Reading through Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, I found myself thinking a lot about how we make meaning without recourse to religion – what motivates the Questions that Irwin is so captivated by. It’s a weird sort of science to posit that a rectangle can be squarer than a measurable square because we see it that way, but it is science nonetheless, of a much trickier sort than just measuring angles and lengths.
It’s hard to respond to the reading without merely regurgitating his process. I found myself envying his dedication (devotion?) to the work of seeing, and the combination of inner quiet and human(e) rigor (intellectual, spiritual, emotional) that would allow him to see and seek the actual experience of perception both as falsifiable scientific research (which it may never have actually been) and on the deeper level that differentiates an artistic inquiry from a purely intellectual one.
I love the idea of reducing what’s obviously “there” – taking pains to identify everything ancillary and discard it while preserving and heightening the unquantifiable essence of the piece. It’s iconoclastic work, smashing idols (representation, the art object, ornament) in search of The Truth, while recognizing that The Truth is so elusive that one has no hope of ever finding it, or even of knowing what “finding it” might be.
And given that perception is itself totally artificial, an attempt to reconcile the very limited subset of phenomena that we can experience with the inner story of our lives, we have only artificial means to address even these slipperiest of questions. There’s nothing particularly natural (much less supernatural) about an expertly-crafted metal disc hovering in space in front of a gallery wall, held up by a twenty-inch metal arm. But seeing it might be an ecstatic encounter that can change the seer in small but meaningful ways. Or to put it in another way, the piece is artificial, the place is artificial, but the seeing is real.
It made me think about illusion in the context of shamanism. I remembered the story of Quesalid, the skeptical apprentice healer in the Pacific Northwest studied by Franz Boas, who set out to expose traditional healing practices as nothing but magic tricks but discovered, to his astonishment, that his patients got better even though his “treatments” were fake. In seeing their illnesses manifested as a pile of bloody feathers coming out of the shaman’s mouth, the patients knew themselves to be cured, and so they were (though of course I’m sure this technique had its fair share of limitations).