Grey’s painting reveals the influence of Eastern religions and New Age tenets: lines emanating from chakras and auras overlay detailed renderings of the human body's anatomical layers. The artist maintains his works are spiritual meditations, born from experiences while tripping on LSD.
It is fifty years and more since the Sergeant Pepper’s albumn, when the Beatles introduced elements of Indian music to popular culture in the west. Alongside the sound of sitars came news of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru to guide band members through meditation practices of the east. In the recently published "Digital Mantras", Steve Holtzman describes a world-wide movement of the late 20th. century, in which meditation is also conjoined with a computer-generated music "reflecting the structure of the cosmos". Holtzman is interested in ways to relate mathematics to meditation and to music but, delving even deeper into Eastern mysticism, he attributes the origins of all three disciplines to the Aryan priestly caste of ancient India. It is no surprise that Holtzman sees, as evidence, certain wild rites practiced by Western expatriates in Goa. De Clario voiced similar enthusiasms: of course, no such pagan fundamentalism would do for a polite Melbourne institution like Heide. "Sevenness: Sublunar" was more like a retreat. Yet, in its own muted way, the event took on something of the flavour of a revival meeting. De Clario, while cast as resident artist-cum-musician, proselytized his spiritual cause. He fulfilled the role of evangelist, testifier, or guru by default, though he was no Billy Graham or even an Oprah Winfrey. (Look under your seat – you all get a free ticket to enlightenment!)
A study of cults and their gurus, provided in Anthony Storr's "Feet of Stone", reveals they are not primarily interested in the exchange of ideas, but more concerned with stamping others' thinking with their own convictions. With exaggerated self-belief, they think they know how to put order into chaos. The simplistic theosophy of De Clario, and the Aryan fundamentalism underpinning Holtzman's work, are both aimed for that effect. This could explain the didactic nature of their preachings, the gaps in their logic and lack of originality. Their identification with all things Oriental - Holtzman’s love of the Brahmin caste of India, De Clario’s adaption of kundalini yoga - is common to many New Age movements. Europeans have been fascinated by the east, ever since Herodotus beguiled the Greeks with tales of India, in the 5th century BC. Later accounts, from Apollonius of Tyana in the 1st century AD, told of fabulous feats by the holy men of India. Guides to their ascetic practices were codified around 400 AD, in the “Yogasastra” of Patanjali. The author warned readers against cultivating supernatural powers – the ability to levitate, become invisible, or gain immortality: they distracted from the true goal, an individual’s absorption within an ultimate reality. But tantric yogis were not deterred; they would associate supernatural achievement with their path to spiritual liberation. From the 8th century on, tantric practice focused on chakras along the kundalini path, activating the energy centres by meditation, breathing excercises, and chanting mantras.
De Clario borrowed the general idea for "Sevenness: Sublunar", though his added colour-music code is a Western imposition. Nowhere in the tantric literature can I find coherent series of physical notes and colours following the chakras. Rather, tantric yogis (always a marginal group) might branch out into deliberately transgressive practices, using esoteric sexual techniques or imbibing mercury elixirs. When the British entered India they found well-organized groups of yogis, reputed for their supernatural powers of prophecy and alchemy. Local rulers would consult them in matters military and medical, so the Christian colonizers proceeded to reduce the status of yogis to that of vagabond and criminal. At the same time, the sacred texts of India were being translated into European languages, and they enjoyed a vogue throughout the 19th century. Arthur Schopenhauer was an early enthusiast for the Upanishads and Buddhism; when the philosopher’s writings became popular mid-century, readers discovered essays on many exotic topics. An early treatise “On Vision and Colours” arose from discussions with Goethe, about the latter’s colour theory. Schopenhauer also wondered how, beyond the function of the eye, the brain could conjure up visions in dreams. Increasingly, reports were emerging of strange cases of synaesthesia, people who saw spirits, and the inexplicable results of mesmerism. Schopenhauer’s investigation of these matters took him beyond physiology into the realm of psychology, outside the bounderies of conventional religion to the borders of the occult domain.
Schopenhauer was a direct influence on the composer Richard Wagner, when he was formulating his idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork) to combine all the arts. At the top of Wagner’s hierarchy came drama (presumably his own operas). Landscape painting rated a mention (perhaps as stage scenery), as the eye’s record of nature’s outward forms. But music was paramount, if faithfully created in a hypnotic-like trance - an internal vision for “the eye of hearing”. The total artwork became a living presentation of the true religion. Wagner thought the authentic forms of all religions had been corrupted by institutional trappings (though he elevated Indian Vedanta and Buddhism to the status of Christianity). With his revolutionary music and ideas, Wagner quickly gained a cult-like following.
In 1879, the Theosophical Society was inspired to relocate its headquarters to India. Styling the sect as the true, ‘scientific’ religion, its founders claimed to be in communication with immortal sages in the Himalayas. ‘Mahatma Letters’ would mysteriously materialize, psychically conveyed from one Koot Hoomi. A founder of Theosophy, Colonel Olcott, toured the subcontinent, performing faith healings and cultivating disciples among rich and influential Anglo-Indians. Another founder, Madame Blavatsky, penned her voluminous “The Secret Doctrine” in 1888, a pastiche of ideas drawn from the sacred texts of India and western occult law. A smattering of references to popular (if outdated) science was included: in a passage on the sacredness of numbers, Blavatsky cited David Hay’s work on colour harmony:
“The direction, indeed, of modern natural and physical science, is towards a generalization which shall express the fundamental laws of all, by one simple numerical ratio…From these it appears that the number seven is distinguished in the laws regulating the harmonious Perception of forms, colours, and sounds, and probably of taste also, if we could analyse our sensations of this kind with mathematical accuracy."
David Hay was a well-known house painter who renovated the Scottish estates of Walter Scott and Queen Victoria. His text on colour harmony (with the sub-title, “Adapted to Interior Decorations, Manufactures, and Other Useful Purposes”) went through at least six editions. Hay noted a colour melody arose when the pigment primaries – red, yellow and blue - were mixed two at a time. Yellow, for instance, was ‘melodised’ by the compounds of orange and green on either side; in a sequence, the three primary and three secondary colours formed a prismatic spectrum, or rainbow. Hay illustrated the scheme on a musical clef, a simplified adaption of George Field’s more complex diagram, in “Chromatics” of 1817.
The colour music of David Hay was a six-fold scheme, of primary and secondary colours allotted to a diatonic scale. Hay based his arrangement on the previous ideas of George Field. Both of their colour-music codes started with blue on the note C, but the six colours ran out before the seven-note musical scale was covered. Field filled the gap with two varieties of green, inserting a yellow-green for the note A; Hay simply added a neutral grey on the note B. Theodor Seemann almost solved the problem in 1881, in his German translation of Hay’s work. He expanded the palette by mixing primaries with their adjacent secondary colours, so yellow, for example, could be bordered by yellow-orange and yellow–green. Twelve colours resulted – one for every semitone of any musical scale. He tried a more orthodox scale, starting at C with red, rather than the initial blue of Hay and Field. But Seemann found a yellow-green fell on F. It was suppressed, so all primary and secondary colours would correspond to white notes on a piano. He attempted to include Newton's ROY G BIV, though he felt indigo to be a mix of primary blue and secondary purple (or violet). It was consigned to a black note, G#. After violet A, two semitones remained: like Hay, Seemann was obliged to allow non-spectral colours, giving brown and black to A# and B.
Hay wrote many books on aesthetics, including “First Principles of Symmetrical Beauty” in 1846. A young James Clerk Maxwell found it fascinating, filling pages with diagrams of ovals. Maxwell's father took his son’s doodles to Hay at his home in Edinburg, then showed them to eminent scientists. They were impressed, comparing the boy’s efforts favourably to those of Descartes, Newton and Huygens. At the age of fifteen, the future mathematician found his first paper being read before the Scottish Royal Academy. Later, at Cambridge, Maxwell matched Hay's colours to those on his spinning disk, proving to his friends that yellow and blue could not make green if mixed this way. It appears that Madame Blavatsky was not the only person inspired by Hay’s decorative schemes. However, her scholarship was far less creative, more of an exercise in name-dropping. By reference to a Hay’s popular book, she propped up her theme of sacred sevens. Later, at Theosophical headquarters in India, Annie Besant appeared to take a more traditional approach, toying with Newton’s ROY G BIV to make elaborate occult correspondences. It was there, also, that C W Leadbeater gathered material for “The Chakras”, interviewing yogis to construct a colour coding suitable for the kundalini path.
Such efforts might seem harmless enough, but it is well to be aware of dangerous elements in New Age doctrines. Corinne Heline, fondly quoted by De Clario, virulently opposed vaccination in the 1950s. (Presumably, the polio that was maiming and killing children was less horrifying to her, than Dr Salk’s vaccine that stemmed the epidemic.) Certain fringe-dwellers have taken up her cause today, posing a potential threat to their children and to public health. Their attitude had precedence in the 1880s, when people campaigned against mandatory smallpox vaccinations. Among their number was A R Wallace, co-inventor with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution. Little was known of the germ theory of disease, let alone the immune system, but Wallace was felt vaccination was an infringement of personal liberty, unsafe and not certain in its outcome. It might upset the balance of nature. His claims were dismissed, though sanitary conditions for inoculations were improved and fines for non-compliance reduced. Social activist as well as renowned biologist, Wallace was also an avid investigator of occult phenomena. In 1896 he published “Miracles and Modern Spiritualism”, berating scientists for not investigating animal magnetism, communications from the dead, and other visionary experiences that were widely reported by the public. This would endear him to Heline and her followers, but Wallace so irritated other scientists that his friend Darwin found it difficult to secure him a pension.
Nor does the New Agers’ love of Indian religion simply arise from childlike fascination; a commonality is presumed between east and west, entitling each to impose on or borrow from the other’s culture. One link was suggested at the end of the 18th century, when British orientalist, Sir William Jones, detected similar structures to the languages of Indians and Persians, Goths and Celts. A common ancestry was theorized, of a prehistoric tribe that had spoken the root language. They were dubbed the Aryans, after the country of Iran. A French count, Joseph-Arthur, soon joined in, claiming that a ‘Nordic’ race of Aryans represented the summit of civilization. These white, Germanic peoples would flourish as long as they remain free of black and yellow strains. The race has been on ever since, to prove that one’s own branch of the family tree is better than any other.
The composer Wagner was deeply influenced by such ideas, at a time Germany was coming together as a nation. He believed the fount of all true religion and art lay with the German Folk, and his musical epic, the Ring Cycle, retells their legends. Likewise, the Theosophists claimed a spiritual kinship; Blavatsky waxed lyrical about the Aryans, and embroidered their lineage with forbearers from the mythical continents of Atlantis and Lemuria. She averred the Vedas of India, the mysteries of the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Persians and Greeks, even the Bible, all derived from the Secret Doctrine of the Aryans. Australian aborigines themselves were embroiled, according to Blavatsky’s research on the astral plane. Recent scientific theories, particularly evolution and eugenics, were dragged into the fray, wilfully misinterpreted in support of spiritualism, and setting aflame a pernicious and widespread racism.
Sometimes, gurus may convince too well and their ideas can be disastrous when scaled up. Ariosophists formed an occult movement in the early 20th century, adhering to the belief that Germans were the purest Aryans, the pinnacle of evolution. They recommended selective breeding of Aryans and mass castration of inferior 'apelike' men, and borrowed the Indian swastika as their symbol. (Their virilent racism anticipated the brutal policies of Adolf Hitler - and we know how well that went.) One Ariosophist even thought Germans were too pure to be Aryans, and claimed descent from extra-terrestrial visitors. Much later, the Heaven's Gate cult would also put faith in outer space. Inspired by Theosophy and Bible prophecy, its followers saw salvation in science. They believed an alien spacecraft lurked behind a comet, waiting to resurrect them. In a spectacular example of self-defeating zeal, cult members decided to hasten the event by killing themselves. The suicide note, posted to the group’s web page in 1997, announced their "graduation from the Human Evolutionary Level”.
Not all sects turn deadly: believers may coalesce around a more benign faith, simply for the sense of unique identity it offers. "Sevenness: Sublunar" (if it should indeed be called a cult) offered followers transcendental states, without any concomitant agony. Many theologians would dismiss such soft options out of hand as individualistic, lacking social conscience and any broad humanistic framework. In turn, De Clario might argue for cultural relevance, since yoga, Greek philosophy, science and numerology were all lauded in his scheme. His venue, the garden of a gallery, might possibly make it art. Even so, his credo became decentralised and weak, its authenticity and sincerity diminished, as it stretched to embrace any and every cultural concern. But it is simple, a recipe for revelation in the seven easy steps of the colour-music code. Enlightenment was equally available as transcendence - and for no extra effort. Again, theologians have tactics to deal with such posturing: De Clario might be chastised for reacting against Christian disciplines that perhaps treated him badly in the past. But he would not be the only sheep to stray from the fold; many of his generation reject conventional religions' monopoly over the soul.
Eastern religion may seem a viable alternative, though critics deplore the spiritual bypass provided in ‘Yogaland’, where disciples are encouraged to focus on themselves, to avoid their problems and those of the world. But in the global market, loosely connected via the internet, a plethora of yoga centres embrace a variety of western concerns, from stress relief to ‘goddess yoga’. For some, "Sevenness: Sublunar" may seem an appetizing option, one of the many beliefs catering to aspirational spirituality and personal growth. Until recently, the Sydney comic Anthony Ackroyd was to be counted amongst the self-improvers:
"...ordinary, blue-jeaned, middle Australians looking for that certain something. What is that something? What are millions of us around the globe searching for in books, tapes, seminars, workshops and speaking events? Information to enhance our lifestyles and enrich our experience on this planet? Certainly. This is undoubtably a good thing. But I smell something else in the ether. Something more desperate and deluded. A worrying snake-oil factor that is spinning out of control. It is the promise of salvation. Salvation from the basic rules of human life. This is the neurotic aspect of the human potential movement. This hunger for the get-out-of-the-human-condition-free card. We are the generation who refused to accept the limitations endured by our ancestors. We wanted more and we made damn sure we got it. Now we want it all. We want it easily and we want it yesterday!...The completely valid and tremendously exciting possibilities opened up by the human potential movement are in danger of being distorted by the promotion of a Brave New Age World where we ascend beyond all human limitation. You guys! You are going to suffer sometimes and you will die! Or did Buddha, Moses and Jesus all get it wrong? Maybe it was just their reality."
Of course, the true gurus of colour music in the West are Aristotle and Newton. They both attempted to codify the unknown quantities of colour by an analogy to the known measures of music. Other gurus would emerge: Louis-Bertrand Castel has been a particular inspiration to technology, advocating a way to produce the sensations of sound and colour simultaneously, while turning Newton's colour order on its head. Yet others have attempted novel reforms: in 1844, D D Jameson published a pamphlet on "Colour-Music", in which he replaced the traditional form of musical notation with coloured shapes. Written notes were to go, to "cede their ill-gotten empire to the mild sovereignty of the rainbow". Gone, too, was the "bar-bar-ism of bars", horizontal measures of time being represented instead by relative widths of coloured patches. Essentially, Jameson followed Newton's ROY G BIV colour-music code except his musical scale, starting on red, was in the common key of C major instead of Newton's symmetrical D scale. His final colours differed slightly, too; indigo was replaced by deep purple to give the sequence, ROY G BPV. Coincidentally or not, the sequence of pigmental primaries and secondaries occupy the first six notes, C to A. As Thomas Young had observed at the beginning of the century, the musical sixth had the same ratio of vibrations as the whole visible spectrum. Perhaps Jameson intended to imply this; his final violet on the seventh note could then suggest the ultraviolet region beyond, discovered by Johann Ritter in 1801.
All that remained was to paste coloured papers on the corresponding keys of a piano. Then a child, Jameson claimed, could sight-read music within two minutes of learning his method. Others have agreed with him, and a great number of registered patents advocate similar techniques for teaching music to young people. Many current schemes, advertised on the internet for educational purposes, provide coloured stickers to paste on piano keys or for the frets and strings of a guitar. Toy pianos can have rainbow-coloured keys, in the hope a child will learn music more readily. Sometimes each key is linked to a written note, printed in the same colour. But Jameson hoped for more than simple instruction - colour analysis could assess the merits of music, too. To that purpose he borrowed a formula from George Field's "Chromatics". The colour of every note was reduced to three pigmental primaries, red, yellow and blue, which occupied the notes C, E and G. Elements of red and yellow were given positive values of five and three, while a blue was negative eight. The more they neutralized each other the greater the harmony, both optically and aurally. Jameson believed the three colours combined to white light, a neutral and harmonious outcome. He expected their combined notes, the C major chord, to be equally neutral; together, they might even make silence if properly played.
Uniting effects of music and colour in a mathematical series, Jameson claimed, "affords a foundation for inductive science". The previous attempts of Louis-Bertrand Castel were unsatisfactory; the Frenchman's theory had been imprecise and his ocular harpsichord relied on 'inherent' colours. Jameson was not content with the coloured ribbons or cards that Castel's instrument was rumoured to display. They may be sufficient for instructional purposes, but a performance of colour music required "the use of transient reflected colours, for the production of sensic effect". Prismatic hues were best achieved by shining lamps through glass flasks containing differently tinted liquids. These were to be housed in twelve portholes, cut into the walls of a darkened room. Each was covered with a shutter that opened when the appropriate note was played on a piano. Then a beam of colour-coded light shone forth, to be reflected from bright tin plates that lined the room. Jameson's plan for an immersive environment, awash with colour and music, was perhaps the first of its kind. But it was probably never realized; the idea of environmental sound and light became a possibility with advances in twentieth-century technology.
Fifty years later, Jameson’s colour music had a direct influence on E J Lind. In “The Music of Color”, Lind acknowledged Jameson’s “Colour Music” and used a similar graphical method to represent many songs. Colour patches were arranged in tidy strips, the width of each colour indicated the length of its note. Orthodox ROY G BIV colours were keyed to the C scale, and Lind traced their evolution from “the crude tones and colors of a ruder age” – the savage races subsisting on red and yellow and just two notes – to “a higher plane, more complex, refined, and intellectual” – the twelve colours and notes of western civilization. The ancient Greeks were halfway there, with six of each, though below the level of Arabs and medieval man. Still, they were better off than William Gladstone had supposed in 1858. A classics scholor (and later Prime Minister of Great Britain), Gladstone could find no trace of the word ‘blue’ in Homeric writing, and decided the Greeks had not evolved sufficiently to see that colour. The philologist Lazarus Geiger agreed, extending the deficiency to Persians and Indians through studies of their sacred texts. (He also believed the ancestral Aryan language had its origin in Germany, rather than in any oriental land.) Geiger suggested that colour vision was gradually acquired, starting from red and evolving in spectral order. In 1969, Berlin and Kay took up the concept in “Basic Colour Terms”, though their theory was restricted to the evolution of languages and words, rather than applied to races and their physiology.
Lind gave credit to another source of colour music, in “Rainbow Music; or, The Philosophy of Harmony in Colour-Grouping”. Written in 1886 by Lady Janey Campbell, the booklet gives details of Jameson’s “Colour-Music” (“a work too little known”), preferring his ideas to those of Castel. The latter is illustrated by a chromatic scale, ascending and descending, with each note labeled with a colour. Lady Campbell faithfully ran the spectrum down the scale rather than up, placing red on A so that blue, Castel’s “tonic colour of all nature”, falls on C. In the text, however, she decided Newton’s ROY G BIV as best for the white notes of the keyboard. More recent events are mentioned – a colour organ built in America (probably that of Bainbridge Bishop), Charles Férér’s experiments on physical responses to sound and light, and reported cases of ‘colour-audition’ (synaesthesia). Waves of light and sound were compared, and Lady Campbell surmised they could provoke a vibratory state in one’s whole being. As a firm believer in the spirit world, she was touching on a common theme – of a vibrating realm extending to the aether and beyond, known to mediums and inhabited by spirits, alive and dead. Nevertheless, Lady Campbell went further: the true parallel lay in the spirit and essence of the two arts, painting and music. Properly aligned, they could raise the standard of taste, especially in interior decoration. To avoid “sitting in a kaleidoscope”, her dream environment would be decorated with motifs of seashells and irises, in all their tints and shades. The famous Peacock Room, also titled a “Harmony in Blue and Gold”, set the standard: the painter Whistler, an artist patronized by the Campbells, had designed it.
In 2007, Harvard scientists lit up the brains of mice with genes from fluorescent proteins. Four years later, the technique was applied to fruit flies: different neurons, and their dendrites and axons, glowed in a hundred colours. The cells involved in one activity - the fly’s sense of smell, movement of its proboscis, mating behaviour – can be shown by their colour. Previous techniques relied on staining individual cells and examining them under a microscope (chromosomes were found this way, and aptly named for the colour-coded dyes that distinguished them).
The binary mathematics of computing - a simple number system of noughts and ones used as the intimate language of modern science - makes the 'sevenness' of colour music, from Aristotle to De Clario, seem almost a sophistry. Digital technology, with its on-off circuitry, is often likened to the workings of neurons in the brain. The model is seductive and a type of binary organisation is also used in the way general brain functions are classed. Pairs of opposites (reason and emotion, memory and impressions) are assigned to separate brain regions (cortex or limbic system, left or right hemisphere). Mirroring the brain's anatomy, as well as the more obvious dualities of two hands, two eyes and so on, the binary approach is deeply ingrained in human thought; amongst others, Isaac Newton saw the bilateral symmetry of animals as evidence of divine handiwork. Just as the polarizing tendency finds more general expression in our civil institutions - two-party politics and the adversarial system of the law - so it is used as a technique for understanding the brain. But thinking this way will influence the thoughts we have: inevitably, tautologies will arise from using our brain to study the brain. As Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, a problem cannot be solved by the same mind that created it.
Francis Crick at the Salk Institute in Lahoya believes that all brain activities can be reduced to neural activity. In "The Astonishing Hypothesis", he claims the combinations of firing patterns possible from countless neurons is sufficient to account for all types of brain activity. With increased computing power and the new mathematics of random behaviour (such as chaos theory), rationalists hope to unravel thought and re-create it as artificial intelligence. But, as the neurologist Richard Cytowic has pointed out:
"When we think of our brains, we usually think of a computer, a reasoning machine in our heads that runs things. This is consistent with the hierarchical model. But emotion - which word I use to include emotional, a-rational and non-verbal knowledge and cognition - is what actually directs our thoughts and actions."
The British professor, Baroness Susan Greenfield, agrees that the input requirements of a computer are quite different from the passivity of humans. No special areas of the brain, nor chemicals or connections within it, are responsible for consciousness. The brain is part of a total body chemistry and responds with a unique neurological configuration at any given moment. She concludes that conscious machines are an impossibility now and most likely in the future too, since the brain does not process step by step, or algorithmically, like a machine. (More worrying might be the influence of machines on brain development - the conditioning influence on a generation that uses the internet extensively could arguably standardize the brain.) Roger Penrose, Oxonian Professor of Mathematics, also draws the line in "The Emperor's New Mind"; he refuses to see how computing can equate to understanding. His reasoning is centred on the inability of binary mathematics to handle some types of calculations, including important aspects of quantum mechanics. The brain might be capable of quantum behaviour, speculates Penrose (seemingly if the interstices of substructures within neurons are filled with ordered water), and that might account for consciousness. But quantum computers are now being developed at MIT and at the University of NSW, Sydney. Individual atoms or molecules are used as microprocessors so such a machine can operate in the realm of quantum mechanics where a particle can theoretically be in two places at once. The result is non-algorithmic computing, touted as vastly more comprehensive and much, much faster than ever before. So far, their machines can count up to four.
Existing definitions of both brain and mind seem inadequate to define the operation of consciousness, a formidable obstacle as even die-hard number crunchers concede. More contemporary concepts of a 'multiplex' brain organisation take into account volume transmission, distributed systems, non-linear dynamics and the thermodynamic energy costs of any given biologic neural process. But such ideas are as yet little used or understood. Contradictions inherent in more conventional models led the neurologist A. K. Ommaya to describe consciousness as "a type of emotion".
Other prominent scientists formed the Transpersonal Movement to allot consciousness a special place. TM holds that a universal consciousness resides in a sort of fifth dimension called the psi field, and that each individual's consciousness returns there, as a soul to heaven, after death. The oversoul of the Theosophical Society is remarkably similar, being that part of the immutable principle, or godhead, through which all souls are recycled in the course of reincarnation. Like Carl Jung's collective unconscious, it is used to explain why different individuals, or even separate civilizations, can arrive at the same ideas independently. But pushing consciousness out of the body and off into some mythological realm posits the same dilemmas as traditional religions. Some may be satisfied by these solutions, but science itself may not be a fit tool to explore their metaphysics. Where the agenda is dictated by theology, or even popular mysticism, scientists too often experience spiritual vertigo, coming up with lazy-minded theories about God. Detecting the hand of God in a fractal design seems as deluded to me as discounting geological evidence for the sake of the stories of Genesis.
On the frontiers of science, vast areas of unknown leave plenty of scope for metaphysical speculation. The relatively new field of neurology surpasses even quantum physics as the discipline where the sexy questions are put, where neurologists ponder such problematic ideas as human consciousness. Oliver Sacks once outlined the state of play, while giving an address in Australia:
"On the whole, for the past century, clinical neurology has looked at illness, diseases, damages, abnormalities. It has also looked at the lower parts of the nervous system. It has only just begun to address itself to questions of sensibility, talent, skill, imagination, dreaming, consciousness. A great deal is made of consciousness, as if consciousness is top. I think that the top is creativity. I think that creativity involves the depths of the mind and many, many depths of unconsciousness."
His idea of creativity was nebulous but, unlike consciousness, it might emerge in specific human acts and be tracked by its operation on the senses. Particularly the sense of sight, which uses up to fifty subsections of the brain and eighty per cent of its area, provides a fertile field for scientific exploration. Neurologists and psychologists use readily-controlled visual symbols to plot how we relate to the outside world, how perception of depth, movement, tone and colour impact on the subtle processes of recognition, memory and understanding. In "Descartes' Error", Antonio Damasis ascribes a great part of brain activity to the manipulation of visual symbols. External stimuli, including words and processes as well as things, are converted to a symbolic, imagable form; basic maps of the way the neurons react are stored in the grey matter beneath the cortex as dispositional representations (DRs). All our knowledge is embodied in the DRs, whose interlinking operations are rarely perceived, but which generate and deploy images that govern creativity, planning, reason and most thought processes. (Innate knowledge, and survival commands for metabolism, instincts and so on, are stored as DRs in the brain stem, hypothalamus and limbic system, and rarely surface as images.) DRs within the brain create patterns to generate both movement as well as internal images of body movement. Damasis supplies illustrations of neural activity that occurs when an object is called to memory, and the topographical maps he obtained from brain scans show a visible likeness to the object recalled. Conversely, a perceived impression will form a symbol that will be simultaneously compared to a stored image for the purpose of recognition.
At the dawn of the 20th century, light (and the colours it provokes) was at the cutting edge of science. It was known that its different wavelengths combine, separate and re-combine to cause different sensations. The physiology of the eye was somewhat understood, and psychologies of seeing were developing, though the tracking of light’s effect upon neurons was impossible. The new idea of a photon, a thing-that-is-not-a-thing, would require a paradigm shift in science and the way it is imagined. Lay persons had little hope of understanding it all, being content with generalities or, on occasion, developing far-flung theories of their own. Beatrice Irwin was one of the latter, and her 1916 book, “The New Science of Color”, was admired in certain quarters. The composer Cyril Scott praised Irwin's effort, “which seems bound to prove sooner or later that the statements occultists and clairvoyants have made for centuries are scientifically correct".
Irwin had much in common with Theosophists of her day. She not only believed in the central oneness of all religions, but thought spiritual evolution would soon enhance mankind’s psychic capabilities. A new age of telepathy was coming, when people could communicate finer feelings in flashes of colour. At present, very few could see colour properly, on a spiritual rather than on a mental or a physical plane. Colour colleges should be established to refine their skill. Already, it was necessary in the new field of aviation, though we are not told whether colour telepathy need be ground-to-air or between passengers, due to engine noise.
On the rare occasions she mentioned science, Irwin unfortunately got it wrong: when stating the retina responds to red, yellow and blue wavelengths of lights, she ignored findings from the first half of the 18th century. The Young-Helmholtz theory had established red, green and blue-violet as the dominant colours of vision; as was well known, these were the basic ingredients used when mixing lights, rather than Irwin’s primaries for pigment mixes.
Irwin’s ‘New Science’ relied on impressions gained from travelling the world. Every country had its own colours, a palette to match the psychic evolution of each civilization. Australia was an untouched continent in her view: “Like an astonished child, it is slowly rubbing its eyes open, and I doubt it knows yet whether the wattle is green or gold.” Irwin summed up her approach in the second chapter, titled “Colour as an Indication of Evolution”:
“WHAT is Colour?
For some, only a matter of course; for others, an aesthetic pleasure or an interesting scientific phenomenon, the result of vibrations of light acting upon different substances and upon our optic nerves. But there are those for whom colour means more than this, because in it they find health and music; in short, the very song of life and the spiritual speech of every living thing. Even to an indifferent observer, the colour of a thing constitutes one of its chief appeals, the reason for this being that colour is an unerring index of the hidden forces of that thing by which we are either attracted or repelled.”
Irwin’s words journeyed halfway round the globe, where Sydney artist Roy De Maistre rehashed the quotation for a catalogue to his 1919 exhibition, “Colour in Art”. Otherwise, he and fellow exhibitor Roland Wakelin took their lead from a colour-music code (similar to De Clario’s), in which Newton’s ROY G BIV followed an A natural minor scale. Irwin felt the connection of colour to music, too, and claimed to have completed the colour score to a musical work in collaboration with an unnamed composer. Another Sydney painter, Grace Cossington Smith, was equally besotted by Irwin’s writing, copying her entire book by hand (including illustrations) in the early 1920s. Perhaps she was drawn to the author’s contention that telepathic colour could substitute for words. Irwin informs us she had been staging colour dramas for five years, sensitizing her public to communication by colour alone. In reality, she was a performance poet, holding readings under changing coloured lights, wearing exotic costumes and surrounded by matching drapes.
In the first half of the 19th century, George Field had foreshadowed complex interactions between colours and notes, shapes and words. Primary colours of yellow, red and blue were linked to straight lines, angles and curves. Three-dimensional shapes were likened to secondary colours, the sphere and black representing the extremes. All colours and forms in nature derived from these. Likewise, all poetry and music came from their own three basic sounds - tri-unities of vowels and the musical triad. How motion might be imagined was outlined by physiognomic theories of aesthetics, which enjoyed a vogue later in the century. Both Heinrich Wölfflen and Bernard Berenson believed that empathy required us to respond to music by dancing inwardly, as if the sound provoked the internal image, stored in the mind, of the appropriate body movement. Likewise, a spire would make us want to stretch and tense while a horizontal form would relax and calm us.
A more complex example came from the notes of Sigmund Freud, citing a metaphor employed by a musician who, suffering from a fever, felt she could only go to sleep if her body was composed in the position of F# minor. It seems her mind found a subconscious simile for her physical discomfort in a musical key that, on instruments such as the violin, is remote, difficult to execute and out of kilter with its native resonances. These examples suggest a link between the formal processes of the creative arts and mental images of body language. The landscape architect Julie Moir Messervy attempted to articulate this connection in a 1997 collaborative project with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Their design for a Music Garden in Boston drew inspiration from a Bach cello suite, and the dance steps for its various movements were used as some sort of guide, influencing the forms and the layout of the garden. That the creative process is closely associated to visual imagery within the brain, was directly attested to by none less than Albert Einstein:
"The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined...The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and...muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will."
Beyond the signs and images of creative thought, a visual metaphor could be employed to describe the total of all brain activity, as outlined by Gerardo Reichel-Dalmatoff in his 1981 paper, "Brain and Mind in Desana Shamanism". The Desana tribe, along the upper tributaries of the Amazon in Colombia, holds to centuries-old beliefs about the structure of the brain that are surprisingly modern. Each gyrus (or convolution on the brain surface) is seen as a subunit with its own distinctive sensory, personal and colour attributes. A vast array of ethereal threads convey luminous impulses between different brain areas, giving rise to all human thought and action. Especially important is the sulcus, or groove separating the two hemispheres of the brain: the Desana consider the left side of the brain altogether more complex than the right. (Not until Roger Sperry's classic studies in the 1960s, were the independent roles of the brain's hemispheres revealed to the West, showing that the left side dominated language, logic and other crucial skills in most people.) A Desana shaman will often picture the brain's structure as tightly-packed columns of hexagonal prisms, each emitting energy of subtly different hues. While the prisms on the right radiate mostly red, yellow and blue, the left hemisphere displays rich and riotous colouring, including all the spectral colours as well as many others that cannot be named.
Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki, as authors of "Wisdom of the Elders", pointed out how the Desana managed to construct a comprehensive map of the brain, without the aid of electroencephalograms, microelectronic probes and all the other apparatus of clinical neurology. Indeed, the Desana imagination seems to encompass pre-Newtonian studies of light and colour with hexagonal rock crystals, as well as the concerns of modern neurobiology. By way of the intellect, the imagination and mythological imagery, a Desana shaman can describe human consciousness in a way that gave it both personal and cosmic significance. Advances in western science by no means eclipse the local value of the traditional lore. Suzuki has cited a further instance, of a recent fatal epidemic in the south-west United States, where modern medicine was baffled as to its cause and its cure. The culprit was identified from traditional Navajo sand paintings, which fingered a variety of deer mouse as the carrier, and even outlined the environmental conditions under which an outbreak was likely to occur.
The focus of western medicine is often too narrow, scientific and specialized to pay much heed to local knowledge. What could it possibly make of ancient Peruvian lore, predating the Incas, that sees a malign spirit in the rainbow? When one appeared, it was best to close your mouth to prevent diseases entering your body. If they did, and you sickened, a cure was obtained by unwinding a ball of yarn made of seven colours. The Yanesha people of Peru still believe the spirit inhabits damp places, and rivers and rain are to be avoided when the sun shines. Otherwise serious skin infections will result, and a shaman must be called when ‘the rainbow hurts my skin’. Special plants are then applied in ritual bathing and as decoctions. Maybe these are wise precautions in a tropical climate where ulcerations heal slowly, if at all. Chemical analysis so far suggests the plants have valuable properties, and may ward off attacks by algae, fungus and bacteria. Some of them have spread as weeds to other parts of the world, where they are now gathered in the wild to treat maladies as diverse as diabetes and sickle-cell disease. Before we dismiss it all too readily as folk legend, it is best to remember western science has its own myths: the personal testament of an Einstein, or a case study drawn from Freud, can manifest as a quasi-shamanistic utterance.
Many painters ignore nature as the subject matter for their art. None of them need wear baskets on their heads, to my knowledge, and they generally retained eye contact with their canvases in a visual feedback loop. Playing a flute or piano, with basket or blindfold, is another matter. The performer loses little by being blind to the surroundings. The instrument itself is controlled by the sense of touch rather than sight, and the player can still hear the result. De Clario performed this way, seeking 'perfected excellence' by adopting the egoless stance expected of an enlightened monk. In a mild, verbal form of self-flagellation, the notes to "Sevenness: Sublunar" were littered with self-effacing comments:
"...an eternal beginner, labouring in obscurity, confused in darkness, hidden from view, blindfolded..." and "...these events do not focus on a performer, or a performance, or a performed content."
Generally, the psychological and interpretive links between inner and outer worlds, between the senses and the brain, are poorly understood by western science. Traditional devices to meet this need (and colour music is arguably such a method) no longer cut the mustard: on the one hand, they are too impersonal and formulaic and, on the other, they fail by the standards of contemporary science. Through want of a comprehensive cultural framework, we are often thrown back on subjective understandings of our experiences - and there may be nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. Abilities to read, to appreciate nuances of colour or, like Sherlock Holmes, to deduce from appearances, give greater pleasure for being practiced and improved. Some people may be born with special attributes (such as acute vision and hearing, or synaesthesia, or a mathematical mind), and each person will apply skill and interpretation to formulate a private world. From the heights of enjoyment the senses can afford, the manoeuvres of neurologists seem as fascinating as ants' - after all, the chief validation of the senses lies in the experience of them.
The significance of ordinary human experience can evaporate into thin air under the searing gaze of scientific scrutiny and analysis. However, some gifted brain biologists have turned to philosophising, in their later years, on the roles of consciousness, creativity, memory and dreams. According to Knudtson and Suzuki, scientists' rhapsodizing about the brain can betray an almost religious fervour - they reach an epiphany in discovering the power, elegance and endless paradoxes of the living human brain. In this, their experience is complementary to the shamans': the observation of a Desana shaman, that the brain "contains colours that we don't even know the names of" is matched by Roger Sperry's comment, that "in the human head there are forces within forces, as in no other cubic half- foot in the universe".
The scientific approach can lead to genuine discoveries, some of which may even impact on theology. Perhaps cautious experimenting, sensitive to complexities of fact and independent of simple, overriding views, will yield up even more profound insights. God-botherers will remain attracted to conundrums arising out of scientific and philosophical overviews. Some have set out to solve essentially religious questions, trying to anticipate results that could not be verified this side of the grave. Other scientists again suggest they might yet uncover an underlying order to all creation, with number as the single objective and absolute truth. Their search for a single unifying theory, a modern version of Plato's harmony of the spheres, has become an international obsession. And yet others, like science journalist Margaret Wertheim, believe that the evidence is to the contrary - the more a particle accelerator is cranked up, the more unity disappears in a greater plethora of particles. She argues, in "Pythagoras's Trousers", that a Theory Of Everything can only make sense as a scientific equivalent of monotheism, and as such it holds no comfort. Particularly, the study of quantum physics has moved prominent scientists to extrapolate about the cosmic and divine - amongst them, Stephen Hawking writes as if he had a personal relationship with God, and the enormous popularity of his scientific tomes shows the extent to which others share his style of thought. Oliver Sacks, expressed his impatience with this grandiosity, too often encountered on the outer reaches of scientific research:
"...even if there is a grand Unified Theory of This or That, I don't think it will in the least diminish the interest of the world, or the energy of creativity."
Existing in a rarefied atmosphere of refined method and specialization, the scientific community takes on the language and mantle of theology so often that it has been compared to a priesthood. People look for generalities that give apparent legitimacy, a wholesome sanctity, to scientific results and theories. Sumerian astronomers enshrined heavenly bodies in a seven-day week; the Hebrews incorporated it (and other Mesopotamian creation myths) in the story of Genesis. The number seven gained sanctity within subsequent monotheistic beliefs, and mathematics was a vital subtext to pagan religions, too. Pythagoreans wedded the gods to number and Plato extended number-worship to philosophy and politics. Music was part of the mix, and Aristotle applied its ratios to colour. Other qualities, by analogy, joined seven Heavenly Spheres as they sung around the earth. Astrologers and alchemists of Alexandria, as much as astronomers, subscribed to septenary sequences; their mystical progressions were eventually absorbed into Gnosticism, a formative stew of Hellenistic, Jewish and proto-Christian beliefs. Though Judaism, Christianity and Islam would suppress the rival sects, numerical and symbolic systems persevered as fragments of ancient beliefs. As one instance, the colour symbolism of star-worshippers from Harran was transformed into the Muslim Haft Rang (Seven Colours), to inform Persian poetry and inspire the colour schemes of architectural tiling.
It is only on the margins that colour music seems able to survive, without attracting too much adverse attention. It is an historical curio, a survivor from the age of natural philosophies, that blurs the boundaries between the spiritual and the physical. The impulses it represents are much broader than scientific verisimilitude or religious orthodoxy allow. Rigid codes, defining absolute relationships of light and sound (let alone chakras) threaten to doom systems like De Clario's to the realm of the ridiculous. Their quotation of esoteric theories and formulations rarely contributes to any art; rather, it tends to stifle spontaneity and hamper sane appreciation. And at the centre of the public stage, where science and religion politely contest ownership of some absolute truth, there is little tolerance for other philosophies, let alone the abstruse practices of the New Age. It is all frustrating enough to convert a person to atheism. But New Agers, take heart! There is an Einstein quote for everything...
"The fanatical atheists...are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who - in their grudge against the traditional 'opium of the people' - cannot hear the music of the spheres."
As a New Age event, "Sevenness: Sublunar" was a weak pastiche of stale traditions: there was no ecstatic drumming, dancing and chanting round a bonfire; nobody took their clothes off; there was no sweat lodge and not a workshop in sight. Instead, an alternative religiosity was on display, a retreat into simplistic ideas vaguely derivative of Hermetic traditions from the Renaissance. De Clario seemed alert to the dangers of expressing nonconforming views, cocooning his work in increasingly conventional piety. Ritualized ceremonies, like a mass, were held seven times over; the seven evenings were timed to start at Easter and parallel the Resurrection. Under portentous conditions, in hushed and reverential tones, the panoply of disassociated items, events and ideas was puffed up as spirituality. Transfiguration was the practical goal, achieved by an imaginative leap from the visible to the invisible world and "transformation of body into spirit". The central creed of colour-music-chakra attempted to supply a connection to the sublime that would otherwise be missed. "Sevenness: Sublunar" lost focus as it was stretched to encompass a plethora of interests; science and eastern mysticism were both co-opted, with little respect for the contemporary knowledge and accepted use of either. Well-being was promised as a side course to the main event: believers were being bribed, enticed toward spiritual goals close to those of established churches.
The art world has increasingly drawn attention to performers, since at least the middle of the 20th century. Its efforts are feeble beside the endless succession of demigods churned out by the music industry, or amateur ‘personalities’ self-performing on social media (Donald Trump comes to mind). But good on them for trying, if gurus get them market share. As some kind of state-sponsored art performance, the gallery at Heide allowed De Clario to preach religion, of a kind. Like a parody of antique mystery cults or the introverted practices of early Christians, it was held late at night, almost in secret, and its theology was obscured in inaccessible tracts. There may have been little risk in staging "Sevenness: Sublunar", but Heide implicitly condoned the expressed theology. One wonders if other evangelists might not demand equal time to promote their beliefs. A succession of seemingly pagan rituals mounted at state-run venues (in the name of personal, artistic and religious freedom), could seem little different from much of the fare they already dish up. But as art institutions should now be aware, curatorial discretion - on the grounds of aesthetic importance alone - is an inadequate defense against the odium theologicum that an artist's work might attract.
So what, in the end, is left? As repeated after each evening's performance, De Clario would have us believe: "And then amongst all this, after all, there is You". That is presuming You stayed. And that You survived the journey from the worldly or sublunar plane, through six cosmic stages to the seventh realm of pure white light beyond. What remained at the end of "Sevenness: Sublunar" were the bare bones of borrowed belief with a traditional colour-music code at the core. The analogy between seven colours and seven musical notes preserved the basic features of Newton's prototype, though paraded in a guise more acceptable to contemporary audiences. It is useless as a system of colour or of music: despite all stated intent, it has only got what meaning you read into it.
There still seems plenty of scope within the arts (if not in science and religion) for adventures of the colour music kind. The codes have a rich symbolic value - they hold much intrinsic interest while their fundamental principles, of comparing and uniting music to colour, are creatively deployed in multi-media artwork. So, colour music could be likened to a game. And an interesting game it might be, if unencumbered by outmoded religious pretensions and free of the need to prove itself in the scientific mainstream. The art world can always accommodate the public in other ways: sculptures that pulse with colour according to sound ambience, installations that scan the visual field to generate sound effects - these already cater to people's desire to be entertained, to participate in the creative act without being gulled or condescended to. Conjunctions of light and sound need not trigger enlightenment or promise a useful outcome, to be accepted as inherently rewarding.