a crop from a charcoal drawing with hands over a woman's eyes, a chalkboard with key words and a nude in fetal position

Extreme Imagination

Online Exhibition

The Extreme Imagination exhibition challenges long-held beliefs about what it means to be creative. Collected from responses to the Eye’s Mind Project, and then in an open call for artworks by people with aphantasia and its opposite, hyperphantasia, the exhibiting artists – including designers, architects and writers – work with their personal lack or abundance of internal imagery.

The exhibitors demonstrate the diversity of means by which artworks can come into being. For the aphantasics, one of these means is to ‘copy’ directly from a source, be it an object in front of them or a group of photographs. Another is to just start making marks and see where they lead. A third is to make things out of other pre-existing things. Thus, having mental imagery is not a prerequisite for making art or even being creative.

One couldn’t know which of the artists were hyperphantasic and which were aphantasic just by looking at their work, or even, indeed, if there was anything unusual about their inner lives. And that is what the Extreme Imagination exhibition hints at: the diversity of the hidden routes to creation. Find out more in the Exhibition Essays, Artist Interviews and Conference sections.

First, take the pre-exhibition survey


grey slide with yellow cast lion and text 'Extreme imagination - inisde the mind's eye. Online exhibition'. Arrow pointing to top right corner has text underneath 'click here to make the exhibition full-screen'

 

Artwork by Sheri Bakes (white and red sparkles on blue background) and quote: 'Before my stroke, it was all figurative. […] Recently, I’ve not been able to see things in my mind [but] I can feel those stars in my chest  when I look at them on my wall, and while I am painting them... I might not be able to see it in my brain, but at least now I can feel it.'

Artwork by Susan Baquie (white, beige and black paper strips stuck on a canvas) and quote  “These works were completed over one weekend, in response to news of the suicide of an acquaintance.... shapes and colours evoke essences of meaning within the experiences... As I have aphantasia, there were no images in my mind of the distressing events, but  a figurative representation of them emerged

Artwork by Kirsten Baron (red and black round shape on red background) and quote 'The artwork that most reflects my hyperphantasia would be some of my paintings – the ones that came purely from my imagination/recollection rather than a process of development. Unfinished Business came to me unexpectedly one evening fully formed'

Artwork by Andrew Bracey (two movie stills - Raft of the medusa in different stages of digital manipulation) and quote 'I use something that exists already, in order to create something new. I found out two years ago that  I have aphantasia… Maybe that is why I paint? Perhaps why I create images and also why I do not start with the blank canvas, but with an image?'

artwork by Melissa English Campbell (black-and-white squares reassembling the image of a flowing fabric) and quote “ Hyperphantasia comes into all of my artwork development. I spend hours composing the whole piece in my mind. I visualize the designs,,make changes, rotate it to check the structures from different angles, and make corrections and adjustments before I put it down on paper

artwork by Elina Cerla (desk with woman gaging perspective, a drawing of her with hands over her eyes, a blackboard with information about Aphantasia) and quote '“ I have no ‘object imagery’, but can imagine spatial reconstructions of objects and compositions. The ‘visual’ reconstruction of ‘spatial imagery’ is difficult to describe, it is almost a  haptic sensation of three-dimensional space.'

 

artwork by Michael Chance (beige and brown cityscape with people having sex/exposing their bodies in different positions) and quote 'The lack of ability to visualise images is a great motivation; I must physically work in order for my imagination to become visually manifest. Largely bypassing conscious decision making, the way images emerge from my subconscious is akin to dreaming

 

artwork by Clare Dudeney (abstract assemblage of angular pastings of paper in different shades of pink) and quote “I became aware of my hyperphantasia by making a series of works on dreams – realising how vividly I remembered or recreated the scenes, piecing them together from fragments. I’m trying to express the feeling of existing in a mind and body, aside from the subject matter of life'

 

artwork by Megan Eckman (drawing of a polar bear hiding behind a tree) and quote “Whenever I go hiking in the woods, it’s a real trial to keep focused on reality. My mind tends to wander and suddenly every dark shape is a bear, or a witch. I drew one of those incidents: a large clump of pale, dead moss clinging to a tree - my imagination immediately told me it was a white bear.”

artwork by Trevor Keetley (architectural technical drawing with legend) and quote '“ I have no visual imaging in my mind’s eye but I have never experienced disadvantage because of this.. As an architect I have always had an innate ability to ‘see’ solutions and zero in on the most appropriate way of prioritising options. Perhaps this skill developed naturally as an offset for aphantasia'

 

still from Dominic Mason's movie (golden brush with dark blue flowing ink on off-white paper) and quote “planning projects, or communicating ideas to curators or peers has always been problematic. I’ve always felt that the work has revolved around a truth or core, that has been tantalisingly just out of reach, and now realise that aphantasia is potentially a missing piece in this puzzle'

 

artwork by Isabel Nolan (a yellow cast lion with a thorn in its paw) and quote 'I never understood those artists who could anticipate exactly how they intended a finished work to look… I’ve always strongly felt it necessary to make the work in order to discover what it might do, how it will appear. Having nothing to compare it to, it’s difficult to understand how mind-blindness affects my practice

 

artwork by Hillah Nevo (abstract flowing pattern in different rust colours) and quote 'I think that my aphantasia is manifested in my artistic work in the ‘foggy’ nature or in the lack of concreteness of my images. I don't or cannot visualize how things look like so I try to build them according to what, as far as I can say, are features that do not depend on memory, like space and lighting'

 

artwork by Elvenia Ruusu (dark multicolour swirls that look like flowers or galaxies) and quote 'My paintings are my real imaginative experience, not merely artwork. I have experienced myself in my imagination as a plant for a long time. Almost all my paintings are painted from my imaginative world that I can experience within my head'

photo (interior of a gallery, two mannequin busts wearing an elaborate golden headdress (Cleaopatra Virgin Mary) and a dark futuristic hood (Dorothy) made by Claire Strickland) and quote 'I have aphantasia but I also have a very active imagination. When I create I draw ideas on printed out photos of half-made hats and pin hats together on my head whilst looking in the mirror.'

 

charcoal drawing by Daan Tweehuysen (abstract three-dimensional shape with a wrinkly texture, described in the caption as a ginger stem) and quote 'Since I do not have ‘internal’ imagery, I always look for ‘external’ motives. I do not feel aphantasia limits my painting – probably a lot more in terms of ‘inspiration’. I would work in a much more abstract way if I were not constricted to observation

artwork by Geraldine van Heemstra (abstract flowing shape in different blues) and quote 'These works are the result of collaborating with a musician. The colours and marks are a responsive approach to the music... a translation of the music I hear and feel and the narrative created in my mind. Holding a brush in each hand I try to capture the different sounds, shapes and colours I hear and feel.

 

artwork by Stephanie Brown (outdoor - wild animals frolicking around a muzzled fox, falling upside down) and quote“ I can barely visualize anything in my mind, so I rely very heavily on photographic references in my artwork. To counter this deficit, I methodically work through what I need to do to create a good painting... I paint with thoughts and ideas instead of my imagination.”

slide with text: excerpt from Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, and quote: 'I now see that there are ‘clues’ to aphantasia in my book. I wrote about my mind going ‘blank’ and when not blank, my mind is flooded only by thoughts and emotions – not images. It is clear how impacted I am by my external world, I can’t escape from it, can’t replace it with an internal mind’s eye.'

slide with text: excerpt from Dustin Grinnel's Without Limits and quote 'As an aphantasic, I can’t ‘see’ a scene or character before I write. They’re just concepts. I know what each character intends to say or do, and how that dialogue or action will advance the plot, or develop their characters. When it comes to writing descriptions and setting, I rely on photographic references.

slide with text: excerpt from Benjamin Hendy's How to Fill a Black Hole and quote 'aphantasia presents very specific challenges for an author. Being unable to visualise a scene and let it play out in my imagination can be hugely frustrating. I used to say that some people use words to create wonderfully detailed oil paintings, but that I prefer to work in charcoal sketches'

slide with visual essay title: What Is It Like to Have Visual Imagery? Author: Fiona Macpherson

 

People who have never had visual imagery—congenital aphantasics—may wonder what exactly it is like to have it. Describing visual imagery has mostly resulted in metaphorical descriptions that aren’t particularly helpful. I approach the question by examining different forms of unusual visual experience that have something in common with visual imagery. In this exhibition I present 5 types of cases:

 

slide with text (1) Ambiguous Figures: Experiencing these is like visual imagery to the extent that there is something voluntary about what you experience: you can choose which of two things to experience (of course the choice is less limited in visual imagery)

 

First image: Necker Cube: 12 black lines intersecting on a white background to create a cube. Lack of depth creates an uncertainty over which lines are closer or farther from the viewer. Second image: Duck/Rabbit: a sketch of an animal that looks both like a duck with its bill facing to the left and a rabbit with its muzzle facing to the right, horizontal ears extending into previous duck's bill

First image: Rubin's vase: a golden vase with multiple tiers, the outside contours of which delineate two human face profiles facing each other against the background. Second image: Sawtooth: zigzagging lines and surfaces (at 90 degrees) in white, black and grey creating a light-and-dark sawtooth either with its teeth upwards (lit from one side) or downwards (lit from the other side)

slide with text (2) Amodal completion Whole objects are experienced, despite the fact that not all of their parts are seen or experienced in the way that non-occluded surfaces are. The way these whole objects and unseen parts are experienced is somewhat like having visual imagery: you know you are not seeing them but in some sense you are experiencing them visually.

 

First image: flat round figure partially obscuring corner of flat square figure, with 3 possibilities of what the round figure hides: complete square; incomplete square missing corner; or square with an extension. Second image: 4 horse silhouettes on top line, repeated on bottom line with dark box hiding the front of a horse and the back of the next so it looks like 1 'long horse' between 2 horses

First image: cube occlusion: 3D cube made out of thin bars, with 3 diagonal blank bars going over the 2/6th, middle and 4/6th so when expanded, the cube dissolves in a pile of K, Y and arrows. Second image: photo of 4 white men in footballer's attire, with 2 of them pointing left. Shoulder of the second man is hidden behind the first, so the third man looks like he has an unnaturally long arm.

slide with text (3) Modal Completion Shapes are experienced, unlike amodal completion, in virtue of an apparent lightness boundary and, similar to having visual imagery, you can appreciate that what is experienced isn’t really present in the world.

 

first image: kanisza triangle: 3 black circles missing a third and 3 thin line Vs oriented in such way that they create an illusion on three layers, with a top triangle pointing up, bottom triangle pointing down, and 3 black circles under the corners of the topmost triangle. Second image: Inverted Ehrenstein figure: a black square with incomplete white diagonals, creating the illusion of 5 circles

 

First image: Tse’s Spikey Sphere: black conical spikes of different sizes arranged in a circular fashion on a white background so that the negative space looks like a white or invisible sphere. Second image: 3D Modal Completion: 4 black circles in a square formation (two by two lines) with semi-circular bits of 2 sizes missing so the negative image looks like a 3D tube in front of the circles

 

slide with text (4) Illusory Colour Experience You can experience apparent objects, shapes and patches of colour when none are present and, when this becomes apparent, your experience is thereby somewhat like having visual imagery.

 

first image: Neon Colour Spreading: 4 circles with concentric black/white lines inside, grouped in a rhombus; parts of the black (but not white) lines inside the circles are blue, and combined recreate the illusion of a blue circle in front of the 4 circles. second image: light-blue square with diagonal and perpendicular lines, partly coloured to create the illusion of 4 semitransparent circles

 

first image: watercolour illusion: a circle made from a yellow wavy closed line on the outside and another wavy red line on the inside. A second circle has the colour of the lines switched - its inside seems to be yellow, although the filling is white. second image: similarly formatted square doughnuts with differently coloured lines create the illusion of differently coloured filling.

slide with text (5) Hallucinatory Phenomena: You can experience apparent objects, shapes and patches of colour when none are present. Halucination = Experience of things not present

A black-lined square containing four coloured circles and a dot in the middle, and a second empty box of similar size. The text reads: Stare at the dot in the centre of the image on the left for 30 seconds and then look at the dot in the centre of the blank area to its right. You will likely experience a negative afterimage of a complimentary colour

 

A heavily digitally altered image of the singer Amy Winehouse sits on the left, while a second white box with a dot in the centre sits at the right. The text reads:  Stare at the dot in the centre of the image on the left for 30 seconds and then look at the dot in the centre of the blank area to its right. You will likely experience a negative afterimage of a complimentary colour.

three boxes with a drawing of a white dove helding a black paintbrush, on red, white and blue background respectively. Text reads: Stare at the target on the dove on either the right-hand or left-hand image for 20 seconds then look at the target on the dove in the middle image. You will likely experience colours not present in the middle image but present around the dove in the other image

The Hermann Grid: a black rectangle with white gridlines to create a 7 by 6 table. Illusory grey dots are experienced at the intersection points of the white gridlines

 

Look at a bright light source. Close your eyes and cover them with your hands for 30 seconds. Very briefly remove your hands and open your eyes, and then immediately close them and cover them with your hands again. At first, you will experience the same scene as you did when your eyes were open. Sometimes, positive afterimages are replaced quickly by negative afterimages

 

Someone might think that some or all of these phenomena actually involve visual imagery — imagery that is added to perceptual experience. Could we test this suggestion by seeing if aphantasics can experience these phenomena? Perhaps not, if it is true that what aphantasics lack is not visual imagery per say, but voluntary visual imagery. Further research is required

 

Please take the post-exhibition survey