part one: looking
Separated from the object of our gaze, our view is always limited by our eyes’ fixed and finite reach. They cannot twist an object in space, pry it open or see underneath. They cannot move it out from behind the shadows or ask to be shown more. The picture is never complete.
Everything visible takes part in a masquerade of surfaces. To penetrate those surfaces, we delve into our store of past knowledge – intellectual, theoretical, historical, emotional and sensorial. Appearance has no meaning without these prior sources of knowledge. Sight never acts alone. As we accumulate more knowledge enabling us to translate our visual encounters, we gain confidence in the truth of appearances. We begin to feel certainty in the meaning of what we see. And this is when the visible garners its power to deceive, when surface becomes artifice.
The visible is always a front for the invisible. Everything visual is a trigger or clue that aims to arouse our curiosity in all that is concealed. Some things aren’t seen because they are hidden or blocked. Some things are accessible to the eye, but are denied by the viewer’s failure to notice or understand. And some things are permanently invisible for they have no inherent physical form. They cannot be filmed, photographed, drawn or painted. They can only be “seen” in response to an experience through our own body’s sensation and our mind’s imagination. So the visual is always more than surface. It is an index of a sensory, relational world, offering us the means to experience the invisible.
The experience of my own body is a constant reminder of the perils of being visible. When I am alone in the sanctuary and solitude of my home, my body is comfortably absent, with no eyes upon it to materialize my presence. I am my thoughts, my perceptions, my shifting sensations. But with one passing glance at my reflection, I am reminded of the world that encounters me via this strange fleshy form that is not of my own design and is a poor representation of all that remains hidden from view. My visible self seems never stable but constantly in flux. Every time I look in the mirror, I see a different face. Not only does my physical being morph from day to day, the eyes through which I look are continually adjusting to my changing self. The view is never neutral.
No surface is immune from these conditions. The act of looking is always fraught with the predilections, distractions, assumptions and preconceptions that cloud the viewer’s eyes. Surfaces are never fully explanatory. Technologies have expanded our capacity to look closer, to look longer, to even see transformation in the passing of time itself, but no machine has yet to strip physical phenomena of its inherently concealing nature. To be seen is never to be fully visible.
Surfaces and skins cry out to be noticed, pleading to not be overlooked or ignored. They invite, taunt and clamor for attention. The dull or timid may play coy, the bright and spectacular may scream and pout, but they all embody a desire and dependence on the fundamentally resuscitative act of being looked at. We are made visible by the eyes of others, and yet we can only be revealed to the extent that others are willing and able to decipher our appearance. Driven by a primordial impulse to find meaning and connection in our surroundings, we strive to see and be seen beyond a shallow exterior. In our efforts to probe the superficial, looking becomes an act of empathy, an effort to see surfaces as the skins of beings with presence and character. This is not to simply equate our relationship to things with our relationship to persons, for our bonds to conscious beings are undoubtedly more complex than to the inanimate. And yet we are never immune to being moved by the sight of an object, the way it sits or leans or stands, the way it pushes against its surroundings or rises in solitude, the way its colors clash or collaborate, the way its textures prick, prod or mollify. In these responses, we imbue the visual world with a meaning beyond rational utility or frivolous decoration. When we look, we can release ourselves of our sensory armor, imagine slipping inside the skin of the object of our gaze, and experience new sensations. To look with empathy and vulnerability is to flirt with transformation.
Empathy is an essential paradigm for the relationship between viewer and viewed, steering us to engage with the world in relational terms. The English term “empathy” was first introduced by Edward Titchener in 1909 as a translation for the German concept of “Einfühlung”, meaning “feeling into”, a term developed by German theorists in their studies of philosophical aesthetics in the late 19th century. These historical ties between empathy and aesthetics reflect their natural connection. The core mechanism for both is the imagination, the necessary element to empower the eyes to see beyond surface and guide our senses to embody the experience of another.
In our desire to look, we reveal our desire to be seen, a desire to be made visible in return. With every look, we seek reciprocity. Because our own exterior fails to represent the vastness of our private interior world, we look outside of ourselves for more accurate sources of resemblance and reflection. We look for those moments of recognition when we see pieces of ourselves in external artifice. These hidden parts of our selves are not just emotions; they are all the sensations, feelings and perceptions that are not easily expressed, that are not shared without risk, that are hard to make visible.
Every surface exudes desire, a desire to be seen, a desire to be known, a desire to be touched. The sensuality of surfaces beguiles the sense of sight. Whether natural or man-made, discarded or designed, surfaces taunt the roving eye. Most of what we see is not accessible to our more intimate senses; the surfaces are too vast, too distant, unreachable or forbidden. We can never touch, we can never venture deeper. For most of what we see, we can only look. Kept at a distance from the object of our gaze, we long for an intimacy that cannot be consummated. The view is impenetrable, ephemeral, leaving the intensity of sensations aroused in the act of looking to remain locked within the body, stoking an insatiable state of yearning.
Images are the creatures of our obsession with looking. We create images with our mind, with gadgets, with our face and body, and with art. We live in a perpetual state of creating, craving or contending with spectacle. In our persistent state of looking, we rely on images to assuage our desires, yet they often serve merely to stimulate our appetite further, for images are, by their very nature, only a partial view: the camera crops its monocular perspective by the rim of its lens; a painter contains her performance to lie within a canvas’s borders; the private person plays their public role with aplomb; and our eyes filter their view through their particular prejudices and perspective. Every image poses as an emblem of a larger truth that once was or that we wished would be, and it captivates us in its implicit concealment.
I am forever drawn to any attempt to deny surfaces their concealing nature and to those who aspire to make their invisible sensations visible by an act of vulnerable display. For me, the most poignant attempts are found in the subtle expressions of the human face, the extreme ornamentation of bodies in haute couture, and in the creation of works of art.
I am always looking at faces. I feel the weight behind the face that looks weary, and wish to comfort the face that droops in sadness. I inherit the fear of the face flinching in pain, and look for solace in the face relaxed and in peace. But mostly I distrust the veracity of the face’s comportment. I fight to see beyond a face’s obvious ploys and search for clues that will help to confirm or deny my suspicions of deception. For me, the act of looking is an interrogation of the obvious and a probing of subtleties.
We look at the human face with a sensitivity that rivals little else. Once we awaken to our own reflection, we are forever conscious of the complexities of interacting with the world through a physical form. We become intimately familiar with the quandaries of the visible, struggling to navigate the precarious line between display and concealment, image and transformation. In everyone’s face, we glimpse symptoms of our own struggle and wonder if we are seeing the full picture.
With so much intimate information available to any vigilant onlooker, we are taught early on to find ways to suppress such revealing impulses. Sometimes deception is necessary. We learn to use the face as a shield to protect against intruders, to fight against the unnecessary or unwanted exposure of our private selves. But our faces are not always so compliant. Our inner sensations have a way of escaping, leaving a perceptible trace on our malleable exterior.
The face has an instinctive mode of expression that catapults our interior sensations to the surface of the skin. With each contortion of our face, we invite the outside world to glimpse our inside. Every muscle in the face, every twisting feature, every nervous twitch or silly smirk is revealing. For those who are there to witness the cascade of spontaneous transformations rippling across our face, we offer the means to glean more about us in that moment. But the moment is often fleeting, and the picture not always clear. And few look closely enough to catch all the clues before they vanish.
ornament as body
Except for a little make-up, fake eyelashes or a piercing or two, the face must always contend with its bare state. Attempts to hide the face’s natural expression can only be achieved by internal efforts. But our culture relieves the naked body of such a burden, prohibiting the sight of its public display. The ornamental covering of the body is a cultural requirement, an insistence on masquerade.
I wander through Holt Renfrew, racks of luxurious clothes poised in a grand seductive maze. A multitude of shapes, colors and textures burst from their clutches, inspiring sensual pleasures by their mere presence. I stalk them slowly, savoring the sensations. I do not imagine myself wearing any of the clothes, at least not at first. I am not thinking of prices or marketed standards of beauty, sizes or fit. I am simply absorbing the sensations offered to me. The clothes are extraordinarily precious - other-worldly - feeling beyond my grasp even though they are right before me. I approach each item cautiously, tentatively, as if it were a wild animal at rest that I dare not disturb. The entire display exudes excess, it overwhelms, every item embodying an extreme sensual decadence.
However, it would be naïve to claim that my experience is only based on the aesthetics of the clothes as pure abstraction. The colors and textures exist in the form of ghostly bodies, and my affective response is undoubtedly heightened by the palpable awareness I feel between my own earthy presence and the ethereal bodies implied by the limp, upright garments. The sense of my own body disappears as the luxurious woven surfaces present themselves as glamorous surrogates. For a moment, my skin is not the white mottled flesh that encases fat, muscle and bone, it is the diaphanous flowered silk that floats as light as air, it is the smooth languorous satin that shimmers like sensual armor, it is the twinkle and sparkle of a million sequins dancing with light. Scanning the full display, my sturdy legs become a flowing circle of lace. My body levitates as I become the ball gown that is hung at an unreachable height to accommodate the endless skirt that cascades all the way to the floor. I am ten feet tall. As I look up, my doughy arms disappear as my new woven body loops into twisted swirls and ends at the shoulder’s edge. In this moment, for this moment, I am transformed. The sensation is not from an imagining of the clothes on my body, but rather I have become the clothes. For me, amidst this parade of glamorous garments, I imagine the possibilities of my own metamorphosis.
The constructions of haute couture have always been the most extreme sartorial re-imaginings of the body. Contemporary couture continues to re-invent, but often borrows from the forms of past eras. The reworking of historical dress into new guises seems to address some unacknowledged but continuing need, recalling Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “wish-image”: a “picture brought into the present from the past to remind us of still unfulfilled desires.”* The act of sartorial iteration signals a continuing state of yearning.
* Petra Halkes, Aspiring to the Landscape: On Painting and the Subject of Nature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 6.
Ornament is the means by which we seduce the eyes and declare a desire to be looked at. In adornment and decoration, surfaces seek to stoke sensation. A singular mark, modest and unassuming when left alone, comes to a crescendo as it multiplies, accumulating to form an elaborate surface with a palpable presence. Decorative extravagance summons a sensual fervor, relaying traits of the obsessive and insatiable. In its suggestion of endless multiplicity, lavish ornamentation awakens an incessant need for more. It portends an unleashing of restraint.
When the decorative elements are each delicate or fragile, their congregation adds a kind of pathos. In the quiet repetition of sensitive forms, the insecure and uncertain join to insist on a greater, albeit precarious, presence. In their pleading display, the body responds with an equal intensity.
In the overflowing forms and intricate embellishments of haute couture gowns, the woman’s body becomes swathed in this ornamental excess, carrying with it an index of an emotional, sensual intensity. The confection epitomizes the painful desire to be seen. For me, it is a vision of interior excess externalized and made beautiful. The extravagant garments produce a spectacle of sorts, but as their intricate and decadent construction envelops the body, they seem more like a plea. Please look. Look again. Look closer.
I recently travelled to Florence, Italy, where everything is cunningly designed to tempt, arouse and heighten sensation. Of all of my indulgences, my lingering memory is of the art and its cacophonous mix of torment and beauty. In the endless depictions of the Bible’s stories, full of violence, betrayal, death and loss, those who suffer often appear in superfluous cloaks or fields of adornment. In the graceful images of agony and torture, beauty is offered as a means to withstand pain.
If it is true that when we experience pain, beauty is offered to cope and give comfort, then it must be true that where there is beauty, there is pain. The rules of logic warn me against this faulty reasoning, but the senses have no patience for reason. When I experience beauty, I intuitively suspect the existence of an underlying pain. My suspicions are most acute when the beauty has been hard won, and when such labored results have been meticulously designed to encase and transform the female body. Buried in such beautiful excess, the woman’s presence becomes undeniable, perilously exposed and yet untouchable in its refined perfection. Beauty becomes both a summons and a mode of protection.
the painted surface
I remember very clearly the moment I first saw an Agnes Martin painting. I was walking up the wide spiral path that directs gallery-goers up through New York’s Guggenheim Museum at the “Singular Forms” exhibit. The gallery was full of cerebral, minimalist objects that left me cold. I was tired of straining to recognize the value in the stark blocks, fluorescent lights and plain canvases that filled the gallery space. And then, I saw it. A large expanse of dark, earthy brown, whispering beneath a veil of the most delicate, provocative white marks, unmistakably hand-drawn into a gentle but steady rhythmic pattern. Physically, I was transformed. My body’s ennui vanished. I felt elated, excited, inexplicably inspired. I was alone, looking around, wanting to find someone who could say, “Yes, I know!”. I stepped closer, wanting to understand how this imposing painted square could contain such power. I studied the frail but stable lines and dashes, reveling in their solemn presence. Overwhelmed, I stepped back from the painting, trying to see beyond the mesmerizing staccato of the drawn marks and immerse myself more deeply in the warm darkness that loomed within. In the brown shadows, I sensed the hovering presence of dissolving form, the fragile white lines now seeming to provide a protective screen for the even more ephemeral ground. Walking back up to the painting, the relationship reversed again, as the earthy surface worked to stabilize the quivering lines. I was afraid to look away, not wanting to be released from the spell this painting had cast upon me.
With each act of looking, viewer and artwork encounter one another and seek common ground. Naming that connection is elusive. When I encounter a work of art, my sensory response can feel like the artwork’s eyes have penetrated my exterior and held a mirror up to my most private self. At its best, the experience is like meeting a kindred spirit, sharing such a deep reciprocal bond that loneliness becomes impossible. Other times, the sensation may grind through me like a jackhammer through concrete, exposing buried sensibilities that I had otherwise hidden or hoped to ignore. It can impact me like a dam breaking, catapulting parts of my true nature into the light. The artwork excavates my own internal artifice.
At every visit to a gallery or museum, there are inevitably those visitors who snap picture after picture of paintings that they stand before but refuse to truly encounter. They trust in the photographic memento so completely that they are willing to shun the painting’s palpable presence, its poetic surface of image and sensation. When the photographs are reviewed at a later date, it will prove they had once been before a great work, but it will resonate like an autograph of a famous movie star; it will provide evidence of momentary proximity, but no sustaining relationship will have been born. Unlike a photograph or digital screen, each painting has its own unique skin, its own touchable surface to draw our eyes and body near. Like the look of a face that pulls our eyes toward it in a moment of silent longing, a painting communicates as a material body with implicit desires. It always aims to seduce.
An “erotics of art” begins with an erotics of looking. The erotic is rooted in our imagination’s sensual and empathic response to an act of concealment. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes of the “blissful eroticism” of the photograph that extends his view beyond the boundaries of the image and into the realm of his own imagining: “…it is there that I animate the photograph and that it animates me."* Every act of looking has the potential to excite such a response. Our eyes need only to discard their arrogance and impatience, and stop assuming that all is made visible with a cursory glance. Every surface is in some form a creature of concealment waiting to be seen beyond its superficial and singular appearance. Without actively imagining a deeper embodiment of all that we see, every act of looking captures only part of the picture.
*Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 59.