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The Art of Bridging

The Art of Bridging


Resonances of David Bohm and Carl Jung: The Work of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield
From Revealing the Invisible: The Art of Stansfield/Hooykaas from Different Perpectives

This exploration of the work of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield is not so much an academic exercise, or an essay on art criticism, but more a personal reflection of my encounters with the two artists and a meditation on the many resonances that can be found within their work. In particular the way their work can be seen as an exploration of the implications of the ideas of the physicist David Bohm and the depth psychologist Carl Jung.

My first meeting in public with them was in connection with the ‘Consensus and Contestation’ meeting in Montreal, March 1992. It was an event which involved a bridging between artists and scientists, and this notion of bridging is one of the underlying themes of this essay. Later that year we met again, this time purely by chance as I entered an elevator in Banff, Calgary! It was almost as if a common interest in Jung was being manifested though a ‘synchronicity,’ a principle Jung defined as a ‘meaningful coincidence,’ one that takes place through an ‘acausal connecting principle.’ Moreover this unexpected encounter itself involved a significant act of bridging.

The Banff School of Art and the Banff School of Management are both housed, intentionally it should be emphasized, in the same complex of buildings in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. I had made several visits to Banff to engage in another type of bridging, one between Native Canadians and the Canadian government’s policies on justice and governance at the invitation of Leroy Little Bear, an elder of the Blackfoot Nation. Earlier that year we had organized a dialogue together between Native American Elders and Western scientists, a meeting that included David Bohm.

The surprise at seeing the two artists in such an unexpected location caused us all to laugh and on impulse I invited them to sit in on our discussions with a group of Native Canadians. When they arrived they immediately noted an empty chair—it was the chair that Bohm would have occupied. (He died in October of that same year.) And so the bridging continued, first between science and art and now with First People of North America.

But back to my earlier encounter at ‘Consensus and Contestation’ event held in Montreal. The particular piece of work we discussed together was their video, Eye of the Storm, which provides an interesting doorway into the nature of their work and their involvement in Bohm and Jung.

The phrase ‘eye of the storm’ refers to the mythic still centre within a violent weather disturbance. It is also a metaphor for a contemplative mind beset by a whirlwind of sensations, or an individual who stands back from a surrounding social turmoil. But there is yet another resonance within the title and that is to the eye itself, which in their video is involved both in the act of seeing, as the camera, and in being seen.

If synchronicity is about the phenomena of bridging, and in the Jungian case about a connection of the inner and outer, then it is no coincidence that the video keeps returning to a physical bridge. It is the Alexandra Bridge that links the cities of Ottawa and Hull and, more specifically the English-speaking province of Ontario to that of the French-speaking province of Quebec. But while there are other bridges that span the Ottawa river there is something particularly unique about this one, for at one end is located the National Gallery of Canada and at the other the Canadian Museum of Civilization. So it is also a bridge between two buildings that house artefacts, artefacts that are presented in two different contexts in which cultures and their physical manifestations are explored and examined. To see the symbolic significance of this bridging, both as a metaphor and as a literal physical structure across a river let us examine in more depth the approach of Stansfield/Hooykaas.

Their interest in David Bohm came in part from the physicist’s concern with what he termed fragmentation. Quantum theory, as Niels Bohr had earlier pointed out, is about wholeness. And indeed ‘wholeness’ appears in the title of one of Bohm’s most important books, Wholeness and the Implicate Order. The Newtonian worldview was that of a universe made up of independent parts, all in interaction with each other, or in Einstein’s phrase one of ‘independent elements of reality.’ By contrast, during a quantum observation, the observer and observed cannot be separated. They form an ‘unanalysable whole.’ The observer is the observed.

Bohm felt that this notion of wholeness transcended the confines of a theory of physics and extended into the whole of life. Yet Bohm also noted that we all have a tendency to fragment the world. In the context of knowledge, for example, particular fields are broken down into distinct areas of specialization.

Stansfield and Hooykaas were in sympathy with Bohm’s observation that we have a propensity to frame and select the world. Cézanne, for his part, had expressed the difficulties he encountered when, as an artist, he attempted to ‘realize his sensations.’ Yet in the very act of isolating, naming and categorizing these same sensations we become involved in fragmenting our world. Add to this the dimension of our psychological needs and desires, which also cause us to select and distort the world. In particular there is the dangerous tendency to bracket and isolate our experiences into those that are ‘art’ and others that are ‘life.’ For Stansfield/Hooykaas, who were familiar with various meditative traditions, these distortions do actual violence to the world as they cause it to fragment.

On the other hand, it is true that acts of seeing and hearing must always take place within a particular context and that context in turn leads to anticipation and selection of what is seen and heard. There seems to be no escape from this dilemma. The best artists can do is to engage in an act of play involving the various contexts they will present to us. And here I should add that for Bohm the notion of ‘play’ was not that of an amusing diversion but an act of great creativity.

And so images of the eye and of a lens feature in this video. We see the eye observing the lens, which in turn is observing us the viewer. Yet there is also a hidden lens, that of the video camera itself that is taking the images. And what of this lens? It is something that magnifies, selects, and frames. We even use the term conceptually, as when we say a particular notion is ‘viewed through the lens of… .’ And for a scientist the notion of the lens immediately invokes Galileo and his experiments with the telescope.

Before the invention of the telescope, lenses were associated with defective vision, for which spectacles or ‘pebbles’ were worn which to an external viewer made the subject’s eyes look distorted. It was Galileo who directed a lens at the surface of the sun and detected sunspots.  To the religious of the time this was tantamount to heresy, for the sun was supposed to be immaculate—unspotted. So where did these distortions come from? Clearly it was an effect generated by the lens, an artefact that distorts nature.

And how is this lens being used in Eye of the Storm? In no other way than to examine a botanical drawing of a tulip. This again brings in another resonance to the use of the lens as ‘the pencil of nature.’ Artists had been long employed in producing accurate drawings of various botanical specimens, a task that was then taken up by the early cameras. In 1826 Nicéphore Niépce produced the first photograph and a few years later Fox Talbot was experimenting with his own photographic processes. Talbot termed photographic plate ‘the pencil of nature’ and went on to publish a series of images between 1844 and 1846, writing:

‘The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation1.’

So the camera can be used to isolate and enhance nature. In place of our immanence within the natural world, nature can be distanced and set in a particular context. But of course as with Eye of the Storm the camera can also be used to explore and illustrate this act of distancing. After all, photography is no more than an extension of the art of perspective, in which the world is presented as distanced from us, with parallel lines meeting at the vanishing point and circular objects becoming ellipses. Both perspective and the camera employ what mathematicians term projective geometry. (In this context it is interesting to recall David Hockney’s series of paintings in which the geometry is reversed with the vanishing point no longer at infinity but in the eye of the viewer.)

As the lens examines the botanical drawing it is telling us even more about nature and context. It is drawing attention to the paradoxical phenomenon of the botanical garden located, often with considerable pride, in the centre of major cities. While they may have had their origin in the physic gardens of the Middle Ages—areas in which herbal remedies were grown—they are in essence an expression of an imperialistic attitude to nature. One in which exotic plants were collected from various foreign countries and preserved in a park-like setting within a city centre. While the ostensive purpose of the garden was originally that of botanical research, these gardens soon became major tourist attractions and, as a final irony, more recently they have become associated with plant conservation. Thus human societies with a history of exploitation and devastation of the natural world, preserve selected aspects of this world in the centre of cities. A glowing example of the extent of our fragmentation!

The creation of an artificial context in which to experience the world brings us back to the video and that motif of the bridge that connects two museums. The National Gallery of Canada, designed by Moshe Safdie, contains ‘works of art,’ In other words, images and artefacts that are presented in such a context that the visitor is encouraged to view and judge them according to the received wisdom of what constitutes ‘aesthetic judgement.’ But as we wander through the gallery, we encounter Simone Martini’s St Catherine of Alexandria. Yet this was originally part of an altarpiece from Orvieto, Italy. Before this work a priest would celebrate mass and the faithful would pray. They would understand its iconography and know that the gold background represents the colour of heaven. But now, just like those exotic plants in a botanical garden, it has been framed and isolated. It has been removed from its original context and environment and set in a different location, where it is now to be judged on aesthetic grounds. Moreover one can wander through the same museum and come across part of the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart from Ottawa, or walk a little further and enter a gallery containing what has been termed ‘Indigenous Art.’

The bridge links another museum, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and this one is designed by Douglas Cardinal, an architect of Blackfoot descent, who would ask his colleagues to gather in a sweat lodge when faced with a particular problem during the construction of the building. Moreover it is a building of curves, avoiding straight-line walls and right-angled intersections. Yet, as with the art gallery at the other side of the bridge, the museum faces a dilemma, since much of its space is given to presenting the culture and history of various Native Canadian groups. And while it attempts to do this in an honest and conscious way it is again involved in the act of selecting, isolating and presenting these worlds within a particular context. Yet again, as with the botanical garden, a degree of fragmentation is involved when something is transplanted from a living culture and context and isolated in a museum in the centre of the Ottawa-Hull National Capital Region.

One further point before we leave the video and explore some of Stansfield/Hooykaas’ other works: As mentioned, the video keeps returning to a journey across a bridge, yet this is a journey we never actually see. Stansfield/Hooykaas instead recorded the sounds of a car traversing the bridge and this is what we hear as we see shots of powerlines—again another type of bridging, that of energy from source to consumer.

This sequence can also be taken as a reflection on Jungian synchronicity, for Hooykaas and Stansfield did not proceed to make a video in a pre-planned way, using a shooting script, selecting scenes, and then adding a soundtrack. Rather in their various travels they recorded images and sounds that sometime later might have suggested a ‘meaningful coincidence’ of juxtapositions.

During another of our meetings I visited their studio in Amsterdam, where Table of Orientation had been installed. But before focussing on that particular work, I would like to tell the story of one of our afternoons together during that visit. We were walking along the shore at Wijk aan Zee, beside the North Sea. Of course the choice of location was intentional, but it is so vivid in my memory that I can imagine the effect on innocent wanderers. They would be impressed by the sea and sand and in the distance see a dish, a parabola. As they approach this parabola it has the appearance of a small radio telescope. Maybe it is a part of a scientific experiment to collect data from a distant part of the universe? But as the wanderers come closer, they would see a set of steps leading up to the dish; clearly they are being invited to enter.

As they climb the steps they wonder what they will find, what they will see. For, after all, the connotation of a radio telescope reminds us that the term ‘telescope’ means ‘seeing at a distance.’ And so a person enters and takes their seat. Right up to this moment Stansfield/Hooykaas have set up a context in which the visitor would make a series of assumptions about the sort of experience that is about to occur. But as soon as that person settles in the seat, their head enters the focal point of the parabola. The result is that all the ambient sounds—the sea, wind, and seabirds—reach the ears in a highly amplified form. In a certain sense these sounds bypass our anticipation of what we think we are about to experience. They are unfiltered, and for a moment we have an almost naked experience of exactly the same aural environment that we have already been experiencing, and to a large extent ignoring, during our walk towards this public sculpture whose name is Abri. The context has subverted our persistent tendency to select and filter the world, and so for a short interval of time at least, we have a direct experience of the world.

The experience of ‘Abri’ raises another question about the role of the artist both socially and personally. This involves Goethe’s observations about Western science. Goethe argued that science always seeks to place nature in the artificial conditions of the laboratory. But what if instead of treating nature as an object for observation, we attempt to enter into a dialogue with nature? In such a case, Goethe believed, nature may provide us with ‘the example worth a thousand.’

To this could be added that the objectification of nature through Western science is predominantly a male-oriented process—an example of the male gaze at nature. For his part, the physicist Wolfgang Pauli believed that during the twentieth century, science had also become obsessed with the ‘will to power’ over nature, that because of the absence of Eros in science a vacuum had been created and inevitably this vacuum would be filled with the will to power.

Shift the argument from science to art and allow that two female artists become concerned with ways in which art can dialogue with nature, rather than portray, represent, classify, frame, select, and categorize. Thus in their Personal Observatories and other works Stansfield/Hooykaas seek to open the door to the possibility of engaging nature directly.

The notion of a dialogue with nature also finds resonances in David Bohm’s own views. In the last years of his life, he had been experimenting with bringing groups of twenty to forty people together on a regular basis. His idea was to engage in a form of dialogue that went beyond polite discussion into something more fundamental, an action that would begin to expose the various psychological processes whereby our consciousness develops fixed responses and positions. In other words, to reveal the underlying processes whereby we fragment the world. Stansfield/Hooykaas could be said to have engaged in a similar process through their videos and social sculptures, i.e. to have sought ways to engage society in acts of self examination.

We have seen how the two artists are concerned with devising approaches and contexts that allow us to perceive the world in a direct and unfiltered way. But what is it that could be said to lie beneath and beyond the surface of the world, to lie beyond the tricks and illusions of perception? For Bohm this was what he termed the Implicate Order. The world we see around us, that of well-defined objects in space and time, he termed the Explicate Order. It is a world well described in Newtonian science. But for Bohm this was just a particular manifestation of a much deeper underlying flux of reality, a flux that involves a constant unfolding and enfolding from a deeper Implicate Order. Thus for Bohm an electron is not so much an elementary ‘particle’ but a constant process of unfolding and enfolding out of the flux that is the cosmos. And while in the Explicate world we maintain a Cartesian distinction between mind and matter, within the Implicate Order they are both aspects of the one underlying process.

We also find this process of unfolding in the work of Stansfield and Hooykaas. Point of Orientation analyses the flight of a bird both as a video recording of its continuous motion and as a sequence of still images. In this way flight is both a succession of events and the flux itself. A similar approach can be seen in ‘Table of Orientation’ which I spent a long time examining while in their Amsterdam studio. The table in question contains a bronze map of a terrain in which is embedded a video monitor displaying a random sequence of images. The viewer is provided with a lens—again the multiple resonances of associations with that which brackets, isolates, and distorts. Moving the lens across the map allows parts of the terrain to be magnified to show greater detail. But the lens can also be used to magnify the video display, at which point the flux of images is arrested. As a metaphor it suggests that our desire to reach out and explore the world, in order to gain more detailed knowledge, also has the effect of arresting and distorting the natural flux of the world—that flux which to Bohm was the holomovement—the movement of the whole, that process out of which reality itself unfolds and enfolds. Thus Table of Orientation acts as a mirror for us. It is a mirror in which our own intentionality is displayed, one in which our thirst in the search for knowledge and certainty can also subvert our very act of ‘being within the flux of the world.’


1William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil to Nature, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1844–1846