The Fool's Leap: Intuition at the Palazzo Fortuny
by Samara Mitchell
The power of intuition has been pursued by artists, scientists, and charlatans from antiquity through to the present day. We’ve trawled for portents in the guts of animals, plumbed the earth for crystals to amplify our clairvoyant powers, explored meditation, psychotropic drugs, gnostic technologies, music, trance, hypnotherapy, and modern art; pushing against the boundaries of perception. Due to its ineffability, neither cognitive science nor analytical philosophy has adequately explored the phenomenology of human intuition. This is a gap that the medium of art is perfectly poised to address.
To coincide with the 2017 Venice Biennale, curators Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti presented the exhibition Intuition. The exhibition spanned four floors within the magnificent gothic architecture of the Palazzo Fortuny, and was the result of extensive research by scientists, musicians, architects, writers and scholars. By juxtaposing the art of prehistoric civilisations with the work of modernists, surrealists, and contemporary practitioners, the curators reshaped their stories, empowering visitors to do the same. In the following article I will refer to select works presented within the exhibition to explore the realm that intuition inhabits, how it might speak to us, and of its significance to creative process in bridging the gap between gut instinct and the analytical mind.
In the temple-darkness of the exhibition’s entrance, sandstone monoliths line the room, raised upon plinths of soil. On a French hillside several thousand years ago, a druid chiselled away patiently at these enigmatic figures; seeking a direct line with the earth, sky, and greater mysteries beyond. Harvested from another moment in art history, a Neo-Expressionist painting by Jean Michel Basquiat hangs in sacrament on the wall above. A street artist with a lot to say and not much time to say it before the police arrived, Basquiat learned to paint with shamanic immediacy. The eviscerated figure in Versus Medici (1982) is a reflection of Basquiat’s rapid intuitive processes at work; snatching at occult treasures before the doors to the unconscious slam shut.
It can take years of training, philosophical enquiry, and manual practice for experts in any field to be able to call upon intuition to work quickly. During the last decade, the US military has researched the function of intuition to facilitate rapid command decisions in time-pressured situations. Could it be that in the face of uncertainty and under pressure, intuition fulfils a role that neither training nor gut instinct alone can handle? Although the terms ‘instinct’ and ‘intuition’ are used interchangeably, it is useful to examine differences between the two definitions to gain insight into the reliability of each behavioural state. In psychology, instinct is used to describe hard-wired patterns of behaviour that keep us, as biological organisms, on a path of self-preservation. Acting upon gut instinct alone may have less consistent outcomes with regards to creativity; as when beholden to the bias of self-preservation we tend to be more risk-averse. Additionally, because our instincts are ultimately selfish, they have the potential to undermine the kind of cooperation necessary for the collective survival of military units, communities, and businesses.
As guts writhe, intuition thrives. When Nobel Prize-winning physician Barry Marshall swallowed a solution of Helicobacter pylori to prove that it was a bacterium that causes ulcers, and not stress, it wasn’t the miracle of antibiotics that pulled his patients from the ravages of preventable stomach cancer but a physician’s insightful hunch. This intuitive leap closed the gap on years of research, with the potential to save many lives. Was it altruism or professional ego applying the necessary pressure for such a novel, and arguably drastic course of action? To be empathetic is to develop a connectedness with existence beyond the self. Altruism requires humility and a willingness to be receptive towards difference and diversity. Could it be that ‘selflessness’ is the precondition for making intuitive snap decisions?
A sub-theme of the Fortuny exhibition seemed to show how intuition, either intentionally or inadvertently, calls consciousness out from the confines of our own egos. In Kurt Ralske and Giulio D'Alessio's audio-visual installation Tristis est anima mea (2017) a spectral figure mushrooms in and out of existence to the vocal strains of a medieval madrigal. Ralske refers to the apparition as an ‘atemporal shadow’; a subconscious projection of the ‘Self as Other, free from a body as it flows across history’. This is simultaneously a liberating and terrifying notion. We refer to phenomena such as ‘eternity’ and ‘infinity’ as notions for a reason: we can only rationalise such concepts in abstract terms. The metaphysical technologies of art, ecstatic ritual, and meditation can bring viewers and participants closer to the face of god, and immensity of existence, so that we may be permeated by its grandeur without losing our minds to it. For intuition to leap across the void between neurones, stars, and people, we need to provide it with a few stepping stones. In a series of photographic works titled Tempo (Memoria e Materia), artist Renato Leotta wades into the Mediterranean with photosensitive paper. By immersing this paper into the sea, and exposing it to moonlight, he steps out of the way to allow nature to photograph itself. Using the ‘sea as a large darkroom and the moon as an enlarger’, Leotta reflects upon intuition as a way of communing with the immensity of nature, without being subsumed by it.
Religious art and ceremony has also drawn upon intuition as a devotional interface connecting individuals within a collective, and the mind to universal mysteries. Installed in a white room not unlike a chapel, Anish Kapoor’s White Dark VIII (2000), protrudes from the wall like an unanswered question. The softly lit contours of this confounding object lend it the appearance of existing in both two and three dimensions simultaneously. Kapoor’s installation is the visual art equivalent of a Zen koan, dilating the mind’s eye whilst holding the body still. Adjacent to this millennial sculpture is a religious statuette Saint Anne teaching the Virgin Mary. Unlike Ralske’s concept of the ‘Self as Other’, this curatorial diptych gives rise to the notion that intuition is a visiting presence outside the self; ghosting consciousness with the imminence of wisdom felt rather than known.
In the work of Leotta and Kapoor, intuition is depicted as either a received form of wisdom, or exposure to a creative process that cannot be directly experienced by the viewer. Not content with the passive reception of ideas, artist Marina Abramovic encouraged audiences to activate their own intuitive powers in a piece commissioned especially for the exhibition, titled Standing Structure for Human Use (2017). Standing either side of these telepathic listening posts, foreheads touching giant rose quartz crystals, couples and strangers visiting the exhibition were brought together in contemplation of the inexplicable. As a defiantly proud sceptic, I was drawn to these sculptures immediately. Whilst my rational self is satisfied with evidence-based knowledge, my poetic self is not. I wanted to believe that the crystals would help me to psychically transmit an image or a word to the person standing opposite me. I did and still do want to believe in magic.
Curators Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti present intuition as both the dreamer and the dream. From basement to piano nobile, the Fortuny exhibition was charged with the phantom chattering of artworks socialising outside the bounds of their cultural history. Throughout all of these conversations could be heard the voice of intuition; a voice that if we have courage and humility enough to listen to, can connect us with lessons we have forgotten, and protect us from being overwhelmed by all that we have yet to learn.
Daninos, Davide, 2017, 'The Necessary', Intuition exhibition catalogue essay, 13 May - 26 November, Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, Italy.
Ralkse, Kurt, 2017, Universal Shadow / Installation View, Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, published online, viewed 1 March 2018, https://vimeo.com/219410257.