Crossing over from memory and experience

The experience of artmaking:  body, self and word as ontological environment.

Lynn Millette



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


Detail from The Ends of the Earth, 2002-2003

In this chapter I am discussing the interrelationship of memory and experience through some of the literature that I have surveyed. Language has a close interrelationship with consciousness and for this reason I will describe cognitive and social aspects of language, as well as the notion of a private inner experience. I have also noticed that when I paint, I am engaged with the materials, and language, except in the form of gestural expression, fades in importance.

What goes on inside a person, how much is shared with the outside world and how much remains inside the self? These are useful questions for understanding the creative process. I know that I cannot directly access my preconscious or subconscious mind; however, to truly grasp the meaning of words and recurring mental images I have to relate to that level of awareness or at least try to be close to it as I believe that what remains in proximity to the inside self is the authentic component of creativity. My creative process is an interaction of memories, physical sensations and rational decisions. Most of its dynamics occur beneath conscious awareness to cross over to the outside through the conduit of language, which is also an agent of creativity. Because language uses so few of our conscious resources, we may have been led to believe that it is an unconscious process.

Language can be discussed as a culturally determined communication that is referred to as common language or as a component of the brain that allows for the organisation of conscious thought (Chomsky, 2005). Although it uses the same cognitive pathways as common language, inner language is private and intertwined with emotions. Inside, thoughts are prone to change or become distorted. Spoken or written language is necessary to bridge the inner world and outer reality. I know, however, that words cannot encompass a whole interior experience. I have an awareness that reacts as to grasp a disappearing image or a trace of memory. Inside, the memories of an entire lifetime are potentially available to me. As I draw or write to record introspection, it leads me to wonder about the intimate symbolism and meaning that comes from mental images and how they occur in my mind.

When I paint, it is not the same as when I write or speak. As I work, my skills become all important and silence sets in with tension as I require all of my senses to paint. Meaning happens through my movements and I know what my brush is going to do by the weight of the paint.

I have wondered why I contemplate certain things when I am making art. I think about memories, aesthetic theory and what I have read. I wonder about my art and how it has been understood by others. I am aware of thoughts that are related to outside matters and I find them disruptive compared to the natural sense that I have inside. I often refer to recurring memories. For example, the river that courses through my hometown is definitely present in my work. From my notes, I read that as a child I went swimming at a small beach on the river and I almost drowned. This event appears as a metaphor, in several works, including Dialogue Muet (1994) and The Ends of the Earth, through references to water and drowning, but the emotional memory, embedded beneath my consciousness, has become part of my being an artist. I do not understand why certain thoughts enter the creative process but I suspect that they provide me with a larger picture of my life.

Empirically, consciousness can be defined through many levels and conditions, including dream sleep state, coma, low-level attention, absentmindedness or even daydreaming. There is an inherent contradiction in terms when I speak of what comes from the unconscious since perception can only occur in a conscious state. The concept of unconsciousness comes from the duality of consciousness – the physical sense that I am awake and my autobiographical brain map constructed from memories. Damasio (1999) defines consciousness as sustained attention for a substantial period of time – minutes and hours rather than seconds (90-91), although he adds that the unconscious and conscious are so closely interwoven that they cannot really be categorised (300-301, 302). Lakoff and Johnson (1999) use the term "cognitive unconscious" to describe all autonomous mental (sensorimotor) operations concerned with abstractions, meaning, inference and language (12).

What is still very mysterious is that there are no boundaries of the brain that can be mapped between the conscious and subconscious. There are no neurological structures to bridge when I am dreaming. I might be involved in absurd scenarios where there is a monster running after me, or I am in church in my pyjamas. I am asleep, but in my recollection of these events and sensations, I recognise that fears and hopes have been metaphorically represented as my body and mind was working out inhibitions. The physiological pathways used by the creative mind are considerably easier to describe than the actual experience of the creative process where mental images cross over to an object or situation. Philosopher David Chalmers (1995) thinks that the manner in which consciousness is mediated by the brain could eventually be satisfactorily resolved through the cognitive sciences. However, the difficult problem of experience cannot be explained through physiological mechanisms because the human mind is more than a machine for processing information.

Damasio (1999) has written that many physical reactions present in the body are the result of emotions (51-52). The dynamics between the body and feelings come to me in intimate thoughts about where I fit in the outside world and who I am inside. As I work, the hot weather makes me uncomfortable and I begin to think about the gravesite in my hometown where my parents are buried. I see the grass and the colour of the polished granite baking in the sun. The heat makes the tips of every blade of grass pale and dry. In the distance, the tall trees of the countryside are framed in the atmospheric ultramarine that separates the distant mountains from the greenery. In the cemetery I am next to my parents with an emotional feeling in my chest that is confused and hard to define. Part of the sensation is similar to the one that I used to experience on a visit home when I would be sitting with them at the kitchen table. In my imagination, I can now clearly see the cemetery, as if I were there, as nothing really changes in those places. I see myself walk over to my grandfather's grave, a man I do not recall meeting since he died when I was two. They tell me that he really loved me. My grandmother is buried alongside him. By the time she died at the age of eighty-seven, she did not recognize anyone and although I remember her well, my grandfather always seemed to be more important. I remember our family visits to the gravesite after Mass. I remember my father's anecdotes and his childhood memories. Now I visit with my own daughter and observe her face as I tell my stories. Year after year, when I go for my summer visit, things unfold in the same manner. I work out small pieces of my life that still puzzle me and, as I gain more experience, I come to understand why things were such as they were. Slowly, I come to accept and make peace. There is something beautiful about this life process. Art making involves the will, where life is determined through nature and fate. Existence can be compared with the vulnerability of a little piece of paper floating on a river.

What I have learned about the body is that I can open or close my awareness of my physical senses. Body senses affect my imagination and certain things that I perceive from the exterior will resonate with memories more easily than others. I cannot conceptualise every living moment in consciousness and I am only aware of the moment that I have somehow selected to remember. From those memories that I recall, I can create through a process of reasoning but, alternatively, mental images may enter my thoughts spontaneously. In this way there are aspects of my thought processes that I am conscious of when I am working and others that come from conceptual areas in the back of my mind. When I am in the process of figuring out something, waiting for an appropriate concept, I am not unconscious. A part of my mind is problem solving while the rest of me, including my senses, is still living in reality and open to stimuli. There are multiple levels of perception and a part of me operates autonomously.

Memories are the residue of experience and I know that the memories from the first years of my life have shaped the person I am, yet they have been forgotten. My physical senses retrieve traces of memories that my brain reconstitutes, organises, revises and adjusts in relationship to situational ideas. When I smell creosote, a preservative chemical, my thoughts are transported right away to my father. Within me, the smell evokes railroad ties and the sound of a diesel engine. If I stand close enough to a train as it rumbles by, it elicits tears. When I was little, my father would, on occasion, call us up to his train engine and he would talk to us from high up. When these moments of significance are in my thoughts, they come in a flood of images that might reappear as metaphors in my artwork.

La Simulatrice (Chimera), 1994
Mixed media
190 x 69 x 90 cm

Thoughts from current events, fears and memories are blended in a sculpture that I painted with creosote. La Simulatrice (Chimera), 1994, (Fig. 34) has the form of a truncated obelisk a metre high, with a circular cavity that contains a cylindrical mirror that creates an anamorphosis of a kneeling female apparition contrasting against the blackness. Although many things inspired this work, in its transformation into a metaphor few of them are easily traceable. Even though I can analyse the work for apparent meaning, situate it in its cultural context and describe my use of materials, it is an artefact. I cannot verbalise how it came to me as a subjective understanding of experience. Walter Benjamin (1968) valued the human experience that he perceived in an artwork and described its uniqueness in terms of an "aura", or the moment of creation embodied in the work. In the description of my creative process, I am simply tracing the path between what was inside of me and how I bring it out through my artwork. I have a need to make art to bring out through another medium what is going on in my mind. I cannot predict its form or direction because it is accomplished layer by layer. While I am going around with an idea I have all kinds of preconceived thoughts, but as I finish the work its meaning is always more complicated than I imagined. Something happens between my intentions and the outcome. Sometimes it is my negotiation of technical aspects. Other factors, such as the lack of material resources, time or even a surplus of time can change meaning and symbolism. All these things occur through the process of laying down paint, constructing shapes and contemplating colour.

For the inexperienced artist that I was when I was first asked to talk about my work, it was one of the most difficult things because I felt like I was taking myself apart as I was trying to verbalise the process. In the formulation of any experience, the mind comes in and categorises things that should perhaps remain whole. With time, I learned to say what I wanted to say in the appropriate manner. This provided me with a kind of bridge. Although it is still difficult for me to talk about my working process, when I write, my inner wholeness is pieced and transformed into little packages that are words. Through writing and rereading the texts, I acquire freedom because it allows access to an alternate form of expression without compromising my initial ideas. The form of my artwork is dependent on the way that I change intimate and private thoughts into a dialogue with the rational world. The faculty of language, both in the external social sense of communication and in the private sense of contemplation, allows preconscious experience to transpire to consciousness. Language is the way we logically structure consciousness internally, a method of communication with others, an abstract system of symbols with grammar and, from the perspective of art making, the instinctive relationship between an idea and the materials that bring a concept into form. For all these reasons language bridges my inner world into reality.

Linguist Noam Chomsky (2005) separates language into the culturally determined communications system that we call common language and an internal cognitive and physiological component of the brain. Human language is unique in its hierarchical, generative and recursive properties. It is hierarchical in that it is composed, at its base, of discrete sentences that can be constructed into complex concepts. This is possible through generative grammar that Chomsky finds to be inherent to the structure of language and which allows for creative understanding of meaning. Human language is recursive, a mathematical property that can establish a procedure from a series of sentences. Recursiveness is the process of running the procedure over and over again. It can best be described through the way computers are programmed. All binary calculators work with sets of instructions written one digital unit at a time. The process is very low on an evolutionary scale of systems. Even in the form of computer code, human language must be simplified by a compiler to instructions that a machine can process. Although the level of abstraction increases with the sophistication of the compiler, the machine code by itself cannot describe the level and scope of worldviews, even though they might be essential in the calculation. Human language is an example of a hierarchical multi-level system, where higher levels and lower levels work together and where the top level cannot exist without the bottom (Turchin, 1991).

Mandelbrot fractal generated by XaoS 3.2.1 Beta 4. (GNU General Public License)

A "fractal" is a graphical representation of recursiveness, where a shape can grow infinitely from a simple mathematical base. In language, from a subject and predicate, sentences are enclosed within sentences, and through each rereading, a higher level of abstraction is communicated while the base meaning is preserved. The computation system of recursion appears to be recently evolved and unique to the human species.

An important aspect of language is that you have to know the whole language to understand the context of its symbols. Language works within a system of rules called a grammar because the content of words alone does not suffice for the purposes of communication. Linguists and psychologists have theorised that if a grammar is not established between the ages of two years and puberty, there will be no language in an individual (Nova, 1997). An innate grammar and the presence of recursion suggest that language not only defines us but also affects the nature of human activities. Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky (2003) refers to linguistic relativity as the means by which language effects representations of space, time, materials and objects. She further suggests that individuals from different physical and cultural environments actually think differently as well.

Chomsky (2005) observed that human language appears to parallel the manner in which genetic instructions are carried out in the replication of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Because the human conceptual process emerged from the same molecular structures, Liane Gabora (2000) thinks that it is likely that it would share, at least at the base, similar mechanisms. She imagines that the origin of an interconnected conceptual network or worldview is analogous with the emergence of biological life. She cites theories that support an autocatalytic origin of DNA from a saturated mixture of proteins. At a critical point, perhaps through an external electrical stimulus, a network was created between all of the components simultaneously, resulting in the emergence of a self-replicating molecule. "Conceptual closure", or the networking of all the components, occurs recursively from within the structure of the mind. Gabora (2002) argues that the more that thoughts saturate the memory locations of the mind, the higher the possibility of a spontaneous development of an interrelationship between all of the abstractions and memories stored within.

My mind requires a conceptually amalgamated network for art making. I have to know about what I perceive in its completeness before I can abstract it. When I transform a subject to include my meaning, I am inducing into that subject matter my perception and intention. As I am doing it, the meaning that I am adding has to be open enough and broad enough to communicate. I have to assure myself that others will understand the symbolic associations that I create. Nothing on the canvas can be void of meaning because in any artwork everything means something. The bit of linen that appears between the colours on a painting by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was left untouched by his brush because he was working quickly and assuredly. The untouched area represents spontaneity and temporality.

In my creative process I am never very far away from language because it is a bridge from me inside to the outside. However, I think that the nature of my internal language while I am thinking is different from that which I use for outside communication. My internal language is situated in a place that knows absolute intimacy, in the sense that I am not sure of how things are, myself, and I am really not willing to share because I am unsure of the peculiarities that may appear to the external world. I do think that other artists have these kinds of feelings and I think that the creative process may start here. The pathway to my self is where I get quiet and meditative and allow myself to be introspective and to focus on my senses in the present. Through that channel, I can retrieve memories that engender mental images. The images are preliminary to words and there are some fairly good arguments for their structural innateness. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) use the term "conceptual metaphor" to describe semantic units embodied in the cognitive unconscious. I am afraid sometimes to bring these incomplete mental images directly into my work because I imagine them to be unorthodox and it is my apprehension that I do not think like others. I think that this is where the creator's uncertainty comes from.

When I look at my creative work over time, I recognize that the images and objects being produced are revealing something that does not necessarily come from my learning and conscious reasoning. I think that a part of what surfaces in my artwork is instinctive in the sense that it is already present in me in one form or another. Damasio (1994) says that the mind stores every experience that we have ever had in the form of latent 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. Conscious images are reconstructions or reinterpretations of dispositions stored in the brain (96-100). Gabora (2002) thinks that these mental images are generated in a particularly unique manner in the creative individual.

Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (1996) thinks that language is generated from both the physiological perceptual mechanisms and from the logical and intersubjective experience of consciousness. She sees language as "semiotic", or communicating with the constituent significance of mental images, and "symbolic", with meaning being rationally and automatically constructed from abstractions.

My own interiority and the functioning relationship between its parts is called the "intrapsychic". In an area between what I know and a stimulus is an environment where past memories, the current situation and my relationship to the other are implicitly present and affecting the senses. There are operations in the brain that function whether I am aware of them or not. As I am coming out of the unconsciousness of sleep, the autonomic nervous system controls my ears, my vision and my sense of being. My physical self regularly bypasses verbalisation and enters my brain directly in the form of bodily fluctuations from sensations and emotions. There is no language yet because being aware of myself precedes language. Inner language is close to this tuning in to my body. The closer I am to the unconscious, the more there is a likelihood of an inner language. It is the spark of awareness that defines consciousness.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1968) argues that a private language could not work because if everyone really did have unique definitions for all words, there would be no communication (P.I. 243). If I call a "bowl" a "bowl", you know that it is a bowl because you have the identical sense that I have of a bowl (P.I. 261). The fact that language works at all is logical proof of commonality of experience. I do use the same words as everyone else and at the level of the definition of words, there is no conflict. Whether I use the word "smart" in my mind or in the external world it has the same meaning, although inside, I have a similar but personal definition. I implicitly understand myself and with no external challenge to my statements, I have no need for explicit meaning and communication is always perfect. So if you see the bowl that is on the counter as a certain shade of blue, you are going to agree with me when I name it a bowl. Therefore, there is hardly ever any doubt about the definition of things. What you do not know is whether or not I have the same perception of the bowl.

It seems to me that the question is not whether there is private language and common language but rather why there is an intimate language? Why do I hear myself talk and why do I use a language similar to written words when I think and what would I have used before proto-languages were structured ten thousand years ago? How did we think when there was no written language? I am sure that we thought in images. Images are still the major factor in cognitive processes but they are fleeting because they are instantly being replaced with words. I see images and I think that it is language.

Inside my thoughts are prone to change but when they are vocalised they can be witnessed by another person through physical gestures or conversation. However, the limits of a spoken language are evident in the absence of documents and in the impossibility of accurate recall of thoughts due to the sparseness of human memory. The written language, on the other hand, is made of symbols that have meaning and a system of grammatical rules that provide a record of inside thinking crossing to the outside to communicate with the other.

My project Média/medium (2001) developed from my investigation of philosophical notions of language, temporality and perception. The paintings explore differences in my perception of images from the media and those that come from inside. Literary critic and philosopher Jacques Derrida (1967) argued that all texts and by extension thoughts are organised in binaries, with the "presence" or concrete existence dominating but not eliminating absence or non-existence. All language contains both parts of a binary and it is in the "difference" between the binaries that we find meaning. There is coherence in a contradiction because, like a negative and positive statement, an opposite will allow a perspective on the whole argument. In the inner mind there are no contradictions. What may appear to be a contradiction in thought means that both sides of an issue are being considered within the entire scope of an idea. At the base, the predomination of any thought is a desire and meaning is determined through choice (410). Because the perceived world does not present itself in polemic binaries, Derrida's deconstructions could be construed as theoretical chimera until, of course, the computer provided an interface for precisely the kind of abstract structures that Derrida was discussing.

I began the paintings by rendering images taken from a geographic magazine. Over these exact representations, I pinned some abstract scenery that I had previously done. I continued painting, attentive to the different kinds of thoughts, however insignificant, that surfaced as I worked. With one painting, I copied the photograph exactly and it ended up a monochromatic dark green with highlights of yellowish green shimmering on an image of water. I made oil paintings in sets of two with the intention of expressing binaries pictorially. Placing an abstract landscape beside a figurative scene allowed for comparison and reinterpretation.

Detail of Média/medium, 2001
Mixed media
80.5 x 105 cm

I wanted this work to be uneventful (meaningful/meaningless) in a binary sense. I wanted to express temporality as a constant state of becoming. I was identifying the condition of going toward something and leaving something as an ongoing process, like the present. My focus on natural settings in different conditions defined the objective view for this project. For example, I painted an image of a flooded road with a background sky filled with big cumulus clouds that are reflected in the clear ocean water. I shifted the meaning of the subject matter by associating the rendering with another image that deconstructed representational familiarity. I exaggerated the proportions of one or more elements within the picture or I contorted the perspective. I was interested in representing the natural elements: fire, air (as clouds), water (especially) and earth from my internal subjectivity. In the work illustrated, I painted an abstraction of a dark valley resembling a quarry or an open pit mine. A small lake sits at the bottom of this concave shape as it delineates the curves and slopes that form the base of the elevations on either side. The water reflects a milky coloured sky. Média/medium explores the difference between my internal language and shared concepts of representation.

When I am painting, and when everything is going well, I am cautious and attentive. I will, of course, alter things as I work. When I look from a distance at what I have painted, I use my judgement and think to myself that "this side needs work," or "let's see what happens." I will also be aware of the bigger surface of the canvas as physical dimensions factor into my approach. Painting is an intuitive process where automatic cognitive structures and rationality work to a common purpose. I am conscious of what I want, but as I paint from the palette, and as I am filling my brush, things occur and develop. My judgement stems from my goal but I am open to potential outcomes. In the movement from the palette to canvas I feel the weight of my brush, I am aware of how much paint is in there, and I know what it is going to do. If that particular brushstroke does not work, I will start over again. The events leading to the gesture involve rational thought and contemplation but the gesture itself is tentative.

I know the difference between an internal language and silence because language subsides when my senses require all of my attention. When I paint, there are intense moments when I am fully engaged in the process. For example, when I have worked a number of hours on a painting, and have more to do, the experience becomes unsettling due to my investment of time and materials. To add to practical concerns, everything on my canvas at the moment appears the way that I want and I don't want to lose it. At this point, the sum of everything I know of painting is present yet there is no inner talking taking place. Everything is working through perception and my hand holding the brush and silence. I pick up the dark and light pigments on the brush. I work in a mute instinctive manner. I express metaphors through a series of articulated strokes. I know what I want and I must focus on the changes that occur on the canvas.

The bridge I cross from the inside to the outside when I make a painting is not the same bridge that I cross when I write or speak. The one that I cross when I am painting is the bridge of authentic meaning. Meaning flows into the painting, it flows through my understanding of colour, it flows through my knowledge. Theory tells me what to avoid. I know where I should not venture and I look for the unexplored. I trace a path that I call my own. I look for a sinewy little bridge that belongs to me. The parts that belong to me are there. What I choose to do must be authentic because I know that within authenticity there are still some bare areas of inquiry that have not been touched.

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