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From the microscopic to the infinite: Inside The Cosmic Dance

Posted on 29 Sep 2022

Thames & Hudson Commissioning & Managing Editor Jane Laing sits down with Stephen Ellcock, author of 'The Cosmic Dance', a book designed to explore ‘the extraordinary richness and strangeness of everything’.

Jane Laing: In your own words, how would you describe the overall concept of The Cosmic Dance?

Stephen Ellcock: It’s an attempt to provide a unified vision of creation through a journey from the microcosm to the macrocosm – a visual journey from the smallest units of existence to the vastness of infinite space, the cosmos.

Visual representations of traditional ideas have often been used to reinforce hierarchies but I’ve attempted to subvert that purpose, to create something that is non-hierarchical. I want to present the multiplicity of everything – the extraordinary richness and strangeness of everything – as individual parts of a whole rather than disparate and discrete elements. Finding connections and correspondences between images, between cultures, between ideas and beliefs – that’s what I’ve most enjoyed about what I’ve been doing on social media for a decade or more.

Nowadays I tend to think visually rather than verbally and I think that the simple juxtaposition of two images can express an idea that it might take thousands of words to convey. In The Cosmic Dance, many images are juxtaposed in surprising ways, so that they reflect upon one another. Even familiar images can take on new meaning if presented alongside something surprising. At the same time, some of the correspondence and visual pairings are quite obvious, for example the unicorn in captivity and the golden bird from the Ripley Scroll. I hope these pairings are pleasing and charming and delight the intellect and the eye.

Golden bird from The Ripley Scroll, c. 16th century / Wellcome Collection, London.

The Unicorn in Captivity (tapestry), Master of the Hunt of the Unicorn, c. 1500 / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr, 1937

There is a playful aspect to it, I think. The book’s a visual puzzle and you can look at it again and again. There are different routes through it and you can spot different things on different readings. When I’m posting on social media I’m not looking for the best, the greatest work of art, I’m looking for an image that says something about matters I may be preoccupied with at that particular moment and whether that relates to some other images I have in mind. I will post fairly minor works by major artists if they reflect my preoccupations at the time. I refuse to explain my choices. With the book it will be interesting to discover whether my choices make sense to other people. I’m also attempting a running commentary on the state of the world.

The book is not prescriptive. Readers can make their own correspondences. It is important that they take some time over the images, get absorbed in them, and respond to them freely to discover meanings, patterns and pathways for themselves.

The Creation of the Heavens, Flemish, c. 1475. Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XIII 5, v1, fol. 31

‘Sol’ (‘Sun’) from Description of the Eight Pageants Held during the Games on the Occasion of the Christening of Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, 1596. Credit: BSB Shelfmark: Cod.icon

JL: There’s a huge diversity of amazing and surprising images in the book. Where did you find them all? How do you go about researching them or how do you come across them?

SE: I spend far too much time going down various rabbit holes throughout the internet. I’ve built up a repository of useful links and resources in my own internal map. The way I store things is completely chaotic and haphazard but it makes sense to me. I can find things quite quickly. And because I’ve spent so long doing this and been so obsessive about it, I do know where to look for things and can locate some of the more obscure places. Sites, such as the internet archive and – the ultimate aim of which is to catalogue and scan every single book in existence – have been very helpful. The skilful deployment of key words in search engines is essential. The one hindrance I have is with institutions and museums, particularly Japanese and Chinese museums, where there’s a language barrier. With these it’s very difficult to search for things unless you have some knowledge of the language.

Some of the images I first encountered in a museum or gallery, of course. I’m proud to say I’ve played with one of the volvelles featured in the book – the one with the dragon on it. The chief librarian at Magdalen College, Oxford, showed me some volvelles in their collection. They are enormous, incredibly intricate yet incredibly sturdy things. A few of the volvelles are missing the pearls that are used as weights at the end of the strings but they all still work.

Volvelle, or wheel chart, designed to calculate phases of the sun and moon, positions of the planets and eclipses, created by Michael Ostendorfer and reproduced in Astronomicum Caesareum by Petrus Apianus, 1540 / The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Herbert N. Straus, 1925

JL: In researching images for the book did you discover that the same search for pattern, order and meaning recurs again and again throughout history in a wide range of cultures, but expressed in different ways?

SE: The same search for pattern, order and meaning does recur. It manifests itself in different ways, using different symbols, different visual languages, different modes of expression and different media. The main drive throughout history, whether as a result of creative or scientific endeavour, is to make sense of things, to anchor oneself and to find our place in what is otherwise a completely chaotic and fairly distressing and meaningless universe. The search for pattern is simply a way of staving off chaos.

Quilt, tumbling blocks with signatures pattern, including autographs of eight US presidents and key figures from the scientific and artistic worlds, Adeline Harris Sears, begun in 1856. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

JL: Did you encounter any unexpected challenges in putting together the book? Were there any conflicts with artists whose work you wanted to include, for example?

SE: It was a challenge to be as representative as possible and to include images from as many different cultures and as many eras as possible. Obviously, I don’t have expert knowledge in every culture and every era, so my image choices tended to be what immediately appealed to me visually. But I do think it’s hugely important to be as inclusive as possible, to include artists from a wide variety of cultures, and certainly not to be Eurocentric. I think it’s particularly important to include as much of the Islamic world view – Hindu, Buddhist, Jain – as possible. What I really enjoy about researching and collating images is learning so much about different ways of seeing. There is probably a bias towards Western cultures because of ease of access to materials, but I think the balance is good. In the chapter on mathematics and geometry I included Indian mathematical models and there’s a vast range of representations of mapping of the universe. I’m very proud of what we’ve managed to include in the book.

Ink and gouache representation of Loka Purusha, Rajasthan, India, c. 1900. Credit: Oost van den Bergh Ltd

JL: The ancient Greek concepts of the world soul and of attempts to find correspondences between heaven and earth and between nature and the body are expressed in many of the images in the book. Do you think these ideas resonate particularly today?

SE: This is a moment of crisis, especially in this country. It is particularly important to see the unity of things, the connection between oneself and the natural world. We need to see our connection with the whole of creation, with the world in the larger sense, with other human beings. If we don’t rediscover that sense of connection, humankind is doomed and, even if the planet itself survives, we’ll take most of the living things on it with us.

Our sense of wonder is in danger of being lost because of the dire economic reality here and internationally. People are being discouraged from using their imagination; they are being turned into drones and debt slaves. There are those awful adverts proudly proclaiming that X wanted to be a dancer but now she’s learning coding. They are shattering people’s aspirations and crushing any imaginative response to the world. I hope that this book helps to rekindle a sense of wonder and surprise about the world and that it enables readers to re-engage with some of the old ideas. I think this is hugely important.

This book has been ten years in the making. It is the culmination of a vision, and of ideas, I’ve been struggling to express for all that time. The process of creating it has brought forward the idea of a counterpart to it, which is very exciting. The next book – Underworlds – will be a continuation of that vision, presented from a different perspective. It will be a companion to The Cosmic Dance and each book will shed light on the other.

The Cosmic Dance

Finding patterns and pathways in a chaotic universe Stephen Ellcock