What Pauses my Gaze? (part 2)

Part 1 of my reply to the question “What pauses my gaze?” arrived at the general conclusion that tension leading to discomfort is one way in which a work of art can grip the viewer. The work of Francis Bacon reaches out and grasps me, which is not always a pleasant experience. Here, in part 2, I will move in the opposite direction, considering how a work of art grips the viewer calmly. Whereas Bacon’s work stops me in my tracks and takes hold of me, other works extend an inviting hand, appealing to the viewer precisely because of the comfort they invite. Thus, perhaps it is better to say “caress” than “grip” or “grasp.”

The work of the gaze is bound up with what Merleau-Ponty calls the “motility” of the body—i.e., the “motor significance” that the movements of our bodies hold for us. We have a non-conceptual, pre-reflective awareness of possibilities entailed by the various ways we can move our bodies. If we approach something, its details come into view more sharply. If we move away from it, we gain a broader view of the thing and the background which makes it stand out. We walk around things with the tacit anticipation of learning more about them. Our understanding of the world is pre-figured by the motility of the body.

The various ways the movements of my body condition what shows up for my gaze, revealing the importance of depth. Merleau-Ponty calls depth “the most existential of all dimensions,” in that it “announces a certain indissoluble link between things and myself” (Phenomenology of Perception, 298). The ever-increasing “screened” existence of contemporary life sacrifices the depth of experience for the sake of presenting information or content in an efficient, uniform manner. Representing something on a two-dimensional surface—“screening”—is without a doubt a great step forward for humanity. Screening arranges content in terms of breadth, and not depth. Breadth perceived as a relation belong solely to objects, thus removing, to a high degree, the perspectival involvement of the subject. In this limited space, I will not bother fleshing out all of the pros and cons of this sort of flat representation. I will just assume it.

However, as Merleau-Ponty’s words indicate, something important is lost amidst this screened existence. The basic motor significance that things hold for us is the result of the inextricable connection between our bodies and the world. Thus, the second part of my reply to the question, “What pauses my gaze?” is this: the promise of depth. Rather than grasping me in a state of tension, as Bacon’s works do, art that reaches out and offers the experience of depth pauses my gaze with a calm caress. How can artists, or designers of artifacts in general, achieve such an effect?

I think that a certain group of artists, designers, and fabricators are taking the phenomenological principles outlined above seriously. This can be found in the work of Simon Penny, namely his Fugitive 2, where the work of art envelops the viewer in an experience imbued with the motor significances prevalent in everyday experience.
The movements of the viewer have direct and immediate consequences for what appears. An essential feature of this sort of work is an emphasis on calmness, insofar as there are little to no instructions required. In other words, the viewer or user is not faced with a daunting learning curve. The learning is intuitive rather than laborious.

A perfect example of this feature I am calling “calmness” (or perhaps simply “intuitiveness”) can be found in the design of systems like the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinnect. Think of how the gaming experience for these systems differs from the experience of a typical video game. Typical video games rely on behaviorally pairing finger movements with images on a screen. It takes a while to master such games, and there is no way to learn them other than to memorize which combination of buttons is appropriate in a given situation. One instructs a novice Kinnect user, on the other hand, on how to play, say, a boxing game, by simply saying: “Act like you are boxing.”
How can this existential mode of interaction be elicited by the work of art? I have already mentioned Penny’s work, but it relies heavily on expensive technology. Sculpture affords walking around to better understand. Certain sculptural forms invite various kinesthetic, sensori-motor based perceptual attuning. Can painting do the same? I have difficulty answering this question. I would love to hear from others on this, especially painters. Can a painting appeal to one’s gaze in the same manner described through Penny’s works and Microsoft Kinnect? Is its flat objectual existence inherently limiting in this regard? Perhaps it could be said that painting grip the viewer in that they are best viewed from a single, stationary perspective; whereas sculpture and video-art installations such as Penny’s pause one’s gaze by calmly caressing the viewer. These works of art work through a certain intuitive appeal, based on the motor significance an object holds for one’s body. These works engage our bodies. We explore and understand them through the motility of the body. Where we were once gripped, we are allowed room to play.

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