Above: Peter Silverton by Rankin

Okay, back to landscapes. Well, not just landscapes, in the specific sense of images of the natural world. Rather, the visual stuff in a picture or movie that isn’t people (or animals) and that we read, consciously or unconsciously, as having meaning. In particular, the straight and curved lines that form one of the most obvious elements of composition. Separate an image, fixed or moving, into two planes: in front, a person or persons; behind and around it, a series of shapes (a natural or constructed world).

Take corners: Irving Penn’s Corner Portraits of Truman Capote wearing a long overcoat, crunched on a chair; or Salvador Dali in suede Oxfords with head tilted and elbows akimbo. Leave aside those body shapes for a moment and think about the shapes behind Dali. The lines of the corner: a vertical and two horizontals. At first glance it might be a serifed ‘I’. Phillippe Halsman’s picture of Marilyn Monroe places her in the corner of a living room (her own, I think). Forget her half-closed eyes and half-open mouth. Think of the angle of the two walls and their tones: one is dark, the other is pale. Meaning residing not in her, but in the shape of walls, and tone: a commentary on a fractured heart made by two walls and their intersection. Now think of something Monroe once said: “I’m always running into people’s unconscious.”

When we look at the image, moving our eyes across and around it (or letting the movie projector do it for us), what are we doing? What are we looking for? What is the meaning there in those abstract shapes? What are we getting out of it? The kind of meanings that Robert Frank was surely on about when he said, “We all have a memory of life that goes on behind our eyes.” Previously, I wrote about the horizontal landscape, or seascape: of how I think its appeal (and it’s a deep one; a very deep one) is that a horizon is a visual representation of our own internal boundary between our unconscious and consciousness. Since then I’ve been looking at Simon Robert’s We English. He really likes that kind of stripey, horizoned image.

Among many in the book there is a particularly rich one of the River Wharfe in Yorkshire. From the bottom up: dark, greeny, inky river; almost white shingle spit; light khaki sand; lawn-green meadow; deep-green deciduous woodland; distant, hazy-green hills; pale-blue, washed-out sky. People, in groups are dotted across the countryscape. Roberts wrote that he wanted to ensure that the figures were “not so small that you couldn’t make out some facial expressions”. But I’d say the meaning of the picture is far more in those stripes. Which leads to a show I saw recently, at Tate St Ives, of the work of Simon Fujiwara: Cornish, gay, half-English, half-Japanese, now based in Berlin. Those layers – stripes of self – are echoed in The Mirror Stage: a piece which plays on Patrick Heron’s Horizontal Stripe Painting: November 1957-January 1958. You know it. It’s the red, maroon and yellow one. It looks like IKEA bed linen, which is a central gag in Fujiwara’s piece. Heron’s stripes were also taken and used by Francis Bacon for Reclining Woman, 1961.

There we read the colour blocks and lines for the deep-set meanings of Bacon’s painting. There is that word again: ‘read’. And that takes me to the work of Mark Changizi: an evolutionary neurobiologist at Caltech. He asked a simple question: “Why can we read? Not “Why do we read?” That’s obvious: it’s a staggeringly powerful means of sharing and analysing information. The answer to the first question, though, leads us back to images: still and moving. The fact is that humans have been around and speaking to each other for 50,000 years. But reading and writing are only a few thousand years old. So neither can be there in our basic neuronal structure and, therefore, must have reused some system that was already there in the brain. Which system? Changizi reckons it’s our capacity for extracting meaning from topography: the shape of the natural world; the slopes of hills; the straight(ish) lines of rivers and woodlands; the elements of Simon Robert’s riverine photograph. Making sense of this stuff is hardwired into our brains. It’s what we need (well, needed) to figure out where food and dangers might be in our original www:the wide, wild world. Via studies of very young babies’ perception, Changizi et al showed that this topographic sense is there in our brains, pretty much from birth.

How does this link to reading? To explain that, Changizi and his team turned to writing systems, looking at more than 100 different ones: old and new, alphabetical and ideogramatic (e.g. Chinese). Now, the thing about writing systems is that they aren’t very good at their job. It’s hard to write with them; far harder than using, say, Pitman shorthand. Which is odd; or rather, seemingly odd. The fact is that what all our writing systems are good at is being read. That is, their communicative power trumps their ease of use. What sits behind that communicative power? Topography. As the title of a Changizi paper in The American Naturalist put it: “The structures of letters and symbols throughout human history are selected to match those found in objects in natural scenes.” For example, contours with outlines, like ‘L’ or ‘X’, are “more common in both human visual signs and natural scenes” than anything that looks like an asterisk.

Our writing systems (and therefore reading systems) are built out of the systems we already had to figure out shapes in our environment. So take one step more and we start to maybe have an idea of what our brains are doing when we attend to that second plane of a still or moving image. We really are ‘reading’ it. Or, at least, we are using the same systems as we do when we read words. Only this is a world before words; or beyond, or below. It’s the stuff we use to constitute written words. It’s a locus of meaning which has yet to condense into language: a place of emotions and our unconscious, most obviously. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called words “the bridge to reality”; and a bridge has two ends. If it doesn’t, it’s not a bridge. Maybe the topographical shapes in still and moving images sit, productively, in the middle of that bridge; shuttling meaning from one part of ourselves to another. It’s an act of translation, though, which can go one way or another; but never hither and thither. The meaning that shapes can express will always remain cut off from the words that shapes can be used to create. The same underlying neural system has produced two parallel systems which are pretty much mutually incomprehensible. Yet they can and do communicate via a symbolic language based on the shapes of the natural world. Words and pictures: both, please.

© Peter Silverton 2012

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