There is neither a whale nor a submarine but suggestions of each that are available to blend, making the metaphor an emergent property. Logical and analytical thought is disrupted by the experience of the overlapping frames of reference leaning in their multiple directions. For the spectator, the cognitive dissonance of an IOU experience serves to foreground perception and meaning making itself. There is a kind of delighted wonder, for me [Middleton], that accompanies the experience of an illusion like that of the submawhale shimmering, incomplete, in my imagination.

Resisting the Blend


IOUs imagery frequently operates through imaginative blends’ – two or more frames of reference are evoked by elements, conjoined, which functionally create a third. Yet at the same time, in terms of associations and evocations, the elements resist the commingling. Rather than imaginatively entering wholly into the new entity – a submawhale or a lawnmower-bicycle – I [Middleton] am suspended in what feels like a mental Venn diagram with overlapping frames of reference generating a meaningful emergent centre but at the same time each igniting a set of personal schemas of association, each leading off down their own imaginal pathways.

As Fauconnier and Turner point out, the conceptual blending underlying so much of everyday thought is invisible to us, but in much of IOUs imagery the blends remain visible – resistant, inconclusive. The precise selection and crafting of the inputs allow them to retain their individuality: each leans in its own direction. This means that the artefact does not wholly create a new unified reality. The industrial-style machinery of Nightfall does not entirely convince me that it is a functional machine set on skis for use in Antarctica. Rather, my experience is of two simultaneous frames – each redolent with associations.

If, as in Rothenbergs example, Wheeler had been constructing a verbal metaphor, then we might have had something like the whale is a living steam submarine. But while such a verbal articulation would deliver ‘completion’ of the blend, the sculptural articulation, the three-dimensional image, does not. As Wheeler puts it, there remains a ‘confusion of contexts’ (Middleton and Moss 2013).

Click the play button to hear Moss describing his encounter with Vessel 1 and 2 from Half Moon, seen in the adjacent photographs (Dean Clough, Halifax, March 2013).


The conceptual blending model allows us to analyse IOU’s creative work in such a way as to illuminate the particular nature of individual images and complex compositions. We applied the model to David Wheeler’s sculptural piece Vessel 1 and 2, developed out of his tenure as Artist in Residence on the British Antarctic Survey2 and a centrepiece of the exhibition Half Moon (2012). We then recorded his account of his creative process.


As we analysed Vessel 1 and 2 we speculated that an initial input space contained the idea of whales, in the context of Antarctica. Wheeler confirmed this, identifying ‘steam engines in an industrial age … coal, metal, steel and wheels’ as what we shall call the second input space. We attribute this ‘conceptual package’ to the location in which Wheeler was working and the exhibition would initially be mounted: the Dean Clough mill complex. A generic space brings together these two very different worlds. Cross-space mapping identifies commonalities between the spouting whale and the steaming engine, resulting in a blended entity which, in Wheelers own words, ‘floats up like a submarine but blows like a whale’ (Middleton and Moss 2013).




Whereas the linguistic creativity of Rothenberg’s metaphors provides a blend that works conceptually, IOUs creative artefacts are grounded in a material reality which is experienced; they are cylinders in tanks rather than submarines or whales, but their actuality suggests the possibility of both, without forcing – or even allowing – either conclusion. The specificity of the artefacts suggests a history and context; the submawhales are contained in what look like rusty industrial tanks and that reference point remains redolent even when the submawhales themselves capture our imaginations and transport us to open Antarctic seas.


This is not conceptual art, but experiential art. There is a marked difference between, for example, Damien Hirst’s The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and IOU’s Vessel 1 and 2 (2007). In The Impossibility, the shark is a recognisable entity that has a metaphoric insistence; a real shark is presented in such a way as to carry conceptual meaning. But in Vessel 1 and 2 the object itself is not wholly recognisable. While it also has metaphoric insistence, there is no one stable referent from which to construct a metaphor.

Image: Combined elements create emergent meaning while maintaining associative stimuli of both input spaces.


2. In 2008, David Wheeler spent three months in Antarctica working alongside scientists and support teams as part of the British Antarctic Survey and Arts Council England Artists and Writers programme.