Sunday, December 26, 2010

Smallness, Vastness, and the Mystical State

"We pass into mystical states
from out of ordinary consciousness
as from a less into a more,
as from a smallness into a vastness,
and at the same time
as from an unrest to a rest.
We feel them as reconciling,
unifying states."
- William James
Variety of Religious Experience


"When we are touched by
mystic grace and allow ourselves
to enter its field without fear,
we see that we are all parts of a whole,
elements of an universal harmony,
unique, essential and sacred notes
in a divine music that everyone
and everything is playing together
with us in God and for God."
- Andrew Harvey
The Essential Mystics

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"Seeing the Invisible" B&W Portfolio Available

Matter, Science, and Spirit

“Everyone who is seriously involved in
the pursuit of science becomes
convinced that a spirit is manifest
in the laws of the Universe —
a spirit vastly superior to that of man,
and one in the face of which we,
with our modest powers,
must feel humble."

- Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)
(from Max Jammer's Einstein and Religion,
Princeton University Press, 1999)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Parts, Matter, and Networks

“The farther and more deeply
we penetrate into matter,
by means of increasingly
powerful methods,
the more we are confounded by
the interdependence of its parts...
It is impossible to cut into the network,
to isolate a portion without it becoming
frayed and unravelled at all its edges.”

Pierre Teihard de Chardin
Philosopher (1881-1955)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Beauty, Mystery, and Truth

"Now I was suddenly made aware of another world of beauty and mystery such as I had never imagined to exist, except in poetry. It was as though I had begun to see and smell and hear for the first time... I experienced an overwhelming emotion in the presence of nature, especially at evening. It began to wear a kind of sacramental character for me... I felt again the presence of an unfathomable mystery. The song of the birds, the shapes of the trees, the colours of the sunset, were so many signs of this presence, which seemed to be drawing me to itself."
- Bede Griffiths
Benedictine Monk
(1906 - 1993)

"Mystery is truth's dancing partner."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1749 - 1832)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hidden Meanings

"Everything we see
hides another thing,
we always want to see
what is hidden by what we see."
Rene Magritte
(1898 - 1967 )

"Everything in the world has
a hidden meaning. . . .
Men, animals, trees, stars,
they are all hieroglyphics.
When you see them you
do not understand them.
You think they are really men,
animals, trees, stars.
It is only years later
that you understand."
- Nikos Kazantzakis
(1883 - 1957)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

If the Doors of Perception..."

Morpheus: I'm trying to free your mind, Neo.
But I can only show you the door.
You're the one that has to walk through it.
- Matrix (1999)

"If the doors of perception
were cleansed every thing
would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up,
till he sees all things thru'
narrow chinks of his cavern."
- William Blake (1757 - 1827)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Great New Book on "Great Images"

About 35 years ago, the late great curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NY, John Szarkowski, published a landmark book called Looking at Photographs. Intended as "... a picture book, and its ...purpose ...to provide the material for simple delectation" (according to Szarkowski, from his own introduction to that book), it was, and is, considerably more, giving life to Szarkowski's always thoughtful ruminations about 100 pictures from MOMA's collection and food-for-thought for all aspiring photographers. Also around the same time (in 1983, shortly before his death), Ansel Adams published his Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, in which the master provides narratives about 40 of his favorite photographs, engaging readers in the technical and aesthetic dimensions of photography. These two books are almost always found (typically, and notably, in excruciating dog-eared form!) on the bookshelves of virtually every photographer who has bought at least two books on photography!

And now - a mere 30 or so years later - comes another destined-to-be classic in the same mold, George Barr's Why Photographs Work: 52 Great Images Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why.

This is not to say that there have not been similar "picture books" published in the intervening years. In truth, one could argue that there are too many, as the quality seldom approaches Szarkowski's and Adams' volumes. Certainly, very few books in this genre approach the simple, understated elegance of Barr's new book; fewer still share the same attention to detail. And seldom have I seen such a magically diverse and exquisite collection of photographs that just sing.

In what must have been a logistical nightmare of solicitation and coordination (done entirely by email), George has assembled a veritable What's What of great images (52 of them, and taken by a veritable Who's Who of today's photographers, though not all assembled here are well known; though they all will be now that the book is out!)

The idea behind the book is not to discuss "selected images" (as representative "snapshots" used to illustrate a discourse on some photographer's life's oeuvre); rather the single focus is on simply presenting - in Szarkowski's "picture book" book fashion - great images and musings about what makes them so great. And they all are! (great, that is; Kudos to George for his selective eye).

The book contains exactly one image each by 52 photographers; some famous, some becoming so, some obscure (but clearly on the rise, given the artistry of images). As George states a number of times (and makes an eloquent case for), there is something about great images that is immediately clear, without further exposition. Why this is so, a question that is often asked by those deeply interested interested in photography but who have not yet spent half-a-lifetime looking at and creating images, is where this book shines, first with George Barr's inspired commentary, followed by the photographer's own story about how his or her selected image came to be, what their creative approach consisted of, what technical and/or aesthetic difficulties they had to overcome, and so on. A brief bio of each photographer is also provided, along with email addresses and website links for interested readers to continue exploring.

The most important part of the book, apart from the commentary - namely its images - are all nicely presented on the left hand page as you open to a given photographer's "section" and are reproduced in as large a size as the book size permits (maximum of about 9 inches longest side), with about an inch margin along the sides. Indeed, with the typical ~30% Amazon discount over the official list price, it is tempting to purchase two copies, so that the images from one can be taken out and framed to hang on the wall!

Some of the photographers are familiar to me, either because I've seen their work in magazines and journals, or - in some cases - I already own a book or two of their photographs; though, in some cases, I had not seen the particular images displayed in the book. Other photographers I am less familiar with or have not heard of at all; though, in all such cases, and as a testament to George's aesthetic tastes (in selecting images for his book) and skills as a photography critic-commentator, I now intend to look up more of their works! All types of images appear: landscapes, portraits, abstracts, formally arranged, manipulations. Most are in color, but there is a generous sampling of exquisite black and white images as well.

So, are there one or two "universal" truths that emerge after reading this wonderful book? Having read the book twice, and perused it a few more, flipping back and forth, and rereading various sections, two things stand out (though perhaps somewhat implicitly; the gestalt having been assembled by me rather than as an explicit "lessons learned" that appears in the book...if I have one minor complaint, it is that I would have liked to read George's take on the "whole" in a concluding chapter; but his introduction serves the essential purpose): (1) image simplicity (one or at most a few "main" elements and/or colors) coupled with a mastery of the complex technical skills necessary for proper presentation (the camera, lens, darkroom, Photoshop, printer, etc all become "automatic" extensions of the mind/soul of photographer), and (2) mystery (the best images tend to be the ones we want to return to again and again, and those that we feel that way about tend to be the ones for which the most open - and interesting - questions remain lingering in our mind long after we last saw the image). Certainly the book itself qualifies on both counts (albeit on a slightly "meta" level); I know I will return to it again and again, sure to be rewarded with fresh insights, new stepping-stones for my own aesthetic journeys and the simple pleasure of viewing some exquisite photographs.

I can see a series of "Why great photographs work" books appearing in the coming years, as new images - and new talents - emerge. We can only hope that the publishers, should they decide to launch such a series (I would encourage them to do so), would see fit to have none other than George Barr behind the helm. George is uniquely gifted both as a practicing photographer (with over 35 years experience) and as a teacher/author. There are as many great photographers (who have a hard time explaining how to set a proper f-stop to a novice) as there are great authors (who are hard-pressed to capture even a "not so great" photo), but very, very few who are truly great at both. George, with countless images and portfolios published, and now with three expository books behind him, is in a rarefied class indeed!

I believe that George's new book - Why Photographs Work: 52 Great Images Who Made Them, What Makes Them Special and Why - will become a "classic" (along the lines of Szarkowski's and Adams' earlier collections. Anyone interested in why photographs work - and what they can do to improve their own "eye" and completed images - should have a copy (or two!) on their shelf! Nicely done George!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Art, World, Transcendence

“In kindergarten we drew three daffodils that
had just been picked out of the yard;
and while I was drawing,
my sharpened yellow pencil and the
cup of the yellow daffodils
gave off whiffs just alike.
That the pencil doing the
drawing should give off the
same smell as the flower it
drew seemed part of the art lesson.
Children, like animals, use all their
senses to discover the world.
Then artists come along and
discover it the same way, all over again.”
Eudora Welty
Author / Photographer
(1909-2001)

“In one way or another,
the Cosmos we inhabit -
human body, house, territory,
world - communicates from
above with another
level which is transcendent.”
Mircea Eliade
Philosopher
(1907-1986)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Incomplete, Random, and Infinite

"Nothing in Nature is random. ...
A thing appears random
only through the incompleteness
of our knowledge."
-Benedict Spinoza
(1632-1677)

"Our minds are finite,
and yet even in these
circumstances of finitude
we are surrounded by possibilities
that are infinite,
and the purpose of human life
is to grasp as much as we can
out of the infinitude.''
- Alfred North Whitehead
(1861-1947)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Patterns, Meanings, and Reality

"We live in our
description of reality."
Gregory Bateson
Anthropologist / Systems Theorist (1904 - 1980)

"If you cling to appearances while searching for meaning,
you won't find a thing."
Budhidharma (440 - 533)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Organization, Probability, and Entropy

“As entropy increases, the universe,
and all closed systems in the universe,
tend naturally to deteriorate and
lose their distinctiveness,
to move from the least to
the most probable state,
from a state of organization and
differentiation in which distinctions
and forms exist, to a state of
chaos and sameness.”

Norbert Weiner
Mathematician (1894-1964)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Possibility, Creation, and Infinity

“The actual infinite arises in three contexts: first when it is realized in the most complete form, in a fully independent otherworldly being, in Deo, where I call it the Absolute Infinite or simply Absolute; second when it occurs in the contingent, created world; third when the mind grasps it in abstracto as a mathematical magnitude, number or order type...”

“...The fear of infinity is a form of myopia that destroys the possibility of seeing the actual infinite, even though it in its highest form has created and sustains us, and in its secondary transfinite forms occurs all around us and even inhabits our minds.”

- Georg Cantor (1845 - 1918), Mathematician


“If a thing loves, it is infinite.”
- William Blake (1757 - 1827), Poet / Mystic

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Answer to Life, the Universe, ...

"On the day of the Great On-Turning two soberly dressed programmers with briefcases arrived. Their names were Lunkwill and Fook. For a few moments they sat in respectful silence, then, after exchanging a quiet glance with Fook, Lunkwill leaned forward and touched a small black panel. The subtlest of hums indicated that the massive computer was now in total active mode. After a pause it spoke to them in a voice rich, resonant and deep. It said: 'What is this great task for which I, Deep Thought, ... have been called into existence? ...'O Deep Thought computer,' Fook said, 'the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us ...' he paused, 'the Answer!' 'The Answer?' said Deep Thought. 'The Answer to what?' 'Life!' urged Fook. 'The Universe!' said Lunkwill. 'Everything!' they said in chorus. Deep Thought paused for a moment's reflection. 'Tricky,' he said finally...

"...'And you're ready to give it to us?' urged Loonquawl. 'I am.' 'Now?' 'Now,' said Deep Thought. ... 'Tell us!' 'All right,' said Deep Thought. 'The Answer to the Great Question ...' 'Yes ... !' 'Of Life, the Universe and Everything ...' said Deep Thought. 'Yes ... !' 'Is ... ' said Deep Thought, and paused. 'Yes ... !' 'Is ... ' 'Yes ... !!! ... ?' 'Forty-two,' said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm. ... 'Forty-two!' yelled Loonquawl.

'Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?' 'I checked it very thoroughly,' said the computer, 'and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is.'" -Douglas Adams (1952 - 2001), Hitchiker's Guide to The Galaxy

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Objects, Information, and Transformation

“We hypostatize information into objects.
Rearrangement of objects is change in
the content of the information;
the message has changed.

This is the language which we
have lost the ability to read.

We ourselves are a part of this language;
changes in us are changes in the
content of the information.

We ourselves are information rich;
information enters us,
is processed and is then
projected outward once more,
now in an altered form.

We are not aware that
we are doing this,
that in fact this is
all we are doing.”

Philip K. Dick
Novelist /Philosopher/Mystic (1928-1982)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

As Above, So Below

"True, without falsehood, certain and most true, that which is above is the same as that which is below, and that which is below is the same as that which is above, for the performance of miracles of the One Thing. And as all things are from the One, by the meditation of One, so all things have their birth from this One Thing by adaptation. The Sun is its Father, the Moon its Mother, the Wind carries it in its belly, its nurse is the Earth. This is the Father of all perfection, or consummation of the whole world. Its power is integrating, if it be turned into earth."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Time, Webs, and Bifurcations

"...This web of time—the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries—embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and yet in others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favored me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words but am in error, a phantom...Time is forever dividing itself toward innumerable futures..."

- Jorge Luis Borges (1899 - 1986)
Garden of Forking Paths,
Ficciones

Distinctions, Forms, and Science

“A universe comes into being when
a space is severed or taken apart…
by tracing the way we
[make such distinctions]
we begin to reconstruct …
the basic forms underlying linguistic,
mathematical, physical,
and biological science.”

G. Spencer Brown
Laws of Form (1979)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On the Art and Craft of Restoration

Faithful followers of my humble blog have, over the years, read a number of entries that mention my dad in one way or another. My dad (Slava "Sam" Ilachinski) - who passed away in 2002, but is never far from my thoughts, and continues to inspire me - was a lifelong artist, and an art restorer by trade (doing it the "old fashioned" way, sans computers and algorithms ;-) I recall times when essentially pitch-black canvases entered my dad's studio and emerged - weeks, sometimes months, afterward - as though they were just created (which in many cases they nearly were, given how much paint my dad had to add by his own hand in order to "complete" missing fragments of the original). I saw firsthand many a seasoned professional artist's jaw drop after witnessing the product of my dad's amazing talent. While he labored in relative obscurity for much of his professional life (though NY galleries all knew of his work), my dad had an occasional opportunity to work on some well-known pieces. The most famous of these is Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware, which he worked on in the 70s.

It is therefore fitting, in a partly ironic and partly, poetically Uroborian sort of way, that I - certainly not an artist (in my dad's sense) - and he (certainly not a photographer, in my sense) - should meet again so many years after his death on the cusp of a discipline he so loved - restoration - and a digital photo technique I would likely never have taken the time to learn but am doing so now only because I wish to write a book on my dad's life and art!

My mom, who I am lucky enough to still have with me, is both a storehouse of rich memories and (her home is a) warehouse of old - and frequently badly dilapidated - family photos. While scanning this "warehouse" was easy, and "cleaning it up" was almost as simple (in truth, the process can be thought of as only a slightly more involved version of the more usual "touching up" of any print, analog or digital), when it came to serious retouching and full-blown restoration I was soon out of my league.

Two valuable resources I now keep on my PC's shelf are the second edition of Ctein's Digital Restoration from Start to Finish, and the third edition of Katrin Eismann's Adobe Photoshop Restoration & Retouching. Though they overlap in parts, each has its own focus, and both books offer a tremendous number of examples and practical advice on how to recover images. Ctein is a master printer and an exceptionally clear writer on technical matters (click here for his website, and links to his gallery and other works; he also frequently contributes to Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer blog). Eismann is an all-around Photoshop guru and has many other wonderful books to her credit. While I would not have been completely lost without these two fine guides, my task would certainly have been considerably more difficult and daunting.

The image reproduced at the top of this blog is a before and after comparison between an "as is" scan of an old print of my dad when he was 4 years old; in the picture, he is standing in front of his dad (a medical doctor). The original picture was taken in Taganrog, Russia in 1929, where my dad was born (Taganrog is also the birthplace of Anton Chekov). The "after" shot represents what I was able to pull out of it after about an hours' worth of restorative work. It is not perfect, and I'm sure my skills will improve in time, but I am very happy to have injected a bit of life into an old family photo from a bygone era. One down, and - oh, about a 100 or so ! - to go ;-) My resolution for the coming year is to complete the book on my dad's life and art that my mom and I have slowly been working on for the last few years.

Postscript #1: One of the great regrets of my life is not ever having trained my camera on my dad while he worked in his studio! I've rationalized away this grievous - and unforgivable! - omission on my part in countless ways over the years. I was too young; I was "afraid" of what he'd say if I asked; I was always "going" to do it, when I had a better camera; I was waiting for a chunk of time I could devote entirely to this series; ... none of it makes sense, of course, in hindsight, and the opportunity - opportunities! - are now lost in the mists of time. Oh, what I wouldn't now give to have a few precious moments with a camera in hand and my dad huddled over one of his canvases! This is also the reason why I so cherish the following "newly restored" image: it is the only photograph - taken ~1980 - I have of my dad working as an art restorer (with a bonus capture of my mom peering over the top left edge of the painting)!

Postscript #2: Some of my dad's abstract work from the last five years of his life can be sampled here. A catalog of the 35 works that are now the property of the Taganrog Museum (bequeathed by my dad, and lovingly delivered by my mom a few years ago) in Taganrog, Russia, can be seen here. One of my dad's regrets was never having revisited his boyhood city, which he left as a young boy. So it is fitting that, with my mom's help, a generous selection of his creative efforts has found its way back home! My dad's last work (that was still on his easel the day he went to the hospital for the last time, and is now hanging peacefully in my old bedroom in my mom's house on Long Island) is a simple, joyful celebration of color and motion. It perfectly reflects everything my dad's art was - is - about.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Atoms, Assemblies, and Fields

“Perhaps the most radical change that has occurred in the
history of theoretical thinking is the switch from the
atomistic conception of the world as an assembly of
circumscribed things to that of a world of
forces acting in the dimension of time.

These forces are bound to organize themselves in fields,
interacting, grouping, connecting, fusing, and separating.”

Rudolf Arnheim
Art Theorist / Perceptual Psychologist (1904 - 2007)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Description, Explanation, Representation

“Explanation must always grow out of description,
but the description from which it grows will always
necessarily contain arbitrary characteristics.

All description, explanation, or representation is
necessarily in some sense a mapping of derivatives from the
phenomena to be described onto some surface or
matrix or system of coordinates.

Every receiving matrix, even a
language or tautological network of propositions,
will have its formal characteristic which will in
principle be distortive of the phenomena to be mapped onto it.”

Gregory Bateson
Anthropologist / Systems Theorist (1904-1980)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Path, Fate, Life

“Every path but your own is the path of fate.
Keep on your own track, then.”

Henry Thoureau
Author/Transcendentalist (1817–1862)


“What each must seek in his life
never was on land or sea.

It is something out of his own
unique potentiality for experience,
something that never has been and
never could have been experienced by anyone else.”

Joseph Campbell
Author/Mythologist (1904–1987)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Words, Signs, Stories

"The universe is made of stories,
not atoms."

Muriel Rukeyser
Poet (1913 - 1980)

"Every phenomenon of nature was a word;
the sign, symbol and pledge of a new, mysterious,
inexpressible but all the more intimate union,
participation and community of divine energies and ideas."

Johann G. Hamann
Philosopher (1730 - 1788 )

Sunday, November 07, 2010

One Shoot Sunday: An Interview

I was invited recently by Chris Galford (a manager with the online publication One Stop Poetry) to participate in an "email interview." Our exchange (along with a sampling of my images) was published earlier this morning. While I was honored to be asked to participate - the website has archived an impressively varied selection of interviews with talented photographers that one can spend hours perusing and being inspired by! - I was truly humbled by the wealth of creativity that my humble little "Homage to Friedrich" image (reproduced here) spawned from readers of the interview!

Since the focus of the One Stop Poetry site is to foster a dialog between visual and verbal artforms, the interview concluded with a challenge to readers: namely, to write a poem that is inspired by the accompanying image (called the "Skies of Skye," that appears in my Scotland portfolio).

I was deeply moved by both the number - and sheer beauty - of responses to the challenge! My favorites (though, in truth, I must really list them all, as they are all exceptional!)- and in no particular order - are poems by Pete Marshall, Gigi Ann, Claudia, Louise Gallagher, Adam Dustus, Glynn Young, Tammy, Maureen, Melissa Campbell, Ruth, Ranee Dillon, Hedgewitch, Libithina, and the ones on the Reflections of..., She's Writing, and Another Man's Dream blogs. I'd like to thank everyone for taking the time to read my interview, and even more so for the time and effort they put in to posting such wonderful works of poetic art on their own sites.

Kudos to all!

Postscript #1: I have written of this "poetry challenge" image before on my blog (see here). The image was taken near Teangue, Skye, on the next to last day of our trip to Scotland in 2009 (before we headed off to Edinburgh to catch our flight back to the states). The sun was setting, but we had a bit of time for some last minute exploration. I was busy taking close-up shots of rocks and water, with my back toward the water where my wife was standing (I was in my usual crouched position, glaring starry-eyed at the compositional marvels on the exposed beach, and - also, as usual ;-) - "oblivious" to what I was really searching for ;-) I finally stood up to give my knees a rest, and while stretching my back swung around to look for my wife. What I saw I was magic and thus not something that can easily be translated either into words or images, but I did manage to catch a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable with my camera. What it recorded is reproduced in the photograph above, and is among my top three favorite images from our entire trip.

Postscript #2: While on the subject of interviews, here is a link to an interview I did with Brooks Jensen (editor, Lenswork magazine) for my Micro Worlds portfolio that Lenswork published in issue #76 (May-June, 2008). The mp3 version runs ~40 min, but (unfortunately) is not free; cost is 99 cents (proceeds go entirely to Lenswork).

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Networks, Processes, and Self-Creation

Autopoiesis = Self-Creation
(from Greek auto = “self” and poiesis = “creation)

"… a network of mutually interacting processes that
continuously both create, and sustain, components that
regenerate the network of processes that produce them.

There is a constant and intimate contact among the
things that coexist and coevolve in the universe,
a sharing of bonds and messages that
makes reality into a stupendous
network of interaction and communication.”

Ervin Laszlo
Philosopher / Systems Theorist (1932 - )

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Spirit, Awareness, Self

“To the vast majority of people
a photograph is an
image of something within
their direct experience:
a more-or-less factual reality.

It is difficult for them
to realize that the
photograph can be the source
of experience, as well as the
reflection of spiritual awareness
of the world and of self.”

Ansel Adams
Photographer (1902 - 1984)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Distinctions, Boundaries, Existence

“Amongst all the changing phenomena the
essence of nature is invariable.

The World as human distinctions
(God, The Soul, The Spirit, Life, ...) = 0.

Science and art have no
boundaries because what
is comprehended infinitely
is innumerable and
infinity and innumerability
are equal to nothing ...

... There is no existence either
within or outside me;
nothing can change anything,
since nothing exists that could
change itself or be changed.”

Kazimir Malevich
Artist (1878 - 1935)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Left-alone Objects in the World

“...Consider an object ... what is an object?

Philosophers are always saying,
'Well, just take a chair for example.'
The moment they say that, you know they
do not know what they are talking about any more.

What is a chair?
Well, a chair is a certain thing over there ...
certain? How certain?
The atoms are evaporating from it
from time to time - not many atoms,
but a few - dirt falls on it and
gets dissolved in the paint;
so to define a chair precisely,
to say exactly which atoms are chair,
and which atoms are air, or which atoms are dirt,
or which atoms are paint that
belongs to the chair is impossible.

So the mass of a chair can be defined only approximately.

In the same way, to define the mass of a single object is impossible,
because there are not any single, left-alone objects in the world.”

Richard Feynman, Physicist (1918 -1988)
(Lectures in Physics, Addison-Wesley)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Objectivity, Appearance, and Phenomena

“Objective existence is phenomenal - appearance only,
Non-objective existence is unaware of existing,
And it is phenomenally incognizable.

Objective existence is figuration in mind,
Non-objective existence only `exists' in such mind,
Cognizing everything except what is cognizing.

Objective mind is self-elaboration in space-time,
Non-objective mind, phenomenally void, knows neither.

By whom is this being said?
By mind attempting to see itself - and not succeeding.
Why? As space-time `it' appears as `void',
Intemporally `it' cannot cognize what is cognizing.”

Wei Wu Wei
Buddhist/Taoist philosopher (1896-1986)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Maps of Reality

“Explanation must always grow out of description,
but the description from which it grows will always
necessarily contain arbitrary characteristics.

All description, explanation, or representation is
necessarily in some sense a mapping of derivatives from the
phenomena to be described onto some surface or
matrix or system of coordinates.

Every receiving matrix, even a
language or tautological network of propositions,
will have its formal characteristic which will in
principle be distortive of the phenomena to be mapped onto it.”

Gregory Bateson
Anthropologist / Systems Theorist (1904-1980)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Symbols, Myth, and Language

"No longer in a merely physical universe,
man lives in a symbolic universe.

Language, myth, art and religion
are parts of this universe.

They are varied threads which
weave the symbolic net,
the tangled web of human experience.

No longer can man confront reality immediately;
he cannot see it, as it were, face to face.
Physical reality seems to recede in proportion
as man's symbolic activity advances.

Instead of dealing with the things
themselves man is in a sense
constantly conversing with himself.

He has so enveloped himself in
linguistic forms, in artistic images,
in mythical symbols or religious rites that he
cannot see or know anything except by
the interposition of this artificial medium."

Ernst Cassirer
Philosopher (1874 - 1945)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Mind, Path, Stillness

"When the mind is very quiet,
completely still,
when there is not a movement
of thought and therefore no experience,
no observer, then that very stillness
has its own creative understanding.

In that stillness the mind is
transformed into something else."

J. Krishnamurti
Spiritual Philosopher (1895-1986)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Windows, Peepholes, and Meaning


“There are many windows through
which we can look out into the
world, searching for meaning ...

... Most of us, when we ponder on the
meaning of our existence,
peer through but one of these
windows onto the world.
And even that one is often misted over
by the breath of our finite humanity.

We clear a tiny peephole and stare through.

No wonder we are confused by the
tiny fraction of a whole that we see.

It is, after all, like trying to
comprehend the panorama of the
desert or the sea through
a rolled-up newspaper.”

Jane Goodall
Primatologist/Anthropologist (1924- )

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Memories, Dreams, and Perceptions

"Our whole past store of memories floats
beyond its margin, ready at a touch to come in;
and the entire mass of residual powers, impulses,
and knowledges that constitute our empirical
self stretches continuously beyond it.

So vaguely drawn are the outlines
between what is actual and
what is only potential at any
moment of our conscious life,
that it is always hard to say of
certain mental elements
whether we are conscious of them or not."

William James (1842-1910)
The Varieties of Religious Experience

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Yves Klein, Arbitrary Labels, and the "Meta" Art of Displaying Art

This will likely read as an even more rambling blog entry than usual ;-) but there is simply no easier way to fuse the three ostensibly unrelated themes posited in the title than by the words I'm about to type into my iPad stream of consciousness style. So here goes...

Last week, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing the Yves Klein exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC (for those of you with iPhones, iTunes has a wonderful app to allow you to experience the exhibit "virtually" on your iPhone). Yves Klein was a French "artist" born in Nice in 1928 and died, tragically young, of a heart attack in 1962. I put the word "artist" in quotes because Klein's "art" was - and is - notoriously difficult to pin down; he used so many different techniques and produced such a diverse oeuvre, that the word "artist" hardly does justice to what Klein really was (and for which I have no ready "label"). Even in describing his more "conventional" works - in which pigment is applied to a canvas - one wonders whether an asterisk (even a question mark!) should not accompany any description (see below). His works are all equal parts object and concept (or philosophy). Klein's works are best appreciated as transient artifacts - as snapshots in time - of a ceaseless process of creative exploration, unconfined to a single genre or single means of expression. Klein was in many ways the physical embodiment of an incorporeal creative force. His life was art, much more so - on a fundamental level - than any of the art works he had time to create.

Which brings us to the second theme of this blog entry, the arbitrariness of labels... One of the techniques Klein employed (often as a public performance to the delight of invited guests) was to have two or three nude women cover themselves with paint - typically a special "spiritually charged" hue of blue ...
"Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas the other colours are not.. ..All colors arouse specific associative ideas, psychologically material or tangible, while blue suggests at most the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract." - Yves Klein (lecture at the Sorbonne, 1959)
...and proceed to "paint" canvases with their bodies. Sometimes the "painting" would be directed by Klein; sometimes it would be left up to the "body brushes" themselves. But in either case, Klein himself was but the creative fire behind a process that, once set in motion and because of the womens' active participation, was not entirely under his control. Which brings up a not so easy to answer question: in what sense can one say that the "finished artwork" (many fine examples of which are shown at the Hirshhorn exhibit, including a few wall-size videos of the process itself) is Klein's alone?

Klein also experimented with the use of fire as paint, was a photographer, and sometimes used the windshield of his car as an "abstract canvas" to capture the dynamic imprints of twigs and insects as the car careened on winding stormy roads.

"I dash out to the banks of the river ... and find myself amongst the rushes and the reeds. I grind some pigment over all this and the wind makes their slender stalks bend and appliqués them with precision and delicacy on to my canvas, which I thus offer to quivering nature: I obtain a vegetal mark. Then it starts to rain; a fine spring rain: I expose my canvas to the rain… …and I have the mark of the rain! – a mark of an atmospheric event." - Yves Klein
My wife (an art major in college) astutely asked whether the same question might be posed of Jackson Pollack, whose art also arguably depended at least in part on the vagaries of paint-globule-trajectories not under his control; or, indeed, of any artist whose works depend on processes not under their direct control (see Chance Aesthetics by Meredith Malone).

Language can be both surgically precise and woefully ambiguous (and sometimes, simultaneously both!) The labels we apply to things and processes are - as often as not - arbitrary, and are rarely more than simple caricatures of the real things and processes they are used to represent. This is never more true than when we apply labels to artists and the works they create. Certainly (?) Klein and Pollack (and Kandinsky, and Picasso, and my dad, Sam Ilachinski) are all "artists." But what does the label convey, apart from the fact that whatever it is their souls and activities share probably has little to do with building particle colliders (though this too is arguably an "artform" so that the overlap may not be as "small" as one first suspects... but we'll leave that discussion to a later time ;-) ? Is a "body art" painting by Klein a "painting by Klein"? Is it a "collaborative work of art" created partly by Klein and partly by his cadre of "body brushes"? Is Klein merely one "creative force" behind a painting that owes its existence (and meaning?) to multiple creative forces (in the case of his body art in particular, Klein is arguably the more passive of the many creative forces at work; or is he)? To what extent does the word "artist" signify what Klein really was (which, even from the brief sketch I've given above, it should be obvious that Klein was not your "typical" artist)? And for that matter, how many - ever more precise (?) - "labels" do we need to begin to capture "Klein as Klein" (and can that even really be done)?

In truth, the best we can do to represent - or to label - Klein, or any other artist (if we're honest), is to append to any symbolic signifier of Klein (a picture of him shortly before his death, say, or merely the word "Klein") Klein's complete creative oevre, from first doodles as a baby-Klein to the last half-completed sketch before his fatal heart attack at 34. Of course, even this is at best an incomplete record, since there are likely to be many more works that Klein had kept to himself, or destroyed, than exposed to public view (I know this to be a fact regarding my dad's lifework); but, certainly, the label "Klein" followed by a catalog of reproductions of his life's work better represent the "artist" Klein than the word "artist" alone.

Alas, even here there is a snag. For even if we managed to reproduce a complete record, we would still have to contend with the nontrivial problem of how to interpret - how to derive meaning - from the record in the manner in which it was constructed and displayed (which adds yet another layer of ambiguity and arbitrariness). Is a linear time-line "better" or "worse" than organizing according to theme and process? While creative works surely accrue in a "linear" fashion (for our hands can create only one work at a time), artists - especially "artists" like Klein - rarely work on a single project at a time, mentally and creatively juggling multiple simultaneous works. How can that complex dynamic inner process be captured in any static "record"? And yet, if it is not - and cannot - be captured, to what degree can any record of any artist's oeuvre truly capture the "artist"? Surely the way in which an artist's oeuvre is interpreted - and therefore how the "artist" is understood through his oeuvre - owes as much to how the oeuvre is organized - usually by someone other than the artist (though the same would be true even in the case where the artist organizes his or her own life's work) - as what is "in" it. Interpretation cannot proceed without both content and context (to which we must also add the context - and current state-of-mind - of the viewer!)

Which brings us to the third theme of this blog entry, the meta-art of displaying art...though we are dangerously close to encroaching on the formal study of semiotics - i.e., the study of signs and symbols (see Handbook of Semiotics by Winfried Noth), I will confine my musings to an observation my wife and I made at the Yves Klein exhibit. In one hall of the exhibit, the curators had beautifully arranged about 25 or 30 of Klein's smaller blue sculptures. It is a large semicircular room (following the circular contour of the Hirshhorn building), brightly lit, and painted a solid white from floor to ceiling. Each work rests on its own modest pedestal, ranging from about two to four feet in height, and relatively positioned in a more or less grid-like configuration, with bases extending from the floor at varying depths (as the main "base" of the exhibit is itself positioned at a slight incline). The effect is mesmerizing, as the roomful of small blue objects reveals itself as you step into this part of the exhibit. The arrangement is both inviting - as a whole - and seductive in compelling one to linger and admire the individual works. The question that immediately presents itself - on the meta-level - is the degree to which the artful arrangement of Klein's works colors and/or defines how one interprets them. Certainly, the effect - and subsequent interpretation - would have been dramatically different had my wife and I stepped into a room in which all of Klein's works were "arranged" in a disorganized pile in one corner. But what if the arrangement had been just as "artful" (why do we so seldom pay homage to the curator's meta-art of arranging other artists' "art"?), but had different lighting? Or a different relative positioning? Or a slightly different choice had been made as to what individual works to include from the exhibit? All of these particular choices would give the exhibit a different feel, and - more importantly - compel viewers to interpret "Klein the artist" in different ways.

However, lest one conclude from all of this that the best, and only, way to "know" an artist is to become the artist (much as Borges describes how a fictional Pierre Menard becomes Cervantes in order to be able to write Cervantes' Don Quixote), remember that the artist's own struggles to create - and which leave a trace of artifacts that others use to "understand" the artist - are also the artist's attempt to understand herself! So who knows the "real" artist?


"The essential of painting is that something, that 'ethereal glue,' that intermediary product which the artist secrets with all his creative being and which he has the power to place, to encrust, to impregnate into the pictorial stuff of the painting." - Yves Klein
Additional Reading. (1) Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers; (2) Yves Klein: Fire at the Heart of the Void; (3) Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium.

Postscript #1. One more thought on the meta-art of displaying art. Suppose one decides to curate an exhibit of the meta-art of curating. That is, to exhibit not the works of an artist, but the meta-art of a curator. How can such an exhibit to be organized? Does the curator (whose meta-art is going to be on display) do the curating? But then it's not so much an exhibit, as just "another day on the job" for the curator. Perhaps some other curator displays the first curator's exhibit. In which case, how might the viewer of the exhibit tell their "artworks" apart? And, for that matter, what actual physical "artwork" ought be displayed (certainly not the curator's, since the curator has no physically manifest "art" to display)? Or would there - in practice - be little difference between an exhibit of an "artist" and an exhibit of a "curator"? For example, take the roomful of 30 Klein-artworks. This room can be interpreted as both a Klein exhibit (as billed by the Hirshhorn) and as a Curator exhibit (who remains, sadly, unbilled). What if the artist is also a curator of her own art? And what of the architect - and lighting engineer, and floorboard installer, and... - who all play an important part in setting the mood...? Ambiguitity upon ambiguity ad infinitum ;-)

Postscript #2. As an example of "bad" - or "misrepresentational" - curatorship, consider the display of one of Klein's "participatory sculptures" at the Hirshhorn exhibit. The "sculpture" is actually invisible (indeed, neither my wife nor I "saw" it), since it was deliberately designed by Klein to be enclosed within a solid white box (on a stand, about at chest-level), with holes poked in the sides so that the viewer can feel the sculpture with her fingers after extending her arms through the holes. What was amusing is that the Hirshhorn's exhibit includes a sign expressly forbidding any touching. Viewers may admire the outside of Klein's "participatory sculpture," but are not allowed to "see" the sculpture with their fingers as Klein had intended. If all art is an artifact of the creative process, then this particular artifact of Klein's art was, at best, an artifact of an artifact. I suspect that Klein would not have reacted positively to such an "exhibit" of his art!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reality vs. Illusion vs. Perception vs. Understanding

“The camera is not only an
extension of the eye but of the brain.
It can see sharper, farther,
nearer, slower, faster than the eye.
It can see by invisible light.
It can see in the past,
present, and future.
Instead of using the camera
only to reproduce objects,
I wanted to use it to make what is
invisible to the eye — visible.”
Wynn Bullock (1902-1975)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sting, Goethe, and the Creative Process


"Basic characteristics of an individual organism: to divide, to unite, to merge into the universal, to abide in the particular, to transform itself, to define itself, and as living things tend to appear under a thousand conditions, to arise and vanish, to solidify and melt, to freeze and flow, to expand and contract....What has been formed is immediately transformed again, and if we wish to arrive at a living perception of Nature, we must remain as mobile and flexible as the example she sets for us." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My wife and I recently went to Sting's Symphonicities concert, when his tour stopped by in northern Virginia. Apart from enjoying his music (backed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra), and observing the inevitable aging of his/our generation first hand - there were many, many more 40/50/60-somethings at the concert than anyone who can still remember pimples on their young faces (my wife recalled the puzzled look on the face of our 17 year old baby sitter when she told her where she and I were going for the evening; "Sting who?" she asked), the evening gave us a chance to muse on one of the reasons for Sting's longevity, and what it may say about the creative process in general.

There are some who have criticized Sting's recent forays into decidedly non-traditionally-Rock-like music oeuvres (such as with his If On a Winter's Night and Songs From a Labyrinth albums). And his most recent Symphonicities album has been described as same-ole / same-ole embellished with a full orchestra (an overly harsh assessment, IMHO, as much thought and craft obviously went into integrating new voices and new accompaniment). Of course, it is precisely by continually venturing into new musical territories and challenging himself to rework older material that Sting stays a potent musical and creative force. Sting also challenges us to consider just who "Sting" (or any artist) really is, and whether being content with "sameness" is a form of artistic decay, at best, or artistic irrelevance, at worst.

Ansel Adams, with his piano skills, was fond of comparing the relationship between prints and original exposures to performances of scripted musical scores; and was equally fond of "reworking" old plates with new techniques or aesthetic sensibilities. The "Ansel Adams" of 1980 was similar to but not entirely equivalent to the "Ansel Adams" of 1960 or the "Ansel Adams" of 1940. Yet we use the same "name" to refer to all three periods, and have a mental picture of the "same" Ansel Adams when referring to any of his impermanent historical versions. Szarkowski's Ansel Adams at 100 shows a few examples of Ansel's evolution as a printer (the difference between Ansel's original and 20+ year-later version of his well-known "Mckinley" print are particularly striking).

There is a deeper - philosophical / epistemological - problem lurking here, hidden in a seemingly innocuous question: "What is the difference between the 'name' of something that is alive - a flower, a pug, an artist, or an artwork - and the 'living being' itself?" Richard Feynman, the great physicist, told of an important lesson he was taught as a child. His father - a methodical observer of nature - delighted in sharing with his son his voluminous mental notes on the rich lives of all the birds that lived in their neighborhood; when they came out in the morning, what songs they sang, what food they ate, and so on. All of this his father learned on his own, not by reading books, but by carefully watching and listening to the birds for years and years. Young Richard's lifelong lesson came one day when his peers laughed at him for not knowing any of the birds' names, something he never learned from his father (who himself did not know). His father gently explained to Richard that he actually knew far more about the birds than any of his friends: "All your friends know is a jumble of sounds that help them point to a particular bird. Only you know who those birds really are!"

This holistic approach to "knowing" can be traced back to Goethe's way of doing science, an approach which Henri Bortoft (in his masterful work, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature) describes as "dwelling in the phenomenon" instead of "replacing it with a mathematical representation." It derives from the "simple" observation that living beings are growing, evolving processes that are as much "things in themselves" as interconnected components of lesser and greater processes. To identify any one state of such a being with the being itself - i.e., by using a "name" to designate "what the system is" at some arbitrary time during the course of its evolution (such as by taking a picture of a tree in your yard one day and calling it "the tree in my yard"; or by taking a picture of the Atlantic ocean from some beach on Long Island - see picture above - and calling it the "Atlantic Ocean") - is to miss completely what the being really is; namely, an organic instantiation of a continually unfolding dynamic process of evolution, metamorphosis, and transformation.

In describing the movement of metamorphosis in the foliage of a flowering plant, Friedemann Schwarzkopf (in his The Metamorphosis of the Given: Toward an Ecology of Consciousness), suggests that "...if one could imagine a person walking through the snow, and leaving the imprints of its feet, but with every step changing the shape of its feet, and if one would behold not the trace in the snow, perceptible to the sense-organs of the physiological eyes, but the living being that is undergoing change while it is walking, one would see with the inner eye the organ of the plant that is producing leaves."

And what of the lesson for the photographer? If only we could see the world as Schwarzkopf - and Goethe - suggest we see a plant! The inner creative process that drives what we do (why and what we choose to look at, what moves us, what grabs our attention and demands to be expressed) is just as much a living force as what we train our lenses on in the world at large. I would argue that in order to become better - more impassioned, more sincere, more artfully truthful - photographers, requires a more Goethian approach; it requires us to learn how to dwell in our subjects. Don't focus on objects or things. Pay attention instead to process; and revel in your own transformation as you do so.

Postscript. Goethe's The Metamorphosis of Plants has recently been reissued in a beautiful new edition. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning about the "...how of an organism." For those of you wishing to pursue Goethe's approach to nature, I urge you to also look at two recent books: (1) Meditation As Contemplative Inquiry, by physicist Arthur Zajonc, and (2) New Eyes for Plants: A Workbook for Plant Observation & Drawing, by Margaret Colquhoun and Axel Ewald.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Homage to Friedrich #2

It has become a tradition of sorts for me to capture an "Homage to Friedrich" image of my wife - gazing out toward an ineffable infinity - at some point during a trip. Last year, several such opportunities arose during our trip to Scotland. This year there was but one, late one day, as the kids and I were preparing to leave the beach, and I found my wife utterly transfixed by the boundless Long Island waters. She remained motionless long enough for the ~30 sec exposure seen above to render her tack sharp among the surrounding mystery.

"Close your bodily eye, that you may see your picture first with the eye of the spirit. Then bring to light what you have seen in the darkness, that its effect may work back, from without to within."
- Caspar David Friedrich

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Reawakening

"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn."
- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I have experienced just such a (spiritual) reawakening during a 10 day sojourn with my family to my roots on Long Island, NY. The image above was among the first of a series of images captured during our first night in Riverhead, following a major storm that passed through the area. This is the view east along the ocean beach at Shinnecock County Park, in Southhampton, NY. As I process images from our trip, more are sure to appear on my blog. In the meantime, all I can say is, "Gosh, it was great to just walk around eastern Long Island with my camera!"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Questions, Theories, and Mysteries

"There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."
- Douglas Adams (1952 - 2001)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

...and Discovers Synesthetic Landscapes

"A gift exists that is unclear to science.
One hears a sounds but recollects a hue,
invisible the hands that touch your heartstrings.
Not music the reverberations that ensue within;
they are of light. Sounds that are colored,
an enigmatic sonnet was addressed to you
that scintillate like an iridescent poem
by Arthur Rimbaud, their land's conniving crony.
Besides that, there are colors that have sound.
On limpid, melancholy days
in autumn upon the purple of a maple leaf
I seem to hear the tremulous and
distant hollow re-echo of a horn.
The beauty fades,
transformed to simple tunes
a crystal ringing in dahlia's fiery facets,
I perceive, on dry grass midst the cobwebs' motley weave."


- (a 19 yo) VLADIMIR NOBOKOV

(writing about summers spent at his family's estate near St. Petersburg, Russia)

Synesthesia derives from the Greek syn = union + aisthaesis = sensation, and means "joined sensation." Such as when something that is ordinarily "seen" is tasted as well. Though, this hardly does justice to the psychological, creative - even mystical - experience of synesthesia. There are well-documented examples of almost all possible joinings of the senses - smelling sounds, hearing colors, feeling shapes, etc. Apart from Nobokov, other well known synesthetes include Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Richard Feynman, and Alexander Scriabin. Contemporary "synesthetic" artists include Carol Steen and Marcia Smilack. In my case, I vividly remember having synesthetic experiences early in my life (up until about 10 or so), when I routinely perceived numbers (and, less frequently, letters) as colors. Sadly, I now only rarely experience this phenomenon.

It is only relatively recently that MRI scans have unequivocally revealed that synesthesia is a real - not imagined - experience, indicating that the senses in synesthetes are actually neurologically connected. Before this time, research consisted largely of self-reports by synesthetes; made all the more difficult by the fact that the experience itself was by no means universally accepted as real (and the people who stepped forward to share their experiences were often either ignored or ridiculed or both). In fact, modern research suggests that as many as 1 in 100 people may have some degree of synesthesia. Two excellent references on the subject are Wednesday is Indigo Blue by Robert Cytowic and David Eagleman (a video of Dr. Eagleman discussing synesthesia may be seen here), and The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science, by Cretien van Campen. There is also a recent catalog of artwork that appeared at the Synesthesia: Art and Mind exhibit at the McMaster Museum of Art (held in 2008 at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario); and curated by Greta Berman and Carol Steen (who, as mentioned earlier, is herself a synesthete). So far as I know, this is the only art exhibit to focus exclusively on synesthesia!

To the extent that an important part of art - any art, including photography - involves finding ways of communicating one point of view (or "sense experience") - namely, that of the artist - to another (the viewer) - a "mixing of senses", in a sense ;-) it should come as no surprise that, conceptually speaking, all artists implicitly strive to induce synesthesic experiences. To be sure, the resulting experience is usually hardly even noticeable and impure at best, if for no other reason than the fact that the "experience" as such is diluted between two internal worlds, that of the artist and viewer (i.e.,, there is no direct commingling or "joining" of simultaneous senses). Still, I've often wondered just how far the analogy may actually go? Perhaps the fact that the universe so obviously delights in having so many conscious creatures around - that themselves delight in sharing their collective experiences and inner-states via art - is an indication that nature herself is an accomplished synesthete of the highest order (and that we are her senses)?

Might it be possible for an artwork, W, created by a visual artist, X (where W is thought of as a manifest symbol of X's original experience e(X) that motivated X to create the artwork in the first place), to evoke a similar experience / inner-state e(Y) ~ e(X) in Y by synesthetically activating certain of Y's senses other than the purely visual (the latter of which is ostensibly the only sense required to "observe" X's artwork)? One could argue that this is just a complicated way of stating what all (good?) art has always done. Namely, to act as a visual stimulus (catalytic agent?) that activates all (or most) of a viewer's senses to induce a desired experience, or state-of-awareness. I am not suggesting that one must directly (or consciously) "hear" or "taste" a Pollock to fully experience one of his paintings. But it is interesting to speculate whether (and/or to what extent) all "deep experiences" of visual forms of art involve synesthetic intermingling of senses (perhaps on the unconscious level). Perhaps the same MRI studies that are used to discern the physiological basis of synesthetic experiences in synesthetes can be applied to studying the neurological processes underlying a deep immersion in, and experience of, art by ordinary (i.e., non-synesthete) viewers?

I have assembled a small portfolio of what I call Synesthetic Abstracts (a smaller sampling is also available as a portfolio on Facebook). It is an experiment in applying photography of the small and mundane (technically, macros of diffuse reflections of scattered everyday objects from curved metal surfaces, captured using very shallow depth of field) to evoke an experience of mysterious, ethereal grandeur. The portfolio is "synesthetic" in the sense that, just as synesthetes use two or more senses to represent an ostensible "reality," the images in this portfolio collectively evoke an experience of reality as induced by two vastly different representational forms (one literal - reflections off curved metal - the other implied - ineffable landscapes of the imagination). Although this "explanation" may inspire more confusion than insight into synesthesia, at least I'm finally paying attention to my infinitely patient muse ;-)

Postscript #1. Here is an additional link to a thoughtful paper on synesthesia and art: Art and Synesthesia: in Search of the Synesthetic Experience, by Dr. Hugo Heyrman (this last link contains a motherload of references to research on synesthesia), a lecture presented at the First International Conference on Art and Synesthesia (25th - 28th July, 2005 - Universidad de Almería, Spain). Finally, here is a link to Synesthesia List, which is an an international e-mail forum, for connecting synesthetes with each other and with those researching synesthesia. Among the links provided there is a four part video of a lecture Dr. Cytowic recently gave at the Hirshhorn (here is Part 1).


Postscript #2. See Sensory hijack - rewiring brains to see with sound and a Kandinsky-inspired synesthetic game called Rez.