A Sense of Meaning: Applications of Embodied Cognition to Art Models

Christina Mamakos

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020


Christina Mamakos: A Sense of Meaning: Applications of Embodied Cognition to Art Models


Using as a starting point George Didi-Huberman’s inquiry into what it actually means to have knowledge of an artwork, this practice-led research engages a dialogue between philosophy, painting, and cognitive science to explore how a cross-disciplinary account of visual perception might lead to a greater understanding of perceptual sense-making.  By exploring both cognitive and embodied models of experiencing the visible, this investigation considers the application of painting as a philosophical practice, where the material practice of painting contributes to our understanding of the anatomy of meaning.  It is a question of thinking materially, and what it means to understand; in Hubert Damisch’s words, “…what does it mean for a painter to think?”[1]  And in this context, my broad question is: what is the experience of the visible? 

The central trajectory of this investigation seeks to situate how a painter might contribute through material practice to the broader philosophical and experiential vocabularies that have always existed around sight and sightlessness, including ideas around imagination, memory, vision and belief.  This investigation is conducted through a body of artwork engaging and responding to the particular concerns integral to theories of perception including the relationship of surface to illusion, form to ground, as well as ideas of measurement and distance, sight and vision, eye and skin. This research practice anchors and tests various aspects of perception by orchestrating particular physical experiences that play with ideas of what is out of grasp, points of unraveling.

Framing this investigation, both in practice and research, are four central themes presented through an experimental writerly method of three parallel texts in an attempt to embody the ideas of this research. This approach devises a dialogue between the cognitive, the analytic, and the poetic, engaging an unorthodox method of presentation that integrates writing as practice into the written thesis. This method intends to situate ideas not only within scholarship, but in how that scholarship might be transmitted effectively. 

Philosophical issues around perception including mental imagery, representation/depiction, and attention are explored, leading to concepts of embodied cognition, conceptual blending and metaphor. This is grounded in a discussion of Pierre Bonnard set in a framework of the neurophysiology of vision, recent studies of saccades in relation to memory and the body, and ideas of motor resonance.  Drawing on philosophers from George Lakoff to Michel Serres, to neuroscientists from Antonio Damasio to Semir Zeki, this research articulates a link between Damisch and Didi-Huberman’s position of art not as representation, but as direct experiential operation, illuminating the relationship between perception and thought intrinsic to the nature of meaning.

This practice-led research seeks to map and explore the anatomy of meaning/sense-making through the materiality of a painting practice, presented in an experimental form of writing.  Ultimately this inquiry explores the question of the relationship between art and philosophy, the space articulated between language and the world, philosophizing as it were, with brush in hand.

[1]  Hubert Damisch, “L’éveil du regard,” Les Lettres Nouvelles 61, June 1958, 59.

Link to thesis >