Wisdom Engines: A Visual Meditation on Consciousness, the Elasticity of Time, and the Nature of Happiness
By Maria Popova
“When you are thoroughly able to understand these diagrams and the truths they inculcate,” the eccentric Victorian psychologist Benjamin Betts wrote of his geometric diagrams of consciousness, “when you look at any forms of humanity it will not be at their outward appearance, neither at their hapless struggles after vanities, but at their unhappy Ideal.”
The longing to give shape to all that troubles and animates us is one of the most powerful human longings. We would have no poetry without it. We would have no music. But there is something especially enticing and clarifying in making visible to the eye that which the soul alone can see.
When COVID made of humanity a global chorus of mortality, artist and environmental activist Tanya P. Johnson found herself preparing for her own death. She set out to “hack” her own consciousness, to “express the awareness of awareness,” to create something that was “at once a download and an upload,” to map “the metaphorical and ephemeral horizon line that holds together and separates states of consciousness.”
The result is her series Wisdom Engines: Technologies for Evolution and Happiness — a mixed-media meditation on “metaphysical and ontological ideas regarding the nature of being, existence and truth,” rendered in “vector maps of perception, boundlessness, and life force,” partway between Hilma af Klint’s mystical paintings from the early 1900s and Thomas Wright’s 1750 illustrations for his revolutionary Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe.
Implicit to the artwork is a lovely tribute to the legacy of the pioneering and tragic mathematician Emmy Noether, whose work laid the foundation of symmetry and helped Einstein solve the greatest puzzlement of relativity.
Some of the pieces are drawn on paper from centuries-old ledger books; some explore the liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — that space at the edge of consciousness, of which Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote so beautifully; some explore the transition from life to death — that ultimate gauntlet of consciousness.
For a kindred spirit in a very different sensibility, couple with David Byrne’s line drawings of possibility.
Published August 31, 2022