Art and awareness

I- the entire broken pot

Consciousness and trauma –
VI. Vienna Symposium "Psychoanalysis and Body"

At the VI Vienna Symposium “Psychoanalysis and Body” in 2006, neurobiologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists met to discuss the term “trauma”.

Scientists presented their new findings regarding the functions of the human brain. In a dialogue between science and therapy, the participants explored how these new understandings might impact or even modify our comprehension of trauma and human consciousness.

The symposium was part of a series of congresses that the medical doctor and psychologist Peter Geissler, Vienna, and his working group organize. At this VI Symposium, art was for the first time invited to enroll in the interchange between science and practice.

Why art?

The symposium was designed as a platform for a joint quest. It aimed to reach beyond the exchange of information and experiences, and to offer a space of joint learning and co-developing new understandings emerging from the dialogue. Mind sciences have the particular characteristic that the object and the vehicle of investigation are identical: the human mind. The brain intents to understand itself; consciousness aims to comprehend itself. This particularity may constitute limitations for the quest, of which we are not necessarily always aware. It appears extremely difficult – although not a priori impossible – that our mind crosses the limits of its own cognitive capacity. Before this background, there was the expectation that art and its poetic and symbolic language might contribute to an understanding not purely rational.

At the same time we wished to create an environment favorable to the exchange of views and, more importantly, to the dialogue between the questions that the different disciplines pursue. Art was to motivate and encourage this process of creative thinking, especially with regard to matters of high complexity and ambiguous definitions.

Dealing with trauma and human consciousness inevitably leads also to philosophical questions, for instance the nature of individual identity, the essence of the “I”, or the question whether there is but one sole “I” or if there exist many “I’s” at once: not in a pathological sense but as a natural condition of human existence. Such questions – of great significance both in science and therapy – touch our existential images of life. They reach beyond what our languages are capable of expressing. Here, the expectation was that art be of some help drawing nearer these archetypical, transcendent and ultimately unapproachable territories.

How was the artistic contribution created?

My contribution consisted of three parts. First, preparing for the symposium I created 33 paintings whose themes and designs were united to the core questions of the meeting. They were exhibited in the plenary hall and adjoined spaces where the participants circulated. My second assignment was to create “life” images during the symposium. I participated in the plenary and group sessions trying to visually capture the contents evolving from the presentations and discussions. The resulting drawings were subsequently integrated into the exhibition. In addition, the organizers invited me to present to the participants the ongoing development of the artistic work. And third, I could contribute a chapter to the subsequent book containing the essays of the key speakers, and illustrate this publication with the images that had emerged during the symposium.

How did the paintings for the exhibition emerge?

My greatest challenge was: how can I possibly contribute artistically to a dialogue between experts from disciplines to which I do not belong? And the even more defying question: what is my personal creative vision on such an existential subject like trauma and human consciousness? The first decision I took was to directly and personally engage in the contents that would be discussed at the symposium. During this initial phase of studying I produced a great number of texts and images. However, although they did help me deepening my own understandings, they all had one thing in common: they lacked symbolic power. These initial texts and images were still mere intellectual articulations: a mirror of my own studies and reflections on the subject. I sensed that they had no vitality, in fact: no soul. What I was still missing was a guiding image, a Gestalt beyond the horizon of my own comprehensions. Simply put: I had not yet consecrated myself to the subject – and without consecration there exists no science, no therapy, and no art.

I was not surprised that the guiding image appeared in a dream. I dreamt of a glass full of water that, before my eyes, breaks into innumerous pieces over which the water flows freely. This image now became my inner guide for the subsequent work, and I formulated it in the following question:

When the pot breaks into bits and pieces,
Who is the voice now saying: “I am broken?”

From this moment on, the creative process began to bloom. During months I created painting by painting, developing them all simultaneously: the stroke in one image permitted the stroke in another, the struggle won in a detail in one painting allowed continuing in the others. Thus the 33 paintings evolved like one single body, and during this work I did feel that together they formed an entirety.

The basic structure of the Mandala underlying many of the 33 paintings emerged quasi naturally. I observed how my initial studies now entered smoothly into the creative work – for instance, the blue hand and the colored piece it aims to grab, are one and the same: two manifestations in time and space of the same vital current. Other Mandalas seem to indicate a continuous flowing back and forth between order and generating impulse, or the interdependency between the parts and the total, both entangled in the creating dialogue between them. While painting I kept musing on the core subjects of the oncoming symposium, yet not in a merely rational but contemplative manner. I had begun to consecrate myself.

What does it mean to “draw life”?

During the symposium I participated in the plenary and group sessions. My assignment was capturing important contents of the presentations and discussions. But how would I know what was important? And even if I knew: how would I be able to grasp the essence of the ideas and intentions of others? And if this was impossible: how could I anyway make a worthwhile contribution and avoid encapsulating myself in the role of a visitor who understands other people’s reality only as an external impulse for his own creativity? What made travelling down this road possible were the interest and openheartedness of the participants themselves. They received me with great warmth and curiosity, and integrated me in their discussions as one of them. Therefore, I did not have to be the wedding photographer but could be a family member. And precisely this made the creative work so stimulating, natural and, I dare hope, conclusive for the joint quest.

“Drawing life” did not mean that I wanted to be carried on by the sheer spontaneity and curiosity of the moment. I did try to understand the logic and entanglement of the arguments presented. Of course, not aiming to be pure illustrations of what was said, the images could develop toward the archetypical and poetic, which shone through the expert statements. They could point toward territories, which – although unknown to all – everybody shares.