Articles by Vik

The Unbearable Likeness of Being

The Unbearable Likeness of Being by Vik Muniz

Hokusai tried to paint without the use of his hands. It is said that one day, having unrolled his scroll in front of the shogun, he poured over it a pot of blue paint then, dipping the claws of a rooster in a pot of red paint, he made the bird run across the scroll and leave its tracks on it. Everyone present recognized in them the waters of the stream called Tatsouta carrying along maple leaves reddened by autumn.”
(Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art)

One generally recognizes representation based on the fact that the depicted image looks like something one has already seen, learned, or experienced. This mediation between newly acquired and previously apprehended sensory stimuli occurs through the faculty of “semantic memories” a process through which data is voraciously retrieved from the chaos of the external sensorium. Here, everything is “abstract” at the outset. Whenever the semantic memory fails to locate a precise equivalent to a given stimulus it compulsively forces the equivalence, making use of approximation. Thus, the interpretation of forms (abstract to one’s experience) becomes the result of an entirely personal process.

And yet relation appears,
a small relation expanding like the shade
Of a cloud on sand, a shape on the side of a hill
(Wallace Stevens, Connoisseur of Chaos)

The watching of clouds, whether as a method of forecasting or a form of amusement, has gone on for centuries: What one person sees as a chariot, another may see as a bear, or as a gathering of angels. Visualization comes from within the observer. Consider, for example, that on a certain day the clouds overhead begin to form the perfect likeness of Dede Korkut, astride a horse with weapons drawn. If one is unfamiliar with the Turkish epic poem that bears his name, this image passes away unrecognized.

Despite its ambiguity, this hermeneutics of proximity lies at the very root the development of written language.

In certain non-Western languages, where graphic characters may have a more direct, or more even adverse, relationship to what they represent, the interpretation of a written text occurs in a far more dynamic manner than in occidental cases. The emphasis on calligraphy in Asian cultures has certain curious effects, for instance, when the writer tracing the character meaning “house” enables the reader to easily discern the type of house based on the formal structure of the character. In ideographical writing, the complicities between form and content are much more acute. One does not necessarily arrive at content through form or vice versa: There is, rather, an unaccountable simultaneity.

The numerical and alphabetical abstractions of Western languages have fostered a much greater reliance on convention and arbitrary assignation of form and content, paradoxically rendering their proximities even more distant.

In the West, the antagonistic perception of the relationship between form and content has generated material for centuries of ceaseless argument. Plato, for example, is perhaps the most prominent figure to isolate form from content (which for him didn’t matter at all). This “pure form” (virtually invisible to Aristotle) was to be perceived with the “eye of the soul.1)” Plato’s method was to move not from induction, mechanically tracking down elements shared by all species and subsequently compounding these elements into a new whole, but rather to discern the totality of that generic form in each particular idea, just as one makes out a figure in an unclear image.

Aristotle (perhaps out of annoyance) considered that form could only be known through its content, and content through its form. He reinscribes an inductive method whereby knowledge is gained through the collection of all individual instances. For Aristotle the enumeration of all specific instances on attributes leads to higher concepts, which are poorer in content yet broader in range. It is Aristotle who introduces the notion of abstraction as involving an increasing distance from immediate experience. A dynamic relationship, still in the form of a duality.

The tactic of declaring form and content to be the same simple renders the term meaningless and abandons them as tools. As soon as one pays attention to how the words work, both pure Form and the Oneness of Form and Content disappear into an invisibility not of transcendence, but of linguistic non-meaning. They go where mistakes in grammar go. They go where the vehicles of metaphor go.
(Thomas McEvilley, On the Manner of Addressing Clouds)

This ingrained separation has gone from a primordial principle to an extreme and routing practice. Today, for example, most creative activity seems to stagnate at both poles of this antagonism. As a result, we have on one side a disembodied form of socio-political conceptualism and, on the other, an auto-referential modality of a Greenbergian formalism, both engaged in what may be seen as a renewed form of Neoplatonism.

Things look like things, they are embedded in the transience of each other’s meaning: a thing looks like a thing, which looks like another thing, or another. This eternal ricocheting of meaning throughout the elemental proves representation to be natural and nature to be representational.


Miracles happen, not in opposition to Nature, but in opposition to what we know of Nature. (St. Augustine)

Why is it that seeing a perfect image of a centaur in a cloud is not unusual; enough to be considered a miracle, but if the same centaur is discerned in the mineral patterns or in the external shape of a stone, it is undoubtedly miraculous? Miracles depend entirely on the notion of proof and substance.

The natural pictorial patterns in stones have often been considered auspicious emblems sent from heaven.2) The Shen-i chi reported the discovery of a turtle-shaped stone on which were written the four characters Li Yuan wan chi: “Li Yuan (Founder of the T’ang Dynasty) has every fortune on his side” — a sign that spelled out the heavenly sanction of Li Yuan’s kingship. Not reading Chinese, how many such portents may we have encountered unknowingly.

Less literal, and perhaps more suited to Western comprehension are the stones bearing amazing images of ruins, landscapes, portraits, and so on. Wonder passes immediately into certitude. It is, paradoxically, the loss of wonder that constitutes a miracle.

“…Moors, bishops, lobsters, streams, faces, plants, dogs, fishes, tortoises, dragons, death’s heads, crucifixes-everything a mind bent on identification could fancy. The fact is, that there is no creature or thing, not monster or monument, no happening or site in Nature, History,Fable or Dream whose image the predisposed eye cannot read in the markings, patterns and outlines found in stones.”

“…the observer is always finding fresh details to round out the supposed analogy. Such images miniaturize for his benefit alone every object in the world providing him with stable duplicates which he may hold in the palm of his hand, carry about from place to place or put in a glass case.”

(Roger Caillois, L’Ecriture des Pierres)

In his book, Roger Caillois gives a special emphasis to the Tuscan paesinas, also known as “ruin marbles” whose sections depict in detail the debris of classical cities. It is interesting to note that such depictions predate by millennia the birth of the cities portrayed.

Not only stones, but a myriad of natural forms and imagery have driven their faithful discoverers into a compulsive frenzy. The shape of a saint inscribed into the whorls of a tree trunk in Connecticut is said to draw thousands of pilgrims each year. Numbers found in the wings of butterflies are said to have won lotteries. There are stories of pieces of driftwood found in the shape of human limbs: these natural ex-votos are said to have healed the maladies of those who found them. Patterns in the tea leaves in the bottom of a cup have been a great tool for predictions and evaluations. In the fourteenth century in the south of France, a baker drew two loaves from his oven, one bearing the visage of Jesus Christ, the other bearing the perfect inscription of the word resurgum.3) God knows I have tried to find this word in a number of medieval Latin dictionaries with no success at all!

Recognizable shapes in Nature are as much a cause for mythical assumption as they are for simple affection. Ripley’s Believe It or Not has, though the decades, catalogued hundreds of photographic documentations sent by the proud owners of hermeneutical beasts. Cows bearing a variety of symbols ranging from hearts and numbers to swastikas have been recorded. Animals bearing the pictures of other animals are not uncommon. These syntactical traits elevate such creatures to the level of mascot. But again, one sees what one knows: One of the entries describes the case of cow whose hide bore a spot depicting the exact inverted map of southern Pennsylvania.

The basic premise of all these miracles is the metamorphosis of something totally ubiquitous into something entirely specific. Similarly, Rorschach’s aggregate collection of stains have begun to function in an alphabetical manner with the psychological language. Curiously, before this, they never harbored a referent other than themselves, like marble before a ruin, like a butterfly’s wing before the invention of numbers.


“…when you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene, you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes, beautified with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and a variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls confusedly, like the sound of bells whose jangle you may find any name or word you chose to imagine”

(Leonardo da Vinci, The Practice of Painting)

The same mechanism that induces the mind into ceaselessly associating visual “second meanings” to thing, also allows it — for its own amusement or convenience — to consciously force or introject meaning into the ambiguity forms. Not even the traditional objectivity of photography escapes such genre of manipulation. For example, material processed by the Warren Commission — as photographic evidence for a second sniper in the JFK assassination — shows, in its detailed analysis, ambiguous shadows and inchoate shapes, that according to the prosecution are meant to outline the silhouette of the supposed second killer. Examining the same evidence within a completely different set of references, friends of mine found in the same shapes the images of a moose, a cello, and an upside down monkey.

This transience of meaning among things reveals itself continuously. Perceptions are constantly manipulated so as to multiply significance either for aesthetic reasons-as in the case of botanical topiary-or for commercial ones, where subliminally one wonders about Dionysian frolics and written obscenities while gazing candidly at the ice cubes in a glass of bourbon in a magazine ad.

Metaphors, lies, misunderstandings, visions, abstractions. We may glimpse these semantic microcosms of forms with the same “quiet panic” with which we gaze at the stars on a clear night; as is often the case when we momentarily loose our tools of understanding and interpreting to become fully aware of the mind’s instinctive predisposition to fabricate thing for interpreting and understanding.

Adam, having run out of things to name and afraid of losing his job, started naming the already-named things after other things they “looked like.” Having reduced the entire universe to a system of categorical simplifications, we derive wonder and amusement from the occasional natural exceptions to such rules. But, perhaps, in the undecipherable essence of complexity, something other than the purely formal transcends the ingenuity of our senses. If so, the joke is definitely on us.

The author would like to thank Tom Zummer for extensive discussions and collaboration of the subject of this article.

1) Plato. The Republic, Book VII.
2) Shen-i chi, Anonymous, cited in Jing Wang. The story of Stone. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), p. 72.
3) Cited in Walter Cooper Dendy, The Philosophy of Mystery (New York; Harper & Brothers, 1845)