Dr Christopher Chapman: Welcome everyone, welcome to this space. Those of you who have attended our first two lectures will know that we held those in our theatrette because the first two lectures were slide lectures with visual imagery. Today we very deliberately have dispensed with visual imagery and we wanted to present the lecture in a space that bears a direct relationship between the entry foyer to the gallery. So if visitors happen to be coming to the gallery over the next hour they might wish to come in and listen for a few moments and move on.
So that’s the explanation for this space, and I hope that you are all able to see us and hear me so far adequately? Very good. Now we’re very fortunate to have with us, joining me here today, two very special men: Nick Mourtzakis, who’s an artist from Melbourne who is the author of the gallery’s latest portrait commission, and the portrait commission is a painting, a portrait of David Chalmers. Nick was born in Greece in a small town outside of Athens and he came to Australia as a young boy with his family. Nick has worked as an art teacher and as an artist his practice focuses on painting and drawing; and he brings to his practice a very finely calibrated degree of concentration and focus, a concern with materials, paint, graphite, and a concern with ideas; and ideas play a very important role in his work.
David, who is the subject of Nick’s most recent portrait, was born in Sydney, and as a student at Adelaide university in the 1980s he excelled at mathematics and soon became fascinated in the way that we perceive the world around us; and that interest has lead to David being recognised as one of the world’s most important thinkers around questions of the mind, the way that we perceive the world, how we interpret the world, how our sense of consciousness, the ability that we have to reflect on our being in the world, how that can inform our sense of self and our understanding of our place in the world. David is presently the distinguished Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Centre for Consciousness here at the Australian National University in Canberra. So please join me in welcoming our two guests today.
The National Portrait Gallery has an active program of commissioning new portraits and in fact every year since the gallery was established in 1998, ten years before we moved into this beautiful building, each year we have commissioned at least four portraits; and what we want to do with that program is to acknowledge, through portraiture, outstanding and unique Australians for whom we feel there is not in existence an appropriate portrait. So that’s why we commission our own portraits as well as collect portraits produced by others. We’re also very interested in what portraiture can tell us about the sitter, the subject, and also about the relationship between the artist and their subject. This is very important for us because we want our portraits to have a life and to tell us something new and to tell us something that is important to know.
The sitters for our portrait commissions and the artists are derived from ongoing conversations generated by our Director and our Board and we have, and we maintain a running list. David is someone I first, whose work I first encountered in the late 1990s and I was very keen that the gallery would be able to acknowledge his work through a portrait commission.
When we bring together a sitter and an artist want there to be a dialogue, we want there to be a sense of connection that will produce a terrific spark. So about two and a half years ago I began working on the exhibition ‘Inner Worlds’ which some of you will have seen, some of you will have not seen; and I also began the process of managing a new portrait commission and I wanted those things to happen simultaneously so that the portrait could be produced and it could be premiered in the exhibition, and this has happened and it will tour with the exhibition when it goes to Brisbane and Melbourne and then the portrait will be displayed on the walls of our collection display.
That’s all I’m going to say about the portraits and I know some of you have seen it, some of you haven’t seen it, but what I want to talk about today is what it is that drives the interests of our guests and I think from our conversation you’ll see what an interesting and fruitful match we have made. So Nick could I start by asking you if you could reflect upon what it was in your early life that lead you to be so fascinated and committed to your practice as an artist?
Nick Mourtzakis: Thank you Christopher. It was, in a word, the sense of autonomy that I experienced when I was drawing as a very small child. The… For me particularly there was a sense that I could go anywhere, that I could think anything, that I was not only just thinking but that I was doing and that that doing was being expressed physically so that I was… I remember the… In a very clear example I think, a clearly visual example I can present, drawing a line, I think many people have had this experience, the open space in front of the pencil point and behind the pencil the trace of the gesture. So the journey of the line, or I think it was Paul Clay who described it this way, taking a line for a walk. It’s, it was mesmerising, it was a hypnotic and intoxicating experience, the silence of it, the sense of space also. Quite different from my relationship to my world externally, which was benign, there was nothing particularly difficult in the world as the environment and the environment, a loving family, a severe father who liked quiet after the experience of the Second World War, I think he was very needy of quiet; and also the clatter of working in factories, the cacophony of working in factories in Melbourne. It was a way for me to really reserve myself for myself.
The sense of autonomy was profound and it stayed with me and I continued to draw and really at the first opportunity I decided that I was going to study to be an artist, that that was an option, it was an open option. I was 12 years old at the time and very fortunate in that the school, the technical college I attended, secondary school, had a very extensive timetable of art classes. So at age 12 I was introduced to clay modelling and drawing and also encouraged to draw more and more from my imagination and subjective experience. It was... They’re the very earliest experiences. Subsequently the involvement really became all the more intense as I started to see the work of the significant artists of history and realised that the depth of involvement, the depth of engagement expressed in the works of history; and this is something that’s very interesting for me and very significant for me. It makes museums very special places for me because time collapses in museums. The, to look at a work of… My travels to Greece of the last decade have allowed me to see works from prehistory, several thousand years past and there’s something about the, there’s something extraordinary in being able to experience a work, see the making, the human making that’s gone into an object that has transcended the, well the tyranny of time, you know the ephemeral nature of the human condition.
So there’s that richness for me and in a sense it’s not that, I mean there’s a magnification in all of this too that as I developed as an artist and as I understood that it was a process that was going to give me the opportunity because of its autonomy to become the… One of the very significant aspects of the process of making artworks is that it gives me the opportunity to further myself, further my thinking, further my engagement of the world, further my experience, which leads to a profound sense of my own limitations. It’s very humbling but it’s also extraordinarily intoxicating because I’m opened up by it emotionally and conceptually. There have been moments where there has really been profound illumination for me and its not that it leads to any conclusion, but it certainly makes the world a quite extraordinary place for me.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Thank you Nick. David, as a student in Adelaide you were studying mathematics and it was then that you began to think about the issues that concern you today. Could I ask you, also, to reflect upon the time around that moment in your thinking when the question of consciousness became one which you wished to pursue.
David Chalmers: First time I remember thinking about consciousness per se was when I was about eight years old. It had to do with, I discovered I was short-sighted in one eye and I got glasses and put them on and somehow my visual world was transformed. I thought, previously I thought I had depth vision, I thought, you know, the world looked like a three dimensional place but I guess I only had binocular vision with a bit of input from the other eye. I got glasses and suddenly the world sprang, it sprang into depth and I thought well I can understand the mechanisms in the brain, in virtue of which, okay your eye gets… Your brain gets information from two eyes and it computes the depth information and it can represent things as being out in different points in the world and therefore it will get to better mechanisms. How does that suddenly transform itself into subjective experience? The subject experience of a deep, you know, three dimensional inner world. How do you get that bridge from the objective mechanisms in the brain to what you actually see and feel from the inside. That’s the basic question of consciousness, the mind-body problem, first striking me. I guess that was more or less how it first struck me and I thought about this for years. I mean it was the kind of thing that as a student we’d, I was a student in mathematics but every mathematician, every scientist turns into a philosopher at night after enough drinks and we’d sit around talking about these things, you know, the mind, reality and so on. I never dreamed at that point that you could actually do this professionally. Way too much fun that someone would actually pay you to do this.
So I did one philosophy course at university, I did very badly. It was a black mark on my record but it also; it did get me thinking about some of these issues about consciousness even as a mathematics... It was... What drove me to mathematics was trying to understand the world, the basic structure of realities, really fundamental questions. Physics underneath chemistry, chemistry under biology, we saw mathematics as being underneath all that, the fundamental structure of reality but there was always this one thing that this scientific picture of the world seemed to leave out and that was consciousness. At the very least it struck me then but consciousness was the biggest unsolved question in the sciences and in our picture of reality.
It was the one thing that we just couldn’t accommodate so I said how are we going to, if we wanted to build a fundamental scientific picture of the world based on mathematics, physics or whatever, where was consciousness going to fit in, and this is, I guess, the traditional philosophical mind-body problem; and over time I guess started to obsess on this more and more and these ideas that were crazy ideas first put forward over drinks with my friends, I mean at one point I got to my last year in mathematics at Adelaide, I gave what was meant to be my big presentation and I think I shocked the mathematical audience there by instead of talking about detailed mathematics by talking about the mind-body problem and they already knew I was going bad then.
Actually I went to Oxford to study maths and on the way I hitch-hiked around Europe for about six months and spent all my time doing that, obsessing about consciousness, about philosophy, and thinking about this more and more; and still it was more of a hobby, passion, but then I got to Oxford and just this obsession took over and it was like I’d stare at the maths books and nothing was happening. It was consciousness that just struck me as like the most important question in the world. How on earth can we understand how our subjective experience of the mind and of reality fits into this physical universe that the sciences tell us; and I thought well here is a place where there has just got to be enormous progress to be made precisely because there is so little that we understand about it; and I ended up making the decision that this was what I wanted to be thinking about properly and maybe spend my life thinking about; and it struck me then that it just seemed that well philosophy for now was the way to be able to come at this question in the big picture, in the grand “what is the place of consciousness in the world, how can we develop theories on it”? I mean there’s all, one can come at this from many different directions in psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, all these things are very important but you know if you end up working on these things you end up working on a little, you’re stuck at your lab bench for you know, for many, many years until finally you get tenure and ten, twenty years later someone lets you speculate about the place of consciousness in the world.
That’s the nice thing about being a philosopher is you get to do this stuff. You get to speculate about the big picture and that’s, I guess, what I’ve ended up more or less spending my life doing. So I went into, in the end, into philosophy just to try to think systematically about this question, you know what is consciousness, subjective experience, you know the sensations and feelings we have when we see, when we feel, when we think, when we remember, in the inner life of the world from the first person point of view and how is this something that you could build a science off? How could you take these intangible first person aspects of the mind and integrate it into our scientific picture of the world and ultimately build a theory of it, and I’ve always been, I was driven initially from sort of the scientific point of view and I would have liked to have tried to …
I’m very, very attracted to this picture where everything is explicable in terms of this chain of explanation from the ground up: atoms in the void or wave functions in the void, physics to chemistry to biology and so on, and I would have liked to have been able to do something like this; I would have liked it if something like this worked for consciousness, this basic materialist picture where everything gets explicable in terms of the brain, but somewhere along the way, I guess this is now after I moved into philosophy, I came to the view that in fact you needed something more and in fact trying to explain consciousness just in terms of interactions of say neurons in the brain and their physical environment was never going to explain consciousness.
Of course I’m not the first person to have thought such a thing, these ideas have been around for a very long time, but I ended up… So then the question was if consciousness does involve something well how can we develop a science or a philosophy of consciousness and more or less then the thought was well then we have to take consciousness as a fundamental element of the world. Physicists are used to taking some things as fundamental, space and time and matter. Well okay, here’s how we can build a scientific picture of consciousness by taking consciousness as a fundamental element of the world we might ultimately describe, maybe mathematically, maybe with other tools, and somehow what we want is a fundamental theory of consciousness that connects consciousness to everything else we understand in our picture of the world. I mean I wish I could tell you “and then I figured out the theory and I have it here for you today” but no, no I didn’t; but I ended up writing a book on all this stuff and well the subtitle was ‘The Subconscious Mind in Search of a Fundamental Theory’ and I guess we’re still searching and I can’t say that, you know, I can’t say that we’re necessarily that much closer than we were.
But I think this is a process which philosophers and scientists are in the middle of, just trying, just struggling with and I think it’s an enormously interesting struggle.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Thanks Dave. I’d like to ask you both one more question and then I’d like to open our discussion to the floor. In fact, what I was going to ask Nick and David as we discussed earlier was I was going to ask you both to respond to the work that you’re doing now but I think you’ve alluded to that in a very powerful way and in fact so have you, so I’d like to ask you something else; and what I’d like to ask you both to respond to is how do you prepare for when you know you want to do some serious work? Nick?
Nick Mourtzakis: Well the preparation is really, it started a long time ago. It’s hard to know actually when I actually began the preparation but in a sense everything, the state I find myself in, in relation to my work is really one where I’m, I feel as though I’m ready to work always. The preparation is often, if I’m understanding the sense in the word you’re using Christopher, is the preparation is in trying to deal with all of the pragmatic aspects of living and clear a space. One of the things that I think is fundamental for me to the work I do is that I must have a space to project into. If there’s something in front of me I’m not able to move. I literally have to, I have to project a space first and that’s become synonymous with the studio. The studio is sort of the physical manifestation of this space. It becomes so important. Everything in the studio is so important. Nothing of any value in the studio, absolutely not.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Could you describe your working space?
Nick Mourtzakis: It is a difficult space because it’s in a relatively derelict condition in physical terms. It’s partly an old building and partly a new building. When I say new building, something that was demolished and reconstituted in the ‘70s in a very unpleasant way, but there are, to get some light into it I literally had to open up the roof, put in some plastic corrugated material and basically I’ve left the ceiling cavity open. It’s only because, you know, I would take these things to a certain point and then I’ve got to get on with my work.
Dr Christopher Chapman: And it’s a small, it’s quite a modest sized space.
Nick Mourtzakis: It’s a modest size space
Dr Christopher Chapman: It’s in an industrial part of inner Melbourne in an old shop and the studio part of your space is probably about a quarter of the size of this room, would that be right?
Nick Mourtzakis: Oh yes.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Smaller, I’d say.
Nick Mourtzakis: It’s smaller. It’s about one eighth the size of this room. It’s a small space but it’s, you know it has some very interesting aspects too. There are some old walls and they have a beautiful patina; but it’s got a floor which was laid very badly. It’s a wooden floor but it has these waves in it. So every, you know my easel for instance is never level. It makes it very difficult, but the physical space is actually very, very important. The objects in the space are very important.
Dr Christopher Chapman: And Nick, the mental space?
Nick Mourtzakis: And the mental space is, as I say, it’s, I would describe it this way, it’s based on a vertical principal. It’s not horizontal, it’s based on a vertical principal and in that sense it has, there’s an axis and it’s synonymous with gravity and it’s also synonymous with the open space above my head. It’s visioning myself without boundaries and somehow in a paradoxical sense being able to engage the three dimensional space, the limited space within which I’m living and experiencing the world. That and the third element, the plane. The plane or the piece of paper which is for me probably the most exacting representation of the mental space because it is, there’s an infinite potentiality in that plane.
Dr Christopher Chapman: But it’s also right here.
Nick Mourtzakis: It’s present in a way which is almost, it’s present, absolutely and completely present but it is bound, it’s not… It is unlimited. Whereas most of the things that are present have the appearance of being limited. I mean we have to see the edges of the thing to be able to encompass it. I’ve often thought of the process of, you know the language of visual art as being working with relational values of contrast. When relational values of contrast are brought to a point of infinite subtlety everything disappears. In other words everything is the same.
So we can’t determine the difference between one thing and another. It’s only really because of contrast that we see anything anyway, we see anything at all. So in a sense when one is working with the materials of the artist one is working with relational levels of contrast. Colour, for instance. You know the painting for me, again perfectly mirrors the state, my mental state, in that it is entirely relational. Colours really affect each other immediately. They transform each other and it’s the property that’s generated when two colours are brought together, not the colours themselves that one is working with. It is the energy that is generated from them, the light energy that comes off the surface of the painting; but this is not just colour, it’s there in relation to the measure of, the measure and the structure of the spatial…
Dr Christopher Chapman: And as an artist working and responding…
Nick Mourtzakis: Absolutely. So there is this, within the process… I mean every time I make a mark on a painting it registers. I don’t know what it’s going to do before I’ve made, before I make the mark; it registers. The beautiful thing about painting is that one can infinitely shift that mark. I can move it from one side of the canvas to the other. It’s up and down, change its dimension, change its orientation. It’s dealing with such a dynamic medium and in a sense that has informed my state. One of the things I referred to earlier that this, you know the process of becoming, I have become subject to the medium that I use.
Dr Christopher Chapman: David you said recently that, in a short interview with the ANU on their asking staff members about some of their favourite places on campus and so on and you mentioned the joy that you take in walking in nature. Can you say something a little bit? Is that a thinking space, a space that is useful for you in that way?
David Chalmers: I’d say it’s one among many thinking spaces. I mean as a philosopher I think (0:34:03), maybe for many academics, but as a, the thinking is a thing that constantly surrounds you. There’s not a, I don’t have separate thinking times, you know, times that I set aside to think. The thinking just happens, you know, you’re driving, you’re walking, you’re having a shower. A lot of my best ideas happen in the shower for some reason. I read somewhere that the warm water stimulates your brain. It certainly is the case that I like to go for a drive and I like to go for a… I live out near Molonglo Gorge and I like to, you know, go walking through there and it’s certainly the case that, you know, while doing that, it’s reflective in interesting ways; but I don’t really have a, I don’t have a systematic plan of attack in thinking about stuff. Maybe I would have gotten a lot further if I did, but that just… The thinking part just happens. The thinking part is easy.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Yes.
David Chalmers: In philosophy there’s, I guess there’s three parts; there’s the thinking, there’s the talking and there’s the writing. The thinking is just, I don't know. It’s the space that we move in and somehow things happen. You struggle with it sometimes. You’ve got a problem you’re trying to figure out. This was the same when I was a mathematician, there’s a hole in your, the theorem you’re trying to prove and it’s like “there’s a step, what am I going to do?” I don't know, maybe I’ve got to sit down and say oh, I’ve got to solve that step.
No, that step is always there with you and maybe at some point you break through, but there’s the thinking, there’s the talking which is very important for us as philosophers. People outside of philosophy often think of it as this very solitary discipline and there is something to that. There are some very solitary moments, but it’s also a very interactive discipline. At least the way it’s practised today and we try out our ideas on other people, other philosophers. They argue, they argue back and we argue with each other and you get, you make a lot of progress through this. If your idea can’t survive, you know, arguments and objections from another person, from another philosopher then maybe it wasn’t so great; and actually here at the ANU we’ve got a wonderful environment for doing that; very, very interactive group of people.
Another thing I mentioned in the same interview you mentioned was the Coombs, the tea room at ANU where we all sit around at afternoon tea everyday and argue about and talk about philosophy. That’s, someone throws out their lettuce idea, someone else says hey, what about this, we’ll have seminars and so on. So that’s the talking process and that’s actually easy too. That’s a pleasure. The hard part, at least for me as a philosopher, is the writing. You’ve done all the thinking, you’ve done all the talking, now you’ve got to write it down into a, ultimately it’s got to make its way into an article or a book that goes into the world. This is where the rubber hits the road. I guess if you’re an artist it’s the painting. you’ve got to funnel it into this linear structure, get it all down in the right order and actually at this point I find myself envying a visual artist like Nick who’s not subject to that constraint. He just threw it all down on the canvas in parallel.
Nick Mourtzakis: I often think about the relation of the visual form to text and it’s so interesting to think about the parallels; and also to music of course. The way in which we’re composing in abstract mediums and through levels of definition trying to articulate our thought. It’s…
David Chalmers: Music is somewhere in between though because it still has that surreal quality to it.
Nick Mourtzakis: Yes.
David Chalmers: But somehow it’s, you can convey an awful lot in this… It doesn’t have to broken down into symbols in quite the same way.
Nick Mourtzakis: No, and the simultaneity of a work of visual art, one sees the whole thing simultaneously which is something that has to be won, I guess, achieved in the process of reading and also in the process of listening to a piece of music. Mind you, I think that in the process of looking at a visual work, whether it’s a sculptural work or a photograph or a painting, whatever, there is the fact that one becomes aware that ones mind is moving. The work is visually still but ones mind moves and that’s something I actually, I’m interested in. I’m interested in somehow integrating that principal into the way I construct the static work.
David Chalmers: My feeling is that once you’ve got to a certain point in the thinking in philosophy then you have it all there before you, inside your mind; and maybe that’s an illusion that you have it all there before you, but that is the sense that, you know, I’ve got this big structure of ideas and theses and everything is all there interconnected and I see it.
Now I need to get it down onto paper funnelled through these things called, you know, words and sentences and pages and theses, sections; and that is, that’s a whole different…
Dr Christopher Chapman: Way of…
David Chalmers: That’s a whole different process and it is…
Dr Christopher Chapman: Process, yeah.
David Chalmers: This is where it gets to be frustrating and of course it takes a big discipline to do that.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Sit down and do it, yeah.
David Chalmers: But you need to do that. You cannot, I mean, you know if I’d… I guess I could have tried to produce a painting of, you know, my first book on consciousness.
Nick Mourtzakis: Oh no.
Dr Christopher Chapman: It probably would have been an incoherent mess. But it’s got to come out and then if you succeed maybe you’ll get some little… Somehow you funnel it out into words and someone will read it in words and arguments at the other end and maybe they will recreate inside their own consciousness, you know some element of that big picture.
Dr Christopher Chapman: I’d really like to invite some comment and participation from our audience now, but I think as you can see we’ve really only just begun to enter the work and the thought behind the work of David and Nick and just barely begun to get a very subtle sense of the magnitude, is the word that springs to mind, of what is involved, what we’re talking about, what this work means; the depth of the work as it is now manifest in your thinking and writing and your thinking and painting. So please, I do hope that we have some comments and questions from the floor. We have some microphones so please just wait a minute so that Sam and Jeanie can bring the mic to you. Down the front here?
Female Speaker: I enjoyed both comments and I’m fascinated by your introduction where you said we would be talking about relationship between the painter and his subject and what lead to the painting that we can see in the gallery, so I’d be fascinated for all of you to comment on that. Thank you.
Dr Christopher Chapman: I’m pleased for us to perhaps reasonably concisely address that question. Nick’s practice as I think you might have, that you might feel, his way of thinking about producing an image seemed to me, as a curator and an art theorist and an art historian to be a very more than appropriate match to say something visually that might allude to something of the character of David; and all of you can judge for yourselves when you see the painting if you haven’t seen it, how that may or may not work. The process itself occurred over the course of about a year. In fact it was the first time that the three of us had met each other as a result of that process.
I approached David and invited him to be the subject of a portrait commission, then I invited Nick to be the artist, then the three of us as a trio spent time together for the first time at David’s house where over coffee we had a discussion not dissimilar to the one that you’ve just witnessed this afternoon which was really wonderful; and then Nick spent two very intensive days separated by some months working at David’s house making sketches and then working from those sketches. Is that the response that you were thinking of?
Female Speaker: Well I was more interested in actually the experience. That’s a good framework, but the experience of the two people involved in actually the production of the portrait and the evolution of what you produced in response to…
Dr Christopher Chapman: Thank you, I’m concerned that we don’t have the picture in front of us and many people may not have seen it so I didn’t want to bring it into that kind of presence if you appreciate what I’m saying, but perhaps very quickly in a sentence or two you could each respond to the feelings associated with that, perhaps with the sittings?
Nick Mourtzakis: Well yes, the sittings are very, well they’re intense. One realises the time is short. One has to make the most of the time. It’s very difficult, I’m just so aware it’s actually quite a thing to sit opposite someone, for the sitter that is to sit opposite me and I’m scrutinising the subject. It’s, the difficulty is also that I’m aware I’m seeing so much more. I’m seeing so much more than I can record. I’m experiencing much, much more than I can record in a drawing so I approach the drawing from the point of view of it being a free associational play and I don’t try to take that to any conclusion. I don’t try to draw any conclusion from it at all. I try to open myself, keep myself in a very open state and I engage the subject and my movements on the drawing. One of the things I did with, when I was drawing David was I put the board down. I mean we were working in a small room quite close to each other, I put the drawing down on my, the board down on my knee so that David could see what I was doing; and then I went away and reflected on those drawings. I took photographs at the end of the first sitting but they were photographs… And also on the second sitting, but they were photographs not to sort of base the painting on but to actually give me some information much as a sculptor would require, that is seeing the figure, seeing the face from the side for instance, one sees the dimension in depth of the features, and then I could actually work with that information to truly construct the portrait. Well to coordinate the structure of the painting. So it’s not… And even the drawings didn’t give me all of the… They couldn’t… I didn’t base the painting on the drawings either, but the drawings and the photographs provoked my memory of the experience of those hours.
Dr Christopher Chapman: And David?
David Chalmers: Well I didn’t have to work very hard. I just had to, you know, sit there and try not to be too horribly self-conscious, which of course is totally impossible.
Nick Mourtzakis: Which is so hard.
David Chalmers: Someone is sitting across the room from you drawing these… it was a very interesting experience actually because Nick did it all with a ruler, so he got the ruler out and he just drew a line and drew a line, there was another line. After about half an hour there’d be this big collection of lines. What exactly does that have to do with me? But he was clearly seeing something. You know it was a… It’d be very, at the end of every, we’d go for about an hour at a time and at the end of every hour he’d be full of dissatisfaction it was like “oh no, this is no good, this is wrong”. Clearly art is like... It’s a very angst ridden process. I was really feeling… Finally towards the end of the last session, “I think I might be getting somewhere”. It was good. But actually we had a marvellous time. We spent most of the time talking about philosophy, I recall. Nick, as you can tell is a very philosophical thinker with many ideas about the mind and consciousness and so on, so mostly we were talking about that…
Nick Mourtzakis: Yes.
David Chalmers: And these lines were just going on this paper during the process.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Another question over here?
Male Speaker: Thanks Chris. Can I ask David what has the portrait made you think about? What have you seen in it that you didn’t know before, and what have you learnt from it?
David Chalmers: Oh boy, that’s a hard one. Hard to answer that without seeming too narcissistic, you know. It’s like, you see a portrait of yourself and… I very much like its abstract quality, I mean I think I sort of see it as a… I really don’t know what Nick was thinking in producing it, what Nick was exactly trying to convey in the structure of the portrait, but I like something about the abstract lines and the structure; but it’s a very abstract work clearly. I mean this, my… People I have talked to are somewhat divided on how much of a resemblance there is, although people who actually look at it up close say oh no, actually I think he got something. But I like the intensity of it and the, particularly sort of inside the, you know, the head so to speak, these lines. Chris used the term quantum mechanical structure inside. I don't know if he’s trying to depict this abstract structure of consciousness, but there is a sense of trying to somehow get, you know the character of a subjective experience for me with all its parallel qualities. I mean it’s not, at least for me, consciousness is not this set of symbols, it’s this very abstract and dynamic sort of thoughts and flex. So when I look at it, maybe I’m just looking at it through my own lens which is as someone who thinks about consciousness, but I can’t help seeing something about the abstract and dynamic structure of consciousness in there. I mean has it actually, is it actually going to change what I write in my next article on consciousness? We’ll see, let’s give it time.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Another question or comment down the front here, Jeanie.
Male Speaker: David, if I may, my name’s Hayden from Coffs Harbour. In our very, very busy lives; well in my children’s very, very busy lives, they have little time to even call me let alone think about other things. Is consciousness, or the awareness of consciousness, becoming harder for the average day person?
David Chalmers: That’s a good question, yeah. I mean I think we’re actually, the way I think about consciousness, it’s a thing which is there all the time, even when you’re busy and distracted and so on. There are certain kinds of… Even when you’re asleep maybe there’s a tiny bit of consciousness, at least when you’re dreaming; but there’s certain kinds of reflectiveness though I think which are harder. Not every state of consciousness is a state of reflection. A lot of the time we’re caught up in what we’re doing, and sometimes that’s very good, you know, if we’re caught up in writing or art or sport or whatever, then actually yeah I think there’s a lot of value in being caught up; and maybe what you’re suggesting is this moment where you sit back and you reflect on, you know, the state of things, the state of self. A kind of certain kind of self consciousness.
You know as a… I don't know, for me as a philosopher it’s very much I’ve got to make time to write and so on. I end up making certain kinds of spaces in my life for certain kinds of reflection, although when I’m reflecting I’m reflecting on, you know my own work for the most part and on the issues about consciousness. I’m not necessarily reflecting on the state of my life or my relationship with my family and so on. So you know, maybe it’s… consciousness usually has a focus. It doesn’t float free. I mean they say the aim of, like many of the spiritual contemplative traditions, is this state of pure consciousness where you have pure, unfocused consciousness without any content at all. Unfortunately I am not, myself, enlightened, you know, so I’ve never experienced this that all we ever have is consciousness of something and it’s always directed at something. So maybe you would like it if your children’s consciousness was more often directed at you, but you know there’s only this, there’s only so much we can actually have into our focus of attention at any one time; and maybe there is, they talk about the art of mindfulness which is the art of trying to, you know, sort of I think to whatever you’re conscious of then really being conscious of it in a very full way and reflecting on it. I think maybe that is something which we can at least try for, and then there’s, you know, the other goal I guess would be sort of like to be like God, to be conscious of everything. Unfortunately we as human beings have only a… It seems that we have these relatively capacity limited minds. There’s only so much we can have in consciousness at one time and I suppose the thought behind your question, which is try and make sure we have some of the important things in our consciousness a lot of the time as opposed to just the, just always and constantly the small and unimportant things.
Dr Christopher Chapman: I think that’s… Oh okay one more question and then we might wrap up.
Female Speaker: You’ve spoken a lot about consciousness, what about the role of unconsciousness in portraiture?
David Chalmers: Nick, do you have some thoughts about the role of the unconscious?
Nick Mourtzakis: Yes, in fact there are very clear demonstrations for me in the process, well for myself that is. The process demonstrates in very overt ways the workings of the below-conscious mind. It’s often the case that, in the process of making the work, that a sense, a judgement on the work arises within myself. I don't know where it comes from but it’s emphatic and it just says “no”; and that “no” is absolutely emotionally, it’s very, very difficult. Now a psycho-analyst might say that’s the result of somehow incorporating the authority of the father, the saturnine judgemental, it’s the superego I believe. However you can ignore it, one could try to ignore it and just say oh… I won’t use any expletives but… However what I’ve found in the decades that I’ve been working is that it’s exact. It’s absolutely exact in its directive. My problem is often that of course I experience that “no” in relation to an aspect of the work. I have to try to discern the aspect of the work, I have to sort of figure out what it is that’s causing that “no” to arise and then I have to work out whether it’s the cause or the effect of the “no” because I can actually, I’ve changed, I’ve found myself going around and around in circles with work following the change because I’m constantly mistaking… I’m experiencing the effect and thinking it’s the cause.
But I’ve actually measured this unconscious directive. What I’ve done is I’ve followed it for months and months, sometimes that I’ve worked on images for years and then after I’ve finished the work I’ve placed a piece of tracing paper over the drawing or the painting, drawn lines through the major axis of the drawing and I’ve found coherences which are not arbitrary, they’re exact. They’re extraordinarily exact, so that intuitive or unconscious directive is something that is so significant.
David Chalmers: The one thing we’ve certainly learnt in contemporary philosophy and science is really the unconscious is doing most of the work. Most of what’s going on in your brain at any one time is well beneath the surface of consciousness, and consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. The old model of the mind as mostly consciousness sort of has now long gone, and the fact some people think that, you know, the neuroscientist Karl Lashley said “no activity of the mind is ever unconscious”. All the activity goes on under the surface and consciousness is like the projection of this activity; and sometimes the activity is a bit more transparent to consciousness. Other times its not. But truly, I think for the experience for me in thinking, even about say philosophy or about science and say coming up with an idea there certainly is this sense that is just, you know, boy at a certain moment it comes upon you and where did that, you know where did that come from? Well something had been going on in the background, you know sometimes it even happens when you’re asleep I guess. But we call it things like intuition or creativity or that’s basically a word we use because we don’t really understand where it came from; and there are moments when you go through step by step within your consciousness and then you see where, for me as a, where an idea came from it’s a conclusion of a chain of reasoning and then I guess the process is relatively transparent to consciousness. But there are plenty of moments where something just comes out of the blue and a lot of the time what comes out of the blue isn’t very good. But every now and then it’s got… Every now and then there’s something to it and then I guess you’ve got to say something like well thanks, thanks unconsciousness for doing that for me.
Dr Christopher Chapman: Thanks unconsciousness, thank you audience for your beautifully precise attention this afternoon.
Thank you our esteemed speakers. Please take the opportunity to view the exhibition ‘Inner Worlds’ and the portrait and please give, join me in giving a very warm welcome to David and Nick today.
Female Speaker: I’d just like to add my thanks to our speakers and to Christopher Chapman for leading that conversation. I know that I’m going to be doing a lot of unconscious and conscious thinking for the rest of the afternoon about these ideas. I hope you’ve all enjoyed it, and perhaps you’d like to join us next week when Ann Sanders will be talking about ‘Less than Six Degrees of Separation’. Ann Sanders is a researcher who has worked on the ‘Inner Worlds’ show and a contributing writer into the ‘Inner Worlds’ book. So perhaps I’ll see some of you next week. Thank you once again.
Layered portraits from the collection
This display sets two impressive portraits from the collection into direct dialogue: Sam Jinks’ sculptural self portrait and Nick Mourtzakis’ painted portrait of David Chalmers, along with related maquette and sketches.Together they explore physical and psychological manifestations of the strata of self-hood.