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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