❉ Number 16 in a series of blogs on diagrams in relation to the arts. This was the subject of my PhD at Kyoto City University of the Arts, Japan's oldest art school. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about studying in Japan, the Japanese Monbusho Scholarship (MEXT), what a PhD in Fine Art involves, or diagrammatic art.
Michael Whittle, Pupil, Ink on paper, 2013, 82 x 82 cm
Blog post 16 is dedicated to the human visual system, our mind's single highest bandwidth connection with external reality. As an artist with a background in biology, vision is a recurrent theme in my drawings and sculptures, which often consider the strengths, weaknesses, origins and limits of the 'wet-ware' that underlies visuality, and facilitates the way we create and experience visual art. Our scientific understanding of vision is constantly evolving over time, and this is something I try to take in to account as an artist.
Figure 1 is particularly interesting because of artistic restrictions on Muslims against depicting living or sentient beings, known as Aniconism. However Al-Haytham's use of the abstractive powers of the diagram meant that he was able to draw an elegantly stylised nose, the eyes and their lenses, and the optic nerves to the visual cortex at the back of the brain (shown here at the top of figure 1). Remarkably, he even included the chiasma or 'crossing point' of the optic nerves within the brain.
Al-Haytham's work on optics proposed a systematic solution to the problem of vision that combined experimental investigations in to the behavior of light with inventive geometrical proofs and constant forays into the psychology of visual perception. His insight that light is composed of particles for example, would later described by Newton and finally proven by Einstein in his work on the 'photoelectric effect' in 1905, for which he later won the 1921 Nobel prize for physics.
The treatise offered a coherent alternative to the Euclidean and Ptolemaic theories of visual emission, in which visual rays were believed to be emitted from the eye, curiously emphasized by the peculiar hands gestures in figure 2 below. This esoteric idea was first proposed by the 5th century Greek philosopher Empedocles, who claimed that vision was enabled by the goddess Aphrodite, who lit a divine fire within the human eye.
Figure 2: Johann Zahn - Emission Theory, “Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium”, 1685.
One important aspect of vision that Al-Haytham did get wrong was the fact that an image projected by a lens is upside down and flipped right-to-left. Even though this is clearly contained within his optical formalism, it was apparently more than he could accept in a theory of vision. However, Leonardo da Vinci (b.1452) also failed to accept this when he approached the problem almost 500 years later.
Johannes Kepler (b.1571) directly followed al-Haytham's formalism to its inevitable and logical conclusion in his mechanistic theory of the retinal image that was to replace its impressionistic predecessor. However even he struggled to accept what al-Haytham called the "monstrous" distortion of sensation that would be provoked by inversion of the image, and it remained for René Descartes (b.1596) to compile his own theory of vision, beautifully illustrated with diagrams and far closer to our current understanding. (figure 2).
Figure 2: The Descartes diagram from 1664 shows how physical impulses, transmitted in the form of rays from the arrow into the eye give rise to physical impulses through the optic nerves and then into the brain to the pineal gland, which he incorrectly believed served as the nexus between the mind and body.
When contemporary scientists talk about vision there’s no mention of pictures traveling intact from the eye to the brain. Instead they describe systems of synapses, their electrochemical responses and complex notions of encoded information transfer that somewhat support the theory of Kepler, but most definitely that of Descartes.
Figure 2 above depicts Descartes theory of how physical impulses are transmitted in the form of rays from the arrow into the eye give rise to physical impulses through the optic nerves and then into the brain to the pineal gland, which he incorrectly believed served as the nexus between the immaterial mind (which he referred to as res-cogitans) and the physical body (res-entensa).
Michael Whittle, 'Target', 2013, Wood, perspex, Japanese archery target, strobe-lights, 42 x 89 x 19 cm
Descartes seems to have been the first person to have clearly expressed the correct solution to the 'monstrous' problems of the visual system, and he starts by pointing out why the problem arises, namely because it is so tempting to think that the act of 'seeing' amounts to having, somewhere in the brain, a little picture that can be looked at by the mind. Descartes dismisses this notion by pointing out that the code which instantiates sensations in the brain need have no resemblance to the sensation itself (2).
Until only recently the idea of fully understanding the inner workings of the eye was considered a problem of such intractable complexity that it was often held as evidence of a supernatural engineer. Even Darwin himself appeared troubled at first, remarking in an often misquoted aside in Origin of the Species that the whole idea that something so flawless “could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”
However as with all complex biological features, the human visual system arose unimaginably slowly over hundreds of millions of years of clumsy trial and error, and on closer inspection we find numerous examples of evolutionary concession and compromise. As a result, the human eye and visual system is just good as it needs to be and no better, and systemic errors have to be accommodated for using sophisticated cognitive processing techniques (the blind spot is a good example of this).
For an excellent article covering this topic click here: The Poor Design of the Human Eye.
Michael Whittle, 'Tear glands, tear ducts', 2013, ink on paper, 45 x 84 cm
Design limitations aside, humans are primarily visual creatures, as attested to by the fact that almost half of the brain is either directly or indirectly involved in processing visual information. The primary visual cortex cooperates with numerous other parts of the brain to process different components of the vast amounts of visual information collected by the eyes. Al-Haytham's 1000 year old diagram actually captured the surprising fact that the retinas of the eyes are literally outgrowths of the brain itself.
The last decade of brain research has revealed more about the human brain than all the years of prior research combined. The number of neurons devoted entirely to visual processing is now estimated to be in their hundreds of millions, taking up about 30% of the whole cortex, as compared with 8% for touch and only 3% for hearing. Each of the two optic nerves that carry signals from the retina to the brain consists of a million fibers, whereas each auditory nerve carries a mere 30,000.
Figure 4: Michael Whittle, 'Optic tract' (Neural network detected retinal vasculatures with catenoid and
two point source interference patterns), 2017, 97 x 92 cm, Ink, pencil and watercolour on paper
Figure 5 below is a simplified anatomical diagram showing the path of the optic nerves, and how data from the various quadrants of the visual field gets divided up enroute to the visual cortex at the back of the brain.
Figure 5) Anatomy of the Human Optic Tract
Figure 6 shows the results of a 1988 experiment to study how decoded visual images are both inverted and distorted during processing by the visual cortex. The external, striped target on the left maps directly on to the internal, organic material of the brain on the right. Point F represents data captured by a small area of incredibly highly sensitive retina known as the Fovea, where detail is at its highest.
It's probably worth repeating - what you're looking in figure 6 is an actual metabolic imprint of the external environment on to the structure of the brain at the cellular level, half to the left and half to the right, and the fascinating details of just how this image was created are included in the footnotes below as note 4 (4).
Original paper: Tootell RB, Switkes E, Silverman MS, Hamilton SL (1988) Functional anatomy of macaque striate cortex. II. Retinotopic organization. J Neurosci 8:1531–1568. Abstract/FREE Full Text: Google Scholar
Figure 6: A flickering stimulus (left) and its 'retinotopic representation' in layer 4C of V1 in the visual cortex of a Macaque monkey (right), revealed through CO staining. Reproduced from Tootell et al (1988a).
Finally, figures 7a and b present hypothetical examples of how complex, real world images are believed to be processed and mapped out within the structures of the brain as 'Retinotopic Representations'. Visual data from the tiny foveal region is given maximum priority over that collected from the rest of the retina, with approximately half of the nerve fibers in the optic nerve carrying information from the fovea alone, while the remaining half carrying information from the rest of the retina.
Figures 7a, b: Diagrammatic representations of decoded visual images as
divided, inverted and distorted with in the visual cortex, from Frisby & Stone (2010), p. 6.
Al-Haytham was rightly concerned about the monstrous distortions involved in human vision and visual processing. During their decoding, images are not only inverted but divided and distorted with in the visual cortex, and yet our visual experience of the external world remains completely immersive and wholly convincing.
Finally, to end the post is a clip from an interview with the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who spent many of years of his distinguished career investigating the fundamental nature of light at the level of photon-photon interactions. During the clip he discusses the phenomenon of vision and the tiny segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that it evolved to detect.
1) al-Haythem wrote the series on optics whilst working at Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque sometime between 1028 and 1038
2) "Apart from that, it is necessary to beware of assuming that in order to sense, the mind needs to perceive certain images transmitted by the objects to the brain, as our philosophers commonly suppose; or at least, the nature of these images must be conceived quite otherwise than as they do: For, inasmuch as [the philosophers] do not consider anything about these images except that they must resemble the objects they represent, it is impossible for them to show us how they can be formed by these objects, received by the external sense organs, and transmitted by the nerves to the brain. And they have had no other reason for positing them except that, observing that a picture can easily stimulate our minds to conceive the object painted there, it seemed to them that in the same way, the mind should be stimulated by little pictures which form in our head to conceive of those objects that touch our senses; instead we should consider that there are many other things besides pictures which can stimulate our thought, such as, for example, signs and words, which do not in any way resemble the things which they signify." Descartes, Optics, Fourth discourse (p. 89 in trans. by P.J. Olscamp)
3) "So that you must not be surprised that the objects can be seen in their true positions, even though the picture they imprint upon the eye is inverted: for this is just like our blind man's being able to sense the object B, which is to his right, by means of his left hand, and the object D, which is to his left, by means of his right hand at one and the same time. And just as this blind man does not judge that a body is double, although he touches it with his two hands, so likewise when both our eyes are disposed in the manner which is required in order to carry our attention toward one and the same location, they need only cause us to see a single object there, even though a picture of it is formed in each of our eyes." Descartes, Optics, Sixth Discourse, trans. P.J. Olscamp, p. 105.
4) Figure 6 shows the results of an experiment in which an anaesthetized monkey viewed a flickering bulls-eye pattern, and was then injected with radioactively labeled glucose (a special type of glucose with a radioactive Fluorine molecule attached). The glucose was taken up in higher amounts by the most active neurons. Area V1 of the visual cortex was then surgically removed and flattened before being used to expose radioactively sensitive film. The result is a picture of regions of activity evoked by the bulls-eye pattern, creating what is known as a 'Retinotopic Map'.
❉ This is the 12th in a series of blogs that discuss diagrams and the diagrammatic format, especially in relation to fine art. I recently completed my PhD on this subject at Kyoto city University of the Arts, Japan's oldest Art School.
Feel free to leave comments or to contact me directly if you'd like any more information on life as an artist in Japan, what a PhD in Fine Art involves, applying for the Japanese Government Monbusho Scholarship program (MEXT), or to talk about diagrams and diagrammatic art in general.
Figure 1: Blank Lines or Topological Bathing, 1980-81, acrylic on canvas, 254 x 691 cm
© 2017 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins
Whilst art students in Kyoto, my friends and I were invited by our teacher Usami Keiji to stay with him and his wife Sawako, at their cliff-top studios in Fukui, overlooking the sea of Japan. After a winding drive north through the mountains, we were met with an extravagant lunch of champagne, king crab, and one of Usami's arm-waving, hilarious, impromptu speeches on Foucault. Afterwards, a still-smiling Usami slid a book across the table between the bottles and empty red crab shells, saying only "This is a work of a genius".
The book was 'The Mechanism of Meaning', a series of essays and photographs documenting the creation of eighty, large panel paintings made by the Japanese artist Shusaku Arakawa and his wife, the American poet, Madeline Gins, following a decade of collaboration between 1963 to 1973.
Usami insisted I borrowed the book, but over the years whenever I tried to return it he would complain that it was too heavy for him to carry, and would ask me, smiling, to look after it well until the next time we met. Sadly, Usami passed away in 2012 and I still have his copy of the book, full of his own notes and comments in the margins about the work of two master diagram makers - Arakawa and Gins.
As the legend goes, Arakawa arrived in New York with nothing but a few dollar bills and the telephone number of Marcel Duchamp. More importantly however, he carried with him a letter of recommendation from his mentor, the poet Shuzo Takeguchi, one of Japan's leading art critics and a champion of Surrealism in Japan. As a parting gift Takeguchi had given the young artist a book of his poetry, amongst the pages of which he had hidden a considerable sum of money for the young artist to later discover.
Arakawa arrived to heavy snow at JFK airport in December 1961 and, using the little English he knew, made the fated phone call to Duchamp that would gain him not only immediate access to the very heart of New York's artistic community, but would see him become a protégé of Duchamp himself.
Figure 2: Arakawa and Marcel Duchamp at Dwan Gallery, New York, 1966
© 2017 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins
Duchamp arranged for Arakawa to stay in the loft apartment of Yoko Ono as she was away in Japan, and it was there that he met John cage who had arranged to use the loft as a practice space for his group of musicians. It was also through Duchamp that Arakawa was introduced to Andy Warhol, whose attendance at Arakawa's early exhibitions brought a great deal of attention to the young, as yet unknown artist.
The year after Arakawa arrival in New York he met Madeline Gins, and a year later they started work together on 'The Mechanism of Meaning', an ambitious collaboration that would take another ten years to complete.*
(* Note: The series actually exists in two different versions, one at the Sezon Museum of Modern Art in Japan and the other in the holdings of the recently established 'Reversible destiny foundation' in New York, based in Arakawa and Gins former studio.)
As described in an earlier blog post: " Coffee, diagrams, chocolate, masturbation ", diagrams were at the very heart of Marcel Duchamp's artistic practice and philosophy, having been educated at a time in France when sweeping reforms replaced traditional landscape and portrait studies with a fastidious training in diagrammatic draftsmanship.
Duchamp's fascination with the reductive, refined aesthetics of diagrammatic images was clearly something he passed on to Arakawa, who developed his own obsession with diagrams and diagram making. His first solo exhibition in New York at the Dwan Gallery in 1966 was titled simply 'Arakawa: Diagrams', and the Gallerist Virginia Dwan later recalled how she had to dissuade the artist from wanting to sign his paintings 'Diagram', a move she felt was too abstract even for the New York art world.
Early works such as 'Diagram with Duchamp’s Glass as a Minor Detail' (Figure 3) are evidence that Arakawa was all to aware of the profound influence his mentor was having upon his practice, and his desire to both pay homage and at the same time break orbit and seek out his own distinctive style. However Duchamp's diagrammatic art 'in service of the mind' would remain a major influence on both Arakawa and Gins as they developed their own master work - 'The Mechanism of Meaning'.
Of the 80 panels that make up the series, one acts as an index by dividing the body of works into 16 different groups of paintings like chapters in a text book:
1) Neutralization of Subjectivity
2) Localization and Transference
3) Presentation of Ambiguous zones
4) The Energy of Meaning (Biochemical, Physical, and Psychophysical aspects)
5) Degrees of meaning
6) Expansion and Reduction - Meaning of Scale
7) Splitting of Meaning
10) Texture of Meaning
11) Mapping of Meaning
12) Feeling of Meaning
13) Logic of Meaning
14) Construction of the Memory of Meaning
15) Review and Self-Criticism
'The Mechanism of Meaning' consists a number of self-contradictory puzzles, instructions and statements presented in a variety of diagrammatic formats. Gins' wide-ranging studies are evident in the works, which reference Oriental philosophy, Japanese and Chinese poetry, English and Physics. Gins also took art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, and it was here that she first met her fellow student Arakawa (who later claimed that he enrolled only in order to extend his American visa).
When engaging with 'The Mechanism of Meaning', the panels act in a way like mirrors to the thought processes being used to analyse them, a kind of self referential, recursive process reminiscent of Douglas Hofstadter idea of 'a strange loops'.
Many of the texts in the paintings resemble 'Koans' from Zen Buddhism, short puzzles designed to be meditated upon by monks during their training. Viewers of 'The Mechanism of Meaning' are instructed to 'Turn left as you turn right', or to picture a 'Mnemonic device for forgetting' and then 'Imagine a thought which bypasses everything'.
Zen Koans are intended to jolt the thinker in to a state of enlightenment through paradox, and the project won Arakawa and Gins a host of intellectual admirers including Italo Calvino, who wrote how "An Arakawa painting seems precisely cut out to contain the mind, or to be contained in it… After studying one of Arakawa’s paintings it is I who begin to feel that my mind is ‘like’ the picture" (1).
The French Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard described how the work of Arakawa and Gins “makes us think through the eyes.” (2) Such an poignant image is reminiscent of the American Philosopher C.S. Peirce's description of diagrams as 'moving pictures of thought'.
Figure 4: 'About the network of ( perception of ) AMBIGUOUS ZONES OF A LEMON (Sketch No.2)',
Ink on paper, from “The Mechanism of Meaning” c. 1963 – 88, Ink on paper (size unknown)
Copyright credit: © 2017 Estate of Madeline Gins. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Madeline Gins and Reversible Destiny Foundation.
Figure 4 is a sketch for the panel 'Ambiguous zones of a Lemon', and consists of an entangled network that diagrams the various ways we can consider a lemon. What at first appears to be a humorous take on a lemon's multiple, nuanced qualities, in fact turns out to reveal a great deal about the complex relationship between our objective and subjectively descriptions of reality.
To paraphrase the British philosopher Bertrand Russell: an observer, when he feels himself to himself to be observing a stone (or, in Arakawa's case, a lemon), is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself (3).
The distinction between subjective and objective qualities is of fundamental importance to the philosophy of science, where qualities are divided in to primary (those that exist independent of an observer, such as quantity and mass), and secondary (those given by the human senses to an object, such as colour, taste and smell). The categories of Arakawa and Gins play with these distinctions, allowing them to resonate in a way that I term 'Romantic - Objective'.
Categories of ambiguous zones:
'The Mechanism of Meaning' series is akin to Duchamp's idea of a 'playful physics', in which objectivity and systems of scientific measure and analysis are taken to their limits, in order to reveal their tenuous philosophical underpinnings.
The aim of such an approach isn't simply to undermine the scientific process, for, in the words of Arakawa himself, "If you want to become an artist, you have to become a scientist first." (4) Rather the aim is to creatively test the limits of thought and logic in a way similar to the Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the work of whom Arakawa and Gins had read and would discuss at length in their studio. (The style of Wittgenstein's 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus' becomes immediately apparent when viewing 'The mechanism of Meaning'.)
Gins and Arakawa created a rich new vocabulary to map out the poetic-conceptual terrain their work explored, and their terminology is suggestive of entirely new fields of study. Rather than refer to himself an artist, Arakawa pronounced himself a 'coordinologist', and Gins described herself as a 'biotopologist', and both continued to engage in frequent discussions with philosophers and scientists.
'The Mechanism of Meaning gained world-wide success in the 1970's, and was shown in it's entirety at the Venice Biennale in 1970, and again in Germany in 1972, where it was praised by the renowned German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, winner of the 1932 Nobel prize in physics, who invited Arakawa and Gins as artists in residence at the prestigious Max-Planck-Institute.
Heisenberg has the so called 'uncertainty principle' named after him, and it's easy to imagine the appeal that 'The Mechanism of Meaning' had to a mind used to struggling with the indeterminate nature of reality at it's most fundamental level.
Below are a series of selected panels from the 'The Mechanism of Meaning' series.
I would like to thank the Estate of Madeline Gins and the Reversible Destiny Foundation for permission to use these images, and more information can be found at the Reversible Destiny Foundation homepage, or by following their facebook page here.
The foundation recently announced that they will be working together with Gagosian gallery to fully document and represent 'The Mechanism of Meaning' series, in order to bring this important and still highly relevant work Arakawa and Gins to a contemporary audience.
1) Italo Calvino, The arrow in the mind: A review of the Mechanism of Meaning. In: Image, Eye and Art in Calvino: Writing Visibility. 2007, Chpr 20.
2) Lyotard, J.F, In: Reversible Destiny, Arakawa / Gins, Guggenheim Museum Publication, 1997.
3) Bertrand Russell, An inquiry into meaning and truth: The William James lectures for 1940 delivered at Harvard University, London Routledge, 1992, p.72.
4) Arakawa speaking in the film Children Who Won’t Die (2010) Directed by Nobu Yamaoka.
5) Peirce, C.S, quoted in: Brent, J. Charles Sanders Peirce: A life, 1998, Indiana Uni. Press, p.129
Dr. Michael Whittle
British artist and researcher