see catalogue pieces

Pattern, purpose and identity

Patterned surfaces may reflect pure delight in embellishing an object with decoration or they may be a means expressing information through abstraction. Patterns might be a means for sharing spiritual experiences or metaphors used to express concepts such as status, territory and identity. Towards the end of the last Ice Age, patterns occur on a variety of objects with no utilitarian functions, as well as on personal ornaments.

Patterns may derive from the natural activity of the brain and be a way of fixing transitory visual effects generated within the eye during Rapid Eye Movement sleep or ecstatic states induced during consciousness by drugs, sensory deprivation, dancing, chanting, drumming, pain, fatigue, meditation or pathological conditions such as migraine, epilepsy and schizophrenia. These effects are known as entoptic phenomena and zigzags, undulating lines, dots, spirals or concentric circles all of which are present in the patterned objects and cave art of the late Ice Age, as conveyed by the graphics in the film installation in the exhibition. Such patterns may be archetypal and ever present because everybody experiences entoptic phenomena. For most people, the effects are transitory and unremembered. Only those who have a heightened and memorable experience of such phenomena can transform the experience into media that can be shared with others and that may carry specific meanings. Such transferable visions, the people capable of them and the situations such as trance states or epileptic fits in which they are experienced are special and particular. Some archaeologists associate this capacity and the sharing of the experienced visions with the shamans in belief systems based on ritualised communication with supernatural spirits. This is possible but may be simplistic as neural links between different areas of the brain that are the basis of creativity might be made by any individual as a way of sharing knowledge.

Patterns in art may be used to mimic or perfect material forms and to convey knowledge of places, the elements and conditions through abstraction and metaphor. This does not express the working of the subconscious brain as in the shamanic hypothesis but the normal business of the conscious mind. In this way, patterned pieces may have been a way of symbolizing aspects of individual or group identity, territory in terms of landscape or possession or the qualities of elements such as wind and water or sounds. These things are linked as phenomena that do not have constant visual forms and must be invented in order to communicate their idiom. Unfortunately, there is no dictionary through which the late Ice Age patterns can be translated into a language that can be read in the twenty first century and their interpretation is varied and uncertain.

Numbers may also be expressed as patterns and the possibility that some groups of marks record counted quantities is possible. Numeracy and mathematics summarise and symbolize ideas. Special symbols communicate specific multiples of actual things transformed into one. Those capable of expressing the world through images can also record numbers.

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