Slow Looking, The Art of Philosophy

Can we look at a tree without the image of the tree?

I.

Ever since I came to know Krishnamurti (thanks to a friend who introduced me to him), this question he pointed out has been stuck in my mind ever since. 

“Can we look at a tree without the image of the tree?”

Can we really look at a tree, without translating it with our own terminology, categories or temperament? Just looking – just seeing what’s in front of us – seeing what is actually taking place, and feeling it without words of interpretations?

II.

It reminds me of another piece of reading that I loved by Brian Massumi on the autonomy of affect. 

“A man builds a snowman on his roof garden. It starts to melt in the afternoon sun. He watches. After a time, he takes the snowman to the cool of the mountains, where it stops melting. He bids it good-bye, and leaves.” 

Researchers took this short-film and turned it into 3 versions: the original voiceless version and 2 with added voice-overs (one factual and one emotional) and gave them to a group of 9 years old children to watch. What was astonishing from this finding was that the original non-verbal version elicited the greatest response from the children’s skin, the factual voice-over was the least unpleasant and the emotional voice-over was the most remembered. The result clearly showed us that our body responds to what we see before the formation of words. And then with the addition of words, they amplify or dampen what is being seen. Even with factual descriptions, it linearised what and how the images were being looked at, and in turn became an interpretation of what we see. 

Note: In the case of watching a film, we are looking at consciously indexed moving images. This means that there’s an intent of how those images were framed when creating the film for the audience to look at. But the takeaway here is that – what we see produces a primitive affect prior to any input of words, whether we are consciously aware or not.

III.

So, can we look at a tree without the image of the tree?

Zheng Bo, a Hong Kong-based artist, who spent his art practice working with plants mentioned that, the whole point of his daily rituals of drawing plants, is so that he can look and study the plants. He said that his artworks of plants are of no mastery of craftsmanship, but the experience of daily pencil-drawing of the plants made him slow down and look at the plants closely. He was documenting his experience of looking at plants. 

IV.

As a photographer and a psychologist, I’m fascinated by looking – the way we see – the images we form both mentally and physically. With this question in mind, I did an experiment with photographs, with the intention of just looking at trees. 

I picked a tree randomly and began looking at it from the bottom, where the roots are, then moving up to its branches and observed how they separate, and finally gazed upon the leaves and the fruits. And then I realised, the moment I took a photograph was the moment that I compared it with my mental image of a tree. I was photographing something that’s outside of my mental image of trees as new knowledge for me to keep. After this realisation, I then decided to not photograph anything and just observed. I watched my thoughts while I was just looking at this one particular tree, and I saw myself comparing that with what I know about trees, “oh the branches on this tree have such irregular shapes!” “the roots here are super interesting, they look like claws” etc. It seemed like the space between the looking and the thoughts is abducted, or maybe I just wasn’t aware enough of the gap in between. So I tried again. This time with a different tree. At first I did the same thing – I started from the roots and slowed moved up my gaze. Then I noticed the moment I took the phone out it changed the way I was looking at the tree. The act became purposeful in capturing something. So instead, I started all over but this time using my phone camera live view as a lens to observe the tree. I zoomed in as if I leaned forward; and zoomed out as if I took a step back to see the whole tree. Then at those moments where I was just looking with my mind emptied, I pressed the shutter. Something magical happened. The captured images have this sense of deadpan and mundane. They are really just ordinary, and at the same time I’m fascinated. I bet these are some of the images that one wouldn’t even spend a second and swipe to the next. 

V.

Looking at a tree, without the image of the tree, documenting it as an image, and looking at the tree in the image. What do you see?

Reference: 

Art Asia Pacific. (2021). Zheng Bo: Life is hard, why do we make it so easy? [Video]. Retrieved 8 June 2021, from http://artasiapacific.com/Projects/ZhengBoLifeIsHardWhyDoWeMakeItSoEasy.

Krishmurati, J., 2020. A mind free of ‘me’. Retrieved 8 June 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88ewKAjk7sg&t=1001s at 16:25 

Massumi, B. (1995). The Autonomy of Affect. Cultural Critique, (31), 83-109. doi:10.2307/1354446

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Photography Reviews

Apple – Zhang Xiao

Zhang Xiao the star photographer from China who’s best known for his work “coastline” has been making works rigorously ever since (as he shared on the projection night). The installation work “Apple” was one of the main exhibitions showcased at the Lianzhou Museum of Photography during the festival.

Using apple as the anchor point, the work talks about how the cultivation of apple from the west brings in apple industrialisation in his hometown, Yantai and how that impacts on local people as well as the environment.

© Michelle Chan, series ‘Apple’ by Zhang Xiao at 15th Edition Lianzhou Foto Festival 2019

The work presented was a multi-media work with photographs, polaroid emulsion prints, videos and a apple tree sculpture installation that narrates the story from how apples are collected and industrialised to markets and other trading centres, to the effect it has on the environment and the society. The progression of the exhibition goes from photographs and a video of how apples are processed in the factories to a wall of meticulous yet beautiful photographs of death birds. Zhang uses birds as the channel for the storytelling because many birds are trapped in-between electrical fences that were built to protect the apples in the factories. The way they were photographed felt very much like corpse photographs but also photographs of specimen where the choice of printing on acrylic or glass reinforces the feeling of preciousness of these corpses. The very last piece of artwork was created from a collaboration with the local people putting fake apples printed “Gong Hei Fat Choi” onto winter trees, symbolising their wishes for prosperity for the coming year. This work shows how the value of apple as just a simple type of food changes according to human impacts.

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Photography Reviews

A Long Day of a Certain Year – Li Lang

“A Long Day of a Certain Year” (某年某月某日) by Chinese photographer / artist Li Lang won the Puntum Awards at the Lianzhou Foto Festival 2019. This photographic installation encompasses pictures he systematically took out of the window while on a round trip on a high-speed train across China. The work was installed as a 5 multi-channelled video with an image displayed for a second at a time, starting from the first channel and rotating to the next channel throughout the whole video. The idea was to recreate the space of the train carriage, in which windows display the projected slideshows and voice interviews, mirroring the feelings of one looking out of the window on a train and thoughts running by.

© Li Lang, from the series ‘A Long Day of a Certain Year’ ; Source @ Jimei x Arles

His works uses the images from the train window to juxtapose with recorded voices of about 50 online volunteers about their lives and social realities. He wanted to show through the work that the things that are going on in society are like the view we have from the train: constantly changing, random, contingent, and uncertain. The scenery is familiar yet unfamiliar to everyone. However, the train will come to a halt eventually and sending its passengers back to their reality. This is a metaphor for the relationship between people and society: whether watching or being in it, you cannot leave.

Here’s the artist statement of the work (which I think reads well into the work):

其實一代又一代的人都是這樣的。

————《某年某月某日》畫外音

某年某月某日是一個確定的時間,不僅是日常生活中的昨天,今天和明天終究將會屬於某年某月某日。周而復始的某年某月某日構成生活的全部。

我乘坐在一趟往返有四千六百公里的高速火車上,以統計學採樣的方式拍攝窗外景觀,跟隨火車縱貫這個熟悉而又陌生的國度,穿過城市、鄉鎮、農村、丘陵、平原和荒野。當我木訥地望着窗外,火車前進方向的景觀迎面撲來,然後轉瞬即逝地消失在身後,我突然產生幻覺,未來就在前方,未來被運動所挾持,在我毫無知覺間,未來已成為過去。對我而言,此時此地的現在仿佛是缺失的。只有等到火車抵達終點,我走出車廂,才感受到現在的存在和回歸喧囂的現實。​

現實是什麼?

面對這個問題,我和眾多的志願者一起,聊起身處的現實和現實對我們的影響。話語間滲透着講述者對生活最直觀的感受。我再次成為坐在火車上眺望窗外景觀的旁觀者。在生活中,普通人都是現實的旁觀者。

在毫無知覺中度過無數個周而復始無趣的日子之後,我們慶幸自己生活中的平安,暗自慶幸那些不幸的事沒有發生在自己的身上,就像始終坐在火車上觀望着窗外和我們沒有任何關係的景觀一樣。因為我們習慣做為一名安全的旁觀者。但是別忘記,火車終究將會到達終點,我們這幫旅客終究將走出車廂,回到現實。千萬不要覺得現實就像窗外的風景一樣,寧靜無聲。其實,我們只是聽不到外面的聲音而已。

The work is so simply put yet it speaks to such a wide range of audience. They can so easily resonate with the feeling of future uncertainty and the social reality that we face everyday. I extremely adore how he brings the everydayness into his artwork which can also be interpreted more deeply with the current social and political affairs.

Here are the 2 interviews he did (both in Chinese):

https://news.artron.net/20191002/n1062004.html

http://www.artdesign.org.cn/article/view/id/31919

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Artist Inspirations

Song Dong

In some way, he’s the Chinese version of Joseph Cornell. Using found objects as inspirations and materials for his art, he says that life is his main job, art is just a hobby. The philosophy behind his arts stamps from his upbringing, the way his mother has taught him about not wasting anything. Every object has its own value and life. Can we nurture their lives as beautiful as they can be?

His work really touches me, because I can feel so much love in there. It’s his way of responding to what’s happening in his life with virtues, culture and philosophy of the Chinese.

References:

http://www.artzip.org/song-dong-waste-not

https://www.cobosocial.com/dossiers/song-dong-borderless-wall/

https://www.cobosocial.com/dossiers/song-dong-a-world-in-a-well/

https://www.artnetnews.cn/art-world/songdongchichengshiyongyuwangcuihuita-75869

http://review.artintern.net/html.php?id=76542

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