Rheomantic Drawings, Essay, Paul Carter
Different kinds of art imagine different kinds of environment. They represent other organisations of reality but they also redefine the world where we experience them. Paintings can do this. Passive in relation to the space occupied by the viewer, they may show Arcadian landscapes or chromatic confusions but they depend for their effect on the stable viewing conditions of the gallery. However, even the assumption that visual art depends on the light for its value may be naïve: what about funerary art, which is designed for the inside of tombs? Such art as this suggests that we, or parts of us, dwell in darkness, not light: inner projections and dreams illuminate the way ahead, and perhaps it is in this way we see, truly see, with insight.
Other kinds of art solicit other kinds of invisibility. Rheomancy, for example, derives its design from what is often referred to as the electromagnetosphere, the supposed universal energy field that lends the universe its present patterning and whose flows surround, traverse and shape the human being. The notion that bodies constitute vital fields that can be measured – and modified – underlies the healing method known as radionics. The idea is that different states of body and mind produce subtly different vibrations which, in the manner of Chladni’s experiments with sound, can be visualized as diagrams. On the homeopathic assumption that like speaks to like, corrective energetic fields can be electromagnetically induced in a medium (water) and when absorbed produce a therapeutic effect.
In a laboratory or consulting rooms the application of such techniques to the cure of illness depends on a combination of clinical detachment and patient passivity. The experiment has, at least for a skeptic, a hieratic theatricality designed to play on the sufferer’s gullibility. The environment invokes the traditional theatres of power, where professionals impose their theories of wellbeing on the vulnerable. In contrast with this, Rheomancy stages the environment of the cure as a possible transaction between artist, drawing and spectator – where the spectator is invited to be a curious participant, not a patient. Even though Rheomancy invokes a kind of magic, its interactive nature demystifies the detection of emanations. The drawings, the energy-inscribed water bodies, are swallowed – swilled down and incorporated. The other world is, as it were, drunk.
‘Rheomancy’ is a word that copies the deliberately fairground character of the work. It is an invented word of our own. It has a pataphysical ambiguity and playfulness about it. The elements from which it is made up mean respectively flow and interpretation. Rheomancy: the interpretation of flow paths, with the implication that the qualified rheomancer can detect subtle tourbillons and other swirlings within the general river that disclose to her superior eye symptoms of distress, excess, or forthcoming change. This could be a distinctively feminine skill at least within a culture where communication has been subjected to patriarchal expectations of linear logic from which ambiguity is expunged. The Muses were said to hear the whisperings of fate in running water. The reason of the Bacchantes was called liquid. The eddies of their hems can be descried in water: their motions can induce comparable frenzies in the artist.
Here, though, the technique is not mimetic: on the contrary, the artist cultivates a certain dryness. Graphite-drawn diagrams and a sturdy cabinet where piles of reassuringly pressed leaves of paper are stored suggest a certain provocation: can the minimalism of these graphic gestures really cure madness? In this way the work of art is made to work: the transaction with the drawing procedure raises the question of the status of the connection being staged. Is it physical, psychic or in some way aesthetic, a purely performative engagement with what is to hand? Is it a drawing out of latent tensions or a drawing together of hidden associations? What is drawn out – the graphite figure – is a ring of electromagnetic connectivity. What is drawn together – magnetized water body and a human body already immersed in the oceanic ebb and flow of cosmic energy fields – stages an alchemical intermingling of macrocosm and microcosm. In this situation the aesthetic tastes of the viewer are individual not because they are a matter of individual taste but because they are indistinguishable from the act of turning drawing into drinking.
Apparently, the effects of the ‘reorganisation’ of the force lines that in the suffering individual have been misaligned, damaged or interrupted can take months to manifest themselves. This seems to guarantee some kind of success. However, in Rheomancy no such long term claim is made. On the contrary, the work succeeds when it fosters a connection in the present, in the act of interaction. It is this present economy – the communication between artist, visitor and artwork – that produces the interest. It is not the claims of radionics that are on trial but the equally subtle nature of our transactions with objects and people. You could say that, particularly in the gallery context, a symbolic aura surrounds the ordinary. The art-going public invests what is on show with a power, a significance, a mediation of the invisible that is untestable if real. Even though haloes, nimbuses and other signs of divinity are no longer in the lexicon of portraiture, we are susceptible to aura.
Immersion is transactional rather than physical. Rheomancy does not stage a kind of ritual baptism. In a way, baptism is redundant when the human body is largely composed of water: baptism might simply be the re-animation of liquid elements that already irrigate the vital field, a kind of auto-animation effected by the artist-dowser. In any case what counts is not the power of the artist to expose an archaeology of flow paths but to stir up new configurations in the here and now. The proposition is not the religious one, that we carry the signature of previous lives in our present disposition, but something more modest and social – that past, present and future co-exist in the rearrangement of the energy field. There is a parallel between the self-awareness thatRheomancy invites and definitions of love. Stanley Rosen says that the presence of Eros is manifest when ‘the present is like a place … a place that we are always in.’ It is an immersive temporality that a work like Rheomancy presupposes. The environment that an artwork subtends may be multisensory but when it makes something take place it is also a breach in time that weaves past and future together.
When a good rheomancer looks at the swirlings in the face of the current, it is likely that what they see is the constant tearing apart and re-suturing of future and past in the turbulence of present change. Rearrangements, whether they are subatomic, laid out in iron filings or due to the loosening eddies of entanglements in the subtle etheric body may attest to an immersion in forces that act across unimaginable distances, but what counts in the interaction is the willingness of the artist-visitor-equipment assemblage to bear witness to the therapeutic possibilities of the aesthetic experience.