Tag Archives: Upward (painting)

Synaesthesia-related current and upcoming arts events in Australia

MONA in Tasmania will be revisiting the theme of synaesthesia in Synaesthesia+, a musical, visual and gustatory festival of the psychological phenomenon. It is happening this weekend and tickets will set you back quite a lot.

In Perth, Western Australia PICA have been hosting an exhibition of sound art, What I See When I Look at Sound, featuring the works of artists Lyndon Blue, Lauren Brown, Matthew Gingold, Cat Hope and Kynan Tan. This show will be on until the end of this month and it is free, or at least we didn’t get charged when we went to look and listen to it a while ago.

You might think from considering the title of the exhibition that it might have the theme of synaesthesia, and indeed the works are described each as a “synaesthetic offering”, but actually I believe that the theme of the exhibition, “the relationship between looking and hearing” is actually about binding, which is a broader term that can encompass normal or average sensory perception and also some types of synaesthesia that are similar to or more consciously-experienced variants of normal mental sensory perception. I think this exhibition is about binding more than it is about synaesthesia. If a multi-sensory arts event was “about synaesthesia” I’d expect to see lots of colour and hear music and maybe see or feel letters of the alphabet, or see calendars suspended in space, and maybe even experience smells and flavours. I might look at a “synaesthesia art” painting and as a direct result “feel” motion or “hear” rhythms.The painting Upward by synaesthete artist Vassily Kandinskii or the painting Broadway Boogie Woogie by probable synaesthete artist Piet Mondrian are both pretty clear examples of what I mean by synaesthesia art. I have written about both artists previously in posts at this blog.

Binding is a term used in psychology, the philosophy of mind, neuroscience and cognitive science. It is certainly related to synaesthesia and is central to scientific understanding of synaesthesia as a phenomenon in neuroscience, but it isn’t the same thing. As far as I understand binding is about the perception of the many different sensory characteristics of an object or an event as a unified thing or event. A clear example would be the installation Filament Orkestra by Matthew Gingold. It grabs and holds attention and causes reflection even though the idea is no more complicated than (simple) sound and (plain white) light being presented (or not presented) both at the same points in time. I found the effect to be quite reminiscent of flamenco dancing and tap dancing, which I guess shows how the sensory binding of sight and sound is an engaging effect that is used in a diverse range of art forms, high arts and popular arts, modern and traditional, even including firework displays. Have you ever had the experience of viewing from an elevated location a fireworks display that is happening a distance away, and the wind is blowing in such a direction that the sound waves never reach where you are standing, so that the sight has no soundtrack? It’s the strangest thing to see (and not hear).

According to some online festival programs, tomorrow (Saturday August 16th 2014), as a part of the Perth Science Festival which is a part of National Science Week there will be a free event in the Central Galleries at PICA titled Sounds Symbols and Science at 1.00pm, which will be “a special live concert of “Cat Hope’s End of Abe Sade in the What I See When I Look at Sound exhibition”” and this will somehow involve digital graphic notation, which is a concept that very much overlaps with many synaesthetes’ experiences of listening to music, including my own at times, so I’m happy to categorize this planned event as synaesthetic, which is more than enough to provoke my curiosity.

http://www.pica.org.au/view/Sounds%2C+Symbols+and+Science/1891/

https://www.facebook.com/events/686307634740051/

http://www.scienceweek.net.au/perth-science-festival/

http://www.scitech.org.au/events/1583-perth-science-festival

Advertisements

Faces, faces everywhere

I’ve been following with great interest the Mindscapes series of articles in New Scientist magazine by Helen Thompson. This week is no less fascinating, maybe even more. It’s about a man whose personality changed following two strokes, paradoxically transforming from criminality to sensitivity, with the strokes also triggering an unstoppable surge of artistic creativity. The artist’s name was Tommy McHugh. He passed away last year. Such artists by virtue of brain transformation are sometimes labelled as acquired savants, and the interesting thing is that they often seem to experience synaesthesia, which raises the question of whether they were always synaesthetes or perhaps synaesthesia is latent in all people, and can be uncovered by changes in brain functioning. What especially interests me about McHugh’s art is the extraordinary focus on faces in his paintings and also sculptures, many of them having such subtle depictions of multiple faces that they could be described as a celebration of pareidolia. Colour is also clearly an aspect of visual experience that McHugh enjoyed experimenting with. I was also struck by McHugh’s description of what it was like to have the first stroke; when he woke up in hospital he saw a tree sprouting numbers. That sounds like just the type of non-psychotic hallucination that Oliver Sacks described in his recent book Hallucinations. It is my understanding that faces, colour and graphemes including numbers are all processed in the fusiform gyrus. The fusiform gyrus is also believed to be involved in at least some types of synaesthesia. I know about this stuff because I have experienced synaesthesia involving faces, graphemes, colours and just about everything that goes on in the fusiform gyrus, and I’m apparently naturally gifted in face memory ability. It looks as though McHugh could also have experienced synaesthesia, judging by the title of one painting “Feeling the Feelings Tasting Emotions”. Yes, I’ve experienced that too. A few years ago I speculated that the famous synaesthete Bauhaus artist Kandinsky showed a focus on the things processed in the fusiform gyrus in one of his paintings (Upward), including a face that could be missed by viewers not gifted with a goodly dose of pareidolia.  This might be what happens when your fusiform gyrus gets off it’s leash, and McHugh insisted that it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23523-mindscapes-stroke-turned-excon-into-rhyming-painter.html

http://www.tommymchugh.co.uk/ex_pictures_gallery/index.html

http://www.tommymchugh.co.uk/ex_sculptures_gallery/es_index.html

http://www.tommymchugh.co.uk/index.html

Some thoughts after viewing a simple little painting – Upward by Wassily Kandinsky

A while ago I had the opportunity to view first-hand some famous paintings when the Guggenheim collection toured Australia. It was a wonderful opportunity to see some artworks that I had only ever been able to see in books, which isn’t the same thing as seeing a picture displayed on a wall. I probably shouldn’t look at paintings or listen to music while knowing too much about the painter or the composer, because when an artistic creation of a synaesthete evokes a synaesthetic response from my mind, I’m then left wondering if this is due to the power of expectation rather than a discovery that I would have made in any circumstance. I already knew the painter Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art, was a synaesthete, and after looking at Kandinsky’s Upward for a while, it started making noises at me. Why shouldn’t a painting that has a type of movement as it’s title evoke a bit of visual movement -> sound synaesthesia? As my eye followed the curved lines of the painting upward and downward in a bumpy, interrupted cycle, the times when the curved line met an abrupt end against a straight line caused a “bonk” or “boink”  type noise.

This movement synaesthesia wasn’t the only thing about this painting that made me wonder about atypical neurological processes. As I looked at this painting I realised that I was seeing examples of types of things that my mind seems to be unusually good at perceiving, or unusually focused upon. A face can be discerned in this painting, if you use your imagination a bit (blue eye, red lip, black lip). Last year I shocked myself by getting some perfect scores in two face recognition tests. After doing some research, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is due to some hyperconnectivity in my brain and it is surely related to my synaesthesia. In this deceptively simple painting I can also see some letters of the alphabet (graphemes), one inverted. I appear to be the carrier of a gene “for” being unusually capable in the areas of reading, writing and languages, all areas of learning that involve letters and alphabets.

There is something else grapheme-related that I find very interesting about in this painting. I have personification synaesthesia, and one of the two letters of the alphabet in this painting is the one that is the most strongly personified in my mind; the letter “E”. It is also the most commonly used letter in the English language. I’m not sure if this is related. I do know that how commonly a letter of the alphabet is used is in the English language does influence another type of synaesthesia – grapheme -> colour synaesthesia. The most commonly used letters of the alphabet tend to be associated with the more basic and primary colours, while the less commonly used colours of the alphabet like “V” or “Z” tend to be linked to secondary and more complex colours like purple or gray. Anyhow, to me the letter “e” (upper and lower case), the most common letter of the alphabet looks like the happiest letter of the alphabet. In my mind it looks like a face with a big smile that is facing toward the right, somewhat like a smiling face in profile. Do synaesthesia researchers know that personified letters and numbers can have a physical orientation as well as having characteristics like gender, age and personality? If they don’t, they should.  In the painting Upward the capital letter “E” is one half of a platform that the face sits on top of, and the face and the “E” both have bits beside them that balance them out, with the face and the “E” facing in opposite directions, giving the picture a kind of balance. Looking at the way the elements in this painting are arranged, I find it very hard to believe that Kandinsky didn’t see a face in the letter “E” the way I do. Did Kandinsky have ordinal linguistic personification?

Another thing that is noticeable in this painting is the play with colours. There are colours varying in saturation and colours blended in graded adjacent segments and similar colours grouped together. Colour was clearly very important in Kandinsky’s work. When I was a child I was fascinated with colours, and I loved to make pictures with the large metal trays of watercolour paints that I was given. I believe a study has found that synaesthetes have an unusual ability to discriminate colours.

I can see a face, a facial expression, some graphemes and a focus on colours in this painting. Is it just a coincidence that faces, graphemes and colour are things that are processed in one part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus? Was there something unusual about Kandinsky’s fusiform gyrus? We already know that he experienced colour-related synaesthesia, so we know something was “up” with Wassily’s brain. Was Kandinsky more creative because of his synaesthesia? A lot of people believe the two traits are connected. Did Wassily Kandinsky have a mind that was unusually focused on, or perceptive of, or mixed up about colours, faces, visual motion and letters (graphemes)? I’m just not motivated enough to wade through his voluminous writings about art theory to find out. I only know that Kandinsky never tired of writing about his synaesthesia and other esoteric matters. I think we would have had a lot in common.

Upward by Wassily Kandinsky 1929 http://www.wassilykandinsky.net/work-203.php

YouTube video that can evoke hearing motion synaesthesia http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/hLhuRIeHj6Q?fs=1&hl=en_US

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fusiform_gyrus&oldid=419089814