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Nature makes abstract visual art more captivating

There’s a two-storey warehouse wall in Melbourne’s western suburbs where man-made concrete uniformity has been transformed. On this enormous vertical surface is a complex, apparently natural scene that…

Artist Ash Keating, like others, relinquishes final control to the laws of physics and nature. David Crosling/AAP

There’s a two-storey warehouse wall in Melbourne’s western suburbs where man-made concrete uniformity has been transformed. On this enormous vertical surface is a complex, apparently natural scene that has no clear structure but nonetheless seems alive with meaning.

The Melbourne artist who created this, Ash Keating, flings, squirts, or otherwise projects paint to a given surface from a distance. It’s a method reminiscent of American painter Jackson Pollock, but bigger. Like Pollock, Keating relinquishes the final control of the medium to the laws of physics and nature. The outcome – created by both artists – is a complex texture that’s both abstract and representative at once.

The questions are, could textures like these be created as effectively without the help of the laws of nature, and why, when nature is involved, are they so captivating?

There is growing scientific interest in the methodology of these artists. Their work offers great insight into how the brain works and contributes to our understanding of the brain as much as any other data.

Your brain is a slave to sense

In the footsteps of the great painters of the last 500 years – Vermeer, Turner, Picasso, Cezanne, Riley and Richter to name a very few – art and artists are with science and scientists on the brink of what we know and what we do not.

The brain is a slave to sense: its job is to decide whether what comes in from its sensory apparatus is useful or not, and combine that with its ongoing activity with a result that is adaptive and functional. The eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin act as translators from the external world into the internal – all external stimuli (or energies) become one, an electrochemical signal carried by neurones.

As far as vision is concerned, everything we see in daylight starts off as the output of three cone types that vary over the two dimensions of space of each retina, and over time. That powerful sense of depth we experience, the third dimension of space, is constructed from many cues but never explicitly represented in the input. Renaissance artists understood this well as they started to play with perspective, long before science had an answer.

At the level of the retina, the visual world you experience is in its most fragmented form; from then on the process is one of (re)construction. Your reality is truly your own and no one else’s, and this is where the artist holds sway on insight.

A visitor looks at Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles through the new ‘Impressionism to Pop Art’ gallery at the National Gallery in Canberra, 2006. Alan Porritt/AAP

The kinds of textures created by Pollock and Keating have a great deal of similarity to those textures we see in nature; clouds, waves and forests. These are the stimuli the brain has evolved to deal with, to make sense of. So when presented with such a texture the extraction of some meaning seems to be so much easier.

How often do you see something in the clouds despite there being nothing there; or hear your name in the babble of a crowd? The slave to sense will create it.

The 20th-century German artist Gerhard Richter approaches this slightly differently but the outcome is much the same; he blurs much of his work:

to make everything equally important and equally unimportant – Richter, Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007.

The effect of this is to make the texture not only come closer to that of nature but also to overcome the (over)importance of edges and borders; to make everything equal and allow the viewer’s brain to impose its own structure on the work.

Your brain interprets music much like nature

It is not just in vision that we appreciate this device. English composer Brian Eno expressed in the liner notes of his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports that while:

conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. – Eno, 1978.

The doubt and uncertainty is exactly what the brain thrives on to create the richness in meaning that is so captivating and so calming. “A space to think,“ in Eno’s terms, “as ignorable as it is interesting”.

A particularly intriguing example of this approach is the contact microphone recording of an Icelandic antenna in the sun and wind by London-based sound artist Aino Tytti. It is haunting and melodic. The song of weather on steel is utterly entrancing.

All of this suggests that we have, indeed we are, the product of a brain that is exquisitely sensitive to its inputs and finely tuned to extract meaning from the natural world.

Since it is, itself, part of that natural world both in its structure and its action, it even makes sense of its own pseudo-random activity which results in a dream; convincing and powerful, a reality until the moment we wake.

This dream is the hallucination we all have regularly and only a small step away from an hallucination some involuntarily have when awake. One of the side-effects of a slave to sense is that it will make sense when there is nothing there, and that for some can be very distressing.

So next time you experience something in the clouds, or a painting, or a dream, or a crowd, even when you’re sure it’s not there, know that it is just part of the experience that is you, a natural system responding to another natural system.

It is, as the late English author Douglas Adams put it in Dirk Gently’s Holisitic Detective Agency (1991):

the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

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6 Comments sorted by

  1. Brian Keyte


    Thank you Simon for clearly expressing a rather tenuous and difficult concept. To have one's work communicate with nature's "voice". Often I think I have a clear grasp of it, using the Fibonacci progression etc, only to wake up the next day to find it has evaporated. I have been chasing this for years and you have now given me some more input to work with.

  2. Jacques de Vos Malan

    another itinerant African

    See Umberto Eco "Opera Aperta" (1962) translated as "The Open Work"(1989) and "A Theory of Semiotics" (1976). Eco deals with the 'pseudo-combinations' created by some visual and sound artists (including Brian Eno), which succeed as 'structures' or 'patterns' by providing just enough material to encourage the brain to discover meaningful connections.

  3. Bruce Reyburn

    logged in via Facebook

    A rich area, without doubt, and reminding me - once again - of a Dada expression that "Art is a silly thing."

    But my mind has to object to being cast into the passive role of a brain slave.

    Long ago - back when the struggle was against mindless Skinner box behaviouralism - Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote "We must make the bold assumption that categorisation is prior to perception." (words to that effect). He went on to explore the vitally important role of narrative in stiching…

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  4. Ken Taylor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    An interesting and thought provoking article.

    It is inconsequential to most, I'm sure, but equating "all external stimuli" to "energies" requires a definition of energy different to that which can be measured in joules. Light has energy as does sound and smelly stuff probably doesn't but the extent to which they stimulate our brain is not a function of their relative energies.

    To me it is significant because the article is about physics and art and unlike this article, so much commentary on art reads like it came from something like the artybollocks generator at .

  5. Pat Moore


    An interesting intersection thanks Simon....the brain function divided, the schizoid-ed realms of art and science (imaginative-based and reason-based/the left-right divide), the two separated by cultural tradition in coming together again via the corpus colossum? undoubtedly make for a fertile union/a synthesis out of a previous limited consciousness' antithesis. Alchemy was an earlier cultural phenomenon back when the two, art and science were married, and richly fantasised about that 'hieros gamos…

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  6. Luke Lynch

    logged in via Facebook

    Nice article.

    "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
    Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five...

    ...If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."

    - William Blake