Archive for May, 2015

Edges and patches: culture meets ecology in the garden

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

1  Chatsworth at Chelsea

The winner of the 2015 coveted Chelsea Flower Show double prize of ‘gold’ and ‘best of show’ was Dan Pearson with his installation entitled, ‘Chatsworth Garden’.  Pearson’s exhibit was inspired by the landscape art of Joseph Paxton the great Victorian engineer and architect of the Crystal Palace.  In particular, Paxton created two small additions to the landscape garden of the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth estate, namely, The Rockery’ and ‘The Trout Stream’,

The Trout Stream at Chatsworth is a narrow rill that channels water from the moor above into the garden, looping down to a rocky waterfall, from where it feeds the lower formal ponds. On its way it passes through narrow stone channels and tumbles gently through miniature falls. Sometimes the incline is so shallow, the movement so slow, it almost appears to be flowing backwards, and thus has striking reflective qualities (Figs 1 and 2).

Fig 1  The Trout Stream at Chatsworth


To realise the essence of Chatsworth’s stream and rockery at Chelsea , Pearson imported stone from a local Derbyshire quarry to act as a backdrop and planted in such a way as to emulate the surroundings at the estate, which he visited many times in the lead-up to designing the garden.

Fig 2 The Rockery at Chatstworth


Most of Pearson’s hard landscaping at Chelsea was naturalistic, but there were some utilitarian interventions: an oak boardwalk and sandstone stepping stones lead through the planted space and an oak sculpture – representing the veteran oaks at Chatsworth – stands at the culmination of the stream (Figs 3 and 4).  “I wanted to capture the monumentality and drama of the rockery as a backdrop”, Dan Pearson said.

Fig 3 Chatsworth at Chelsea


Fig 4 Chatsworth at Chelsea: the rockery


Pearson’s interest in the rill as an historical feature of landscape design is evident in his earlier writings about the garden of Rousham in Oxfordshire.  This is one of the classic English landscape gardens and he gives a lengthy description of it in the book Spirit. The garden was the work of one of the key figures of the English landscape movement, William Kent, who was asked to refine the garden in 1737 after the framework had been designed by Charles Bridgeman in the 1720s. Many of the eighteenth century features may still be seen (Fig 5).

Fig 5  The Serpentine Rill at Rousham


The cultural legacy of Rousham takes us further back to its origins in the 17th century art of Claude Lorrain.  Lorrain was a Frenchman who lived in Rome for most of his life yet his landscapes look distinctly English. Rambling, deciduous trees tumble down to a gently bubbling, rock-fringed lake, flanked by a ruined folly.  This similarity, between rural England and rural Greece, as painted by a Frenchman to look like 17th-century Italy,  is no coincidence. It was the Picturesque Movement of the mid-18th century that was essentially a part of the ecological culture of land ownership, which invented the idea of what an English landscape should look like.  It was Lorrain’s paintings that helped inspire the movement which bolstered the social standing of country landowners.

This ‘Lorrain effect’ is precisely what the 18th‑century landscape architect Charles Bridgeman was aiming for at Rousham.  His tour de force is the garden of Stowe.  Among the landscape highlights at Stowe, which are scattered through its great parkland, are examples of Greek architecture, a menagerie, Dido’s Cave and temples to Venus, to Ancient and Modern Virtue, to Friendship and to British Worthies. Around this time at Stourhead in Wiltshire, the banker Henry Hoare was so keen on Lorrain that some historians have suggested that the whole 18th century garden is a transcription of Lorrain’s great canvas, ‘Coast View of Delos with Aeneas’.

2 Landscapes and ecosystems

Landscapes and ecosystems are the two major spatial units supporting 21st century environmental research. Landscape ecology and landscape art are the intellectual markers of cultural ecology and were born from similar desires.  Their common objective is to accurately describe the richness and beauty we all perceive in the outdoor rural environment.  A particular view is analysed in a selective process of discovering shapes, forms, colours and associated knowledge all of which define the scene.   We make mental models to express our understanding of the configuration of ideas; the array of lines,  the patches of colours and textures, the events that have influenced what we see as detail, and the overall evenness or fragmentation of what we see as a whole. Both disciplines love contemplating the contrasts between edges and patches and present them in words, plantings or paintings.  They remind us that science says we are part of nature in everything we do whether it is begetting a child or planting a tree..

Parallels of gardening and painting go much further. Henri Matisse, Gustav Klimt, and Paul Klee experimented tirelessly with nature-inspired configurations of patches of colour, different sized patches, the shape of each patch, the orientation of “floating” patches with the straight edges of the canvas and with other patches inside the artwork’s boundaries. Landscape ecologists similarly ponder patches such as ponds hedgerows and clumps of trees embedded in regularly textured farmlands. The “right” configuration can bring harmony to either model. To conservation biologists, for instance, the size and shape of a patch of trees may mean the difference between protection of a rare species and its local extinction. Informed intuition serves both painters and ecologists well.

Landscapes have been conceptualised in European art since the Greeks first began reproducing images of the places described in mythic literature. In these early works, features of the landscape were not represented in relation to the viewpoint of the ob­server or a precise visual experience, but were in­stead based on meanings found in legendary environmental narra­tives. They expressed ideas more than any actual places and there was no one better than Lorrain who achieved this end..

Artists did not begin depicting landscapes in their own right, separate from the narrative context that gave them literary meaning, until the fourteenth century, when teachers started instructing their students to paint the landscape as it appears in reality, not memory.  Now, landscapes are the starting point for both art and science.  With no place on Earth remaining untouched by human settlement they are cultural artifacts.  They are the visible, spatial functional matrix and living space for all organisms, including humans and their populations and the source of their natural resources. This complexity is multidimensional and multifunctional, dealing with the dynamic relationships between culture, ecology and the cognitive mental and perceptual dimensions of the outdoors transmitted by cultural information.  The latter is used to build notional layers of understanding, which give landscapes a central position in defining an individual’s cultural place in nature, be it national or parochial.

3  Ecotopes: the fundamental scenic units

Landscape was first defined geographically by Alexander Von Humboldt, born 1769, as a visual entity that expresses “all the characteristics of a land”.  It is a spatial entity, having a variable extent and scale, with territorial properties that may be perceived and experienced.  This definition was further developed in the European Landscape Convention to emphasise the dynamic nature of landscape as an area “perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”. Therefore, a functional definition of landscape is “a heterogeneous land area composed of a cluster of interacting ecosystems that is repeated in similar form throughout”. This highlights the interactions between spatial pattern and ecological process, which are both studied as the causes and consequences of spatial heterogeneity of the outdoors across a range of scales.  Thus, we can define spatial patterns as ecological land units, or ecotopes as they have been defined.

Ecotopes are generally regarded as the smallest functional landscape units that can be painted, photographed or measured. They are sometimes addressed as ‘landscape cells’. Ecotopes are best defined as homogeneous ecological units, their spatial expression being predominantly determined by their structural characteristics and arrangement in space. They are the fundamental visual units of art and science.  Scientifically they are characterized by their species composition and the flows of energy, matter and information between organisms and the non-living  elements of the cell.  The organized complexity of landscape is based on this complexity of material processes governing the flow of energy/matter and biophysical information within and between ecotopes. Thus, a landscape is composed of many very different elements and components that interact and are structured within a spatial organization that is invariably subject to  human natural resource management. In other words, ecotopes are the closely interwoven natural and cultural entities comprising the building blocks of the human ecological niche. Change is an inherent property of ecotopes as they develop or regress.

In the following section, these ideas connecting art and ecology as a unified cultural framework are explored using digital imaging to unravel the relationships between ecotopes and landscapes.

4  Islands in the mind

Skomer is a small Welsh offshore island and a national nature reserve. It has a distinctive landscape of parallel rocky ridges, separated by troughs of maritime scrub held in check by an indigenous population of rabbits.   To place Skomer in a wider perspective, it is at the micro-landscape level of rabbit grazing and the nesting burrows of seabirds that the problem of pattern and scale actually models the central problem in ecology, unifying population biology, ecosystems science and marrying basic and applied ecology.  In this tightknit scheme of things, the issue of ecological pattern is inseparable from the problem of the generation and maintenance of biodiversity.  Not only is the heterogeneity of the environment often essential to the coexistence of species, but the very description of the spatial and temporal distributions of species is really a description of patterns of diversity. Thus, an understanding of botanical pattern in the landscape, its causes and its consequences, is central to understanding principles of evolution, such as speciation, as well as ecological processes governing succession, community development, and the spread and persistence of individual species.  These processes are governed by past and present cultures through the value they place on natural resources.

On Skomer, it is the feeding and social behaviour of rabbits that produces a resilient, high topographical diversity in the low biodiversity in the microcosm of maritime scrub of the island’s central fields and cliff tops.  Rabbits thus hold the key to the existence of a range of mechanisms for generating pattern in landscapes further afield on greater scales. The resultant visual diversity is celebrated in a digital gallery of snapshots taken at various points around the island on 15th May, 2015.  The gallery highlights a new aspect of the art of micro-landscapes, which expresses the fortuitous aesthetics arising through the dynamics of botanical microcosms.

The basic principle of vegetation dynamics on Skomer is that rabbit grazing severely restricts the growth of species that are palatable as seedlings or mature plants.  Their burrowing and scraping produces a seed bed for colonisation by unpalatable species, which grow as clumped monocultures shaped by their constant nibbling.  These visually dominant clumps eventually die and are colonised all over again. The time scale of this cycle is measured in decades but we know little about the factors governing lifespans of the botanical players.  At the moment the sequence of species cannot be predicted but over the past forty years it has involved the rise and decline of sorrels and docks, scentless mayweed, Yorkshire Fog, woodsage, ground ivy, sea campion, heather, red campion and bluebells. All these species exist interspersed in mainland coastal scrub, which in the absence of rabbits would surely dominate the landscape of Skomer.  For example, this assembly of gorse/ bramble/ blackthorn/ bracken is currently the visually dominant feature of Marloes Deer Park, the nearest point on the mainland.  There, with a very low rabbit population, scrub is managed by burning and grazed by beef cattle.  It is also found at other places along the coastal slopes of West Wales, where it is sometimes grazed by sheep.  The position of trees in this maritime habitat can be imagined from the ancient woodland of Pinderi Cliffs Nature Reserve, which clings to the precipitous slopes above the sea north of Llanrhystud, about fifty miles from Skomer.  The principal biological interest of this site is a steeply west-facing sessile oak woodland, which includes an interesting assemblage of other species such as blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, small-leaved lime, spindle, rowan, and wych elm.

Regarding the current tree-free landscape of Skomer, the following images are snapshots of ecotopes  illustrating the various stages of ‘rabbit-driven’ processes that were evident on on Skomer, 13th May, 2015 (Figs 6-10).

Fig 6 Degraded maritime heath; north facing coastal slope.


Fig 7  Above Bull Hole; clumps of dead thrift colonised by sea campion with a pool of bluebells.


Fig 8  Pigstone Bay; Clumps of nibbled thrift


Fig 9 Central grassland: Field 1; patch of ground ivy with rabbit lawns.


What has all this to do with Dan Pearson and his Chelsea Gold medal?

In terms of gardens being personal expressions of cultural ecology, they are ecological islands composed of ecotopes managed for their visual attractiveness.  Gardens also consist of islands within islands.

Fig 10  Field 1: Large rabbit warren with woodsage and moss.


In most gardens, a ubiquitous island is the lawn the family lawn may be regarded as the most labour intensive expression of urban culture aimed at creating satisfying biological surroundings.  Although the vision of a household lawn may be a monoculture of short velvety grass, the reality is that most domestic lawns consist of collections of ecotopes defined by the local dominance of ‘weeds’. They are in fact part of an ecological set of grassy habitats, which on Skomer are produced by rabbit grazing whereas in the garden these herbivores are replaced by the lawn mower.

Satellite photographs in the United States have shown that lawns (residential and commercial sites, golf courses, etc.) occupy 45.6 million acres, or 23% of urbanized land.  At ground level the major ecological effect of a lawn mower is to encourage the spread of plants, such as grasses, which reproduce by growing roots from specialised prostrate stems (stolons).  These grow out from the centre, hugging the ground, because stems that grow in this way survive the machine’s rotating blades.  In this respect, grasses are in competition with broad-leaved, low growing plants which reproduce and spread in the same way.  These are the weeds of lawns, which may be so vigorous relative to the grasses that over time they become the dominant life forms.  It is at this point that the gardener resorts to selective weedkillers to meet the objective of a lawn that is a hundred percent grass.  An alternative response is to encourage the weedy plants, reducing the chemical inputs, to create a combined stoloniferous habitat where the ecotopes consist of a high proportion of clover, buttercups, daisies or hawkweeds in a grass matrix.  In fact these ecotopes have their own aesthetics. like the windows into vegetation cycling on Skomer.  They add colour and may be maintained by a management programme that consists of mowing and uprooting plants that grow in the ’wrong place’ (Fig 11).

Fig 11 Ecotopes of creeping buttercup (upper cluster) and mouse-ear hawkweed (lower cluster) in an urban lawn.


Therefore, by making a stoloniferous mixed lawn the gardener is also experimenting with a managed ecosystem which can have aesthetic outcomes.  Also, it is aligned with Dan Pearson’s adoption of the Chatsworth semi-wild ornamental ecotopes for his show garden.  A difference in principle is that a lawn island managed in for its accidental ecotopes is more sustainable with low inputs of energy and materials although in this respect it is not a free running ecosystem as is the unmanaged Skomer landscape.

5 References

Journal of Landscape Ecology (2010), Vol: 3 ECOSYSTEM AND LANDSCAPES – A CRITICAL  COMPARATIVE APPRAISAL  Zev Naveh

Making art: animating the spirit of Nature

Friday, May 8th, 2015

Art and mental modelling


Lion Panel, Schuvet, Cave Painting

It is widely accepted in the cognitive sciences and literature that the human ecological niche is a self-constructed mental whole.  That is to say, people develop and use their own internal representations, called ‘mental models’, to interact with the world.  Making such personal mental models of cultural ecology underlies the process of enculturation. People must know about their environment so they can adopt appropriate behaviours to exist within it. Mental models are conceived of as a cognitive structure that form the basis of reasoning and decision making, particularly with respect to understanding the limitations to human survival. They are constructed by individuals based on their personal life experiences, perceptions, and understandings of the world. They provide the mechanism through which new information is filtered, stored and applied.  From this point of view reality is provisional and dependent on what has been accepted into a person’s database through education and experience.  The outcome of these adaptive behaviours is a distinct culture.

Current holistic mental models of the human ecological niche are rooted in the concept of ‘deep ecology’.  This is a perception of reality that goes beyond the scientific framework defining the origins of species and their habitats to an intuitive awareness of the oneness of all life, the interdependence of its multiple manifestations and its cycles of change and transformation. Fritjof Capra says that when the concept of the human spirit is understood in this sense, the individual feels connected to the cosmos as a whole. It then becomes clear that ecological awareness is truly spiritual. Indeed the idea of the individual being linked seamlessly to the cosmos is expressed in the Latin root of the word religion, religare (to bind strongly), as well as the Sanskrit yoga, which means union.

To understand that Earth includes humanity as part of an interdependent spiritual whole is to see that there is no separation between the brain, the mind and the world.  That which we commonly refer to as “self” is but a microcosmic aspect at the cellular edge of the vast complexity of our macrocosmic reality embedded in dark matter.  Self awareness is the biological mechanism by which we equilibrate within the human ecological niche to survive.  Here, in all our thoughts and actions, we are an integral part of nature and at one with its biophysical expressions in all that we do.

As a crucial outcome of human evolution we can glimpse the beginnings of ecological modelling in cave and rock art, where certain kinds of symbols regularly appear across time and space, although the peoples producing these recurring symbols had not been in contact with one another. These primeval symbols are not, in other words, the result of cultural diffusion. They are are a mixture of representative and abstract elements: Lewis-Williams calls them ‘entopic forms’

Entopic forms are records of the first mental models expressing the dependence of humans upon the rest of nature.  But somehow along the course of time, the human mind in the cave became separated from this unified universal whole.  There is now a cosmopolitan, scientific model of the human ecological niche where globalised consumerism is the reality of humanity dedicated to taking more from nature than its ecosystems can provide through regeneration and materials recycling.

But what is the role of art in ecological modelling ?   According to the French sculptor Auguste Rodin,  “Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which Nature herself is animated“.  What could Rodin mean?

At this point we can turn for a provisional answer to one of Rodin’s contemporaries. Jean Arp, also called Hans Arp, was a French sculptor, painter, collagist, printmaker and poet. The son of a German father and French Alsatian mother, he developed a cosmopolitan outlook from an early age and as a mature artist maintained close contact with the avant-garde throughout Europe. He was a pioneer of non-representative abstract art and one of the founders of Dada in Zurich, but he also participated actively in all important artistic movements of the time, particularly surrealism and constructivism.

Surrealism is an artistic, philosophical, intellectual and political movement that aimed to break down the boundaries of rationalization to access the imaginative subconscious. It is a descendent of Dadaism, which disregarded tradition and the use of conscious form in favour of the ridiculous. First gaining popularity in the 1920s and founded by Andre Breton, the approach relies on Freudian psychological concepts.

Proponents of surrealism believed that the subconscious was the best inspiration for art. They thought that the ideas and images within the subconscious mind were more “true” or “real” than the concepts or pictures the rational mind could create from observing nature. Under this philosophy, even the ridiculous had extreme value and could provide better insights into a culture or a person’s desires, likes or fears.

A major reason why many people took issue with the movement was because it abandoned conventional ideas about what made sense, what was ugly and what was art. In fact, much of what surrealism advocates was designed to break rules in overt ways. The art and writing of the time often holds images or ideas that, under traditional modes of thought, are disturbing, shocking or disruptive.

Constructivism is also a philosophy of mental modelling founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own rules and mental models, which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning, therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our models to accommodate new experiences. At the extremes constructivism defines truth as a provisional understanding.

Making biomorphs


Indian Ink, Hans Arp, 1944

In his art, Arp was more of a constructivist.  Using black ink, watercolours and gouache he developed a distinctive graphical repertoire of abstract shapes for his sculptural reliefs.  The same motifs, repeated from work to work in unique combinations, were intended as a kind of ‘object language’ of his neural activity.  The forms he called biomorphs emerged spontaneously from his subconscious in response to taking up a paintbrush and art was the outcome of the brain’s nature. These biomorphs may have something in common with Lewis-Williams’ primeval entopic forms.  While Arp prefigured junk art in his use of waste material, it was through his investigation of biomorphism and of chance and accident in artistic creativity that proved especially influential in later 20th-century art.  Renunciation of artistic control and reliance on chance when creating his compositions reinforced the anarchic subversiveness inherent in Dada  In this connection, he pioneered the use of chance in composing his images.  For example, he haphazardly dropped roughly shaped squares onto a sheet of paper then glued them down and waited for his mind to make sense of the outcome.

With reference to Rodin, Arp’s stated aim was to avoid the traditional way that sculptors always started with natural forms and abstracted their desired shapes to exaggerate their character.  Arp began with shapes emerging from his subconscious to make compositions with no reference to representing natural forms; his naming of the outcome only came when he contemplated his finished oeuvre.

“Dada is without sense, like nature. Dada is for nature against art. Dada is direct like nature. Dada is for infinite sense and for defined means”.  This was the prelude to Arp’s verbal attack against two of the most celebrated works in the history of sculpture, the Venus of the Louvre and the Laocoon of the Vatican.   Arp expresses what is probably his most specific contribution to Dada, as well as one of his personal constants: the denunciation of the anthropocentrism of man and his art. “Since the time of the cavemen, man has glorified himself, has made himself divine, and his monstrous vanity has caused human catastrophe. Art has collaborated in this false development. I find this conception of art which has sustained man’s vanity to be loathsome”.

Dadaists asked themselves if in changing art, it would not also be possible to change somewhat the behavior of man himself: “I wanted,” wrote Arp, “to find another order, another value for man in nature. He should no longer be the measure of all things, nor should everything be compared to him, but, on the contrary, all things, and man as well, should be like nature, without measure. I wanted to create new appearances, to extract new forms from man. This is made clear in my objects from 1917”.

By objects, Arp was referring to the biomorphs that had first surfaced in the graphic research he had initiated in 1917: “I drew with a brush and India ink broken branches, roots, grass, and stones which the lake had thrown up on the shore. Finally, I simplified these forms and united their essence in moving ovals, symbols of metamorphosis and of development of bodies”.

This period from 1917-20 was to mark a high point in Arp’s graphic work and to affirm the importance of black and white in his work.  Commenting on this in 1955, he said: “I use very little red. I use blue, yellow, a little green, but especially, as you say, black, white and gray. There is a certain need in me for communication with human beings. Black and white is writing”. Thus, what should be seen in the ink drawings are calligraphies without sense, which nevertheless do not exclude communication. These signs, which hail us, are simple drawings; for example, three blots included over a hollowed-out blot, or black lines and forms highlighted with white.

Arp would not trouble himself if the randomness of the blots – and not the will of the person drawing them – would suggest to the imagination a key, dumbbells, a two-footed bottle, or anything that the viewer would be pleased to discern. Arp would not deprive himself, either, of inventing fantastic titles suggested by these forms.  They were created automatically by movements of the hand and not by decisions of the intellect. To a critic he asked  ‘What do you want?’  “It grows like the toenails on the feet. I have to cut them and they still grow.” This automatism, also manifests itself in the poems that Arp wrote simultaneously and that he would assemble in Die Wolkenpumpe (1920), or those he would compose with Tzara and Serner. The three composed in turn their roles on paper, without preconceived ideas, everything falling by chance from their pens, happily mixing languages.

Creativity as mental self-organisation

According to Arp, drawing, sculpture and poetry should originate in themselves through a process of automatic self-organisation; for him, this was a fundamental principle: “I allow myself to be guided by the work which is in the process of being born, I have confidence in it. I do not think about it. The forms arrive pleasant, or strange, hostile, inexplicable, mute, or drowsy. They are born from themselves. It seems to me as if all I do is move my hands”. He was in favour of the dream: “Genesis, birth and eclosion often take place in a daydreaming state, and it is only later that the true sense of these considerations becomes apparent”. From the first abstract creations a viewer faced with an inexplicable painted canvas would cry out in exasperation, “Why! an infant child could produce this”. From the point of view of Arp’s spontaneously produced biomorphs the viewer is right.

The process of creation was always the same for Arp. Form comes first, then meaning. That is why he never knew a priori what the title of a work in progress was to be: “Each one of these bodies certainly signifies something, but it is only once there is nothing left for me to change that I begin to look for its meaning, that I give it a name”. If a work was entitled ‘Branches and Spectres Dancing’, or ‘Drawer Head’, or ‘Banner- Wheel’, it was not because the artist intentionally deformed existing objects, but rather that the forms born naturally from brain to hand suggest such an association of ideas or the objects they resemble. If no association came to him, he would call it simply ‘Drawing’, ‘India ink’, ‘Collage’, or ‘Composition’.

Space for the mind

We each live in a tiny little corner of reality where we perpetually insist on carving out a space for our ego.  In this mental portion of our ecological niche we can experience the interconnected, mutually dependent facets of our neural processes as they seek to find balance and harmony with the environment. Just as the natural harmony of the planet is dependent on all of its parts working together in a felicitous and balanced manner, a mind in union with its environment functions socially when it acts in harmony with its self and the body that contains it.

In the last chapter of his biography of Hans Arp, Serge Fauchereau refers to a book, ‘Jours effeuilles’, which was published as a foreword to an exhibition Arp was doing with his friend Richter in 1966, the year of his death. Arp states: “To be full of joy when looking at an oeuvre is not a little thing”.

Fauchereau commented “In a time as dominated by confusion as our own, and which privileges the pathetic in art and life, the tragic or the sarcastic and the grimacing, a case in which calm joy – a joy produced while regarding one’s own oeuvre – is not to be taken lightly. Artists like Arp, after all, do not come along that frequently”.

It is entirely up to the viewer to discern the content and meaning of what is painted.  The message or emotion is in the eye of the beholder, not the eye of the creator. The artist’s creativity is in drawing out an emotion or an interpretation from the viewer. If this interpretation differs from what was intended by the artist (if indeed anything he intended anything), this in no way invalidates the interpretation placed on the work by any individual viewer.

Arp begat non-representational abstraction, which has become a global way of thinking and seeing.  It runs alongside representational art and together both kinds of art are tools that express cultural identity locally and globally.  Non-representational, abstract art is an expression of cosmopolitanism because artists shift the emphasis of artmaking away from individual objects or happenings representing ethnic cultural identity towards a form of expression that is within the capability of the whole of humanity. In this sense, art unifies humanity, as Rodin believed, through contemplating the pleasure of the mind.  It can also carry messages between peoples through the responses of the maker and viewer to the images.

Non-representational abstraction can be regarded as composed of three main processes; (i) the brain’s effort to analyze the pictorial content and style; (ii) the flood of associations evoked by it; and (iii) the emotional response it generates. Being of no practical use, art in general enables the viewer to exercise a certain detachment from “reality”.  Arp was the first to define non-representational abstract art as part of a special maker/viewer cognition system where the maker’s interpretation of what she has made comes after the work is finished.  The visual stimulus in the brain of the viewer is not object-related.  Therefore the automatic object recognition systems in the brain are not activated by abstract art.  The viewer has to form new “object-free” associations from more rudimental visual features such as lines, colors and simple shapes. This conclusion is supported by the lack of specific regions in the brain for processing abstract art exclusively. Also, eye tracking experiments, demonstrate that in abstract art, the brain is “free” to scan the whole surface of the painting rather than picking out well recognized salient features, as is the case when processing representational art.

Abstract art may therefore encourage the brain to respond in a less restrictive and stereotypical manner, exploring new associations, activating alternative paths for emotions, and forming new possibly creative links.  It also enables us to access early visual processes dealing with simple features like dots, lines and simple objects that are otherwise harder to access when a whole “gestalt” image is analyzed, as is the case with representational art.  Surely, this is what Rodin meant when he used the term ‘animation of nature’. If abstract art is the key to the animation of nature it may also be the key to promoting the Dadaists educational objective that was to change ‘the behavior of man himself’.


Feeling is a Fragile Container, Qiu Zhenzhong,  2005



Arp, Serge Fauchereau, Ediciones Poligrafa, SA, 1988