I’ve been to two art exhibitions that were more resonant than any others, that corresponded to the deepest parts of my character. The first was the Festival Of India in 1982, which was a massively orchestrated event where artifacts from hidden vaults and from worldwide galleries were assembled in London. I was astonished to see the ideas of Indian mysticism expressed in exquisite sculpture and paintings, and a short film depict yoga and meditation. I went with my sister and then returned for a second viewing by myself, regretting that it was the last day of the event. The second exhibition was considerably smaller in scale featuring just a few works by video artist Bill Viola, but it was equally powerful. I’d never before seen multimedia/video work depicting – again – spiritual and metaphysical themes.
One of his exquisite exhibits was called Catherine’s Room, and it was a panel of video monitors showing five stages in a woman’s life as she sits, reads, sews, exercises, sleeps and prepares for death. Each of these stages was accompanied by changing weather and light, seen through the window. When interviewed about this, Viola remarked that the monastic interior represents the internal place of stillness that is removed from the fast pace and demands of modern life. The weather/seasons of nature are permanent, he said, because they are cyclical. Philosophically, this suggests that a certain kind of infinity is derived from circularity. I once asked a physicist to explain what happens if you sent a hypothetical trajectory into space – what does it extend into and however fast or extended it is, can we not ask what lies beyond and outside it? I’ve always felt that with universal or even metaphysical issues, physics presents you with little mind puzzles as a complacent way of avoiding the fact that it doesn’t have an intelligent answer. What’s the universe like? Constantly expanding. Yes but expanding into what, and what lies beyond the expansion because however fast it is, you can hypothesise that it expands into something, even if it’s a negative formulation. The physics tutor replied by saying I was thinking in terms of a straight line, and in fact extension into space is necessarily curved. That’s quite an elegant idea that confounds my question by presenting me with an alternative conceptual framework.
One of the major phases in Viola’s biography was spending several months in a desert, capturing footage for subsequent projects. He once said that the earth corresponds to the unconscious mind so when you see it, for example, appearing though a crack in a concrete road, at some level it reminds us of fundamental nature. We exist within the cradle of nature, assuming with a kind of arrogance that we have mastery over it. But science has never explained the simplest natural phenomena, limiting itself to effects rather than causes, offering no insight into why something exists while it articulates the empirical details like they are the causal facts. In the Theosophical teachings of HP Blavatsky and Alice Bailey you find a model of the universe that incorporates base physical phenomena, and also subtle and preceding levels of manifestation. These can be mapped, and thereby acknowledged in profoundly encompassing diagrams that explain phenomena in terms of successive strata of organised patterns, where the causes of effects are found in increasingly subtle intelligence. One of the demarcation points in the Theosophical model is the transition between what it calls lower and higher mind. The former is the mundane activity of the normal world, which includes the supposed wisdom of scientists, physicists etc. and also most kinds of conventional philosophy. It is perceptually slow, and tied to sensory and empirical methodology like a heavy anchor. Higher mind is inherently philosophical, interested in causes rather than effects, and universal rather than subjective or opinionated. Lower mind analyses and articulates the empirical details in a process of pattern-building cognition, while higher mind observes that process from above – metaphorically speaking – and relates those patterns to a greater i.e. bigger level of intelligence. There is a gap between the two levels of mind Theosophists call the antahkarana, a term which means ‘rainbow bridge’. This gap can be bridged with philosophical and intuitive training, although it is quite rare to see this. King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone is a symbol for the abstraction from form, recognising that the form cradles the inherent potential within it. The sword expresses an airy freedom from material weight, able to cut through the perceptual traps.