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The Illusion Behind the Illusion: The Work of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield

The Illusion Behind the Illusion: The Work of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield


The oeuvre of Hooykaas and Stansfield ranges from sculpture to installations and videos yet, as collaborative artists their work has concentrated upon themes that, in a sense, are also a meditation upon their own decision to work and exhibit as what could perhaps be termed a joint entity. Their work is in part about the significance of context, which means that it questions the human need to create the boundaries that frame and select our world. For Hooykaas and Stansfield this is a feature of our Western consciousness, the desire to project, categorize, catalogue, and isolate. Through their art they invite us to explore our need to structure experience which, in turn, causes us to fragment our world. Working together is one way in which the artificiality of this fragmentation can be resolved.

Hooykaas and Stansfield therefore ask us to consider what it would mean if we were to receive and register our sensations directly and in an unfiltered way. At first sight this presents a paradox for the human perceptual system is predisposed to work in exactly the contrary manner. We create the world as we observe it.

The deep lesson of quantum theory shows us that every act of observation has a profound effect on what is observed. Psychology and biology teach us that vision—to pick but one sense as an example—is prehensile. It involves a two-way traffic involving retina, optic nerve and the visual centres of the brain. The eye draws upon the strategies of the brain to direct its search for meaning within the world. Clamp the eye in order to restrict its rapid scanning motion and within seconds vision fades. Our entire organism is hungry for information. The visual pathway is constantly involved in an analysis of incoming visual data, abstracting similarities and seeking significant differences. But as this data travels from the eye to brain a contrary traffic is sending down instructions, making comparisons, creating forms and attempting to verify visual hypotheses within the ever changing context of the world. For the psychologist there is no such thing as naked vision. Indeed, it has been estimated that over half of what we see was already encoded within the brain.

The act of seeing is therefore as much to do with our memories and anticipations as it is about the immediate present. Given this context, what is the underlying significance of Hooykaas and Stansfield’s Personal Observatories which seek to present the world in an unselected and unfiltered way?

Visual artists learned to exploit the strategies of visual perception long before their elucidation by science. Visual codes have been used not only by painters but also in the plant and animal worlds to serve mimesis. The fly resting on an apple in a Dutch still life, the landscape seen though an archway, or the pattern of pigmentation that gives the appearance of a predator’s eyes on the wings of a butterfly all subvert the brain’s visual hypotheses in the service of tricking the eye.

When the Greeks fantasized about statues that came to life or Giorgio Vasari wrote of a painter so skillful that birds would attempt to peck at the fruit he depicted they were really celebrating the power of the visual system to make sense, or in these cases nonsense, out of the world.

Hooykaas and Stansfield, however, are more concerned with the illusion that lies behind these illusions. That is, with the nature of a particular consciousness (and let’s call it Western consciousness for the moment) that seeks to bracket, isolate or enhance the world. Human and animal senses work extremely well to support practical existence in the world. It is inevitable that the nervous system should be skilful in its selection of clues and data from the buzzing confusion that is the flux of the world. Sensation must be direct and immediate. The frog, whose visual system is hardwired to motor areas in its brain, probably does not register that it has ‘seen’ a fly until after its tongue has darted out and swallowed the prey. Thinking would do the frog little good when it comes to its lunch.

But things change when it comes to human consciousness which seeks to extend its innate strategies of selection and projection into the psychological spheres of needs and desires. For Hooykaas and Stansfield it is at this point that we begin to distort the world and, for them, this distortion is an act of violence which both fragments the external world and influences all our actions towards it. Their work, which could be said to come as much from a meditative as from an artistic tradition, draws our attention to this condition of Western consciousness.

But Hooykaas and Stansfield are by no means suggesting that we become the passive observers of the world. In Stein und Wasser the viewer must crouch down and approach the stone. We must accept the context the art work imposes upon us. Likewise the observatory Abri erected on the Dutch sea coast demands the active involvement of spectators who must leave their car, walk along the sand dunes, climb into the observatory and position themselves at the acoustic focus of the parabolic dish. Only then will they be able to pick up the sounds of wind, wave and seabird cries that, they now realize, were similar to those that had already surrounded them on their walk. We try to bracket and, in conceptual terms, isolate our experiences, calling this one ‘life’ and tht other ‘art.’ Hooykaas and Stansfield are always alert to this potential for self-deception.

One of their early pieces Running Time (1979) makes use of the noise present in a video image at the limits of its resolution. Running time is also concerned with duration, ‘time’ is not only present in the title but is an aspect of the work itself. A dot on the horizon begins to approach the camera until it is just at the point of resolving itself into a human figure. The video sequence then begins again, but not exactly, for the duration of the event always contains some variation. It is a metaphor of our desire to project meaning onto the world. The strategies of human vision work perfectly well until that point where the mind is about to resolve the object of interest. It is at this point that psychological desire is aroused and attempts to cling to object at the threshold of recognition. ‘Running Time’ frustrates this desire by repeatedly bringing the object to the edge of its realization and then dropping it back into the unformed chaos of random noise.

Hooykaas and Stansfield are concerned with the way we seek to make and select the world. We cling to that which pleases and reject what does not produce gratification. The result is that we frame, enhance and bracket the world. Much of their work is a meditation on this distortion. To remove an object from its context is to distort. Hence the irony in Stein und Wasser of a rock, standing in the gallery and listening, though headphones, to the sounds of its original environment.

In The Eye of the Storm is an extended mediation on this theme of distortion through desire—the eye which seeks its delights in the natural world, the arresting of the natural processes of growth and decay by collecting and cataloguing, and the historical theme of building artificial islands of wildness—zoological gardens—within the centres of cities. This work takes on a particular irony in an age in which our environment is under such assault that enclaves have to be created to preserve portions of a rain forest for scientific study, when species close to extinction can only hope to survive in zoos, and when plant varieties are preserved in laboratories while monocultures are planted in our fields.

Within In The Eye of the Storm the metaphor of this distortion is the lens. This is a further irony since it is a lens which is the key factor in the videocamera used by the two artists to collect their visual material. In their video Hooykaas and Stansfield demonstrate how the way a lens isolates, brackets and distorts. In this they are echoing the criticisms leveled at its first scientific use. The objection made to Galileo’s discovery of sunspots, as well as to his other astronomical observations, was that they were the product of an instrument of distortion. Indeed, from that point onwards the scientist’s position in regard to nature becomes more remote.

The first lens used by Galileo is the direct ancestor of today’s elementary particle accelerators and radio telescopes. In the work of Hooykaas and Stansfield the lens becomes a paradigm of the way consciousness has separated itself from the directness of experience only then to project itself into the world as it seeks to impose its own order. In Table of Orientation the lens is used to isolate and arrest. A videomonitor embedded in a bronze map displays a random sequence of images. The lens can be used to magnify parts of the map as well as the image on the screen itself. But in doing so it also stops the flux of random images. The intentionality of the human mind to explore and gain knowledge has the effect of arresting and distorting the natural flux that is the world.

It is probably for this reason that chance plays such a significant role in the work of Hooykaas and Stansfield, for chance always reminds us of the flux that is reality. One of their earliest pieces employed a videocameras attached to a weather vane on a gallery roof. Within the gallery videomonitors, one at each of the four directions, displayed prerecorded images which could, in effect, be pushed away by the chance movement of the wind to show the actual environment outside.

Chance acts to subvert our strategies, our carefully guarded categories and our anticipations for the future. It breaks down existing boundaries and allows new juxtapositions to occur. For Carl Jung chance was the source of synchronicities, meaningful patterns that transcend the divisions between mind and matter.

In a sense it was chance that produced this essay, a series of chance meetings between myself and the two artists—waiting for an elevator in a building in the Canadian Rockies, or at a restaurant table in Siena following a missed appointment. But then chance, as Louis Pasteur observed, only happens to the prepared mind. And Hooykaas and Stansfield allow chance to manifest itself as they travel the world like migrating birds gathering sounds and images that may later find a place in their world.

For In The Eye of the Storm it may have been their intention to film a symbol, a Canadian bridge that not only links two provinces—Ontario and Quebec—but also two museums, one devoted to art, the other to the history of civilization. Yet what was so striking in the final video was not so much a visual image but a sound, the noise made by traffic as it crossed the bridge.

Memory must inevitably play a key role in a body of work which concerns itself with the way in which we seek to filter our sensations of the world. To remember is to be changed. It is to have registered the world within the body and mind.

Such acts of registration are ubiquitous within the natural world and, in this sense, memory is not the exclusive prerequisite of conscious beings.

Each object receives the impressions of the environment in which it is placed. The character of a rock reflects its encounter with wind, rain, blown sand, or the action of the sea. Mud receives the impression of grasses and preserves them as fossilized stone. The phosphor screen of a videomonitor registers the beam of electrons that fall upon it and for a time retains that image. Our bodies are responsive to a particular range of vibrations of light and sound. Nature’s span is far greater. The surface of a lake responds to the slow variations of wind. In the explosion of an atomic bomb stone becomes as sensitive as a photographic plate.

It is in the field of human registration, however, that passivity is tempered by intentionality and desire. Hooykaas and Stansfield’s various Museums of Memory and Personal Observatory concern themselves with mechanisms of this distortion. And of course the very nature of this work itself must inevitably involve intentional acts of selection and framing.

In these pieces I believe they are alerting us to the consequences of that particular mode of human consciousness that grew up in Europe of the Middle Ages. In an earlier period Europeans, like most of the world’s other peoples, considered themselves the servants and midwives of a living cosmos. It was only later that we began to separate ourselves from the world until our participation was reduced to observation and a science emerged based upon the aspirations of objectivity. As time and space became secularized we began to project the world as something external to ourselves. It became an object of thought that could be observed and controlled and whose changes could be predicted. As we have seen, for science the metaphor of this new consciousness became the lens. For art it was the device of perspective.

Perspective and the lens are themselves the projections of a mind that seeks to encompass the world and cling to its own desires. In several of their works Hooykaas and Stansfield direct our gaze onto the nature of collecting, categorizing and the world of the museum itself. For me this echoes a remark made by the ecologist Satish Kumar who observed that when we preserve and place beautiful objects within an art gallery we also allow our cities and landscapes to become evermore ugly and degraded.

For other cultures that word ‘art’ does not exist and aesthetic feeling permeates every aspect of life. The sacred and sacramental are not bracketed apart from daily tasks. As we stand before their work, Hooykaas and Stansfield do not allow us to escape from the uncomfortable fact of our ‘Western’ condition.

Yet bracketing can also be used to reveal and to point towards, which brings us to their most recent work, a series of examinations of Portrait of an Anonymous Lady by Judith Leyster.

Hooykaas and Stansfield, present this through a number of the contexts in which a material object can be made to reveal itself. These are then acts of recall, as it where, rather than actions of memory. In illuminating this painting they are at the same time touching on questions of identity and the significance of an individual sense in artistic creation.

Leyster’s own work was at times confused with that of her former teacher, Frans Hals. With her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, she engaged in collaborative painting. Her own identity became transformed into a pun, for she signed her work with the symbol of the pole star, the ‘leading star’ which points the direction for mariners.

Leyster as the pole star presents a particular problem. The ley-star is that still point in the sky around which the other stars appear to turn as the earth rotates on its axis. Yet this star does not so much reveal itself to us in the night sky but requires its own pointer for identification, that characteristic pattern called the Plough. Just as Hooykaas and Stansfield present Leyster’s painting through a multiplicity of approaches they are also aware of the multiplicity of meaning in their own act of pointing. The astronomical pointer which directs our attention to the leading star contains within it a double star—two stars lying so close together that their individuality cannot be resolved by the unaided human eye. In is only when observed through the medium of a lens that their resolution and separation becomes possible.

Hooykaas and Stansfield are very gently asking us to question another of our presuppositions; that of the artist as hero, as personal biography, as one who seeks to impose forms upon a passive nature. In their own work they search for ways in which nature can be allowed to reveal herself, they place us in contexts in which we become free to watch and listen. They step back, allowing chance to play a significant role in their work. In doing so they renounce the traditional role of individual artistic ego and ask us to consider an art that arises out of a dialogue between ourselves and the world.

Thus their world does not confront or persuade but rather it asks if it may be allowed to reveal itself and for this reason it takes on a certain subtly and degree of indirectness. The experience of this work slows us down so that when we exit the gallery we may be more open to receive what their work has always been pointing towards.