Every Trick Only Needs One Truth
“…where are you then looking at? I am hoping that you then have a self reflective act of looking that you are looking, that you are actually seeing yourself see to some degree and it does reveal something about your seeing as opposed to being a journey of mine seeing…”
James Turrell explaining about his work to Robert Hughes in American Visions episode 8 hosted by Robert Hughes, created by BBC
I was first exposed to James Turrell’s work many years ago when I chanced upon a documentary narrated by Robert Hughes called “American Visions”. In episode 8, James Turrell was introduced as a conceptual artist with grand ideas, many of his creations involved manipulating the viewer’s senses through the use of unique spatial environments. James’ works were essentially very simple and minimalistic to say the least, however the vision that he was trying to achieve caught my attention in a great way.
James Turrell’s hope to evoke a self-reflective state in the viewer is a difficult and at times idealistic response to expect from diverse viewers. In most cases, the general public is usually not used to critical or self-reflective examinations. Thus, most artists are hopeful but usually apprehensive when trying to reach this holy grail of art making. However so, in my view many of my artistic heroes have already hit the grand prize, just to name a few, these include MC Escher, Caravaggio, Lorenzo Bernini, Ron Mueck and James Turrell. All of who have successfully manipulated the viewer through certain metaphysical properties of their artworks. Nonetheless to achieve this effect, the works had to be conceived with hindsight; Escher exploited our visual flaws by designing his prints to confuse our sense of perspective and dimensional space, Caravaggio played with lights and shadows in his paintings to focus our attention on the heightened drama, Lorenzo Bernini and Ron Mueck both created realistic figures in their respective eras, hoping to make us conscious of the physical flesh, and finally James Turrell took pains to create grand spatial “windows”, that would force viewers to focus only on one area negating the rest of the void.
Well, I am no Caravaggio or MC Escher, but in preparation for my new series, “Every trick only needs one truth”, I became increasingly mindful about the relationship between the delivery of the concept and the outcome of the artwork. Like James Turrell, the trick was to engage the viewer on a sublime and almost psychological manner. In effect, the artwork was not the outcome, but the process of engagement was.
It actually doesn’t take much for one to recognize that the method of engagement with an artwork is as important as the physical artwork itself, the challenge is to distillate one’s concept to its most fundamental key-point, and to deliver it in a succinct and interactive way. It took me some time before I could attempt to articulate this relationship in my work.
During the initial conceptualization of “Hybrid Society – Schizophrenia”, I was keen to explore the contextual dilemma of preconceived visuals against the meanings of written text, hence the creation of the paintings “Urban Species”. In effect, the series of paintings were composed to first appeal to the viewer from a distance, and as the viewer moved in to read the metallic title on the frame, he or she is confronted with a conflicting name that doesn’t suit the image. Take for example, the image of the wolf below; it bears a highly questionable tag at the bottom of the frame that reads, “Mr. Honest”.
For “Urban Species”, the whole setup was to put across the basic premise “to never judge a book by its cover”, and to suggest that our inner personality is often inherently opposite to that of our outward social persona. As with the painting above, many works were also presented in a similar fashion throughout the series. Like many ideas, it didn’t occur to me until much later that many works, including my own, were technically very narrative in nature, hence making it a means to an end. And what made “Urban Species” so appealing to me was the fact that I had played a little “trick” on viewers to induce them to investigate the work further. On realizing that the title and visual was contradictory, viewers would then grasp the full “truth” behind the painting.
“Turrell’s art doesn’t happen in front of your eyes, it happens behind it...”, Robert Hughes responding to James Turrell’s statement from the very beginning.
“Urban Species” among others, was a minor attempt at engaging the viewer in a direct and humorous way. However, after “Hybrid Society - Schizophrenia” - my last series that spanned 4 years, I was left with a splatter of disparate ideas that couldn’t seem to fit into a nice and neat package.
While floundering around to identify what was the common thread that linked all the new ideas together, I came across an online article from the journal: Nature Reviews Neuroscience called "Attention and Awareness in Stage Magic". It was a science research paper conducted by researchers at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, to look at the neuroscience of magic.
Teller, one half of the magician duo of Penn and Teller, was one of the coauthors, and its publication was a signal event in a field some researchers are calling “Magicology: the mining of stage illusions for insights into brain function.” On one hand, the researchers were totally baffled by the cognitive workings of the brain when it responded to the deceptive illusions. But on the other hand, the participating illusionists were having a field trip, contributing to most of the study by providing valuable insights into the age-old craft of fooling the viewer. To say the least, their insights were a joyous read.
“The magician must sell people a lie even as they know they're being lied to. Unless the illusion feels more real than the truth, there is no magic.” - Teller
Amongst the many tricks that were deciphered, three fundamental facts became apparent; the first, the illusionist assumes that the viewer knows that the trick is a lie, a trick is always designed with this basic condition in mind, by exploiting the heightened sense of the viewer, it is actually easier for the illusionist to turn the tables on the viewer. The second, the illusion is only considered successful when both the mind and the heart of the viewer are befuddled. Finally, and most ironically, the viewer is always a willing participant to the lie; he or she actually wants to be convinced and fooled, failing to do so makes it more disappointing than pleasurable.
"Every time you perform a magic trick, you're engaging in experimental psychology," - Teller
“Tricks and truths”, have always been partners in crime; to “trick” is to outwit, to deceive with cunning and sinister means if necessary. The outcome of this trickery is a “victim” with an illusion and a piece of arbitrary info that has been internalized as “truth”. However so, according to the article by Barrow Neurological Institute, the victim is often a willing participant and the trickster a possible victim to yet another’s trick. It appears that we are constantly in a cycle of trickster and victim role-play when it comes to handling issues of “truth”.
It is noteworthy to realize that this “trick and truth” hypothesis is also prevalent in the real world context as well. Why are we so attracted to beauty and perfection when we know that they are merely visual pleasures? Why trust words when there is a multitude of contradictory meanings? If religion is infallible, can belief turn lies into truth and vice versa? What about the comparison of value, say, symbolic versus physical, life versus death? The list goes on, and the fact of the matter is, in the end, we are all victims and tricksters, willing and contributing participants to our own dilemmas and contradictions.
After having this epiphany, I began to link the dots to my concepts, “Every trick only needs one truth” begun to take shape. I was keen to explore the fundamental shortcomings of human perception and our ever-evolving judging criteria. I am also curious about the ironies of humankind as gullible victims to questionable and arbitrary “truths”, and yet guilty of being in cahoots with the sinister trickster at the same time.
Granted that contemporary life is marked by many contradictions, it is perhaps only fair to recognize that none of us are that innocent anymore. The most fundamental “trick” that we play is to lie. Be it an inevitable pervasion from our DNA or an erroneous upbringing, each generation struggles to achieve that fine balance of “truths, tricks and lies”. Therefore amidst this balance of self-preservation and that sneaky sleight of hand, I attempt to play the trickster, hopefully to stir up one’s curiosity and reflective understanding of the works presented.
While every lie can be made real as long as there is a hint of truth in it, the trick to success depends greatly on the method of delivery. I suppose in the end, every truth needs a trick and every trick only needs one truth.