Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 16: Perception and Frames of Reference

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 16: Perception and Frames of Reference

Article excerpt

I too am not a bit tamed - I too am untranslatable.

WALT WHITMAN, Song of Myself (1855)

In Roger Ebert's review of the 1966 film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he raised a problem well known in both art and science: how do we deduce things that are outside of our field of vision? According to Ebert's analysis, in the opening frames the director, Sergio Leone, established a rule that he follows throughout the film: the ability to see what is going on is limited by the sides of the frame. As a result, there are important moments the camera does not show us. Strangely, we get the sense that the characters cannot see what will come next either. This technique allows Leone to surprise us with entrances that seem inexplicable given the practical geography of his shots. For example, at one point the traveling men fail to notice a vast encampment of the opposition army until they stumble upon it. At another point a man materializes out of thin air in a cemetery, even though he should have been visible from a mile away. We also see men walking down a street in full view and nobody is able to shoot them, (possibly because they are not in the same frame?) (Ebert 2003). These effects work cinematically because Leone does not seem to care at all about what is in fact practical or even plausible. Rather, according to Ebert, the director "builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie clichés, using style to elevate dreck into art." The enthusiasm that greeted the film's release is why Ebert notes that "when the movie opened in America in late 1967... audiences knew they liked it, but they did know why" (Ebert 2003).

In visual art, as in film, the implausible can be both used to make a point and questioned simultaneously. A good example is Magritte's The Promenades of Euclid (1955). This painting offers us a view of a scene outside a window that is hidden by a canvas inside the room. At first glance the contrast seems to express a meshing of two alternative realities. Magritte is, of course, representing the age-old problem of illusion versus reality. But does the canvas in front of the window actually replicate the section of city that it blocks from view? Do the twin forms of the turret and the street exist only in the artist's imagination? Or, are we viewing the actual city through a transparent canvas? One striking aspect of the representation is that the shape of the street inside the room is initially seen as a detail of the area outside. An enhanced version, available at http://goo.gl/YqzATq, presents both the painting and an image that was manipulated to "correct" Magritte's presentation of a receding perspective. This version was designed to test whether an actual identity between the turret and the street would still support the contrasting vertical/horizontal interpretations of the turret and the street that Magritte approximates in his original (Ione and Tyler 2002). This modified version serves to show how much we project onto the image when seeing the two as identical. In other words, the road or promenade within the painting is presented as if to appear to be an exact correspondence to the conical form of the turret. Yet while the mind perceives that it mimics the turret, concluding the image works somewhat like a tromp l'oeil is deceiving. On close inspection it is clear that the work tricks our eyes. It is not as analogous as it seems (Ione and Tyler 2002).

But what if the "problem" is more complex than the "illusion" Magritte creates versus a "reality" we can see in various ways? Had he "painted" with video instead of oils, perhaps he would have conceived something along the lines of David Hockney's Yorkshire Landscape (2014) video? Recorded by eighteen cameras fixed to David Hockney's car, the impression that it created was sketched mechanically as he drove through the landscape. The mesmerizing artwork expands the sketch by displaying the results on a multi-screen grid that at first glance looks like a large, intensified image in which the quality of the large video gives the impression of an almost enhanced reality with an unparalleled freshness. …

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