Multitalented and Multisensory

Synesthete David Van Eyssen, man of many modalities.

Posted Mar 28, 2019

 Self-Portrait (Detail) by David Van Eyssen, courtesy the artist.
Source: Self-Portrait (Detail) by David Van Eyssen, courtesy the artist.

Producer. Director. Writer. Painter. Multimedia artist. Empath.

Synesthete David Van Eyssen uses all of his senses, including the bonus, synesthetic ones, to excel in many mediums.

Whether it's his gorgeous latest work in video, or writing and helming the award-winning web series RCVR, the gentle and sophisticated son of Hollywood royalty (his father was John Van Eyssen, the actor, agent and Columbia Pictures film production executive who oversaw  "A Man for All Seasons"; "Born Free"; "Georgy Girl"; "To Sir With Love"; "The Taming of the Shrew"; and "Oliver!" among other classics; and his mother, Shirley Goulden, a noted author of such works as In the Beginning) doesn't rest on his blessed DNA, but forges new and modern paths with his own considerable gifts.

He sees synesthesia as central to his work in some ways, but really part of a larger consciousness informed by his crossmodal points of view.

Mother by David Van Eyssen, courtesy the artist.
Source: Mother by David Van Eyssen, courtesy the artist.

Van Eyssen has experienced the sensory in profound ways since childhood, he says, with memory intrinsically related to both smell and color. "I remember everything as a sensory experience… and that began at a very early age, the feeling that I was recording things around me with more than one sense at a time.”

Imagery ranged from the colorful shapes he would see when he listened to music to a kind of visionary ideasthesia which seems to inform the stunning art accompanying this story. "Whatever I was listening to provoked a stream of images, a sort of animated slide show. I understood that the music and the images were linked but I didn’t know why.''

Van Eyssen also experiences mirror-touch synesthesia, the strong empathic ability to feel what other people are feeling. And he harnesses this creatively as well. He remembers drawing, (something else he does quite well), and literally feeling the musculature and skeleton of the subject. And he can't hear certain sounds without his mind's eye conjuring the related human imagery. "Footsteps conjure a detailed picture of the person walking, their expression, the clothes they’re wearing, and their thoughts. Music conjures scenes and entire worlds."

He was listening to music as we spoke, "and not only do images of places and people spontaneously appear — but the music also produces a visceral sense of time and place. I feel like I’m inhaling particles of dust when I listen to this piece [Arvo Part’s "Adam's Lament"] — which has a sweet, dry scent to me. It may be some throwback recollection to the years I spent in and around old churches when I was at school in England — or it may have some other source.''  

 Surface (Detail) by David Van Eyssen, courtesy the artist.
Source: Surface (Detail) by David Van Eyssen, courtesy the artist.

I ask him about the rich purple which is a motif in his latest work. " I don’t really focus on color — it’s actually the frequency of light, and its capacity to generate motion, that I’m interested in. Fracturing the image with different frequencies of light creates movement — and motion is enhanced when high and low frequencies are juxtaposed. It’s true that when you first look at my work you see color — tones of purple, mauve, magenta — but after a while it’s the effect of varying light frequencies that you find yourself looking at — and you become aware of both fragmentation (movement) and coherence (stillness) at the same time. I see a wide range of other (liminal) colors outside the purple palette, though... which other people have told me they also see after looking at the work for several minutes. "

Synesthetic responses can be distracting for all synesthetes, including Van Eyssen. But he more than many seems to be able to control his attention and use the stimuli for his art. "If a sound has a color, or in my case, memory has a scent, you can get pulled off very quickly into another orbit and your focus of attention shifts to where the scent is coming from... Is it perfume from a dress that makes me so digress?" And that can be quite disorienting… so I have to hyper-focus..."

Van Eyssen believes there's a synesthete in all of us, waiting to happen. "Many of us have the ability to associate sensory experiences that don’t normally belong together, to find something new in the way we connect disparate things – but sometimes that ability needs to be awakened. To see it, hear it, inhale it in a new way, a switch inside us has to be turned on.”