dot 26: portals

Mistakes are the portals of discovery.

– James Joyce –

In his book Sinister Resonance David Toop explores the silent art of listening. It is a fascinating read in which sound and listening criss-cross literature, art, sculpture, poetry and paintings. Looking at the visibility of sound captured in 17th Century Dutch paintings, Toop specifically probes the Eavesdropper-series by the painter Nicolaes Maes. In this series of paintings, Maes typically paints a ‘captured moment of listening to what is, or should be, secret’ and where at least one other person is eavesdropping on someone else. Hence the title of the series.

Following Toop along his exploration of listening, I became interested in one of the compositional techniques used by the Baroque Dutch painters, namely that of doorsien. As an Afrikaans-speaking South African the word itself is comfortable in my mouth as in the Afrikaans language doorsien literally translates to ‘looking through’, conjuring up ideas of transparency.

In the 17th century, Dutch painters using the doorsien technique allowed for the viewer to look through into a secondary scene in the painting. Toop describes it as a ‘hole, opening or threshold’. However on the essentialvermeer.com website, doorsien is understood to mean to “plunge through.” This interpretation has less to do with the opaqueness of transparency than it has to do with shifting from one place to another. It is a shift not only of perspective but also of mind.

Having recently listened to a TEDx talk by the art historian Luke Syson, I am reminded of a similiar shift in thinking. Working primarily with the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci in the domain of the Italian Renaissance, he struggled to adapt to a position where his new focus included 18th century vases and ornaments. Syson goes as far as drawing the analogy between having to look at such useless objects to that of looking at car crashes. Both are utterly unbearable. It is only after he actually questions himself about his way of looking at such objects that he is able to say:

This vase – like a Leonardo da Vinci – is a portal to somewhere else.

The ‘mistake’ in front of him becomes the portal to greater discovery, as reminded by James Joyce. However, to make the discovery requires imagination where anything can become an object of the imagination that allows transportation to another space, a doorsien. Syson promises that any object can ‘become part of a journey everyday.’

Thinking about what the plunge could be for me personally, I am starting to sense that perhaps thinking itself is my doorsien. I am currently writing my morning pages and then recording myself reading them. Whilst listening to my voice recording of my thoughts, I create thought-tracking drawings which resembles eye-tracking in many ways.

My thought-drawings are becoming the impetus to new work.

They are my portal to my journey.

A thought-drawing
A thought-drawing                                                                                Photo: Sonya Rademeyer
  • David Toop:
  • Sinister Resonance: the Mediumship of the Listener (2010) / Continuum International Publishing Group / ISBN: PB: 978-1-4411-5587-0
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