/ARCHIVE — 2012
/Even though this work is influenced by the excellent writings of Mira Schor, Lawrence Weschler, Leo Steinberg, Hannah Higgins and W.J.T. Mitchell, it remains theoretically unsound (and that's no reflection of anything but me and my own work). I'm indebted to many painters and photographers: some of these are obvious, but Dona Nelson and Larry Glawson are two who could slip by unnoticed. My roundabout thinking began with consideration of the simple paradox that is a stereo photograph and was then led to other more un-resolve-able, funny and worrisome thoughts.
/Richard Brown is a visual artist who has worked and taught in Winnipeg, New York City and Montreal. He currently teaches in the Drawing Department at ACAD, and resides in the "little Greenland" district of Calgary.
THE MIND’S IS THE ONLY EYE
Please commence viewing.
Pressed up against a double eyepiece, viewing: it’s fun, like looking at old View-Master slides. What proto-Mad Men advertiser thought of that, a plastic update of beautifully-crafted wooden Victorian stereoscopic viewers? (I imagine a scene much like the one in an episode from the series’ first season, in which the slide “carousel” gets its name, with ad men circa 1939, debating: “What are you gonna call the thing?” “It’s called: The View-Master.”) The View-Master can still be entertaining, educational, and magical in the way its doubled images seem to project little volumes of space into the air somewhere in front of you.
But the eyepiece speaks of more than that: it’s urgent. It brings a warning from another dimension, invisible above the waterline or below the threshold of vision. It’s either “come to periscope depth . . . all planes up,” or the camera zooming in, miasma swarming on the microscope slide.
This exhibition presents stereoscopic images, in which “two dissimilar pictures projected on the two retinae give rise to the perception of an object in relief.” The resulting perception, Charles Wheatstone wrote in 1838, is “not to be distinguished by sight from the real objects themselves.”1
To get the stereoscopy going, you need two images which, as Wheatstone points out, are identical (but not). Can sight see the differences between the doubled images being viewed? Can sight quantify the passage of time between the first exposure and the second one, taken seconds, minutes, hours or days later? A newspaper lies on a café table and gets photographed twice: but you can see from the date that it’s the same day’s paper. A few seconds or minutes later, three days later—it’s hardly the end of the world. Everyone sees the same thing. The brain does it for you. Light enters the eye’s lens, the doubled retinal images get processed. And voilà, there’s space, in all three dimensions.
It helps when the subjects can just sit still and do nothing—twice. “Sage comme un image,” that’s a good expression for well-behaved children sitting still as a picture. A plush panther, a toy elk, a meditative artist, they all make good subjects. The artist, reading, swims among reflections, like Jacques-Yves Cousteau or Steve Zissou. The panther turns away toward a mirror, contemplates itself, sleepily wondering whether it’s summer or fall. The elk stands erect, alert. It confronts. (Still, it’s a plastic elk, it’s hardly Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo.) Rare creatures, wilderness creatures. Captured on film a thousand times, on Animal Planet or in Banff. And now they’ve emerged into view, out of the clutter, the detritus, the welter.
Of course the toys are blind, they can’t look back at us. Like the little toy dog in Beckett’s Endgame, positioned before Hamm, the blind viewer, to satisfy Hamm’s fantasy picture:
The dog is silly, and broken (“he lacks a leg”), but the way Hamm thinks it looks (at him) means a lot to Hamm. Later Hamm asks whether the dog is still there, and Clov retorts “he’s not a real dog, he can’t go.” Despite everything, Hamm sees what he sees, staged in his mental theatre, behind his dark glasses.2 Yet the play’s audience sees differently. For a wider reflection on the viewing experience, it can help to go up a level. This exhibition allows the opportunity to view viewers viewing (twice). The artist-run space, the opening (fauxpening) event. It helps when you know what you’re looking at.
Incidentally, there’s some debate about the phrase “through a glass, darkly.” The Greek word from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, translated in 1611 as “glass,” might suggest something closer to “lens” or “mirror.” (In the New International Version the phrase reads “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.” In the Good News Bible it’s “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror.”) Even the words used to talk about the difficulty of seeing any one thing are doubled, at least. But it’s not just a language problem. In Eye, Brain, and Vision, David Hubel writes “The knowledge we have now is really only the beginning of an effort to understand the physiological basis of perception, a story whose next stages are just coming into view; we can see major mountain ranges in the middle distance, but the end is nowhere in sight.”3 Is Hubel talking about a story, a landscape, or what?
Please resume viewing.
1 Wheatstone, Charles. “Contributions to the Physiology of Vision.—Part the First. On some remarkable, and hitherto unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision.” By CHARLES WHEATSTONE, F.R.S., Professor of Experimental Philosophy in King's College, London. Received and Read June 21, 1838. http://www.stereoscopy.com/library/wheatstone-paper1838.html. December 10, 2011
2 Beckett, Samuel. Endgame and Act Without Words. NewYork: Grove, 1994.
3 David Hubel’s Eye, Brain, and Vision. http://hubel.med.harvard.edu/index.html. December 10, 2011.
/HARRY VANDERVLIST has written features and reviews for AlbertaViews Magazine, Avenue, Swerve, and Quill and Quire, among other publications. Between 1997 and 2003 he was the books columnist for FastForward Weekly. He teaches English at the University of Calgary. His scholarly writing is mainly on Samuel Beckett and Canadian literature.