The Image-creating Impulse

By Samuel Nyholm

If all things were turned to smoke, the nostrils would distinguish them.
― Heraclitus "On Nature", fragment no. 7 (around 500 BC.)

Heraclitus was one of the first philosophers in ancient Greece. He lived over 2500 years ago in the city of Ephesus, in what is now called the west coast of Turkey. Not very much is known about his life and person. What consists of his oeuvre today is handed down to us by secondary sources. How could it be then, we may ask ourselves, that these enigmatic fragments are still relevant in a time, when the particle physicists with their tremendously advanced instruments finally seem to discern the light in the tunnel, in their pursuit of solving the eternal cosmic mysteries, detecting the smallest subatomic particle at the core of the multiverse? Heraclitus, on the other hand, did probably not need more than a simple twig for documenting his observations in the wet sand, on clay tablets or papyrus rolls that have all withered and crumbled since a long time.

The interpretations of Heraclitus are legion, probably not only due to the fragments’ enigmatic form in general, but in case of this particular fragment also because of its discursive simplicity and reliance on the basic sensory function of smell, to which we can relate even with a minimum of cerebral knowledge. Although these universal qualities may allow for a reading forced to fit into any philosophical paradigm, the fragment disguises a gruesome rhetoric missile, aimed at the very core of ontology. Taking into consideration Heraclitus’s fundamental focus on the human realm, it relativises most of what we take for granted in perceiving our environment. 

When Heraclitus asks us to imagine a world of smoke, distinguished by the physiological capacity to perceive one’s environment based on smell or olfaction, our primary sense of vision would not only become subordinate, but even redundant

If – which I will elaborate further on – the foundation of our culture is exclusively constituted by our sense of sight, would Heraclitus’s proposition not mean that all our present knowledge is conditioned by the limitations of our favoured perceptive organ, while the others, which are not less real, are doomed to idleness?


Not seen – not existing
Astrid Lindgren, the Harpies in “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter”, 1981


Would we then not arrive at the somewhat disruptive conclusion that a world view based on particles, as a product of the atomic ontology of physics and ultimately derived from the visual sense, operates on strictly confined assumptions? The whole idea of what constitutes our world would – as a result – appear rather poor and insufficient.

Being quintessentially a quantitative linguistic tool, this is even true in the case of mathematics, as mathematical disciplines are – to the highest extent – relying on visual concepts.

Consequently, with mathematics at its very core, this also applies to physics. 

An orthodox physicist would probably argue differently and claim that her scientific calculations do not only stem from stipulated axioms, but are objective descriptions of the cosmos as we know it, computed and observed by reliable technological devices, encompassing a reality that lies beyond flawed human perception. Much like the assertion of other scientific disciplines, all with their own designated esotericism.

In fact, all technological tools or instruments used in the description of reality, such as all mechanical or digital measuring devices, mathematics or written language, not only describe, but also create their own hermetic reality. A microscope describes the reality of optics, mathematics one of quants, politics a model of governance, the law one of formalised morality, the camera shows a photographic reality and the painted world one made out of brush strokes. The veracity of observations made through the respective medium ultimately depends on the reliability of the medium itself, of which none has proven infallible yet.
At the same time, the perpetual, organic nature of our perception has continuously been compromised by all of them.

Only those who master the increasingly intricate set of rules that a certain field is built on have gained the theoretical possibility to contribute to its development or challenge its foundations. Theories based on their respective world view may be of greater or lesser axiomatic coherence, but apart from that each system is largely arbitrary.

If pen was broom, writing is sweeping the desert with a toothbrush.
In his work "Secret Knowledge" (Avery, 2006), the English artist David Hockney explores the question about how a photorealistic expression was developed by some of the more influential artists during the early Renaissance, exemplified by – amongst others –  Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Carvaggio, Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo. According to Hockney, this does not come as a sudden, God-given leap in artistic virtuosity, but as the result of some more privileged artists having access to sophisticated technological innovations to aid their artistic process. Hockney argues that these tools and methods, in this case mainly the central perspective and the camera obscura, did not primarily lead to what we call more "realistic" art, but in fact conditioned the very idea of what "realism" actually is. In this respect, the technology, besides assisting the process of depiction, also works as a limiting formalisation of the artistic expression.


For example, Hockney compares a central perspective design, in which a clear hierarchy arises between things that are in the foreground and what happens in the periphery, with the medieval Cavalier perspective, which presents everything that is important for the story's narrative, whether it is in the foreground or background, in similar size and thus with equal prominence. This dramatic change in the quality of perspective, Hockney claims, would be inconceivable without the influence of photographic projections. The use of technology may have contributed to an illusion of enhanced artistic virtuosity, but also deprived the artwork from some elementary qualities both in expression and narration. 

We would normally consider the central perspective image to be a realistic projection of how objects behave under visual conditions and therefore ascribe a higher level of objectivity to it than to – say – a freehand sketch or some mindless scribbles on a notepad. The central perspective’s mechanically rendered geometry is by all means a generalised interpretation of what happens in an optically projected image, yet what it actually produces is an artificial and solidified moment of an ideal reality, which has very little to do with how we perceive the environment with our senses. The medieval cavalier perspective, on the other hand, offers much better conditions for conveying composite situations and entire events. 

In the Renaissance image, with its artful appliance of optics and vanishing points, the gaze of the artistic self is at the centre, it is her place in the room that determines what we are supposed to see, what is of importance and what is considered peripheral. In the medieval picture, however, it is the viewer who decides where to place the focus on. We – as viewers - are allowed to travel freely in the event that the work of art conveys, without presupposing a viewer-self.

Even though medieval painting is, arguably, closer to our subjective perception of the world, it is also defined to a higher degree by a certain set of given technical, thematic, linguistic and cultural conditions. It is not – even in this case – an expression of anything remotely close to the imprint of an unfiltered cognition. Special tools and principles were still used for the production of the artwork, and the motifs were derived mostly from a formalised set of Christian iconographies.
But even though most of people’s creation presupposes a certain degree of culture and it always requires technology, one can, by reducing the influence of these external factors, slowly approach the origin of the abstract thought and thus the reason why we create images at all. In order to get closer to this origin, we must also keep in mind that images were initially not made to be watched, even though this delusion does not only characterise our time, but undoubtedly also both the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

In order to be able to understand what images are and why we have created them, we first need to distance ourselves from their fundamental influence on the human thought. Otherwise, this analysis would merely result in just another progression of familiar images. At first glance, this assessment’s prospects of success seem slim, for images constitute the base of any and all abstractions as well as – without question – of written language itself. By trying to decipher their origins, their genesis, by dissecting their evolution and bypassing their formalised signification, we may at least open the door to a more divers understanding of both themselves and of what lies beyond the realms of visual communication. This essay could then be seen as a first small step towards such an endeavour.

The collective psyche denies the present ego and, directly through this denial, creates anew. The floundering ego-particle, inundated with new, more richly adorned images, begins to re-emerge. We see this most beautifully in artistic productions. 
Sabina Spielrein, “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being”, 1912

 In an attempt to unravel the mysterious origin of image making culture, the South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams brings together findings from various scientific disciplines, such as archaeology, neurology and anthropology, in his book "The Mind in the Cave - Consciousness and the Origin of Art" (Thames & Hudson, 2002). He draws parallels between the human brain's neurological and social development and formal qualities in the paintings and in sculptural artefacts that emerged during Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. Lewis-Williams believes that image creation is linked to the development of a higher-order consciousness which distinguishes us from former, non-image-making great apes, which, like most other mammals, only possessed the primary consciousness. He advocates a model in which the primary consciousness involves knowing the specimens’ place in a world, mental impressions of the present, but not by itself as an individual with a past and a future. In the higher-order consciousness there is an idea of time, but also reflexivity, an awareness that one has a consciousness. This meta-perspective, available only to higher consciousness beings, is what creates the notion of an ego, isolated from the rest of the flock, the rest of the species, the nature, and the rest of the world.

One could make an analogy between the development of a first to a secondary consciousness and the aforementioned development of Western art, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. In this constellation, the medieval perspective represents the more holistic state of the primary consciousness that does not assert a hierarchical, individual point of view, whereas the central perspective of the Renaissance is limited to an isolated viewer-self – alone, petrified by Medusa's gaze, lost in an artificial fragment of now, in a place where it is no longer allowed to live and move.
By taking this as well as Heraclitus’s fragment number 7 into consideration, both the notion of higher and lower and the apparent accuracy of a perspectival projection, refined by technological advancement, are relativised. Thus, it can be objected that "higher", as a matter of fact, is an idea conditioned by the human perspective, i.e. a value assessment from the particular kind of consciousness that we claim distinguishes us from other species (except possibly dolphins and octopuses). That this form of meta-perspective really should be a "higher" form of being, in comparison to other organisms, presupposes another popular delusion, namely that man is the crown of God’s creation, their own image. This is also the basic assumption of Darwin’s theory of evolution, placing the modern human at the highest state of his evolutionary scheme. Although to question this does also mean to defy the popular idea of Darwinism as a kind of rational counterpart to religion. In a consciousness not conditioned by ego and time, a developmental scheme of Darwin’s kind would be both impossible and meaningless.
 After making this objection, however, we will pretend like it was never uttered. Instead we will keep moving along on Charles Darwin’s well-worn mythical path, on which biological evolution proceeded to develop according to the evolutionary scheme with humankind constituting its teleological endpoint. Or - from a modern point of view – the artificially enhanced human.

 According to Lewis-Williams’s theory, the higher consciousness, the consciousness of a conscious "I" squeezed in between the past and the future, is instrumental to the development of a visual language. He further believes that the images themselves originate from visual hallucinations developed by this consciousness, in trance-like states, on cave walls illuminated by fluttering torch lights. The impulse to draw was a way for the Palaeolithic human to record an inner phantom image on the cave wall, using coal or earth pigment.
These phantom images could also be of different kinds, from geometric, entopic figures to animals and anthropomorphic figures, which he claims reflect different degrees of hallucination, depending on the depth of the trance. 



At the first stage in the process of transcendence, the entopic phenomena occur, in the second stage they are transformed into different animals, possibly as a way for the mind to make the phenomena comprehensible. After the first two steps, you go through a tunnel-like vortex, which leads to the third state, where the anthropomorphic figures appear: ducks in sailor jackets, foxes in suits, minotaurs, lion-men, etc.

Although Lewis-Williams’s theories at first sight may appear esoteric, they are based both on meticulous scientific studies of the conditions during the Palaeolithic era and, in order to recreate a better understanding of said conditions, on actual testimonies from individuals who have experienced different kinds of alternate states of consciousness.

 Lewis-Williams determines that images are far more likely to have been created as phantoms from an alternated consciousness than as representations of photographic reality, derived from the memory and free will of the artistic self, painting on cave walls. In particular, since the range of motives that can be found in cave paintings corresponds to all of these three states of consciousness (but most commonly to representations of the second stage) and it would otherwise be difficult to explain the entopic forms inasmuch as they hardly occur in visible nature.  

Later in his presentation, Lewis-Williams states that the higher consciousness disposed the ability to see and think in images. Hence, his claim must rest on the assertion that what happened during the birth of visual arts was an instinctive transfer of the mental image to the cave wall, presumably under some form of transcendent influence. What kind of relationship the first artists had to their work is obviously very difficult to substantiate, even with the most refined scientific method. To think that the first artists derived satisfaction by mimicking a named phenomenon outside of the cave, is, however, highly unlikely and – without doubt – anachronistic.

To assume that the artist, in this case, did not differentiate between image and representation is more reasonable. The visual sensation may first have appeared, still following Lewis –Williams’s argumentation, either as an entropic phenomena in the eye or as a pareidolic interpretation of a flickering shadow on the wall, which then triggered an instinctive desire to capture it with the help of charcoal, dust or blood.

Since Lewis-Williams work was published, more recent findings indicate that the Neanderthals, who migrated to the European continent several 100.000 years before the modern human, were likely to be the first to produce symbolic artefacts and images. This also seems to signify that the Neanderthal’s cognitive abilities and consciousness level were much more similar to ours than previous assertions would have suggested. Although this contradicts Lewis-Williams’s theories in some way, the parallels he draws between the higher-order of consciousness and the artistic expression are applicable to the Neanderthals as well.

Although Lewis-Williams’s theories and discoveries have opened up staggering perspectives on the eternal questions of the origin and meaning of art and have, therefore, not only been of great interest to me, but also benefitted my own work immensely, our ideas on this subject differ in some essential aspects.

Contrary to Lewis-Williams, I find it implausible that linguistic language, the conscious forms of communication in which a sign is associated with a certain meaning and which enable us to describe phenomena that are not at hand in an indefinite amount of modular combinations, could have existed before the artificial image. The early connection between a sign and a sound, the root of our communication, must have originated from instinct. The recorded image acted in this case as an artificial trigger for certain instinctive sounds.

We can find plenty of comparable examples in studies of the behaviour of monkeys, both from how they act in their natural environment and in an experimental context.
The green guenon cries out three different warnings affiliated with their three main predators: leopard, eagle, and snake. These three warning sounds trigger three different actions: the leopard sound make them climb up in trees, the eagle sound to look upwards and the snake sound to look downwards.
The Diana monkeys have a similar way of using warnings, but can also, with simple forms of modality, express how urgent the approaching danger is by combining different vocalisations in a sentence-like structure.
The Bonobos, commonly regarded as our closest relatives, as well as other chimpanzees use both sounds and gestures not only as warnings, but also to communicate urges for different forms of socializing such as play, grooming, and sex. Chimpanzees have – at least in a laboratory context – also been capable of both deceptive communication and displacement (the ability to signify something that is not present in place or time).
In addition, the Central and South American capuchin monkeys have been observed to perform the abilities of vocal displacement and deception also in its own habitual context.
Furthermore, experiments have proven that the rhesus macaque can experience face pareidolia in inanimate objects, which has been determined by measuring their eye movements when exposed to images of objects with face-resembling features. This ability, previously only associated with humans, plays – according to Lewis-Williams – a crucial part at the birth of image making.


Hence, it does not appear as a farfetched assumption that vocalisations, similar to those made by monkeys, could have been evoked from the Upper Palaeolithic human as erratic reactions to how animated shadows were interpreted as living animals through pareidolic perception. Subsequently, through the recurrence of similar erratic processes, the connection between the signs and objects could have been established and hived off as primal forms of abstraction, which then enabled the production of mental images. Since then, abstractions have undergone a gradual (still ongoing) process of sublimation.

 As is the case with all abstractions, meaning: invoking the non-present, a status of absence induces the driving impulse. It is the same absence and longing that causes the infant to formulate their first language-like sounds to call for their parents' attention, the same lack that causes someone to write "I love you" on a postcard to their subject of desire.
In these instances (and all others), the abstraction expresses a void, an echoing cry of emptiness, an imprint of what does not exist and sometimes never has in the first place. Like the politician marketing non-truth as “actual truth”, the self-proclaimed genius who tries to make us believe that greatness is established by allegation or measurement and not by virtue. Or the norm critic who makes it their norm to criticize anything that does not fit within their own strictly confined categorisations.

The expression of what is not immediately at hand is inevitably an expression of the non-presence itself.
This lack was most certainly, unlike the mental image, a predisposed phenomenon in the early human consciousness. It did probably not as much occur as a result of something called genetics than because of the progressive development of technology, including lethal weapons, terrifying body paintings, and perhaps primarily the domestication of fire. By the same token, it was not the superior intellect or higher consciousness of humankind that distinguished ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom, but the way of how technological influence transformed us from a relatively harmless tree climber into a bloodthirsty cyborg.
However, this hideous disguise still harbours a small anxious ape, lacking her old family, her animal companions, her safe tree-crown haven and the great wide open between consciousness and infinity.

Being lonely inside a dark cave, banished from her former self, and remembering her absent mother‘s womb, these tragic remnants of an ape became hypnotised by the shadows of the dancing fire at some point during prehistorical times. As suggested by Lewis-Williams, this may have set off a hallucinatory state of delirium. In the overwhelming phantasmagoria that appeared on the rocks around her, she caught a glimpse of her inhibited nature and instinctively captured it on a wall with her sooty fingers. 

Since the idea of images did not yet exist at this time, the painting on the wall could hardly have operated as a mere representative, but is – indeed and irrevocably so – singular to its referent. The image was not a placeholder for, but identical with its meaning. Thus, the recorded image may very well have, both for the artist and the viewer, generated and was distinctively intertwined with the instinctive sound usually produced by or for its referent, e.g. the specific sound an early human made when she saw a cave lion, a goat or an ox.
(In order to more easily understand how an instinctive utterance relates to an abstract, one can compare the exclamation "ouch" when you burn yourself on the stove, with the statement "I have burned myself on the stove”, Where the former is an inevitable part of the process of burning oneself, the latter is a consideration from one or several meta-levels).
These vocalisations have then, with the help of images, evolved into today's spoken language and the images themselves into letters and characters in our written language systems.
Consequently, language – both spoken and written – is not only preceded by images, but also, completely and utterly, derived from them.

Despite this, images are not sprung directly from an individual consciousness, but through our pure cognition as it appears filtered through various technological innovations. The ritual of representation itself is fuelled by the bottomless lack of the holistic context we are excluded from since the advent of the techno-organic hybrid. The visual record, as a results, is a symptomatic expression for how the founding tools and methods of our civilisation have detached us from a concrete and interdependent relation to our organic and unitary origin.

This can both be likened psychologically to the infant's parallel development of language and spin-off from the mother to an isolated "I" and mythologically to the biblical description of how Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden after biting into the forbidden fruit of knowledge.

Whether the mythology of banishment as well as the Genesitic and Apocalyptic cycle of creation, destruction and regeneration is rooted in our cultural consciousness because of a central importance to our development, or if the mythologies are not much more than fictional chimaeras used in fairy tales to scare the populace into compliancy, they have inevitably originated from images, an artificial filling of an absence. Hence, the mental or physical image works as a prothesis to compensate for the void created by missing subjects of desire.


Like everything else that can be formulated in formal terms, whether it be gods, natural forces, mathematical calculations, spells, proper names, species, planets, stars, the way home, declarations of love, diagnoses, jokes, drawings, existential issues, or speculations around the origin of the image; the abstract expression can never be more than an ostensible limitation of infinity. Rings drawn in the river that, simultaneously, are and are not the same, until they transcend in singularity and reunite with the eternal continuum they once aspired to describe.

ša nagba īmuru
– The Epic of Gilgamesh, Akkadian standard version, 1300-1000 BC

 The physical image, memory image and oneiric image are, in other words, nothing that is induced by our consciousness, from desire or pleasure, but can be likened to erratic spasms, provoked by the echoes of an unbearable and fundamental loss.
 The strongest representations of this phantom pain are recalled and created by those who still have the ability to sense it. Concurrently, our living conditions are, however, increasingly dictated by an absence also of this particular sensibility. 

What the increased abstraction level of the symbolic systems, that constitute today’s civilisation, has gained in generality and computational efficiency, it has lost in meaning. We obtain the systematic use of abstract knowledge – not least language – in a process of mindless mimicry, with merely a few tenuous binds remaining to the instinctive descent of representation. The impulse of artistic creation is, fortunately, still one of those few instances in which the instinctive expression perforates the firm symbolic structures.

This impulse is not, contrary to popular belief, based on the recreation of an ideal mental image – as if our mind was a perfect camera and the hands a blunt and imperfect tool to fulfil its wishes. Instead, the strive towards this illusion of ideal perfection and the technical tools used as means to compute it, restricts us from embracing the indefinite.


An image can never be real or ideal in itself, but is always an imprint or symptom of reality. Something that sets us in motion to put darkness to light (or in some cases the other way around), which in turn multiplies to innumerable new movements and, ultimately, to the image’s own obliteration.

The previously mentioned Heraclitus from Ephesus also went under the name "the Obscure", precisely because the meaning of his fragments was and still is concealed in riddles. We decode these riddles according to our own predisposed routines to obtain and process knowledge, typical for our own times and context. If this context were smoke, the vision would be of lesser importance and our nose would – to a higher extent – determine how the world would appeared to us. Our means of portraying this reality would then not be with abstractions in the form of images, text or spoken language, but with something that smells. 

According to the ancient historian Neantes of Kyzikos, Heraclitus died tortured by dogs, after smearing himself in cow-shit.

 So it goes.
–Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse 5”, 1969



Samuel Nyholm, aka SANY, is a Swedish artist and illustrator rooted in the graphic design tradition.
He’s currently teaching as professor at HfK in Bremen, Germany.

By Samuel Nyholm