de-mystifying De Clario.


2:  CLASSIC CODES - music
3:  CLASSIC CODES - colour

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A modern interpretation of spiritual force

Illustration 1 : "NEW MAN, NEW WOMAN" (detail),
Alex Grey, 1984.

This artist's works bear the influences of Eastern religions and New Age tenets. Lines emanating from chakras and auras overlay detailed renderings of the human body's anatomical layers. They are spiritual meditations, born from experiences while tripping on LSD.

With "Sevenness: Sublunar", De Clario voiced familiar enthusiasms: in the recently published "Digital Mantras", Steve Holtzman describes a world-wide movement of the late 20th. century, in which meditation is also conjoined with a computer-generated music "reflecting the structure of the cosmos". Like De Clario, Holtzman is interested in ways to relate mathematics to meditation and to music but, delving even deeper into Eastern mysticism, he attributes the origins of all three disciplines to the Aryan priestly caste of ancient India. It is no surprise that Holtzman sees, as evidence, certain wild rites practiced by Western expatriates in Goa. Of course, no such pagan fundamentalism would do for a polite Melbourne institution like Heide. Yet in its own muted way, "Sevenness: Sublunar" had something of the flavour of a revival meeting. De Clario was cast as resident artist and musician - he was no Billy Graham (or even an Oprah Winfrey), but by default he filled the role of an evangelist, a testifier, a guru.

A study of gurus, provided in Anthony Storr's "Feet of Stone", reveals they are not primarily interested in the exchange of ideas, but more concerned with stamping others' thinking with their own convictions. With exaggerated self-belief, they think they know how to put order into chaos. The sweeping neoplatonism of De Clario, and the Aryan fundamentalism underpinning Holtzman's work, are both aimed for that effect. This could explain the didactic nature of their preachings, their lack of originality and the gaps in their logic.

Sometimes gurus might convince too well, as discovered when an ominous Aryanism emerged between the two World Wars. The Aryosophists were formed as a splinter group of the Theosophical movement that was so popular in Australia at the time. Based on the frontier of the German-speaking world at Vienna, Aryosophy supplied Adolph Hitler with the paranoid beliefs in Aryan racial superiority that fuelled the Holocaust. In the early part of his political career, Hitler could have been described as a mere cult leader, holding sway only over a small following. But he eventually became much more than a guru, showing all too well how the gap between metaphysics and national policy, between personal bias and public violence, might be bridged.

The hands of the major religions, too, are no less bloody from attempts to promote their beliefs to the world. Often, their violence has become internalized as persecution of minorities and murder of their own number. Leaders of religions still inflame their followers to violent acts against heretics and blasphemers. And then nothing is sacred, not even in a stable democracy. In one small example, the artwork of Andres Serrano (himself a professed believer) fell foul of prevailing religious authorities, and the National Gallery of Victoria could not protect it from vandals of all kinds. Sometimes, the state authorities lend a hand in the oppression of people with dissenting beliefs; concerned officials in Australia have been known to invade the headquarters of certain sects, taking the children away. Even this scenario seems mild compared to the way FBI policies were pursued at Waco, first drowning out sect activity within the compound with Nancy Sinatra music, then incinerating the denizens.

De Clario seemed more alert to the dangers of expressing nonconforming views, cocooning his latest work in increasingly conventional piety. There may have been little risk to Heide in staging "Sevenness: Sublunar"; still, it was held late at night, almost in secret, and its theology was obscured in inaccessible tracts. Heide implicitly condoned the expressed theology: one wonders if other evangelists might not demand equal time to promote their beliefs. A succession of seemingly pagan rituals mounted at state-run venues (in the name of personal, artistic and religious freedom), could seem little different from much of the fare they already dish up. But as art institutions should now be aware, curatorial discretion - on the grounds of aesthetic importance alone - is an inadequate defense against the odium theologicum that artists' religious views might attract.

The current religious enthusiasm may prove to be a passing phase, a periodic occurrence that will burn itself out. Already, some small groups with nowhere to go, have chosen to annihilate themselves - the Heaven's Gate cult is one recent, spectacular example of self-defeating religious zeal. It saw its salvation in science - the Internet was envisaged as a delivery system to a new plane of consciousness. Resurrection of members after suicide was to be aided by the fantastic technology of alien spacecraft.

History is replete with similar examples of cult practices gone mad; recently, the Aum Supreme Truth cult was on trial for the Tokyo subway gas attacks. Styled as a Buddhist sect, its leader had typical characteristics of a guru - paranoid, authoritarian, and maintaining unassailable belief in an untenable dogma. Instinct might warn of dangers inherent in the aberrant behaviour of such fanatics, but this is not sufficient to classify them as insane, according to Storr. Though gurus have similar psychological profiles to mass murderers, their dogged belief systems are not so different from those of research scientists. Many such scientists held high ranking in the Aum Supreme Truth sect, a sincere religious group 'with a genuine interest in science' according to their legal defense. Though the law stripped the sect of its religious credentials, it remained active with income from a chain of computer stores and continued seeking new recruits - especially among scientists.

The binary mathematics of computing - that simple number system of noughts and ones used as the intimate language of modern science - makes the 'sevenness' of colour music, from Plato to De Clario, seem almost a sophistry. Digital technology, with its on-off circuitry, is often likened to the workings of neurons in the brain. The model is seductive and a type of binary organisation is also used in the way general brain functions are classed. Pairs of opposites (reason and emotion, memory and impressions) are assigned to separate brain regions (cortex or limbic system, left or right hemisphere). Mirroring the brain's anatomy, as well as the more obvious dualities of two hands, two eyes and so on, the binary approach is deeply ingrained in human thought; amongst others, Isaac Newton saw the bilateral symmetry of animals as evidence of divine handiwork. Just as the polarizing tendency finds more general expression in our civil institutions - two-party politics and the adversarial system of the law - so it is used as a technique for understanding the brain. But thinking this way will influence the thoughts we have: inevitably, tautologies will arise from using our brain to study the brain.

Francis Crick at the Salk Institute in Lahoya believes that all brain activities can be reduced to neural activity. In "The Astonishing Hypothesis", he claims the combinations of firing patterns possible from countless neurons is sufficient to account for all types of brain activity. With increased computing power and the new mathematics of random behaviour (such as chaos theory), rationalists hope to unravel thought and re-create it as artificial intelligence. But, as the neurologist Richard Cytowic has pointed out:

"When we think of our brains, we usually think of a computer, a reasoning machine in our heads that runs things. This is consistent with the hierarchical model. But emotion - which word I use to include emotional, a-rational and non-verbal knowledge and cognition - is what actually directs our thoughts and actions."

The British professor, Baroness Susan Greenfield, agrees that the input requirements of a computer are quite different from the passivity of humans. No special areas of the brain, nor chemicals or connections within it, are responsible for consciousness. The brain is part of a total body chemistry and responds with a unique neurological configuration at any given moment. She concludes that conscious machines are an impossibility now and most likely in the future too, since the brain does not process step by step, or algorithmically, like a machine. (More worrying might be the influence of machines on brain development- the conditioning influence on a generation that uses the internet extensively could arguably standardize the brain.) Roger Penrose, Oxonian Professor of Mathematics, also draws the line in "The Emperor's New Mind"; he refuses to see how computing can equate to understanding. His reasoning is centred on the inability of binary mathematics to handle some types of calculations, including important aspects of quantum mechanics. The brain might be capable of quantum behaviour, speculates Penrose (seemingly if the interstices of substructures within neurons are filled with ordered water), and that might account for consciousness. But quantum computers are now being developed at MIT and at the University of NSW, Sydney. Individual atoms or molecules are used as microprocessors so such a machine can operate in the realm of quantum mechanics where a particle can theoretically be in two places at once. The result is non-algorithmic computing, touted as vastly more comprehensive and much, much faster than ever before. So far, their machines can count up to four.

Existing definitions of both brain and mind seem inadequate to define the operation of consciousness, a formidable obstacle as even die-hard number crunchers concede. More contemporary concepts of a 'multiplex' brain organisation take into account volume transmission, distributed systems, non-linear dynamics and the thermodynamic energy costs of any given biologic neural process. But such ideas are as yet little used or understood. Contradictions inherent in more conventional models led the neurologist A. K. Ommaya to describe consciousness as "a type of emotion".

Other prominent scientists formed the Transpersonal Movement to allot consciousness a special place. TM holds that a universal consciousness resides in a sort of fifth dimension called the psi field, and that each individual's consciousness returns there, as a soul to heaven, after death. The oversoul of the Theosophical Society is remarkably similar, being that part of the immutable principle, or godhead, through which all souls are recycled in the course of reincarnation. Like Carl Jung's collective unconscious, it is used to explain why different individuals, or even separate civilizations, can arrive at the same ideas independently. But pushing consciousness out of the body and off into some mythological realm posits the same dilemmas as traditional religions. Some may be satisfied by these solutions, but science itself may not be a fit tool to explore their metaphysics. Where the agenda is dictated by theology, or even popular mysticism, scientists too often experience spiritual vertigo, coming up with lazy-minded theories about God. Detecting the hand of God in a fractal design seems as deluded to me as discounting geological evidence for the sake of the stories of Genesis.

On the frontiers of science, vast areas of unknown leave plenty of scope for metaphysical speculation. The relatively new field of neurology surpasses even quantum physics as the discipline where the sexy questions are put, where neurologists ponder such problematic ideas as human consciousness. Oliver Sacks once outlined the state of play, while giving an address in Australia:

"On the whole, for the past century, clinical neurology has looked at illness, diseases, damages, abnormalities. It has also looked at the lower parts of the nervous system. It has only just begun to address itself to questions of sensibility, talent, skill, imagination, dreaming, consciousness. A great deal is made of consciousness, as if consciousness is top. I think that the top is creativity. I think that creativity involves the depths of the mind and many, many depths of unconsciousness."

His idea of creativity was nebulous but, unlike consciousness, it might emerge in specific human acts and be tracked by its operation on the senses. Particularly the sense of sight, which uses up to fifty subsections of the brain and eighty per cent of its area, provides a fertile field for scientific exploration. Neurologists and psychologists use readily-controlled visual symbols to plot how we relate to the outside world, how perception of depth, movement, tone and colour impact on the subtle processes of recognition, memory and understanding. In "Descartes' Error", Antonio Damasis ascribes a great part of brain activity to the manipulation of visual symbols. External stimuli, including words and processes as well as things, are converted to a symbolic, imagable form; basic maps of the way the neurons react are stored in the grey matter beneath the cortex as dispositional representations (DRs). All our knowledge is embodied in the DRs, whose interlinking operations are rarely perceived, but which generate and deploy images that govern creativity, planning, reason and most thought processes. (Innate knowledge, and survival commands for metabolism, instincts and so on, are stored as DRs in the brain stem, hypothalamus and limbic system, and rarely surface as images.) DRs within the brain create patterns to generate both movement as well as internal images of body movement. Damasis supplies illustrations of neural activity that occurs when an object is called to memory, and the topographical maps he obtained from brain scans show a visible likeness to the object recalled. Conversely, a perceived impression will form a symbol that will be simultaneously compared to a stored image for the purpose of recognition.

How complex interactions like these might be imagined was foreshadowed in physiognomic theories of aesthetics that enjoyed a vogue in the late 19th century. Both Heinrich Wölfflen and Bernard Berenson believed that empathy required us to respond to music by dancing inwardly, as if the sound provoked the internal image, stored in the mind, of the appropriate body movement. Likewise, a spire would make us want to stretch and tense while a horizontal form would relax and calm us. A more complex example came from the notes of Sigmund Freud, citing a metaphor employed by a musician who, suffering from a fever, felt she could only go to sleep if her body was composed in the position of F# minor. It seems her mind found a subconscious simile for her physical discomfort in a musical key that, on instruments such as the violin, is remote, difficult to execute and out of kilter with its native resonances. These examples suggest a link between the formal processes of the creative arts and mental images of body language. The landscape architect Julie Moir Messervy attempted to articulate this connection in a 1997 collaborative project with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Their design for a Music Garden in Boston drew inspiration from a Bach cello suite, and the dance steps for its various movements were used as some sort of guide, influencing the forms and the layout of the garden. That the creative process is further associated to visual imagery within the brain, was directly attested to by none less than Albert Einstein:

"The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined...The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and...muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will."

Beyond the signs and images of creative thought, a visual metaphor could be employed to describe the total of all brain activity, as outlined by Gerardo Reichel-Dalmatoff in his 1981 paper, "Brain and Mind in Desana Shamanism". The Desana tribe, along the upper tributaries of the Amazon in Colombia, holds to centuries-old beliefs about the structure of the brain that are surprisingly modern. Each gyrus (or convolution on the brain surface) is seen as a subunit with its own distinctive sensory, personal and colour attributes. A vast array of ethereal threads convey luminous impulses between different brain areas, giving rise to all human thought and action. Especially important is the sulcus, or groove separating the two hemispheres of the brain: the Desana consider the left side of the brain altogether more complex than the right. (Not until Roger Sperry's classic studies in the 1960s, were the independent roles of the brain's hemispheres revealed to the West, showing that the left side dominated language, logic and other crucial skills in most people.) A Desana shaman will often picture the brain's structure as tightly-packed columns of hexagonal prisms, each emitting energy of subtly different hues. While the prisms on the right radiate mostly red, yellow and blue, the left hemisphere displays rich and riotous colouring, including all the spectral colours as well as many others that cannot be named.

Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki, as authors of "Wisdom of the Elders", pointed out how the Desana managed to construct a comprehensive map of the brain, without the aid of electroencephalograms, microelectronic probes and all the other apparatus of clinical neurology. Indeed, the Desana imagination seems to encompass those pre-Newtonian studies of light and colour, with hexagonal rock crystals, as well as the concerns of modern neurobiology. By way of the intellect, the imagination and mythological imagery, a Desana shaman can describe human consciousness in a way that gave it both personal and cosmic significance. Advances in western science by no means eclipse the value of such traditional lore. Suzuki has cited a further instance, of a recent fatal epidemic in the south-west United States, where modern medicine was baffled as to its cause and its cure. The culprit was identified from traditional Navajo sand paintings, which fingered a variety of deer mouse as the carrier, and even outlined the environmental conditions under which an outbreak was likely to occur.

David Suzuki as the Discobolus

Illustration 2 : NATURE STUDIES
with David and Domenic.

The focus of science is often too narrow to take advantage of local knowledge, which is perhaps too readily dismissed as folk legend. True, western science has its own myths, and the personal testament of an Einstein, or a case study drawn from Freud, can manifest as a quasi-shamanistic utterance. But generally, the psychological and interpretive links between the worlds of understanding and of the senses are poorly catered for by western science. Traditional devices to cater for this need, such as the colour-music code, no longer cut the mustard: on the one hand, they are too impersonal and formulaic and, on the other, they fail by the standards of contemporary science. Through want of a comprehensive cultural framework, we are often thrown back on subjective understandings of our experiences - and there may be nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. Abilities to read, to appreciate nuances of colour or, like Sherlock Holmes, to deduce from appearances, give greater pleasure for being practiced and improved. Some people may be born with special attributes (such as acute vision and hearing, or synaesthesia, or a mathematical mind), and each person will apply skill and interpretation to formulate a private world. From the heights of enjoyment the senses can afford, the manoeuvres of neurologists seem as fascinating as ants' - after all, the chief validation of the senses lies in the experience of them.

The significance of ordinary human experience can evaporate into thin air under the searing gaze of scientific scrutiny and analysis. However, some gifted brain biologists have turned to philosophising, in their later years, on the roles of consciousness, creativity, memory and dreams. According to Knudtson and Suzuki, scientists' rhapsodizing about the brain can betray an almost religious fervour - they reach an epiphany in discovering the power, elegance and endless paradoxes of the living human brain. In this, their experience is complementary to the shamans': the observation of a Desana shaman, that the brain "contains colours that we don't even know the names of" is matched by Roger Sperry's comment, that "in the human head there are forces within forces, as in no other cubic half- foot in the universe".

The scientific approach can lead to genuine discoveries, some of which may even impact on theology. Perhaps cautious experimenting, sensitive to complexities of fact and independent of simple, overriding views, will yield up even more profound insights. God-botherers will remain attracted to conundrums arising out of scientific and philosophical overviews. Some have set out to solve essentially religious questions, trying to anticipate results that could not be verified this side of the grave. Other scientists again suggest they might yet uncover an underlying order to all creation, with number as the single objective and absolute truth. Their search for a single unifying theory, a modern version of Plato's harmony of the spheres, has become an international obsession. And yet others, like science journalist Margaret Wertheim, believe that the evidence is to the contrary - the more a particle accelerator is cranked up, the more unity disappears in a greater plethora of particles. She argues, in "Pythagoras's Trousers", that a Theory Of Everything can only make sense as a scientific equivalent of monotheism, and as such it holds no comfort. Particularly, the study of quantum physics has moved prominent scientists to extrapolate about the cosmic and divine - amongst them, Stephen Hawking writes as if he had a personal relationship with God, and the enormous popularity of his scientific tomes shows the extent to which others share his style of thought. Oliver Sacks, expressed his impatience with this grandiosity, too often encountered on the outer reaches of scientific research:

"...even if there is a grand Unified Theory of This or That, I don't think it will in the least diminish the interest of the world, or the energy of creativity."

Existing in a rarefied atmosphere of refined method and specialization, the scientific community takes on the language and mantle of theology so often that it has been compared to a priesthood. At the centre of the public stage, where science and religion politely contest ownership of some absolute truth, there is little tolerance for other philosophies, let alone the abstruse practices of the New Age. It is only on the margins that colour music seems able to survive, without attracting too much adverse attention. It is an historical curio, a survivor from the age of natural philosophies, that blurs the boundaries between the spiritual and the physical. The impulses it represents are much broader than scientific verisimilitude or religious orthodoxy allow. Rigid codes, defining absolute relationships of light and sound, doom systems like De Clario's to the realm of the ridiculous. Quotation of esoteric theories and formulations rarely contributes to an artwork's construction; it rather hampers sane appreciation and stifles spontaneity.

Still, there would seem plenty of scope within the arts, if not science and religion, for adventures of the colour music kind. The codes have a rich symbolic value - they hold much intrinsic interest while their fundamental principles, of comparing music to colour, might be creatively deployed in multi-media artwork. So, colour music could be likened to a game. And an interesting game it might be, if unencumbered by outmoded religious pretensions and free of the need to prove itself in the scientific mainstream. The art world can always accommodate the public in other ways: sculptures that pulse with colour according to sound ambience, installations that scan the visual field to generate sound effects - these cater to people's desire to be entertained and to participate in the creative act without being gulled or condescended to. Conjunctions of light and sound need not trigger enlightenment, nor even promise a useful outcome, to be accepted as inherently rewarding.

Niels Hutchison, Melbourne, 2018.


de-mystifying De Maistre ...