Dare to look

 Catalogue essay for   … WHERE ARE THE ORIGINALS? (once were photographs)

Deakin University Art Gallery, 28 October to 11 December 2015

Look into the Gorgon’s eyes and be turned to stone. Such was the power of Medusa. How then was Perseus to slay her?  Athena lent him her golden shield. By looking at the monster’s reflection he could see to cut off her head without being petrified, literally. Today, that terror has been inverted. The camera has become a device to shield us against the disquiet from looking, ever more so with digital phones. Responses to sensuous human activity are turned to stone by being severed from the yakka of perceiving what is in front of us. Perseus wore shoes that made him invisible. The camera has rendered invisible much of the meaning in the worlds that it captures.

By disturbing the conventions of not-looking, Peter Lyssiotis’s suites of faces and flowers challenge us to lift the stones from our eyes. All artworks invite us to look but, more than many, Peter’s photomontages and re-workings stimulate us to reflect on how we might do so more effectively.  What follows are some of the questions that his oeuvre has helped me apprehend.

Polaroid shrank the delay between the shutter button and the print. The loss of patience at waiting for the image matches the scurry through galleries. Nine seconds before each object is the standard which is almost, but not quite, time enough to read the label.

            The crowds in front of Vermeer’s ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ on tour could not snap it on their cell phones because of a thicket of raised arms trying to do so. Galleries now ban selfie-sticks to protect the art from the jostlers who can barely glimpse the icon they have paid to be shuffled past..

Happy snapping, like incessant texting and tweeting, are more than a prophylactic against the anguish of looking. They are also symptoms of ontological insecurity. Placing oneself in the picture-frame alongside a famous object is no longer intended to show others that one has been ‘Somewhere’: ‘That’s me in front of the Hermitage.’ Rather, the selfie is to reassure oneself that one is anywhere. The fear, to rephrase Gertrude Stein, is that “There is no ‘me’ here.’ Hence, it is a mistake to allege ‘narcissism’ since Narcissus possessed one quality worthy of self-fascination.

Proportion has been jettisoned along with patience. Viewers seem unaware of a difference between viewing a Raphael tapestry and its appearance over their i-phone. Put a camera between one’s brain and any experience larger than oneself becomes bearable.

Reproductions reduce originals to a scale which puts the viewer at an advantage over the creative powers that went onto the canvases.

Just as Cage’s 4’33” silence invites us to pay attention, so Peter’s defacements confront us with a chance to question the ideology of portraits as markers of an individualism hollowed out by our loss of fulfillment from work. The urge to ‘snap’ rather than to buy a post-card is the dying ember of Promethean fire.

Peter’s much admired John Berger appreciates that artists do not draw what is in front of them but draw in order to be able to see what is in front of them. Peter has taken diverse paths to remind us that 20-20 vision is not enough, that we see through our eyes but not with them. Comprehension engages the brain. His re-workings require us to stop long enough before his images to retrieve the common or garden plants beneath, and then to ponder the techniques that had been used for the mass magazine illustrations that he has manipulated. His flowers present us with mutations of those reproductions and of the plants themselves.

Peter in no sense disparages the images on which he works. Rather he labours over them to help us think about technique, content and context. Through his reworking, we enter the processes of seeing as remaking and remaking as seeing.

Every work of art is in some way a commentary on previous creations: Rubens on Titian, Picasso on Delacroix. Labelling those tributes ‘appropriation’ resorts to a weasel word. If critics mean ‘theft’, why do they dare not say so? Can it be that they lack the courage of their own lack of conviction? Or is it that ‘appropriation’ has become current because ‘inspiration’ is alien to a criticism fixated on unearthing the absent and rejoicing in the negative? When did it become enough to respond to a work of art with ‘interesting’?

Two 1936 essays by Walter Benjamin help us to think about what has happened to our capacity to look. One is notorious - ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ - and the other less quoted - ‘The Storyteller’ – yet, as aspects of a shared perception, the pieces should be read palimpsestically. ‘Every morning’, reports Benjamin, ‘brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in newsworthy stories.’

Images are caught in a similar paradox. They overwhelm us, yet we have next-to-no picture-making capacity inside our heads to enrich our story-telling. The effect of being exposed to a million images each and every year anaesthetises our capacity to weave a critique of judgement into narratives about the questions that should perturb and delight us most.

That enervation applies even more nowadays to the death of a visual culture under at bombardment of pop-ups. A blizzard of images still signals ‘buy’. Once upon a time, they enticed us to consume commodities; now, the images that Peter deploys are devoured as food and house-and-garden porn.

Not all the news is so grim. The appeal of the James Turrell retrospectives, most recently in Canberra where his ‘Within-Without’ holds visitors who otherwise never set foot in an art museum, reveals the presence of an audience for works which require us to stay put for several minutes in a confined space. For Pascal, ‘All the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, which is their inability to be at ease in a room.’ Perhaps. Yet it is also true that much pleasure is to be had from not doing so from being out and about without an obscuring camera. Peter Lyssiotis reminds us of how to engage our brains when next we dare to take our eyes –unshielded - for a walk.

Humphrey McQueen