These artists who create in the absence of images in their heads


“Aphantasia” (2018) is a reinterpretation of “Raft of the Medusa” by Théodore Géricault, by digital artist Andrew Bracey. ANDREW BRACEY

The use of Greek etymology has its charms, but can sometimes be misleading. Adam Zeman, who coined the term “aphantasia”, is quite willing to recognize this. This British neuroscientist (Universities of Edinburgh and Exeter) proposed this word in 2015 to designate an inability or reduction in the ability to mentally (re)create visual images, but also to internally relive other sensory experiences – sounds, smells, textures… He coined it by adding a private “a” to “phantasia”, “imagination”, defined by Aristotle as the possibility for an image or mental representation to present itself to us.

However, he insists, “it is important to clarify that people with aphantasy are not devoid of creativity”. He thus cites the former boss of the Pixar animation studio Ed Catmull and Glen Keane, the creator of The Little Mermaid for Disney, or even Oliver Sacks, famous neuropsychiatrist. And invites you to visit online an exhibition hosted by the University of Glasgow bringing together works by people with aphantasy and hyperphantasy – those who, at the other end of the spectrum, are assailed by mental images so vivid that they sometimes have difficulty to distinguish them from reality.

This exhibition was born fortuitously, from a study launched by Adam Zeman’s team with people with aphantasy. “We received responses from people who were artists, which was quite unexpected”, remembers Matthew MacKisack, who was recruited by this laboratory to write an intellectual history of imagery. With visual artist Susan Aldworth, he then became curator of the future exhibition, from which they then drew some lessons in the review Art Journal.

“Romanticism and a whole tradition of art history have bequeathed us a stereotype according to which the artist must be a visionary, who transfers onto the canvas what his inner eye shows himrecalls Matthew MacKisack. Aphantasic artists weaken this stereotype. »

“A spark of an idea”

When we look at the exhibition “blindly”, it is difficult to identify the works that would have been produced by people with aphantasy. “The big difference is that the hyperfantastics always said they knew what they were going to achieve before starting – an upholsterer had already done the weaving in her head before even starting”says Matthew MacKisack.

It was the opposite for aphantasics. The testimonies accompanying the exhibition are enlightening in this regard. Susan Baquie describes the birth of a collage created in 2011, when a loved one had just committed suicide. “As I am aphantasic, there are no images in my mind of the distressing eventsshe writes. But it seems that a figurative representation of these emerged, unintentionally, born of the action of making, and of the subliminal or subconscious knowledge of the death of this young man, or perhaps of all death , or Death itself! »

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