Finding the reality in allegorical coded imagery through the unspoken dialogues and details that are lost in the shadows
by Matthew Tate for Tales of the Empowered Issue Five – Tales of the Empowered
I am mysterious. I am secretive and keep myself to myself. I feel that you can speak and describe your ideas in a certain way but in the details you can feel so much more in another way. The way that we translate our thoughts to each other can be done in so many different ways, not just through communicating to each other vocally. Keeping myself mysterious must be one of the reasons that I find allegory so interesting as an artist. With allegory you have this brilliant power- and many cases such as the ones that I write about below- the freedom to communicate in many different ways through symbolism, composition and aesthetic style. Through my research I have begun to understand that today allegory has moved beyond what classic masters had originally intended for it to be.
Allegory serves as visual device and unspoken interactive dialogue within my art and design that communicates to my audience on different levels. Using figurative language I can allow my audience to explore my work at their pace and discover the smaller, finer details of my art. In this article I am going to describe to you some ways that artists and designers have been communicating and illustrating allegorical stories in innovative ways.
For the readers of Tales, I think it would useful to describe a bit of the history of allegory. Allegory was first originally coined in 1382 and comes from the latinisation of the greek word ‘Allegoria’ which means ‘veiled language, figurative’. In art Medieval allegory defines what current audiences understand as symbolic imagery today. Medieval allegory freezes a part of a story and enhances it with a spiritual context. Allegory fames a hidden ‘reality’ which underlies the rhetorical or fictional images that are described. These realities are the real details and intentions hidden within the image. Essentially the soul of the thing is hidden away lost in the shadows.
The idea of ‘reality’ in art came back to me during my exploration of Gothic. During my research of Gothic Romance I read about the first credited gothic novel Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’. The story sets up many Gothic tropes, but the most interesting thing about this story is how he published it under a different name. In its first edition he signed it under the alias of William Marshal, from the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, of the Church of St. Nicholas of Otranto. Which according to the source apparently originated even further back into the Crusades. Walpole builds the narrative for the audience even before the first word of the story is read, he creates a new protective identity for himself to create an ‘authenticity’ and ‘reality’ to his story, in the same way that Medieval artists did with Allegory. Walpole wanted to ‘blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern.’ By creating this alias he blends the ancient and the modern romances together outside of the narrative and communicates it through an unspoken dialogue to the audience. The symbolism and atmosphere creates a puzzle to solve, the alias and the story are the pieces of that puzzle, and the audience should they choose to explore it can discover the reality of the piece of art, and Walpole’s intent for writing the story.
The way that artists show stories and use unspoken dialogues is evolving in contemporary industry. In the 21st Century we have interactive media to describe narratives and imagery, which now allows us to tell new stories through new forms of art such as digital design, film and even video games.
I may be mysterious, but one fact that a lot of people know about me is that I love video games. What I love the most about games is they can tell original stories in such interesting innovative ways. Storytelling within video games most notably starts for me in 1986 with Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda. The initial spirit of the series was unbound exploration with puzzle elements, where you could essentially progress through the story in your own way and still be able to complete the game. You are placed within an environment and have to it figure it out from there with only a small synopsis of your place in the world. Just like the Castle of Otranto, figuring out the puzzle starts the minute you are placed within the piece of art.
That explorative spirit returns within games such as FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki. Bloodborne uses the same formula that the original Legend of Zelda started. The narrative and story is told outside of the traditional ‘player narrative’ of cutscenes and NPC (non player character) dialogue. Bloodborne builds the story instead within item drops, world building, character design and atmosphere, which gives the player and therefore the audience the choice to decipher and build each part of the story should they choose to do so. This is a form of allegory, using interactive media as the unspoken dialogues, such as sound design and atmosphere, we are invited to discover the meaning of the story that we are literally taking part in.
Like Walpole, Miyazaki creates a true Gothic atmosphere through the smaller allegorical details outside of the conventional narrative. He creates a ‘reality’ within a fictional world, which is communicated through unspoken dialogues to the audience. In Bloodborne’s case the narrative revolves around the nature of being alive in a wider sense – but only to emphasise what self-obsession and selfishness can lead to. In Bloodborne the story shows that either way the player character and the world they exist in is doomed to entropy regardless.
I realised that Walpole and Miyazaki had come across something important in how we regard our audiences. They had proved that our consuming audience don’t want to be pandered to, or to be ‘toured’ through art, we need to trust our audience to interpret the work that we make. For example I remember my time as a teacher where I wondered why my students weren’t truly inspired by the lessons that I was teaching. It was only when I let my pupils move beyond my control and allowed them to learn the way they wanted, their curiosity and determination to explore increased tenfold.
The point I am trying to make is that Walpole and Miyazaki have taken unspoken allegorical coding one step further. They leave the reality and intention of the artwork in the hands of their intended audience and give them the power to interpret the reality of the work in their own way. This is where my research now has began to impact my artwork, and where my experiences travelling abroad come in. Last summer I travelled through South East Asia, I travelled there in order to explore new artistic horizons. In South East Asia the Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese people are predominately Buddhist, their ideas and Buddhist philosophies of resurrection and death really had fascinated and allured me. I had also begun to read about Buddha’s journey of enlightenment of finding himself through teaching others inspiring, I related to this journey especially having spent the previous year as an art teacher. I felt that his journey could impact me and help me come to understand myself and the way that communicate to others.
During my travels in South East Asia, I visited Wat Doi Sutep in Chaing Mai, Thailand. Interestingly how this temple came to be still remains relatively unknown. Legends tell of a monk who found a sacred relic in the form of Gautama Buddha’s shoulder bone, which was enshrined on the back of a white elephant and taken to the top of Doi Sutep, where upon reaching the top it trumpeted three times and dropped dead. Doi Sutep was built on top of that site. The architectural designs that occur within Wat Doi Sutep even have a mysterious quality to them. Wat Doi Sutep is approached by three hundred steps which are guarded by Naga Serpents, the serpent motif also adorns the roofs and facades of the Stupahs within the courtyards. The Naga Serpent as a symbol itself plays a part in the Legend of Gautama Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. Upon visiting the temple I watched the younger monks practicing their chanting in the main central chamber where suddenly something caught my eye.
Looking skyward in this temple there were these bizarre wooden shapes and hieroglyphs on the ceiling. Some were just lines or shapes, whereas others were much less abstract which shapes like fish and even strangely mundane objects like a tennis racket. Connecting these shapes there were baubles and coloured lights. All this weird imagery, spiritual atmosphere combined with chanting of the young monks singing really struck me. I asked the monks as best as I could what the shapes meant, and they too didn’t understand them. These markings and patterns are mysteriously untold, and remain stuck in my mind even to this day.
These series of five prints are inspired by those glyphs. Visually I have drawn elements of the Thai and Lanna Architecture that I had witnessed at Wat Doi Sutep, and combined them some traditional Gothic Romance. By combining both these architectural styles, I have created a sense of intrigue within these images. Each image itself is a visual representation of a word, which collectively combine together to make a phrase. This sentence now remains untold. Using layers of coded allegorical imagery the real words now remain hidden within the unspoken dialogues of symbols, shapes and motifs which now need to be deciphered to be truly understood, in the same way that Walpole and Miyazaki do in their own allegorical work. The images work in this order, images 1, 3 and 5 represent one word each, whereas images 2, and 4 are two words represented in one image.
The phrase when completed is seven words in total and describes a powerful reality underlying these images. Now that I have learned the power of silence I leave this work in your hands to interpret it as you wish, and it can only be realised by you now. You must leave no stone unturned, dig deeper, keep reading and communicating with these images to find where the true unspoken realities exist. They are waiting for you to find them, all lost within the shadows
Read the original article with Tales Magazine here talesmagazine.wordpress.com