I like to think about the “discovery of shared forms”.
To recognise similarities in forms and shapes across human and nonhuman domains. For example, the shape of your own hands and the leaves of a tree.
In the Persian and Flemish legend Why Some Leaves Are Shaped Like the Human Hand, these similarities are explained through trees that transformed into humans. The other trees also wished to be transformed, but could only change part of their shape: leaves like hands. And so, today’s trees remind us that humans came from trees.
The recognition of shared forms is an important way to move towards post-anthropocentric thought (Eduardo Kohn’s book How Forests Think explores this deeply). Branching networks are often used as an example, which we can encounter in underground fungal mycelia, rivers, veins, and beyond. Comics can also convey shared forms to create connections visually. This happens for example in the intriguing Chilean graphic novel Informe Tunguska. I’m curious about finding more of these shape patterns.
Today I look at zigzags.
Zigzags drawn on the street, in a spiderweb, lightning bolts.
But we can’t rely on purely visible observations of the world. Visualising a shape like a zigzag can help to communicate the invisible. That’s why I love visual language. For example, it’s an easy to understand convention that electricity can ‘look’ like a (yellow) zigzag. Inspired by lightning? Or that the zigzag lines on screens in the hospital represent a patient’s heartbeat.
And so, visual language draws us into synaesthetic principles, a blending of the senses — a shape can convey a sound or movement. This can result in wondrous and mysterious artworks and innovations. For example, Wassily Kandinsky painted sounds; and recently I became aware of the paintings and notes by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint that use a biological synaesthesia, both down to earth and mystical by combining abstract and figurative forms. She painted closely observed natural forms (flowers, plants, shells; ‘moist moss’ and ‘cool trees’) and geometric forms (squares, triangles, spirals) as if they were extracted from them. And so, museum director Daniel Birnbaum writes:
Form is never distinct from life in af Klint’s art: The spiritual forces that sometimes emerge in purity in her paintings are, as her drawings and notes indicate, also present in everything that is alive.
My own process toward developing a visual ‘creaturely’ language is humble, yet I always look for ways to push possibilities — to continuously connect humans and nonhumans through the visible and invisible, like in this (currently wordless) work-in-progress. Humans, spiders, and mosses are surrounded by soundwaves, electricity in the air, chemicals, scents: a shared atmosphere.
Combinations of figurative and abstract shapes, yes, but also white space. White space is for the unknown, the things we cannot grasp. The imagination. This will a topic for a future post.