Structuring, making something coherent out of the chaos of the natural world, is the essence of being human.
Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave p. 51
In the Museum of Thin Objects stories co-exist – just as they do in the rest of life – as a complex and often unfinished expression of the world around us. Amongst the clutter lying on the Museum floor are many attempts, on my behalf, to create artworks based on the narrow boat water can. My research into, and celebration of, the narrow boat man’s decorated water cans can be found here or here.
It’s an enterprise that has taken me in search of a symbolic vocabulary able to express, in non-verbal terms, my obsession with connections/history/belonging /boat/place/time/earth-air-fire-water/shelter etc. etc. And recently it drew me to entoptics, where symbolic forms seemed to readily express for example, journeys, land-forms or weather formations. Entoptics captured my imagination. For me the entoptic images came first, and the, somewhat exotic, theories surrounding them came second.
Sometimes the journey takes you in unexpected directions.
It has been posited that the dots before our eyes, the harmless vitreous opacities or muscae volitantes often called ‘floaters’ are a primary source for the constellation of archetypal forms that lie at the root of symbolic art in cultures across the world.
Entoptic images are slowly drifting blobs, lines or striations of varying size, shape, and transparency, which are particularly noticeable when viewing a bright, featureless background – such as the sky – or a point source of diffuse light very close to the eye. They are shadow images of objects suspended just above the retina. Some may be individual swollen red blood cells or chains of cells stuck together or a mix of the proteins of the vitreous gel with embryonic remnants.
Research as early as the 19thC showed that entoptic phenomena could be manipulated by selectively induced changes to conscious states and as a subjective light phenomena they had become – amongst some more spiritually-minded researchers at least – a means to explain the genesis of the abstract imagery found in shamanistic art.
In 1988, two South African archaeologists referred to entoptic images when they presented an alternative interpretation of stone age rock art of a certain kind. David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson observed that the rock and cave art of the later Paleolithic (about 40,000 to 10,000 BC) coincided with the time when homo sapiens had developed abstract thinking and that the art was characterised by both vivid depictions of animals on the one hand (the hunt) and geometric figures such as dots, circles, lines and curves (the dreaming) on the other.
Their theory in a nutshell was that, due to hard-wired neurophysiology, various stages of altered states reveal similar geometric shapes (entoptic phenomena). All humans, experience similar images and vortex-like tunnels, sometimes followed by a similar level of immersion in a wholly ‘other’ visionary realm of hallucinations.
The theory excitingly drew on similarities in the abstract patterns of the Indian art in Peru, including the famous Nazca lines; the art of the Tukano societies of the Colombian Amazon region; the yarn paintings of the Huichol Indians in Mexico, the so-called “grecas” of North American Indian art and in the art tradition of Australian Aboriginal Dreaming. All these societies were working with altered states of consciousness which were brought about in religious rituals through various techniques and means.
The researchers developed a neuropsychological model to classify the geometric forms of entoptic phenomena into six types: grid, lines, dots, zigzag lines, catenary curves, and filigrees; and to describe the progressive stages of the visual trance experience, starting with abstract entoptic forms that gradually transformed into iconic images corresponding with the concrete/everyday or mythic reality of the shaman.
Lewis-Williams and Dowson’s work stressed that as our own nervous system does not significantly differ from that of prehistoric man, it was possible to perceive the same entoptic phenomena as people did 40,000 years ago. This circumstance allowed the researchers to carry out comparisons between past and present art in different cultural contexts.
The study by Lewis-Williams and Dowson inspired researchers beyond archaeology to further investigate the relationship between (prehistoric) art, shamanism and entoptic phenomena. Despite critics arguing that the self-same abstract archetypal forms appear also in non-shamanistic communities or even in doodles of young children, anthropologists such as Erika Bourguignon noted that of 488 societies, 437 had known institutionalised forms of change of consciousness states. It is exactly these altered states of consciousness that form the intersection between the perception of entoptic phenomena and intense religious experiences. The probability is very high that most societies were not only aware of entoptic phenomena but also gave them cultural or religious significance.
Whilst I’m not advocating a rush towards an altered state or search for a sacred high before attempting to paint something as orthodox, utilitarian and mundane as a water can; I am attracted to the idea that our ancestors drew on images within their ‘minds-eye’ and created totemic archetypal forms that appeared again and again in their paintings. If entoptics entered into cultures as a source of inspiration for artists, philosophers and religious thinkers and believers alike, perhaps it’d be a valid exercise for me to close my eyes and join the dots of the images that I found there?
Time to lie back, close my eyes and see.