Hidden Images and Making Sense out of Nothing

In a half-asleep state of mind this morning, I caught an item on Radio 4 about how established a word has to be before in makes it into the Oxford English Dictionary. A couple of the examples under discussion were very relevant I thought to artists, and I immediately went off to google them. Even if they were still in the grey area of consideration by the OED editors, I was sure they would have found their way to Wikipedia. Because I had been too sleepy to listen to the spellings dictated by Giles Brandreth, it took a little while because I had entirely misheard a couple of key consonants, but I got there in the end.

Apophenia is the seeing of meaningful connections in random or meaningless data. And pareidolia is a form of apophenia involving the finding of images or sounds in random stimuli; faces in the moon and in clouds, for example. I was surprised pareidolia wasn’t in the OED, because it transpired I had come across this term before. That’s not surprising given i have spent a lifetime looking for and seeing hidden images reveal themselves in the world around me. I can still clearly remember evocative wallpaper patterns and ceiling cracks in the spare bedroom at my grandmother’s house.

I often feel I should be more consciously aware of pareidolia in the making of my own work, because my preferred way of working is to allow images to emerge from marks and shapes to allow a more natural integration of ground and subject. But it is all to easy for someone who is at heart a graphic painter to seek to pull out and emphasise line, and take it too far, so making the subject just too obvious. More consciousness of pareidolia would encourage more subtlety in my figurative work.

A couple of years ago I visited a wonderful exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. Une Image Peut En Cacher Une Autre (One Image May Hide Another) presented an inspiring overview of hidden imagery throughout the ages. From the eccentric fantasies of Arcimboldo through to extraordinary work by contemporary sculptor Markus Raetz, the works on show included hidden/reversible imagery, anthropomorphic landscapes, erotic ambiguities and perspective illusions. I find Raetz’s work particularly interesting; the emphasis he places on the viewer’s perspective in seeing ‘reality’ is a core concern of my own work.

But I find the concept of apophenia equally powerful. The early scientific discussions on the notion of seeing sense out of nonsense presented it as a psychotic distortion of reality; but nowadays it is accepted that you can make these connections without being mentally ill. Quite right too. I think some of the best ideas anyone can have are fundamentally of apophenic origin, in the sense of seemingly unconnected disparate items suddenly coming together in a blinding-flash-eureka moment. Cultivating apophenia seems a very good thing to do for all artists of whatever kind.


4 responses to Hidden Images and Making Sense out of Nothing

  1. […] a close second. But there are ‘faces’ everywhere around us. I posted on the notion of pareidolia a while back, (which is the ‘seeing’ of faces in amorphous shapes), and I seem to have […]

  2. I like your link between apophenia / pareidolia and creativity / ideas generation – interetsing take on this phenomenon!

    • gillianholding – Author

      Thanks. I do feel I should indulge much more in it though. Taking time out to allow much more free-flow association is invariably beneficial but far too often the day gets in the way.

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