Jordan Belson: Between Creation and Nothing
Connor Murphy • 01.08.2022
I’ve been thinking a lot about aphantasia lately. The notion of being unable to produce a coherent
mental image of anything, whether real or imaginary, feels terribly lonely to me. To not
be able to disappear yourself into some imagined landscape at whim, to not be able to hear the
sea if the sea calls your name from an islanded memory. Degrees between aphantasia and
hyperphantasia enable one to establish a mental image, but perhaps the image is two
dimensional, or blurry, or distant—an abstraction of figures and color In theoretical terms, the
link between cinema and memory recall is plainly clear; we experience both as a series of
moving images and sounds, and with time, they distort and degrade. But while memories ostensibly operate through generally representative images and sound (i.e. real images of real things), cinema is not beholden to such constraints. Abstract cinema, for example, proffers
world of images that might be entirely distinct from objective reality. For filmmaker and artist
Jordan Belson, that world is one which intends to explode rationality, which operates in realms
derived from meditative states and religious tradition in order to induce a state of mind otherwise inaccessible through objective and narrative art. If representative cinema serves as a kind of realized hyperphantasia, Belson’s art must then belong somewhere between that and the void, a space captured perfectly by his underseen 1984 masterpiece, Creation.
There is a good deal of extant writing about Belson’s cinema, much of which grapples with the difficulty of fitting it within a certain theoretical framework because the majority of film theory is inadequate in terms of tackling spiritualist art of this kind. His work navigates spiritualism through references to the Kabbalah, space exploration, and the occult, negotiating strains of psychedelia with a keen awareness of the impact both yoga and drugs have had on himself and his art. As a result, his films don’t necessarily align with many of those expounded upon in film academia, even that which centers around the avant-garde. This is in part because he treats the image not as a text, but as a totem, or a monument. It’s something architectural, experiential, a spiritual place for navigating the eye of the mind—which is to say montage, apparatus, and representation become comparatively irrelevant in light of his philosophy of non objectivism. Instead, his films are concerned with the intersection of inner and outer space, with the transformation of some abstract object or emotion into a non-objective image-form and vice versa. He encourages us to engage latent modes of perception by removing more or less any semblance of iconography, where each image, like Oskar Fischinger’s conception of a cinema of the “inner eye,” is seemingly beamed from some unreality, some heightened state outside of perception in a way that forces internality and introspection.
As such, Creation aptly functions as a means of materializing the immaterial, forming a cinema of
emanations detailing an exchange of energies between inner and outer space. As with many of his films, the exploration at the heart of Creation is twofold: first, as the title suggests, it is a visual exploration of potential cosmogonies, and second, it is an exploration of Belson’s artistic creation itself. The film opens with an image of a fuschia bullseye that then turns blue and disappears, and is particularly redolent of Belson’s early graphic art while also introducing the image of a “cosmic eye” located within concentric circles. Unlike almost every image that follows, the composition is flat and seemingly unaltered by optical printing or mechanical manipulation. It registers as an emblem of his early graphic art’s more terrestrial ideations of his peculiar obsessions, which then fades and evolves into a picture of sublime beauty: a celestial ring of light surrounds a shimmering hole in the frame as incandescent streams flow down the whole of the composition. This too then fades and gives way to bleeding arcs of color against the black of the galaxy which move like waterfalls through negative space, unaffected by gravity and leading us to scattered starlight. Images consist primarily of the ebb and flow of light, languoring and loping across fields of color and shadow. Like the films of his contemporary John Whitney Sr. and the lightboxes of Thomas Wilfred that came before him, Belson treats light as an object unto itself rather than as a means of illumination exposing to us the form of whatever surface it reaches. It is the subject an —along with its counterpart, shadow—it embodies the essences of consciousness.
At times, the filmmaker's predilection for radial and vertically-arranged compositions allows for more concrete images to take form. Layering streaks of color atop one another at one point gives an impression of looking at the horizon across the sea as clouds hang overhead, and because you never quite know what you might be looking at in his films, there’s a good chance that what we’re seeing really is footage of clouds over the horizon. Striations of light moving up the frame suggest the flow of riverwater, and amorphous clouds of light appear as organelles floating in a sea of antediluvian fluid. Eventually, Belson offers the first glimpse of a recognizably objective image through footage of birds emerging from the void, flying into space and becoming stars, suggesting life at the heart of the celestial void. Along these lines, the film gradually emphasizes the overlap of inner and outer space with clearer and clearer points of reference, blurring the lines between the macro- and microcosmic. Around twenty minutes into the film, following a brief reprieve in darkness, light breaks out and unveils a downward pan focusing on a very earthly and objective image of a waterfall. The deluge gathers as an expanse of mists and vapor until light borne from the water takes the shape of a golden disc in the center of the frame—the sun from the water, the sun from the sky. In a similar moment not soon after, Belson’s camera zooms out from a sea of noise (which simultaneously evokes agitated molecules, grainy celluloid, and video static) to reveal that we actually have been looking at the depths of the sea all this time, thereby affirming that the terrestrial and the celestial are in fact the same thing.
The final sequence of the film happens precisely after we zoom out from the water and is far and away its most chaotic and diverse, in part because it effectively comprises a rapid compendium of Belson’s cinematic efforts and visual strategies to date. The section opens with undulating space mandalas following the same patterns seen in Allures (1961) and leads up to rings of light seen in Samadhi (1967) and Music of the Spheres (1977) in addition to exploding stars from World (1970), among countless other remixes of images culled from the rest of his filmography. In this sense, Creation is somewhat reflexively iterative, always doubling back on itself and on Belson’s other creations alike, always receding and expanding at once. Volcanic eruptions, rolling tides, columns of light and symmetrical star variations abound as Belson vacillates between styles and universes, and then, of course, the film ends with the rising sun arcing upward along the frame and out of sight. When the film is over, it’s difficult to not feel immeasurably touched and changed, perhaps even healed. It helps that this is one of his longest works by some margin, launching the viewer into thirty-three odd minutes of transcendent visual meditation with little guidance along the way. At the end of the day, you can intellectualize an artwork like this as much as you like, but that will never truly make the experience. It may enrich it, it may even detract from it, but the experience derives primarily from the relationship between the eye and the image, a transference of dormant wisdom that leaves this viewer at peace above all else. It’s an otherworldly beauty with otherworldly referents, but as Belson himself posited, even those referents ultimately come from the mind. We make the cosmos, we fill it with our dreams and desires and hope that its untapped wisdom will somehow trickle back down to us. Creation then offers a mid-career retrospective for a life spent gazing inward, gazing at the stars, and failing to find a difference between the two. It offers respite for the soul and the psyche, forming sacred geometries of light through images seemingly teeming with cosmic knowledge. The transference at hand is thus one beyond reason, existing only in the untapped corners of the heart and the mind from which light is born.