What is a Detached Gaze?

Shoji Ueda, 1940

Shoji Ueda, untitled, 1940

This blog presents a collection of images and texts we have collected during our artistic research over the past 5 years. It focusses on alternative ways of representing space within the realm of photography and painting. With this blog we aim to analyse how these representations can affect our gaze on a fundamental level and change the way we relate to the world. This first post gives a brief summary of topics of interest we will disclose in more detail in the following posts.

Bon’yari shite

Since the ‘discovery’ of perspective in the early 15th century our understanding of space is guided by optical laws. The invention of photography and the extensive use of photographic images nowadays, constantly re-affirm these laws. This visual knowledge we’ve inherited and we’re imbued with determines how we – in the West – perceive and represent space: as homogeneous, unified and absolute. Our world is conveniently ordered by this optical system but it is as if we only look with our “visual memory” and think of what we see as being true. In the last sentences of his famous book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes hints to these limitations of our gaze when he says:

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, New York, 1981, p. 118.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Such a reversal (…) de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under the cover of illustrating it.” [1]

But is it possible to know how the world looks like in reality, to modify our gaze, as it were, and lift the veil of its own predefined visual habits? And if so, can representations which use alternative ways of depicting space help us to see things differently? How does this in turn act upon our experience and understanding of the world around us?

The source which played a pivoting role in our thoughts on representation and which made us aware of these visual habits was the book Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens by David A. Slawson. It was a garden manual which explained the origins of the design principles and aesthetic values of Japanese gardens. In the first chapter the author referred to the following anecdote:

[2] David A. Slawson, Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens, Kodansha International Ltd, 1987, p. 41.

When I begun my apprenticeship under Kinsaku Nakane in 1971, the first assignment I was given was to view thirty or so of the finest gardens in and around Kyoto. To my question, “Is there anything special I should keep in mind as I view them?” he replied, “No just view them bon’yari shite” – in other words “with a detached gaze,” without preconceptions, in a state of total receptivity. [2]

This story suggested an other way of looking which was foreign to our own preconceived and unconscious habits of seeing. The idea of looking without focussing on anything special is important when viewing and experiencing Japanese gardens. It is sometimes referred to as “looking with soft eyes” without fixing the gaze on something in particular. At the same time it doesn’t mean dreaming away or staring into a void but really looking – as Slawson puts it – in a state of total receptivity.

We were left with many questions and started to learn more about this “detached gaze”, it’s origins in the East and how it has been used in other arts like painting and photography. How did it for example influence the representation of space and landscape? And how could we incorporate it in our photographic work?

Interconnected sources

[3] Jan Krikke, The Corridors of Space: China, Modernists and the Cybernetic Century, Olive Press, Amsterdam, 1998.

Our first guide into this matter was Jan Krikke, author of the small but powerful book The Corridors of Space [3]. This book traces the influence of Chinese philosophy on Western thought and describes the ways this Asian influence continued with the arrival of Japanese arts in Europe at the end of the 19th century. It introduced us to a richness of interconnected sources on the depiction of space, like the use of isometric and axonometric principles and their theoretical backgrounds in Western and Eastern art history. It also provided us with a deeper understanding of Japanese aesthetics and showed how Modern European and American artists and architects appropriated some visual aspects of Eastern art to push the boundaries of their own arts.

Hokusai, Woman Arranging a Bonkei, 1820-1834

Hokusai, Woman Arranging a Bonkei, 1820-1834

These new ideas led us to more research on the representation of space in different disciplines ranging from concepts in philosophy like the Time-Image of Gilles Deleuze, Zeami’s writings on Noh theatre, garden manuals like The Mustard Seed Garden and theories on landscape of Chinese Shan Shui painters to various treatises on perspective like Erwin Panovsky’s Perspective as a Symbolic Form, David Hockneys’ Secret Knowledge, El Lissitzky’s A. and Pangeometry and works on the 4th dimension like Duchamp’s White Box and The Frozen Fountain of Claude Bragdon.

Mappings

In 2011 we created the first mind map of our research which brought together our sources on non-linearity, parallel perspective and other ways of looking and representing space, in a first attempt to relate the various concepts to each other:

Last spring we re-arranged our archive of images into a visual mind map and showed it during an exhibition at the DordtYart Foundation in the Netherlands. This map, entitled The Process of Visual Perceptionexplored the same themes and concepts as our first mind map but now from a purely visual point of view. It ordered various modes of the representation of space ranging from the use of shallow depth, sequences, fragmentation, anamorphosis, to parallel perspectives, oblique views and elongated or ‘big’ spaces. 

Hiryczuk / Van Oevelen, Studiolo, DordtYart Foundation, 2013

Hiryczuk / Van Oevelen, Studiolo , DordtYart Foundation, 2013

Mindmap in the Studiolo

Hiryczuk/ Van Oevelen, mind map: The Process of Visual Perception (work in progress), 2013

What all these images have in common is that the situations they depict seem to detach themselves from anthropocentric and optical conditions. Instead they propose a more haptic conception of space as a model for reality. A reality where the habitual gaze is thrown back on itself as it no longer meets an extensive and systematically unified space, which for centuries affirmed its function. In his last essay Eye and Mind the philosopher Merleau-Ponty points to this specific condition in relation to painting:

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, Eye and Mind, p.165, Northwestern University Press, 1964

“[The painting] does not present the mind with an occasion to re-think the constitutive relation of things, because rather, it offers to our sight – so that it might join with them – the inward traces of vision and (…) it offers to vision its inward tapestries, the imaginary texture of the real.” [4]

From now on the beholder has to find ways to re-direct his vision, not only outwards but also inwards, simultaneously, as a looking which goes beyond the visible.

2 comments
    • Hiryczuk / Van Oevelen said:

      Hello Katie, the quote you use on your blog is from us and not Roland Barthes 😉

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