Eyes, Lies and Illusions

‘Eyes, Lies and Illusions’, review in Art Monthly Australia, May, 2007, pp10 — 14.

Drawn from the Werner Nekes Collection
Australian Centre for the Moving Image
2 November 2006 to 11 February 2007

Many popular histories of cinema insult the audiences of the past with the myth that at one of the first demonstrations of the cinematograph in 1895 the audience, convinced that a real train was bearing down on them, ran screaming from hall. Of course they didn’t. They certainly cried out in astonishment, but not because they were naively duped. Rather, as the operator made the familiar projected photograph suddenly lurch into movement they realized they were finally witnessing a new category of illusionism that had long been anticipated. This event was as much just another astounding moment from a centuries-long history of illusionism, as it was the nativity scene for the movies. For a long time the industrial-strength historicism of Hollywood has tended to occlude the larger and more dispersed history of which it is a part. But although it is full of arcane byways and bizarre events, this history can nonetheless still tell us a lot about our own mediated relationships with reality.

Although it has directly addressed central philosophical questions of optical perception, epistemological belief and physical embodiment over many centuries, the history of illusionism lies scattered over a bewildering array of toys, devices, instruments, performances, and barely creditable anecdotes. For instance we have the camera obscura, an instrument for the sober investigation of nature, which was modified into a magic lantern, rolling its phantasmic images out across the darkness. The magic lantern was then incorporated into the phantasmagoria — a diabolical theatre-show first staged in an abandoned French nunnery in Paris during the Terror. And then we have all the wonderful optical toys of the nineteenth century, ennobled with their fabulously ornate Greek names: the anorthoscope, the coptograph, the phenakistiscope, the thaumatrope and the zoetrope. Or we have all the many and various graphical illusions, finely engraved by the likes of Hogarth and Dürer, but also found as cheap reproductions on cigarette cards or on the backs of countless comic books.

This history has progressed from being associated with the diabolical in the medieval period, since illusionists copied the stratagems of the devil who also performed his seductions by mimicry; to being associated with the domestic parlour in the nineteenth century, where rational children were educated to be wary of tricks of perception or fickle appearance; to being associated with the mass distractions of popular entertainment in the modern period. Along the way each of these periods has embedded its potent associations into subsequent developments like geological substrata.

Like an optical illusion itself, this fabulously diverse history has evaded standard historiographic scrutiny or disciplinary recuperation. Yet it is a coherent field that brings together different disciplines which at first sight might appear to have very little in common, but which have increasingly becoming seen to be inextricably bound up with each other: optics, technology, physiology, perspective, colour theory, magic, religion, belief, and spectatorship. It has only been individual collectors, driven by their private passions and deep compulsions, who have intuited these connections and preserved this supremely ephemeral heritage for all of us.

Preeminent amongst these collectors is Werner Nekes, a German professor and experimental filmmaker, described as one of the last surviving baroque polymaths, who has been amassing his own Wunderkammer of the history of illusion for forty years.  Since 2001 parts of his vast collection have formed the basis of exhibitions at major institutions around the world such as the Getty and London’s Hayward Gallery. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image has cannily piggy-backed on the Hayward exhibition and staged their own version in Melbourne.

In the Melbourne selection we really got the sense that we are experiencing a major collection as we look, for example, at an original copy of Athanasius Kircher’s classic Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), from 1646, or look at one of the few magic lanterns to have survived from the 1600s, which even in its corroded and rudimentary simplicity is recognisably the direct ancestor of that staple of the contemporary art exhibition, the data projector.

The exhibition attempted to install the projection devices, peep boxes, transparent pictures and other illusions in the gallery space to recreate as sensitively as possible the often intimate encounter between viewer and image which the power of the illusion relied upon. It was also at pains to not just be an exhibition of pre-cinema, but carry the broader story of illusionism on in parallel to cinema. The core Werner Nekes collection was complemented by the work of twentieth century artists and contemporary international and Australian artists which recreated and relived some of the original wonder first felt by the original viewers of all these strange devices.

We had Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs from 1935, cheekily throbbing in and out as their motors ground away on the wall. We had Christian Boltanski’s The Shadows, playing a joke on the fear of death by reducing the scary shadows of skeletons and ghosts to the improvised little dolls from which they were cast. Then there was the show’s highlight, Anthony McCall’s magisterial Line Describing a Cone from 1973, which in its formal austerity could also be used as a prism through which to reconsider the whimsical extravagance of the rest of the show. Line Describing a Cone is a 16mm film shown in a fog-filled room. At the beginning of the thirty-minute duration of the film a single point of light is projected through the fog, this slowly grows to be a curved line, then eventually becomes a circle, drawing a complete hollow cone within the fog-filled space. As they move about in the space the bodies of participants incise themselves into the cone, revealing it as actual, physical and present, at the same time as it is optical, virtual and recorded.

The exhibition was accompanied by a fabulous catalogue, a reprint of the original Hayward publication which stands alone on its own terms. It has an essay by Marina Warner, the historian of belief and illusion, who covers the whole field in a characteristically panoramic sweep, from Aristotle who said ‘the soul never thinks without a mental image’, to the present day when, according to postmodern philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, our reliance on visual prostheses has turned us all into wanderers in ‘the desert of the real’. There is also an authoritative and fascinating account of pre-cinema history by Laurent Mannoni. But the best thing about the catalogue is the illustrations, which retain all the sense of fun and wonder of the original objects. Roll up the supplied silvered cardboard into a tube to reveal a pornographic scene illicitly secreted within an anamorphic distortion of 1750. Move the supplied clear plastic sheet back and forth over Ludwig Wilding’s op-art graphic of 1999 to make the moebius strip appear to cycle around perpetually.

On page 190 the oldest illusion of them all — the afterimage, know even to the ancients — is demonstrated. You stare at a reproduction of a 1930s postcard for a minute or two, then flick your eyes across to the opposite blank white page. Suddenly an unmistakable image of Greta Garbo pulses out at you before fading, like a squid squirting ink into the ocean. Where was Greta? Was she on the page, or in our retina? And why did the retinal afterimage seem to suddenly cohere so surprisingly, and fade so poignantly? Was it because Garbo’s face, that of the reclusive movie star who straddled another paradigm shift in the history of illusion from silent to sound cinema, is still such a collectively recognisable icon in mass culture? Elsewhere the catalogue informs us that in 1765 the afterimage was scientifically investigated by Chevalier Patrice d’Arcy, who swung a lump of burning coal on a rope and timed the revolutions. Through this diabolically cunning method he established that the afterimage lasts for eight-sixtieths of a second, thereby establishing the minimum frame rate of sixteen frames a second for the cinematograph, which was not to be practicable for another 130 years.

The lesson this show teaches us is that historically deception keeps pace with perception. One will never outpace the other because they are in constant exchange. Our continual pleasure in illusion is the reminder, yet again, that each is grounded in the other. We may feel only a faint residual delight at the recreated lantern slide projections of two hundred years ago, which have been made historically quaint for us by the subsequently engineered elaborations on the basic technology, but we will assuredly be bodily thrown back in our seats by the latest CGI effects of the next Hollywood blockbuster we see. However we just need to enter Renato Colangelo and Darren Davison’s walk-in camera obscura erected for the show in Federation Square to feel the exact same wonder that underpins both historical moments. We see people silently walking, upside down, past Flinders Street Station. They are there, but here as well; real, but yet unreal at the same time.

Martyn Jolly

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