Archive for the ‘art’ Category

When you look at these two photos, how do you respond?

Do you find you prefer one to the other? Or do you like both, equally?

The design on the left is all straight lines and right angles, whereas the one on the right is of interlocking circles and loops.

Some people find straight lines and right angles somewhat aggressive. I seem to remember reading that the architecture of Waldorf Schools and other Steiner inspired buildings seeks to avoid these “harsher” lines and angles. The hospital where I worked for the last two decades of my career, “The NHS Centre for Integrative Care” (formerly, “Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital”) was designed to have as many curves, and as few right angles, as possible. The main reception desk was curved and open, and even the walls of the inpatient unit were a series of curves which evoked the image of gentle waves. I liked that.

As I was born and grew up in Scotland, the typical Celtic designs of knots and loops were familiar to me from an early age. Although the image on the left is also of intertwining lines, it isn’t typical of the Celtic drawings I know.

But maybe the straight lines and right angles are more appealing to you? If they are, why don’t you tell me about them? I’d be interested to hear what your preference is, and why.

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There was a craze hundreds of years ago for “chimera” – originally an idea from Greek mythology, medieval peoples took it a whole stage further and created all kinds of bizarre animals.

The chimera is an invented animal made up of the parts from other animals…so maybe a human head, a lion’s body, wings, a serpent tail etc. You can see lots of them carved onto the sides of old churches, and they illustrated old texts as well.

What do you think of them? Are they horrifying? (I think they were often intended to be so) or are they fun? Fascinating?

They just aren’t “natural” are they? You would never imagine that a creature like this existed anywhere. Maybe, once upon a time, some people did. Maybe they believed that they lived in unexplored regions…..remember the old maps with the unmapped areas labelled “Here Be Monsters”?

Probably the commonest reaction to them is a sort of disgust. We find them a bit repulsive….even the more beautiful ones!

I wonder if both chimera and genetically modified plants and animals touch that same core discomfort in us. There’s something a bit unsettling about cutting some DNA out of one creature and splicing it into another, don’t you think?

I think it’s no surprise that many people want GM foods labelled so they can choose not to buy them if they don’t want to. I think it’s not a surprise either that many people think there are complex ethical challenges to be addressed, and a need for intense oversight and control of the whole business of mixing DNA from creature into another……

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This is a photo I took many years ago, just using my phone. It’s taken in Edinburgh at night. The purple light of the underside of the bridge caught my attention. It was only once I’d uploaded the shot to my computer that I noticed the person walking along the pavement. At that moment I realised the scene was greatly enhanced by the human presence. It became a much, much more interesting image.

I believe this is a fundamental principle and value which I have. I don’t share the views of some people who think the human species is bad. I believe that we humans are not separate from Nature, we are a part of Nature. We are, in fact, an inextricable part of Nature. I can’t understand a human being without knowing them within their webs of connections, without exploring the flows of materials, energy and information through those networks, without considering them within their contexts and multiple environments, physical, social and cultural.

Yes, we humans have done, are doing, and will do, a wide range of harms to each other, to other creatures, and the one, small, blue marble, planet which we share with all other forms of life, and we need to learn how to live in greater harmony with each other and within this Nature that we are part of. But in four decades of face to face, person by person, patient by individual patient, work as a doctor, I never met a single human being I didn’t value.

I’ve found that as I get older, and in particular, since I retired and moved to live in the French countryside, that I value the rest of Nature, more and more. As I opened the shutters the other morning I looked out and saw two birds…..a Hoopoe drilling down into the grass for some breakfast, and Little Owl, sitting up on the highest point of the wall, spinning his head around surveying his territory. And I thought, well, how amazing is this? I’m more aware of the phases of the moon now, and the rhythm of the seasons. I’m more aware of sprouting seeds, the rate of growth of pumpkins, the cycles of leaves, flowers and fruits. As I garden, I feel in touch with a bond of care, attention and nurture, in this phenomenon we call Nature. But I sure wouldn’t want a world without human beings in it.

There’s something else this image does for me. It sparks the creative, story-telling part of me. Here’s something else which is uniquely human. The ability to perceive, interpret and invent. The ability to make sense of, to apply values to, and to create narratives from, our daily experiences. We are a creative species. We have a driving need to make sense of our lives. I can’t help but wonder about this solitary person, making their way through the streets of Edinburgh at night.

Maybe we just need to learn to shift the balance of our actions and efforts, away from harm, consumption and destruction, towards more harmony, more humanity, and more life-enhancing care. Maybe this pandemic has given us an opportunity to hit the reset button, and do just that.

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I’m fascinated by carved objects on buildings. Often they are above a door or a window. Other times they are under a roof overhang, or somewhere in a garden or building. Certain buildings, like churches, are often highly embellished with these works of art. This owl is on a church wall. I know most of the carvings on churches relate to saints and important people in the Christian faith, but many of them are really not so directly related (think of all the gargoyles!). Who chose them, and why?

When I’ve traveled around Japan I’ve seen lots and lots of statues and statuettes….particularly buddhas.

However, it’s not at all uncommon to find figures like this for sale in Garden Centres here in France and I’ve noticed them a lot in French people’s gardens and houses.

There’s also quite a controversy raging just now about statues, with calls for the removal of statues of famous people whose actions and values communities no longer wish to celebrate (although maybe they were never celebrated, despite standing there for decades).

All this got me thinking about the symbolic power of objects. I wonder if you have any in your house? Or your garden? I wonder which ones you notice in your Public spaces?

Maybe we should assume that they are intended to exert some influence over us. For example, I think many people with the buddha statues often see them as objects to help them to remain calm. One of the first phrases I encountered here, in the Charente, was “Soyons zen” – “Let’s be “zen” – or calm”.

I have quite a lot of owls in my house. I feel an affinity with them and I think they help me access reflection, contemplation and wisdom.

A common “device” over doorways is a heart.

I can certainly see the point of that! In fact, I think I’d quite like having a house where there was a heart over the doorway. Maybe it would help everyone who entered to remember the importance of “seeing with the heart”.

There’s a really interesting mythical one in this part of France (and I believe elsewhere in Europe too) – Melusine.

Half woman, half serpent (or dragon), with wings, there are a number of variations of the Melusine myth. Here’s a passage from wikipedia about her

One tale says Melusine herself was the daughter of the fairy Pressyne and king Elinas of Albany (now known as Scotland). Melusine’s mother leaves her husband, taking her daughters to the isle of Avalon after he breaks an oath never to look in at her and her daughter in their bath. The same pattern appears in stories where Melusine marries a nobleman only after he makes an oath to give her privacy in her bath; each time, she leaves the nobleman after he breaks that oath. Shapeshifting and flight on wings away from oath-breaking husbands also figure in stories about Melusine.

I wonder what influence her presence has on the people who live with her likeness on their walls?

One of the things which makes we human beings so unique is how we handle symbols and metaphors. We don’t just see objects as “things”. We attach value and meaning to them. They provoke emotions in us. They provoke our memories, stimulate our imaginations.

The objects to which we attach symbolic value, either individually, or as part of a culture, or society, have an influence on us. We often choose them exactly for that reason.

What symbolic objects are there around you in your daily life? And are you aware of the influence they have upon you?

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What’s this young woman doing? She looks relaxed, leaning both her forearms on the low wall as she gazes, or looks, (there is a difference) towards….who knows what? You can’t help but turn your head to see if you can see what she is seeing.

Deleuze and Guattari, in “What is Philosophy?” talk about three ways of thinking – concepts, functions and affects+percepts. Philosophy, they say, is our way of thinking concepts. Science describes functions. Art deals with sensations, affects and percepts.

In the city of Angouleme, about an hour from where I live, there are many, many examples of wall art. Angouleme is a major, maybe THE major centre, for graphic arts in France. Several of them are absolutely stunning. Many of them make you stop and think.

If art is a “bloc of sensations, that is to say, a compound of affects and percepts”, then what does that really mean in everyday life? I’m no philosopher and I wouldn’t be surprised if I misunderstand philosophical writings, but I am a “wonderer”. So, the two photos I’m sharing with you today, in this post, are just two examples of murals I’ve come across in Angouleme…….two murals which really stimulate my powers of perception and evoke emotions. They both make me wonder.

In this first one, everything in blue is the painting, but it’s been so cleverly painted that, at least at first, you have the impression you are looking at a real woman, leaning on a real wall, in front of a real hotel. Well, actually, it is painted on the gable end of real hotel, and the painted wall is an extension of one you can actually lean on. Maybe this graphic woman is looking into the window on the left? If so, she’s looking into a real window, not an imaginary one. Here’s the full picture…..

I love how the painted image blends with the physical world around it. It transforms reality. As I gaze at this in wonder, I slow down, feel calm and contemplative, and take my time to explore the whole painting. Isn’t it amazing that the woman, who is the artist’s creation, somehow induces in me, the viewer, these feelings of slow, calm contemplation?

What would this building look like unpainted? I’m not sure I’d even have noticed it. I certainly wouldn’t have stopped to gaze at it. And, here’s the other thing….I might not have followed the gaze of the woman beyond this low wall out over the valley below, towards the winding river, the boats, the houses and buildings at the edge of the city, and the farms and forests further out. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this work of art transformed my experience of Angouleme.

But, then, so did this one….

This is one of the most imaginative, evocative, narrative murals I’ve ever seen. It also stops you in your tracks. You can’t help but get drawn in, first to the woman and the man, who are kind of embracing, but there’s a mystery in this embrace. It doesn’t look entirely comfortable. What’s going on with these two? Then, above them, the glass in the window is broken. How did that happen? And above that, this enormous moon, which doesn’t really look like our Moon, but maybe some other planet? It always makes me think of the movie, “Another Earth“….But look at the biplane flying over the face of that planet? What era is this? Which makes us look at the couple again, and wonder what era they lived in as well…..they sure aren’t dressed the way we’d expect to see someone dressed in this day and age.

Then as I look again at this photo, I see the pink bike, parked against the railing, and I can’t help but think it’s her bike! So reality and fantasy blend and blur and lose their hard edges (do reality and fantasy really ever have hard edges?)

Finally, I look up and see what looks like the shadow of an angel with a trailing umbilical cord…..at least, that’s what it looks like to me, and I can’t help but turn around to see if I can see the actual angel behind me.

Oh, there’s the angel, over there, on the building opposite….

Isn’t that quite something? A drawing of a shadow which makes you turn around to see what’s casting the shadow? What a wonderful blending of perception and imagination!

Somewhere in the depths of my memory I seem to have a story of an ancient debate about whether or angels would have tummy buttons – because angels, allegedly, aren’t born, so don’t have umbilical cords. I remember thinking what an odd thing to have a debate about! But as I stand looking at this drawing, that old story comes rushing back to me, and in so doing, makes the artwork all the more interesting and engaging.

With both of these murals my experience of the day was transformed. They both challenged my perception of reality. They both stirred my feelings, stimulated my imagination and provoked memories. They both made me wonder.

As far as I know only human beings make art.

What kind of humanity would we be without it?

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This always makes me smile, and wonder. It’s a sculpture of a human head and it’s built into the wall of a house, just above the door. I came across it in a beautiful, old village in the South of France.

I don’t know anything of the history of this but it sure gets me wondering…..who is this supposed to represent? Was it the person who lived here when the house was built? Was it someone famous or important from the village? Or was it created as a representation of a mythical person….a god, an angel, or….well, I’m never going to know.

The fact that I’m never going to know partly bugs me. I have had insatiable curiosity as a major personality characteristic since I was a young boy. So there is a frustration there. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t bother me, because it means I can engage with it, as I find it, clear of any complications from its past.

We do that all the time. There are works of art, buildings, geographical features which make an impact on us every time we encounter them. Some of those impacts are layered with story, personal stories as well as those from history. But there are others where we come upon them with a “beginners mind” – where we can open our hearts and our attention and just note what arises.

Taking this second approach, I start with the expression on this face. At first glance this person looks sad. Their eyes seem somewhat downcast, gazing to the side and down towards some point on the ground a few metres away perhaps. Along with the gaze, the mouth seems a touch downturned too, the lips just slightly parted, conveying a kind of displeasure or even disgust to me. They don’t seem very happy. And I think, well, no wonder, really, look how this vine has grown up over their face. They seem somewhat neglected.

But the next thing I notice is their fine features. This is quite a beautiful face. Maybe that curl of the lips is more the beginning of a smile, than an expression of weary displeasure? Then I notice the string of pearls on the person’s forehead and I realise this is a more sophisticated, perhaps more noble a person than I had first thought. Look at their hair, and what’s that on their head? A hat? Is there a bird on their hat?? I think I’ve convinced myself now that there is a small bird sitting amongst the person’s curls, right at the edge of their hat.

So, now I return to the vine, which has been allowed to grow naturally I think, to find its own way….or did someone train it up around the head? It looks natural to me. And so when I bring the bird into the picture with the vine, this face takes on an appearance of an Earth Goddess now. Is that a step too far?

Well, what would it be like to see the almost smiling (I’m pretty much convinced now that this is an incipient smile on their lips, not an expression of displeasure after all), face of an Earth goddess, welcoming you home every time you walked up to your front door?

Here’s my final thought on this……whoever carved this face literally set an expression in stone. It doesn’t change any more…even if my impression of it changes. My granny used to say “Be careful the wind doesn’t change!” if I ever showed an unhappy, grumpy or fed up face. She said that if the wind changes then your expression would be fixed forever. Strange old saying that…..because the wind changes a lot! But behind it was some teaching that your habits of expression could come to shape the way the world sees you, and the way you see the world.

I don’t really see anything in a fixed way any more. I think everything constantly changes. And I think that, every one of us brings our memories and our imaginations to engage with the present moment, whatever it holds, making each and every day unique….unique for me, and unique for you.

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In one of my most favourite villages in France, Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, there are two natural objects hanging on doors, above doors, and on walls, throughout the whole village. This is one of them. It’s a “cardabelle”.

A cardabelle is a kind of thistle which grows abundantly in this area.

Mostly you see dried specimens pinned to doors, but in some places there are copies sculpted in stone.

The other natural object you find is…..

….the scallop shell.

Why these two objects?

Well, the cardabelle is thought to be a good luck token. I suppose in a similar way to the horseshoe you see in some other cultures. It’s also been used traditionally to make predictions……about the weather! That’s partly because it changes shape according to the humidity levels and atmospheric pressure, so it acts a bit like a natural barometer. I’m told it’s also eaten and tastes a bit like an artichoke (not my favourite vegetable!). But I think its utility is a lot less significant than its power to give meaning. It changes life through the power of symbol.

The scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrim. Specifically, the pilgrim making his or her way along the “Camino de Santiago”, or, in French, “Chemin de Compostelle”. It is used along these paths to indicate some support for, or welcome to, any passing pilgrims. The photo above indicates drinking water (“eau potable” in French, which is worth remembering if you are thirsty while walking in France!). It is also hung outside certain inns and hostels for the pilgrims to find something to eat or somewhere to rest for the night. I hadn’t realised just what an extensive network of paths make up the “Camino de Santiago”.

What really interests me about the cardabelle and the scallop shell is that both are transformed from their original, natural purpose in the world by this distinctly human capacity to make one thing represent another.

They both become powerful symbols. Symbols of place, of belonging, of tradition, of belief, and of purpose. There are a million stories connected to them.

How are we to understand this? I think symbolic thought, metaphoric thought, represented by objects, artistic creations, words and stories, are a kind of invisible, global network connecting us all. They are part of Jung’s “collective unconscious” drawing from our archetypes and myths. They are part of Teilhard de Chardin’s “no-osphere”, that extra layer of atmosphere encompassing the Earth, composed of human reason and thought. They are a world wide web of deep, complex, living and growing sense-making and meaning-giving phenomena which we can draw on to make more sense of our individual lives.

I love this power we humans have – the power to create this vast uniquely “human layer” of existence which is embedded in, and emerges from, the natural world, deepening and widening our experiences and understanding. It’s a shared phenomenon, a collective effort stretching back over centuries and we are adding to it every day, drawing from it every day, living it every day.

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Many years ago I came across this stencilled graffiti on the ground in Marseilles. It struck me as very unusual.

First of all it’s stencilled, which gives it a kind of mass-produced appearance, and it’s been painted onto concrete slabs which people walk over.

Is it a declaration? Of somebody’s love for somebody else?

Is it an instruction? Telling us to love? (Probably not, because it’s a noun, not a command verb)

It is just a literal putting down a marker. Someone laying out an important value? Is it a prod? A stimulus to thought? A nudge?

It reminded me of the English DJ, John Peel, saying on the radio one autumn that he’d taken to carrying a marker pen with him when he went out walking, and from time to time he’d pick up a fallen leaf and write “Hello” on it, then put it back down on the ground. He liked to imagine that a stranger would be out walking, maybe feeling a little lonely, and they’d spot this leaf with the “Hello” on it and not feel so alone any more.

I’ve often noticed naturally occurring heart shapes, and they, too, make me think about love.

Whenever I see a heart shape I think of love, and I’m sure that activates the emotion of love inside me.

I wonder if I should take a leaf out of John Peel’s book, and the graffiti artist in Marseilles, and scatter prompts around the world.

Literally, spread those loving feelings.

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Continuing my little series of patterns to look for, today I’m going to share circles with you. I know, there’s probably a bit of overlap between spirals and circles, but I’m going to try and stick with the more obvious circles and not wander down the spiral path!

There’s an old tower near me, up in one of the neighbouring vineyards. I don’t know its history and I don’t know what it was used for, but it’s now just a circular stone tower with a doorway, a couple of spaces where windows used to be, and no roof. When I step inside it and look up, this is what I see! I’ve loved this photo from the day I took it. The circle itself is hugely appealing, and the blue sky sure adds something. I often look at this image (in fact I have it on the lock screen of my iPad) and it reminds me of my limits. I know I can only see within the parameters of my beliefs, values and personal experience. I know too, that I can never know EVERYTHING there is to know about ANYTHING – including about any of patient I ever saw, about any friend or relative I ever knew, and about myself. I like to remind myself of that. Isn’t it kind of odd that I use a circle to remind myself of that, because a circle, traditionally represents wholeness or completeness. Somehow I’ve done something quite different with it.

This is a round window in a little house in a village just outside of Kyoto. Well, is it a window? Or is it a lamp? It’s on the outside wall, but you can’t see through it. It’s also got a lamp, or a bulb, behind it, so that it is shining out onto the street. Why is it there? I’ve no idea. But, again, I’ve loved this image from the day I saw it. I satisfies me enormously.

This particular circle is, of course, one I see every month. I am unceasingly fascinated with it. I love to follow the phases of the Moon over each 28 day cycle, but I especially love the full moon. The Moon stirs the energy of the Divine Feminine for me. It reminds me how we all have both of those universal energies coursing through our lives. Maybe it’s because I am a man, but I feel the Moon completes me somehow. It makes me feel more whole.

Most stones are not circular. They are not spheres. So when I come across one like this I am struck but how entrancing it seems to be. With the patterns of the lichen on its surface, this looks like a small planet to me. A whole world mapped out right before me.

There’s something magical about a circular bowl filled with water, reflecting the sky, and the forest which surrounds it. This conjures up the image of Galadriel’s mirror (from Lord of the Rings) for me. I have an ancient well in my garden. It’s got a metal lid, locked with a padlock to keep it safe. But if you open the lid and peer down, more than twenty metres in the dark, you can glimpse lights and movement on the round surface of the deep water. I think of those things when I see this circle. It excites me, stirs my imagination, provokes thoughts about magic and divination.

I saw this circular window at a temple in Japan. Of course, some of you will look at this and say, “It’s not whole. It’s got a piece cut off the bottom!” but that’s the typical Japanese aesthetic, never seeking to present “prefection” as something complete, but preferring the dynamism implied by asymmetry and “incompleteness”. Well I love it. And I’ve wondered ever since why we don’t have more circular windows in our buildings. Wouldn’t it be great to have a circular window in your house? (Maybe you’ve got one!)

Finally, here’s the setting Sun. I have seen SO many spectacular sunsets in my life. I see LOTS of them here in the Charente. And I never, ever tire of them. I am entranced by the setting Sun. If the Moon is the Feminine Principle for me, the Sun is the Masculine one. I love to connect to both.

Once I read that the Sun doesn’t actually set. It’s we, on planet Earth who are moving, not the Sun moving in relation to us. So, a better term for this time of day would be “Earth Rising”, because that’s what is happening. The horizon of the Earth is lifting up into the sky as the Earth turns, giving us the sensation that the Sun is setting.

Well, whichever way you think of it. It is utterly entrancing, isn’t it?

Have you got any favourite circles to contemplate?

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“There are no straight lines in Nature”

I don’t know where this teaching comes from, but it’s not true.

There are plenty of straight lines in Nature. OK, maybe they don’t cover great distances in the way manufactured lines do (I’m thinking railway lines and Roman roads) but they are everywhere, all the same.

One typical expression of straight lines is “radial” – they start at a centre point and radiate out in many directions from there. This poppy bud in the image above is an example of that.

Not straight enough for you? Well, how about this?

Do you know what that is? Let’s look from the other side….

Plants show this “radial” spread of straight lines too.

As do shells…

and spider webs

Seeds designed to be carried by the wind use this pattern of radiant straight lines from pointed origins too.

We pick up on these patterns and use them in our art and architecture.

Have a look around today and see where you can spot this pattern. When you do find it, do you think it is beautiful?

One of the things I really like about these “radiant” straight lines is that each line has a beginning and an end, just like a good story. You can see where it has come from and you can see where it is going. It reminds me of a concept from Deleuze and Guattari, which they named “lines of flight”. When I read about this I saw its relevance to complex systems. You might have read elsewhere on this site about “complex adaptive systems” (if not, why not pop that phrase into the search box on the top right of the page and see what comes up?). The complex systems model does more than explain living organisms, it reveals a lot about the underlying structure and function of the universe.

Complex adaptive systems tend to move towards “far from equilibrium” zones. This is what gives them their dynamism, their points of growth and their ability to change. But how do they get there, to those “far from equilibrium” zones? By following particular “lines of flight”.

One of the reasons I liked that so much was it helped me unravel the stories my patients told me. One of my most favourite questions to ask was “When did you last feel completely well?” It often took patience and time to get a clear answer to that question, but time and time again it revealed that the chronic ailment from which the patient was suffering, began either after a particularly severe trauma, or from a phase of life where the traumas piled up on each other, one by one. I wasn’t trying to prove causation, but following the narrative line from that time forwards to the present often revealed both the nature of the traumatic impacts, and, crucially, the adaptive strategies the person had employed (probably mostly sub-consciously) to cope.

Lines of flight, and radiant lines, are typically multiple, and they are also highly unlikely to exist in isolation. However, unravelling what they are, where they intersect, and how they influence each other, is, I believe, at the heart of understanding a person and their life.

I’ll leave you today with another depiction of lines – well, two pictures actually, and neither taken by me –

On the left is the image of Mumbai at night, photographed from a satellite. On the right and image of neurones in a section of a brain. Interesting to think how this structure of intersections and nodes connected by straight lines scales up and down through the levels and dimensions. But I’m taking the original idea of straight lines a step further now, by seeing them in their context.

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