Throughout history one can observe how different models of seeing and of relating to space – that is mans relation to his surroundings – have replaced each other, parallelly with social, ideological, technical and other changes. Values of a given time will always determine the models and relations through which we choose to conduct our lives. If the values change, the relations change as well.
For the single person these models and relations can seem so natural that one can make the mistake and think that they are actual characteristics of our surroundings.
Through a given time1s grounds of values we structure our surroundings in such a way that they appear meaningful and as an understandable entity.
However, at the same time this specific relation also sets up a kind of limitation for what we percieve and understand from our surroundings, because it excludes or surpresses any knowledge which clashes with its meaningful entity.
Any former model or relation exist as a heavy socializing potential in all existing physical structures and in our culture in any way.
One of Ólafur Eliasson’s first acclaimed works was titled “spotlight”. In it, he made a hole in the roof of an arthouse in Los Angeles, creating, as the day wore on, a moving spot of sunlight on the floor. In this way, Eliasson managed to harness the Earth’s revolution to create a sort of a sun-writing on the exhibition floor, and at the same time, turning the arthouse into a primitive camera – camera obscura. Commenting on his own work, Eliasson has indeed claimed that he is first and foremost interested in looking at the way we see things. In his work the gallery space is a camera in which the onlooker suddenly finds himself, so to speak, inside his own head.
In a famous, quite desperate letter, to his fiancée, written on the 22nd of March 1801, Heinrich Kleist claims to have read “the so-called Kantian philosophy” to his profound horror. “If man had green-coloured glass instead of eyes,” Kleist writes, “he would be bound to conclude that all the objects he regarded with these glass-eyes were green – and he would never be able to decide whether the eyes showed objects in their true light, or whether the eyes simply lent objects an essence belonging to the eyes themselves.”
And Kleist goes on: “And so it is with our sense of perception and understanding. It is impossible for us to decide, once and for all, whether that which we call truth is indeed truth or simply something that seems to be true.” The reason for Kleist’s desperation is due to his belief that the abovesaid conclusively prooved that “absolute truth” is nowhere to be found; that the “so-called Kantian philosophy” showed that our perceptions are always dependent on a priori conditions, that we are only able to see that which fits into the pre-formed moulds of perception that we are born with.
Of course, it could be argued that Kleist misinterpretated Kant, who had certainly not meant to say that all truth was relative, but had simply been exploring the possible limitations of our knowlege of the world, but this is beside the point in our context. The most important thing is the question: What happens when we see.
We are inside a darkened room, we are inside our own heads. Exterior light filters through lenses that accumulate and project it onto an empty page inside the head. Everything sighted becomes an upside-down image on the page. Man is a camera; visible reality is a collection of pictures that we diligently insert, one after the other, in to the photo-album of memory.
Two hundred and fifty years before Kleist wrote his letter about the green eyes of glass, Leonardo da Vinci had compared sight to a machine in which light filters through a tiny hole and projects pictures onto a white page in a darkened space. Admittedly the pictures produced by this machine are a bit blurry, but in 1569, a compatriot of Leonardo’s made some useful observations on this point: In an essay, entitled “La practica della perperspettiva”, Daniello Barbaro proved that the pictures would become much clearer by putting a lens in the hole. Sighs of relief are premature though, because Kleist raises both hands to heaven and points out that if the lens is green the picture unavoidably takes on the colour of green, hiding from us the “true” colour of the object.
The question, What happens when we see?, runs like a red thread through Eliasson’s work. And the main subject matter of his art is indeed our senses – our perceptions. We enter the gallery space, only to realize that we are INSIDE our own dark-room, in which we see how we see. In Eliasson’s work we are present at an exhibition of pictures in our own heads. The arthouse is a camera and the camera is the eye that projects a picture onto an empty page in a dark head. And the earth turns…
- Hjálmar Sveinsson