Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The zig-zag

Entoptic phenomena in relation to art forms

Entoptic images are caused by phenomena within the observer's own visual perceptual system. If you look at the drawings to the left of the image above, zig-zags and wave patterns have clearly been picked out as being one of the basic six sets of entoptic phenomena. 

Zig-zag patterns alongside dots and other abstract shapes, can be 'seen' because of the fact that eyes are embedded into your body. We sometimes forget how much a part of the body the eye is, it cant be separated out from the way blood circulates or the nervous system works, but we tend to think of our eyes as being a sort of window through which we perceive the world, rather than a working organ that like all our other organs is integrated into the rest of the body. The eyes operate in such a way that they are also looking at our inner selves at the same time, but we tend to forget that.  One of the reasons that we see entoptic images is because of the movement of white blood cells in capillaries in front of the retina. Another reason is that floating coagulations of vitreous jelly can drift through the interior of the eyes and you sometimes see them or if not these 'floaters' themselves, traces of their movement, as your eye attempts to focus on them. The zig-zag you see being your brain's attempt to decode your own eye's movements as it tries to 'see' something. One zig-zag form in particular is called the “Purkinje Tree”, this is when you see your eye's blood vessels when light shines into the pupil from an unexpected angle. Another way to get the brain to 'see' a zig-zag is to apply pressure to your closed eyes and this generates a phosphene, perceived as veiny or zig-zag-like lines. These phenomena only come into vision when you are faced with a plain background such as a white wall or a clear sky. Normally there are too many interesting things going on for the brain to be bothered with these insignificant visual events. “Prisoner’s Cinema”, an effect that occurs when you are in darkness for a long time, is another example. A “light show” in the mind gradually emerges out of the blackness, and often begins with abstract zig-zags and dots. There is a further stage to this effect, as time goes on and there is no relief from the dark, the mind begins to 'see' other more recognisable things and abstract amorphous forms gradually take on animal or human like shapes. This effect it has been theorised, is why cave painters produced both abstract forms and representational ones and most importantly mixed them together. 

Pech Merle Horse and spots

The Pech Merle cave in France has drawings on it's walls from 25,000 years ago, (the spots are made by a controlled 'spitting' of the pigment mixed with saliva and that is how the hand stencils are made too). Imagine 'seeing' a cloud of dots, and then gradually a horse form emerges from them and then as the horse form takes shape, you are also breathing out spots of paint. Perhaps drawing a line with one hand, whilst spitting paint over the other hand that you are using to steady yourself against the cave wall. One image grows from another, and then as the horse emerges, you begin to 'decorate' its edge by spitting dots to surround it. In many ways our minds are still in that primeval darkness, every time we close our eyes we slip back into our old skull cave. 

A 430,000 year old zig-zag 

There is an engraving that was excavated from a riverbank in Indonesia that is so old that it couldn't have been made by the humans we call Homo Sapiens. It is thought to have been drawn by an individual that belonged to the species we now call Homo Erectus. That these creatures were human like was at one point doubted and the fact that they have drawn designs on objects such as shells, in many ways changes our view of what we are and how we relate to everything else. The divide between ourselves and other species is perhaps not as sharp as we thought, and we are not alone in feeling the need to scratch a sign into the world. The fact that the oldest drawing we know of is a zig-zag, also suggests that we ought to pay a little more attention to zig-zags than we usually do. 

The video below describes the history and science behind entoptic phenomena, as well as how to produce them yourself. 

Entoptic phenomena

The zig-zag is also something that is seen in our daily lives in a variety of other forms, forms that have been used by artists as powerful metaphors. Artists and cultures have over time responded to various different zig-zag associations in order to create their metaphors, some like branching trees, others like waves or folds, some like cracks and some like wrinkles. 
Doris Salcedo: 'Shibboleth' 

Zig-zags can be like cracks. The crack in the floor of Tate modern by Doris Salcedo, entitled 'Shibboleth' refers to the Biblical tribe the Ephraimites, who when attempting to flee their persecutors across the river Jordan were captured by their enemies, the Gileadites. In order to check they were of the Ephraimites tribe, every person was asked to pronounce the word, 'shibboleth'. Their language did not include a 'sh' sound, so if they couldn't say the word, they were executed. A shibboleth is any custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another. It is one of those differences that gives people the power to judge, to reject others or to kill them. 

For Salcedo, the crack represents a history of racism, running parallel to the history of modernity; of the divide between the rich and poor, northern and southern hemispheres. She invites us to look down into this crack, and to confront discomforting truths about our world, truths that are at the moment coming home to roost. 

A crack in the basement floor

Cracks, suggest that something is breaking or has broken, we worry about what might be behind the crack. Cracks in the fabric of space and time have been used both to drive science fiction concepts and by scientists to describe stress lines in the fabric of space. Cracks in the fabric of spacetime, are supposedly many light years long, are extremely thin, have enormous amount of energy and form billions of small loops along their lengths. Sometimes the cracks meet, cross and intertwine and in doing so give the writers of Doctor Who ideas. 

Hypothetical model of space-time cracks

A crack can also be repaired, in Japan broken pottery can undertake a 'golden repair' or Kintsugi technique, the zig-zag line of the crack of repair being fixed with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. In Japanese culture the aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, helps people to cultivate an appreciation of flaws. This is something becoming more and more important to think about in a throwaway society like ours, we could learn a lot from an idea that celebrates repairs and gives honorific value to the lived experience of objects. The third Saturday in October is International Repair Day, perhaps there are other ways to visually celebrate an engagement with something that we all need to think about if we are not to continue using up the world's resources. 

Korean tea bowl with golden repair

Several contemporary artists have responded to the Kintsugi idea; Yeesookyun, Tomomi Kamoshita, and Charlotte Bailey are all interesting to look at, however I'm particularly interested in the work of NeSpoon, who's street repair interventions I find open out this type of thinking into the wider public sphere. Her decorative surfaces can be like graffiti found on the sides of buildings and she has pioneered the idea of street ceramics as a way of 'healing' broken urban spaces. 


The zig-zag crack is very like the crack of lightening. Walter de Maria's 'Lightening Field' being probably the most well known artwork to use lightening as its central idea. 

Walter de Maria 'Lightening Field' 1977

Sited in New Mexico, the work consists of 400 stainless steel poles arranged in a 1 mile x 1 kilometre rectangle, and is still operational. The poles range in height from 15 to 26 feet 9 inches because the terrain is uneven and their tips have to be level. De Maria had a long history of working on a huge scale, making a mile long line drawing in the desert back in 1968, a practice that he informed us was based on his interest in the Nazca lines. When asked about his work de Maria stated, 'the Invisible is real', and for me this is where the zig-zag enters the arena of the sublime. Both Burke and Kant refer to lightening as being sublime, and the Abstract Sublime a term used by Robert Rosenblum to describe the feelings suggested by certain paintings, such as those by Barnet Newman, Clifford Still or Rothko, tended to see these paintings as images representing cosmic forces, forces that were sometimes 'cracks in the fabric of space and time'.

Clifford Still

There are of course much more prosaic uses of the zig-zag. The zig-zag suggests movement and when we dance we are often lost in the moment of our moving, it being no accident that many cultures have associated the active visual dynamic of this form with dance. 

Butlins dance floor

From the zig-zag of a Butlins dance floor to the zig-zag of a decorated Australian didjeridu seems a long way, but on reflection perhaps they are not that far apart. 

Anangu dancer

The multi-modal art forms of Australian aboriginal peoples link the zig-zag of dance, with hand gestures, body decoration, painted objects as well as speech patterns. The 1920s Western European concept of Art Deco does the same. 

Flapper zig-zag look

Lobby of Claridges Hotel London c. 1935

Try and picture in your mind jazz playing, the dancers trying to zig-zag their bodies in an accompanying visual rhythm, in a room with a zig-zag floor and with zig-zag art Deco decoration and people's speech patterns being inflected by cool jazz type syncopation. This is art as total culture, not unlike what happens elsewhere and else-when throughout history. In aesthetics the term 'gesamtkunstwerk' is used to refer to a total work of art, something that encompasses a range of approaches rather than just one media.
We are embedded into our world and the concept of an art form that is separate from the culture we inhabit is a very strange one. Kant's aesthetic idea of 'disinterested interest' is an idea that allows us to stand back from the art we make in order to contemplate it, and it stands at the centre of the history of European aesthetic discourse. But there are other aesthetic traditions where art forms engage with the world as part of life. 

In the book 'Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia', by Skerritt, Perkins, Myers, and Khandekar, we are introduced to the idea of the 'ever-present', time being something that is bent into a loop, old things being interwoven with new ones in an endless cycle. This 'dance' being the one we occasionally find ourselves lost in, in those moments when perhaps lost in the rhythm of an enfolding piece of music or when looking carefully at something as we draw it, we inhabit the moment rather than regard at it as something for disinterested contemplation. In times such as the one we inhabit now, we will need to make decisions as to what art is for and we need to understand how art is changing in the way it operates within our society. Art has never been fixed as to how and why it is used, each culture and time period uses it and understands it in a different way and that is why an awareness of other times and cultures is vital, as it allows us to see that there are other possibilities and that no one way to engage with art is right. 

See also:

Drawing and perception

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