Sunday, 25 September 2011

Where Spirits mingle in Time and Space

This piece is adapted from note I wrote for an exhibition of drawing in the Town Hall at Stratford on Avon in 2007.

Chapter 1: Introduction

I have given this post an enigmatic title: “Where the spirits mingle in time and space”  Take a moment to reflect how remarkable this is: Here is a drawing I made some years ago

Here you are some years later looking at my drawing. I hope you will experience the fleeting movements that I saw so long ago, and when you leave you will carry in your mind an impression of  the expression, beauty and grace of the dancer I saw years ago.  Put in these terms it sounds as if drawing is black magic, where static marks on a flat screen look  like a dancer moving in space, but in truth there is no magic going on here. 

How is it that a flat screen with marks on it can give the the viewer an illusion of seeing a  living dancer in  space stretching at the barre?

Chapter 2: Spirit

"All mankind is of one author, and  one volume; when one man dies,  one chapter is not torn out of the  book…... No man is an island, entire  of itself; every man is a piece of  the continent, a part of the main. If  a clod be washed away by the  sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a  promontory were, as well as if  a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own  were: any man’s death  diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,  and therefore never  send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for  thee. John Donne Meditation XV1

Donne seems to be saying he is made of two parts; The part that we call our individuality and the second part is an indivisible part of humanity. Whilst we all own individual bodies our minds are not entirely our own, they are part of something larger than just our own individuality.

I like this point of view because I think it takes us much closer to the essence of our existence. It takes us away from the notion that art is about the expression of individuality and towards an understanding that drawing only works because we are not “islands” and “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

In this post I want to put forward the idea that spirit is not only internal; it is something that extends from one individual to another. We have a modern word for this meeting of the spirits; empathy. Art and empathy are entwined.

Empathy – The mingling of spirits

Studies of the nervous system in the mid 1990’s have provided interesting insights about empathy. I am of course referring to the discovery of “mirror neurons” which is evidence that empathy is a physical thing hardwired into our bodies.

What the scientists observed is that some of the neurons that fire when the monkey picked up a peanut also fired when the monkey watched his friend pick up a peanut, they call these neurons “mirror neurons”. Just as when we see someone hurt their hand we instinctively grasp our own hand in spontaneous and involuntary sympathy, a monkey upon seeing another monkey grasp a peanut experiences sensations of grasping a peanut himself. In other words the on-looking monkey physically shared the emotions of his friend

The discovery of mirror neurons tell us Donne was right; “no man is an island entire unto itself”. Through empathy we experience a spontaneous, physical and involuntary sense of oneness with each other. In real life our spirits mingle.

Seeing Spirits Everywhere

Amongst the oldest and least dogmatic religions are the “Nature Religions”, such as Shintoism in Japan, that believe that all things contain spirit; the trees, the lakes, the stones all have their own spirits. Maybe these widespread religious concepts have arisen not because the stone has a spirit but because we perceive stones to have spirit? It seems we can see spirit in all manner of things around us.

A simple demonstration of this process is to look at one of the costumes in this exhibition, maybe at first you see only a colourful dress and almost immediately you might imagine it was once worn by an elegant lady rather than a clumsy man. Already the dress contains a spirit of female elegance.

As you gather more information about the wearer of the dress the imagination becomes more intense; you may notice that it a ballet dress that was once worn by a famous dancer. The more information you have the more intense the images become and by the time you turn away from the dress it has already taken on all sorts of associations and meanings. The dress seems to hold the ghost of the dancer who once wore the dress on stage.

Whatever you think of this conjecture it is metaphor for the way art breaths spirit into lifeless objects

Now Let's Translate this Idea into Drawing

When you are looking at the portraits I have made of my wife, Mami, you will see her partly as she is, partly as I see her and partly how you imagine her to be. You may even see elements of her personality that I never knowingly put into the drawing and you will miss aspects I wanted to emphasise.

The paradox is that my wife is not here, you have probably never met or seen her.

Here on the inert surface of the paper we have the mingling of three spirits; the artist, the sitter and the viewer. But ultimately the spirit is with you the viewer projected onto the image.

Through making marks on the paper I have created a ghost. The intensity of the spirit the viewer sees will be related to the depth, breadth and intensity of information that were put into the drawing by the artist and how much emotional synergy there is between you the viewer and the artist who made the drawing.

Chapter 3: Time

Time is an essential element of emotion and sight, it is not conditional it is elemental.

Imagine you come across a snowdrop in a hedgerow. At first you simply see a white flower but as you look closely you see its individuality as a particular flower, a snowdrop, maybe it the first one of the year? But as you look longer the snowdrop brings back memories and associations of previous springs; memories of picking other snowdrops with your mother when you were a child. You are seeing both the individual flower as a snowdrop in the present moment and the ghosts of snowdrop-kind you have met in the past. 

As a viewer you are doing extraordinary things. You are mingling the memories of the past with the experience of the present, the spirit of your new acquaintance mingles with the spirits of flowers past, and with other snowdrops in previous springs in other hedgerows. 

When we see things we do it by projecting the spirits we hold in our minds and mingling them with the object we are looking at and trying to understand. We are never properly alive unless we are mingling ghosts from the past with the spirits of now. Inexhaustible numbers of ghosts of the trees and people, tables and chairs, the earth and air are projected on to the present.

In our minds the past and the future are intimately related

Brain scientists have discovered that the areas of the brain which light up when the mind is remembering the past also light up when the mind is imagining the future. At first this may seem a little surprising because we think in our minds we separate the past from future. 

Imagine the snowdrop is the first bud of spring about to break open for the first time, do you not anticipate the future flower? How beautiful it will look if you return to the same spot tomorrow? By anticipating the final form of the flower you are imagining the future, or are you remembering the form of past snowdrops? Are you expecting the bud to look like snowdrops you have seen in previous years? We cannot anticipate the future flowers without remembering past flowers! 

When we are imagining the future we are always remembering the past. 

When you think about it this way is it really that surprising that the same areas of the brain light up when imagining the future and remembering the past?

Chapter 4: Movement

There is a third way we see time; imagine a child waving a ruler and as you watch the rigid wood appeared to bend like rubber. 

If you were to photograph the child waving the ruler you would lose the illusion that the rigid ruler bends like rubber when it is waved, instead the photograph would catch a moment in the ruler’s journey, it might look like a blurred stick frozen in space. For physiological reasons we do not see the ruler like the camera, we see the rigid ruler bending like a piece of rubber. In fact we see an amalgam of time which makes the moving object appear elastic. 

Now think of a dancer moving. How do we see this motion? Well in the mind’s eye the physical appearance of the dancer undergoes a similar transformation to that which happened to the ruler, the body goes from being solid into rubbery elastic material. 

This illusion of elastic can be vividly seen in the scene in Swan Lake where the Corps de Ballet gently moving their arms to give the impression of wings over rippling water? If we were to take a photograph of this movement you would see the arms frozen in space, but on stage the movements of the arms appear to be soft, bendy and undulating. 

This illusion of arms rippling softly can be expressed by drawing the dancers with arms that are slightly rubbery, just as we see them in the mind’s eye. Drawing in not about imitating the physical world as we know it to be, it is about trying to catch the world as we experience it through our sight and in our mind’s eye.

Time and Blank Space

Movement, past memories and anticipation of the future are all part of what we call sight, we even see things in blank spaces.

Suppose you have a lady walking her dog across the page from left to right. The lady is walking into this empty space where we imagine the future will happen, maybe some birds will fly across her path or she will meet a friend coming the other way.

Now look the same composition after the lady has walked across the page. In this picture the space behind the lady is empty and the dog has already left the picture. The space behind the lady is in her past; we feel she met no friend there and you do not expect birds to be flying in this area because the birds have already gone too! You have no expectation that anything is about to happen because anything that happened in this space has already happened.

This demonstration is a crude description of the type used in comic books.

And here is blank space which a lady and her dog have just walked through.

Somehow the ghost of the past still inhabiting blank space and is still visible to our minds eye even though the space is completely blank.

Time in Composition

Because the blank areas in a picture are imbued with time an spirit, some space expectant of things about to happen, others dying embers of the past, the way we place figures in a composition, the lines of sight of the participants into blank areas and the direction of movement into blank areas are every bit as important as the areas that contain highly detailed information about the figures.

The expectation of a touch between Adam and God, as painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, has become a universal image of spirituality. 

All the concentration and energy of two powerful men who are the subject of this picture is focused at the area of blank space between the fingers of Adam and God. Not only the physical energy of stretching towards each other but the concentration of the eyes too. It is obvious that something important is about to happen in this few centimetres of space between the fingers of God an Adam

This touch has not happened yet, it is about to happen in the future, and we anticipate it in the same way we anticipate to see the bud of a snowdrop to open into a radiant bloom. 

This is not something that only happens on paper. Classical ballet dancers are trained to look across the tops of their extended arms into the space beyond, this gives their movements’ spirituality. The spirituality expressed in Michelangelo’s’ paintings and the line of a classical ballet dancer is an expression of living. If we see a crowd of people on the pavement looking up into the sky we also look up to see what is happening in the sky. This is empathy at work. 

How the mind's Eye Invents the Third Dimension
We are all know of the tricks artists use to make flat space look three dimensional; perspective, light and shade, haziness for distant object clarity for object in the foreground. It all seems a bit obvious until you look at the mechanisms in more detail

Can you Read This?

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Amzanig huh?

                                                                                                                  Anon internet message

This tendency of the mind to make snap judgements is at the heart of making sense of the world, it is also at the heart of drawing. 

Drawing do not mimicking what the lens of the eye beams on to the retina at the back of the eye, drawing are about the cues that stimulate the mind’s eye. The above sentence demonstrates how our eyes make sense of the world by making guesses. The illustration below demonstrates just how decisive and uncompromising the mind’s guesses are about the third dimension;

Does the book open its pages so you can read them, or does it face away? You can switch between either interpretations, but you will never be able to hold both guesses simultaneously. The mind chooses one interpretation or the other, it will not choose both. The mind has also decided it is looking at a three dimensional object even though the mind also knows it is looking at a piece of paper with marks on it.

Chapter 5: Perspective and creating Space

Because we are used to thinking of convergent lines representing distance the minds eye insists on guessing the first figure is a midget and the third figure a giant; this is the guess the mind has made from the visual information it has received. It is a guess the mind refuses to let go of. Only when I remove the convergent lines will the mind-eye accept that it is looking at three equal sized flat patches.

This demo shows how easy it is to confuse the brain by juxtaposing conflicting messages. As an artist I am interested in doing the opposite, instead of building a lattice of juxtaposing messages I am trying to build a lattice of mutually supportive messages.

Drawing Spirits in Time and Space

Making a Drawing

I hope my introduction will have given you a glimpse of what the craft of drawing is about.

Drawings are not imitations of the visual world, they are lattices of marks that combine together to create layers of illusions from which we perceive a world of spirits in time and space. A drawing can never be complete, it is always a fragment. The artist knows to put enough down of his or her experience for you the viewer to take up the challenge and finish the job of visualising and inventing the spirit on the paper; what you perceive in the drawing was invented in your mind eye and a lot of what you see was never put in the picture by the artist. 

A drawing of a dancer in flight (like the one at the front of this paper) will take about five minutes to complete. The image was started with a swirl and few guiding marks made whilst the visual impression was still strongly in my mind, as the drawing progressed and the first sensations faded I went back in time to memories of past dancers. 

The drawing progressed in layers which were added one on top of the other to reinforce the information put down in the first few moments of inspiration. Like a pianist who knows where the notes are on the keyboard, I expressed the movement from a library of memories of past dancers. In one moment I visited the small of her back with a patch of darkness and in the next I gave detail to the dancers finger with a single fine line; the process was as natural and effortless as seeing. 

When I stopped I was no longer part of the drawing. Looking at the drawing I respond to the picture as an outsider looking in. My eyes scan the image and my mind’s eye invents a response, I may even see spirits I was unaware of when I made the drawing.

Thank you for reading my post, I hope you enjoyed the experience and agree that none of us are islands entire unto ourselves and each one of us is part of a continent called mankind.