Seen and Unseen
JR, the French street artist who was the topic of my last column, represents one extreme of the street art spectrum. He works with communities, orchestrates planned, large-scale, universally celebrated works, and wins huge cash prizes. On the other side of the spectrum, there are street artists, like Kidult, who work on the fringes of communities or against communities, provoke general revulsion, and get arrested.
Kidult’s huge tags—he uses fire extinguishers as spray paint cans—across the storefronts of expensive brands like Agnés B. and Colette protest their use of graffiti-style designs on their expensive products. These tags triumphantly reclaim graffiti as a purely political act, and not simply a visual trope. In an interview with Highsnobiety, Kidult asserted that graffiti is destructive and illegal, and essentially so: “If graffiti becomes legal, I’ll stop.” He sees the visual motifs of graffiti as indivisible from their history of individual action and rebellion. Kidult’s strict sense of artistic ownership stands in contrast to the anarchic freedom of his medium—and in fact he borrows from the visual language of fashion magazines in his posters, if only to twist them into the grotesque.
The most interesting part of William Kentridge’s first Charles Eliot Norton lecture last week concerned the effects of a solar eclipse. He described how to watch an eclipse take place without looking directly at it: If you cut a small hole in a piece of paper and hold that paper flat above a table or other flat surface, you can see the circular spot of sunlight gradually become overtaken by the shadowy reddish crescent of the eclipse.
Kentridge had a revelation when he discovered that each and every spot of sunlight in his studio, including the irregular patches that had filtered through leaves, had its own red crescent—for 65 patches of light, there were 65 differently contoured crescents. Of course, he knew that anyone in Johannesburg with a paper viewer would see the same effect. But the unexpected manifestation of this omnipresence in his studio set Kentridge on a flight of realization about the endless proliferation of views and angles and projections that each object we encounter implicitly offers to the world.
I learned more about how to make art from the Henri-Georges Clouzot documentary “Le Mystère Picasso” than I learned from any previous semester-long painting class. The 1956 documentary is entirely dedicated to recording how Picasso draws and paints. Some of the scenes show him drawing with thick markers that bleed through his paper, so that to the camera, filming from the backside of a glass easel, the lines seem to be making themselves. For paintings where this through-glass approach does not work, the filmmakers take dozens of still images of the painting as it progresses.
Last semester, when I had to write an educational curriculum for an elementary school tutoring program, I picked the topic of color. I bought a prism for the occasion to show the kids that rainbow-wedge Dark-Side-of-the-Moon effect—how a single, pure beam of white light is dispersed into a wide rainbow of color when shown through a triangular prism. I forgot a flashlight, so we tried using the flashlight function on another tutor’s iPhone. But when we shone it through the prism it cast a distressingly truncated rainbow, mostly white with a blue edge. Of course, we should have known: The output spectrum of color is only as good as the input spectrum of the iPhone light.
Computer screens can display even less of the full range of the color spectrum. Our screens’ colors are all the result of combinations of a certain red, a certain blue, and a certain green light—a small triangle on the irregular parabola of visible colors. Computers do a slightly better job with shades on the red end of the spectrum, but there is a deep range of blues and greens that computers cannot display.
The only thing that has stuck for a decade in my memory from Edith Nesbit’s classic novel “Five Children and It” is the set of instructions on how to will yourself into waking up at a certain hour. “You get into bed at night,” Nesbit writes, “and lie down quite flat on your little back with your hands straight down by your sides. Then you say ‘I must wake up at five’ (or six, or seven, or eight, or nine, or whatever the time is that you want), and as you say it you push your chin down on to your chest and then bang your head back on the pillow. And you do this as many times as there are ones in the time you want to wake up at. (It is quite an easy sum.)”
I remember being skeptical of this system as a 12 year-old—was Nesbit trying to make a joke at the expense of her “little” readers? But over the years, I discovered that if I thought concertedly about the time I needed to get up the following morning, I often woke up a few minutes before my alarm clock, no matter how irregular the hours I was keeping. Apparently, you can will yourself into waking up when you need to, along with the proven facts that you can will yourself into a better mood by smiling, and that you can will yourself into believing a placebo will help you even when you know it’s a placebo. I also think that you can will yourself into finding the exact piece of art that you’ve been looking for, knowingly or not.