Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Perception and Image

We spend our lives wondering what the world is, what the universe is, what our experience is, and whether our experience means something objectively, whether we can translate from our perceptions some kind of larger truth, some understanding of the world.

It's a question for the philosopher in each of us: is there one reality, one objective truth? Or are there as many truths as there are conscious minds, as many versions of reality as there people and cows and bees and bacteria and trees?

I feel that reality is like a jewel with infinite facets, that we are born in the middle of one: it stretches to the horizon; to us it is large as a planet. And we can stay there. We can sit in the middle of our own point of view and we can see things our way: my country is the best country, because it's mine. My mommy is the prettiest mommy, because she's mine. It's where we all begin, and we have the option to stay. Or we can travel: we can wander far to the border where one side meets another, we can stretch our necks across that angle, let our fingers grip the sides, try to see what life looks like from that other point of view.

Even kindergartners wonder, when you see blue, is it the same blue I see? And even they discover there is no way to test the question. It is good to explore how sensory information translates itself in our minds to a three-dimensional reality with aspects we can call "depth" and "dimension" and "color": that's difficult enough. But how can we ever know if what we perceive is close or far from what others perceive? In some ways, our lives are dedicated to negotiating this unknowable gap.

Art is one of the few ways we can try to understand the way others see the world.



This weekend I met many talented artists, all of whose work affected me in various ways, and I understand those effects and those ways better in some cases and less well in others. The drawings of Christine Eckerfield (the picture above is "Palms in Full Sun") have the particular effect of making me question my eyes.

I see palms, and I recognize them with my own context: the shape, for me, a native Floridian, is familiar and ubiquitous and has been since childhood. Others might see these as signs of the exotic, but I see the familiar, the most often ignored shapes, the shapes that always linger just above our busy heads.

And I see the angle of regard: the framing of the image tells me how I am holding my head. I am questioning. I am surprised. I have looked up by accident, and lost my busy head mid-thought, not because of the beauty of the palms or the sky, but because I have been confounded by the light. And I am alone. I am certain of this: I am alone.

The light asks questions I can't answer. It asks: have you ever seen the world...? It asks: has anyone seen it? It asks: do you know what goes on while you look away?

The sky is mild, washed out, burned out as eyes burn out in mid-day sun. I'm reminded that in Vietnam they don't have separate words for blue and green, that to them, blue and green are two shades of the same color, like fuchsia and pink to us. I consider that there are millions of people who see sky and trees as a continuum of the same color, as we see sky and sea.

And I look at the light.

Light is the soul of quickness, always moving. By the time I have had time to wonder about how we see blue and green, the moment has changed. The image has the power of memory, potent memory, pure in the single mind, unspoiled by other people's recollections or by photographs.

Many times in my life I have seen a large and beautiful moon: I grab a camera. I snap a picture. The photograph shows a small white dot.

The record of light is not the experience of light. 5 million cameras would record a beam of light the same way. No two people will experience it the same.

This is the magic of this image: yes, it reminds me that we do not all see the world in the same way. But how? By letting me live a fleeting moment long. By letting me set this singularity of experience -- in which I am certain I am alone -- beside my own.

I don't know if her blue is my blue, but I know, I feel, that her moment is unique. And this makes me believe that her blue is not, cannot, be my blue -- that my blue is not even my blue from one experience to the next. The image makes me feel that the strangeness is the sameness, that the sameness is the strangeness.

I look at these palms, these common trees, and I think that, despite the intimate familiarity I have with the basic shape, the light, the moment, portrayed is utterly alien to me. And yet it is the feeling of alienation that lets me live in the image: it is the thing I recognize most of all.

This is the first in a series of posts on Florida Artists, and how I experience their work. I would love references to more artists, working in any medium, in Florida.

Cross-posted to Incertus

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