, it is my father.
I think that when I look
at paintings or poetry, I look for meaning because I want to understand all the
mysterious things that I do when I make art. I don't think that I want to use
poetry to express painting or paint the words of a poet. Art in all its forms
helps me understand myself and how I think. We embrace meaning in visual art in
a similar way and through it, we share metaphors. Through my work in the
studio, I can come close to understanding but there is always going to be that
little part that slips away. I hope it keeps doing that because if it doesn't,
I will have to stop being an artist.