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December 13, 2004

Eyes, Lies and Illusions - Hayward Gallery, London

Posted by Christie Davies

Eyes, Lies and Illusions
Hayward Gallery, London
7th October 2004 – 3rd January 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm

Eyes, Lies and Illusions, sponsored, appropriately enough, by a Swiss bank, is fun as well as being informative. Children entering it found the shadows and images on the walls scary and said so and then they laughed. There is nothing like a mock fright for making even adults laugh. Here are the shadow puppets of Java and India, characteristically known in France as ombres chinois, silhouettes and cut-outs, and giant magic lanterns on wheels. Not only are there the familiar distorting mirrors of the seaside arcade but also every kind of combination of plane, convex and concave mirror, cylindrical mirrors and mirrored cones and pyramids around which distorted images can be drawn that only make sense in the mirror. Shapeless writing becomes 'Ver wagt NOG beeter', thus creating an entirely different level of non-comprehension.

These tricks seem to have particularly appealed to the French because of the possibilities they offered for political deception, the jouets séditieux, seditious toys which cast shadows whose political meaning is the opposite of that apparently carried by the object itself. There are walking sticks whose carved heads are those of revolutionaries but which cast a Bourbon shadow and a chess set of 1825 with pieces carved such that the shadows of the bishops (known in France as fools) look from one angle like Napoleon. Indeed there is also on display an early treatise by the French monk Jean François Nicéron La Perspective Curieuse, 1663 on how to use anamorphosis as an ideal disguise for motifs with double meanings. Still he no doubt inspired Jacobites as well as Jacobins.

No sooner were theories of perspective that enabled painters to provide an appearance of depth developed in the early fifteenth century, then people worked out how to break the rules, abandoning true perspective for anamorphosis, chaotic images that when seen from an unusual angle form a coherent picture.

This is taken to a three dimensional conclusion in the Adelbert Ames rooms which use distorted perspective in real space. Figures change in outline as you walk round them or see them reflected in a mirror. A man in a hat becomes a rabbit. A big bottle and a small glass become a big glass and small bottle. What is a bottle when seen head on is a glass when seen sideways. Ames takes this a stage further in a room that looks flat floored, and flat 'windowed' seen through a peephole but in fact the floor slopes and the square window-like patterns on the walls are trapeziums. Children and adults who play in this room seem to get bigger when they stand in one corner and smaller when they move to another. One member of a school party refused to change corners because he wanted to stay bigger. Yet even the teachers enjoyed themselves.

My only regret here, as in both earlier and later sections, is that the exhibition is insufficiently didactic. It assumes that both optics and perception are matters beyond the understanding of the visitor and fobs us off with a few quotations from dead great men. Here is Déscartes saying that it is the soul that sees, not the eye and that the brain permits seeing. Why then did he pursue cross-eyed women? Was it their souls he was after? Here is Keats whining that Newton and his prism had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by unweaving it. Yet, the poetry remains and is even available on disk. I once drove a car into the end of a rainbow on the M4 near Swindon to see if there was a crock of gold at the end of it; it left a nasty brown mark on the front of the car. Presumably someone with very long feet indeed could walk into a rainbow.

Eyes, Lies and Illusions is not just about tricks. There are creative works here that are remarkable mainly for their ingenuity but some also achieve more subtle aesthetic ends. For sheer ingenuity one must admire Alfons Schilling who uses an assemblage of mirrors and prisms on wooden easels to transform a heap of rubbish in a corner of the gallery into an enticing pyramid on a floor that climbs towards you. Rivaling it is Ludwig Wilding's Objekt mit Drehbewegung, 1955, a Moebius strip that flows in and out of itself as you walk past .

The two real triumphs though are Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone 1973 and Carsten Höller's Punktefilm, 1998. McCall has placed a projector inside a long, completely dark but hazy room. The projector makes a spot of light rotate on a screen. The reflections from the haze, now almost clear, now gushing in swirls like a spring out of the chalk, form a bright, hollow cone that runs the length of the room. It is a wonderful piece of gleaming solid geometry. Carsten Höller plays equally enticing tricks with light. He has filmed Swedish folk dancers performing with lights attacked to their heads and joints and then digitally edited it so that only tiny planets of white light set against total blackness are left. The lights switch off one by one until only a single dot remains and then the entire process restarts and all the dots dance for us. The sillyness of traditional Nordic folk dancing has been transformed into the wonder of a performance of changing molecules by skilled subtraction and abstraction.

For those of coarser tastes there is a 'What the Butler Saw' machine showing 'Exotic Dancers' but it is labelled 'out of order', though whether this was a planned or an accidental failure is as mysterious as a government computer system. It is perhaps just as well since a machine that worked on a single American cent in 1894 now requires a £1 coin. There are many other nineteenth century stereoscopic images of naked ladies in the adjacent corridors, portrayed with a degree of realism that would have upset Ruskin and pleased Millais. Fortunately they are set five feet above the ground so that young children are unable to look into them. Elsewhere special boxes are provided for children to stand on but not in this section. The peepholes for children, set three feet above the ground, show improving views of ancient cathedrals. The organizers are equally careful in their presentation of French erotic playing cards that only reveal their truly French aspect when there is a strong light behind them. Even with the use of a magnifying glass I was unable to make out the details, since the glass of the case holding the cards was set at a distance from them that made it impossible for me to bring them into focus. The optimum optical organisers of Eyes, Lies and Illusions have thought of everything.

Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, Transaction, 2002.


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