Contemporary Cave Painting

It was the preeminent psychoanalyst Carl Jung who introduced the idea of the collective unconscious in the early 20th century. He noticed that various basic patterns of thought cropped up in people across the globe and throughout history, independently of one another. These ‘archetypes’, as he termed them, appear in the pictures we make, from religious icons to the doodles of a mental health patient; in the stories we tell, from ancient myths to folklore and songs; and in the fantasies we harbour, from the dreams of a child to the psychoses of an adult. Developed over the course of human evolution, we inherit them like we do instincts and they are common to us all.

Example of an archetypal image: Loki, the trickster god in Norse mythology, depicted here in an 18th century Icelandic manuscript (Arni Magnusson Institute) (Wikimedia)

Jung’s concept piqued my interest and I began to wonder how the collective unconscious might be tapped into. Fortunately, I’m not the first artist whose imagination has been captured by such ideas; the Surrealists famously took inspiration from the work of Sigmund Freud—a contemporary of Jung’s who first put forward the idea of the individual unconscious. The fact that the zeitgeist of post-WWI Europe was characterised by a pursuit of universals and irrational thought came as a response, no doubt, to an increasingly globalised world that had been led by rationalism down a path of catastrophe and destruction—namely, the mechanical slaughter of millions in the Great War (refer to my blog post, Making Sense of Chaos). For the Surrealists, the obvious remedy was to do away with rational conscious thought and to instead appeal to the unconscious for direction. To this end, they developed a whole range of creative techniques, from ‘collage’ to ‘fumage’.

Wolfgang Paalen, Fumage (1938), The Menil Collection

However, they were focussed on the unconscious of the individual rather than the collective. So I took one of their techniques—‘automatic drawing’—and adapted it…

Automatic drawing: The Surrealist technique by which one’s hand is allowed to move freely, without conscious direction, to create an unconscious drawing, or scribble. In this way, conscious inhibitions are bypassed in order to give expression to the unconscious.

Automatic drawing from my Contemporary Cave Painting, Fitzrovia, London, by an anonymous member of the public. View it in the online collection here

If a single automatic drawing offers some insight into an individual’s unconscious, it follows that conducting a survey of drawings from numerous people can offer a window into the mind of a collective. From a mass of public scribbles, one can tease out imagery and patterns that point towards the dominant archetypes in a neighbourhood’s collective unconscious.

A selection of the 239 automatic drawings collected from the Fitzrovia public for my Contemporary Cave Painting, Fitzrovia, London. View the full collection here

So, for my London Contemporary Cave Painting (2015), I mapped out Fitzrovia (a district in central London) and set about collecting hundreds of scribbles (all 239 of them can be viewed on my website). At the same time, I also roamed the streets, making observations of the space, the people and the architecture in order to get an intuitive feel of the area. I then spent a month creating a large-scale drawing—by the light of a hand-held lamp—on the walls of my ‘contemporary cave’, informed by imagery that I gleaned from the scribbles and the local environment.

An example of how the imagery in my cave was inspired by the public’s automatic drawings. Left and right: two scribbles drawn by anonymous members of the public, independently of one another. Centre: detail from the south wall of my cave. View the full cave here
An example of how the imagery in my cave was informed by features in the Fitzrovian landscape. Left: the BT Tower, which is a prominent building at the heart of the neighbourhood. Right: the east wall of my cave. View the full cave here

At this point, you might be asking why I chose to reinterpret the gallery space as a cave. My intention was never to recreate a prehistoric cave. I was simply drawing a parallel between the idea that prehistoric humans would retreat into these deep, dark chambers in order to turn inward, and my own efforts to turn inward. My focus was on the internal mindscape of the neighbourhood and the cave itself was designed to be a receptacle for the collective unconscious and a space of reflection for the viewer. It might just as easily have been called a ‘Church of the Social Self’, since it was a space of communion to which people were welcome to retreat. However, the word ‘cave’ connotes my emphasis on the collective unconscious as something we have inherited from our deep past.

It was into those depths that I cast my net. Thanks to the public’s participation, I was able to create a unique record of Fitzrovia at that moment in time—a portrait of its mind.

Watch a short documentary about my London Contemporary Cave Painting on Vimeo:screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-38-39

View images of the final work on my website:6-west-wall-of-cave

View the full collection of the public’s automatic drawings from Fitzrovia on my website:6-scibbles-x-4

(Hero image: Thomas Allen, detail: South Wall of Contemporary Cave Painting, Fitzrovia, London (2015), charcoal and sanguine on paper. View full cave here)


Further reading

Carl Jung

Amazon: An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology

Amazon: Man and His Symbols

Amazon: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

Official website: The Jung Page


Tate: Surrealism

David Lewis-Williams

Amazon: The Mind in the Cave


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