Three film stills from Fathomless (1964) by Jim Davis, an astonishing display of coloured light in movement. Davis worked in special kind of way - an alchemical experimentation with light - his films are edited from filmed sequences of light refracted and reflected through coloured plastic sculptural installations. Davis would focus light from the sun using a mirror (or sometimes lights), projecting the light through various translucent coloured sculpture mobiles. He would then film the light refractions as they played themselves out on a screen.  

But Davis considered light to be actually substantial - he felt his films were not really psychologically abstract or physically immaterial, but were reflections of fundamental natural forces, they were, in his words “suggestive of the causal properties of nature”.

Davis also felt that there was “something sacred, secret, that no human should know or see” in these forms, which hints toward a metaphysical intuition. This connects us to ideas of the ‘light of creation’, the alchemical/cabbalistic notion of light being a primary emanation of the divine, an intermediary substance between spirit and matter. That matter, without being impregnated with celestial light, could not in fact exist. And perhaps this is what Davis intuits - light as the primal form, pre-material.

Maybe this is, indeed, fathomless.    

Note: the amazing films of Jim Davis are not available online, but can be got on DVD through the BFI or RE:Voir.

Moon, Sun, Elements, Fire. John Dee (1527–1608) describes a line as a point that flows… “Consequently, everything, properly, began from the point and the monad.” (II) and “a LINE is produced from the FLOWING OF A POINT. And using this same principle, we point out that this is also the case in our mechanical magic, because the lines indicating our elements are produced by the continuous fall of DROPS (which are like physical points) [moving] as though they are FLOWING.” (VII) 

These passages are from Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica (1563), a work in which Dee provides an exegesis of his famous Monad symbol, which seems to operate not just symbolically, but as an alchemical geometric cypher containing a kind of magical agency in its own right.    

The translated sections (parts of Theorem II and Theorem VII) are from Nancy Turner and Teresa Burnes. The images are composited together from microfilm scans (by Bill Heidrick) from a copy held at UCBerkeley.

(nostalgia) 1971, Hollis Frampton

I take some comfort that my entire physical body has been replaced more than once since it made this portrait of its face.

From (nostalgia) 1971 by Hollis Frampton. In this film Frampton incinerates his own photographs, one by one, over a hotplate. The personal biographical narration (written by Frampton but narrated by filmmaker Michael Snow) for each photograph relates to the next photograph in the sequence, rather than the one in view. He did not incinerate these photographs with the contagion of a match, but with a hotplate, a slow heat as if rising from the depths of the earth, forcing combustion, decay, dissolution into vapour and carbon. It is one of the most existentially melancholic films I have seen.

Three sequential film stills (a moth wing) from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963)

In his films, Brakhage aimed to engage what he termed the “optical mind", something William Wees describes as “seeing as a physiological, nerve-centred event”. Brakhage sought a visual language in his films that he considered belonged to a pre-thought stage of perceptual experience. And he was fascinated by moths. In an interview with Bruce Kawin (2002) about Mothlight he said “these crazy moths are flying into the candlelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me.” At first he tried to film moths on the wing, but this he found impossible (something I can testify to). So he collected moth wings from the dead he found in lampshades, “to try to… give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.“ Brakhage wrote the following annotation to Mothlight: "what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white and white were black.” Mothlight is a strange film, but it sums up so much of the actual ‘mothlight’ experience for me. The drawing towards the light, the astonishing perceptual beauty and fragility of the moths themselves, the tragic quality of their behaviour around light, their death by light, and finally their transformation through the eyes, hands and intellect of humankind. 

In Jung’s great and strange work Mysterium Coniunctionis, he surveys the property of coniunctio found in almost all alchemical treatises and diagrams. I am reminded of this today, as I lay traps for our garden moles, and yet look up to the recently arrived swallows, an apparent embodiment of freedom itself. The earth-bound mole, my hands in the dirt, the air-free swallow, my eyes raised to the sky. That these opposites come together, in me, or in thought, is the coniunctio itself. But this alchemical coniunctio should not just be dismissed, or thought of, as some vague philosophical notion of a ‘union of opposites’, rather, it should be considered transformational, a dynamic agency of change and transmutation itself. 

Garden Tiger moth

What’s the expression? “Like a moth to a flame”, not, one should note “a moth to a light.” We have retained this notion of the flame within the mothlight, an echo of the eerie self destructive behaviour of moths around the light, a confusion of desires, suicidally drawn inwards, in ever diminishing trails. There is, as yet, no confident scientific explanation of why moths are drawn so irrevocably to the light… as there is, I imagine, no confident explanation for many of our own self destructive desires…drawing us to the light that just may be a flame.

Alchemical air

1606, from Alchymia by Andreas Libavius. An alchemical textbook printed in Frankfurt. 

It is the symbolism of air that strikes me most in this alchemical hieroglyph - which is all of vapours and wings. At the bottom, the four headed dragon has both wings and breath of vapour. The three headed eagle is winged and perched upon a vapourous precipitation, the black raven of dissolution amid clouds again, with birds swooping to earth, or flying free from pouring water, the winged dragon eating its own tail amid clouds, the white swan uniting the opposites with outstretched wings, the final birth of the phoenix-bird from fire and ashes, taking flight in the clouds of smoke. The whole diagram is an ascension, to be read from bottom to top, from earth to air. Air here is the medium for the flight of symbolic birds, both liberating and recombining the elements of matter through an ascension. Air is visualised, given form, not only by the flight of birds, but also as breath, clouds, distillation vapour and smoke from the fire. Air here is neither still nor inert, it rises and carries the movement of the alchemical transmutation upward. It is the medium of transformation through its interaction with other elements. Without this air, this flight and vapourousness, there could be no transformation. We would all remain literally earth-bound.

This plate can obviously be interpreted in many ways, and this is part of the mysterious hieroglyphic power of alchemical drawings. But, that said, here is a literal alchemical interpretation of this diagram by Stanislas Klossowski De Rolla:

“The four-headed winged Hydra is the Dragon or Subject of the Wise. Above the recumbent Lion, which stands for Earth, are the triple-headed Eagle, for the Air; the Lion on the Moon, for Fire and Sulphur; the naked Lady with the Lily, for Water, Lac Virginis or Mercury. Above the black Moon of Putrefaction, the half Moon and the Raven correspond to the second and third cycles of Dissolution, which is why Ouroborous eats his tail. The swooping Birds on the left signify Fixation; those soaring on the right, with water flowing from the rock, signify Solution. The Swan with outspread wings is the Philosophick Mercury; above, the King and Queen show the union of the opposing Principles, culminating in the Multiplication or Phoenix, which is an emblem of the Philosopher’s Stone.”

See The Golden Game, Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century, by Stanislas Klossowski De Rola (Thames and Hudson 1988) for more.