Suki Chan’s current solo exhibition ‘Lucida’, at Tintype, London, brings together personal testimonies and scientific research to explore the roles that the human eye and brain play in our vision. ‘Lucida’ is a three-screen installation that allows viewers to utilize eye-tracking technology to trace their own eye movements whilst following the journey of Chan’s camera through a maze of rooms and tunnels. These visuals are accompanied by a narrative exploring scientific and philosophical theories around vision and perception. Susie Pentelow interviews the artist.
‘Lucida’ explores the complex relationship between the human eye and brain. How did you first get interested in this area of research?
I first got interested in this area of research when I made a film in 2014, called ‘Obscura’. As I stood in the darkened gallery space and saw the street scene outside projected onto the interior gallery space, I wondered if this was like being inside someone’s eyes and looking at the retinal image. Our eyes are darkened chambers. With our eyes open, many of us will have upside images of the exterior world projected within our eyes. I became fascinated with how we manage to move through the world despite the information that our eyes receive are inverted. How do we grab that glass of water? Does our brain flip the retinal images? As I researched further into this I realized that many people in the past have also been baffled by this - from scientists and philosophers such as Kepler, Leonardo Da Vinci, Descartes through to George Stratton who conducted an experiment in 1897 with inverted glasses to test for perceptual adaptation.
After a dialogue with a psychologist, J.Kevin O’Regan, at the Laboratoire de Psychologie de la Perception at the Université René Descartes, Paris, I realised that the inverted image was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of defects in our vision and the difference between the information our eyes received and what we subjectively perceive.
You collaborated with vision scientist Colin Blakemore for this project. What was it like to work alongside a scientist? Did you find that, as an artist, you worked very differently?
It was a pleasure to be in dialogue with Colin Blakemore. He gave a lot of time and support towards this project. We were in dialogue for over a year. I think what drove our interest was our fascination for perception. The more I learned about vision and perception, the more miraculous it became. We both want to understand more this mystery but we come at this from very different perspectives. Colin helped me to understand how we use our senses to make sense of the world outside and how our brains are actively involved in constructing our sense of reality. As a visual artist, it was fascinating to learn about vision from a scientist. Our eye samples the world around us, we do not take in with our eyes the whole visual scene and that we only absorb detailed information about the part of the scene that we are attending to. This has made me look at art – particularly still and moving images - in a different way.
Much of your footage is from spaces that are visually busy, like libraries and boiler rooms, but all are devoid of human presence. Why did you choose to film in these particular places?
In most of my films, the spaces depicted are usually devoid of human presence. This is intentional because I want to transport the viewer to those spaces, to create an immersive experience for them. As soon as you see someone in a scene, it is very different. It becomes about that person and that place. Whereas for me, I am more interested in evoking a set of experiences that is personal to the viewer.
I chose the library because it is a space associated with learning. This was important because so much of what we see depends on our prior knowledge and memory. For me, libraries are repositories for knowledge and memory, much like a brain is. The boiler rooms and tunnels were intriguing spaces and they made me think of the spaces within the brain - different areas which regulate body temperature, rate of breathing, motor control, the wiring along the tunnels reminded me of the neural pathways and the optic nerve with its bottleneck of information.
As a viewer, one can never experience the ‘whole’ work at once - you cannot watch and participate at the same time. Is this an important aspect of the work?
It is very important to me because we can never really see our own eye movements but we can easily see other people’s eye movements. This relates to the story narrated by the first voice in the film.
This question is interesting because there are two ways of experiencing the work. People who participate and interact with the work directly have commented how they feel like they are performing. Some have said how they feel slightly exposed - that perhaps their eye movements reveal something about them? So there is a performative aspect to the work. If you are not sitting in the chair, you are more of an observer, watching someone else’s eye movements. And when you are sitting in the chair, you are aware that something that is personal to you - which you can’t see - is changing the work.
This is interesting to me because our perception of the world is a very individual and intimate experience. It is difficult for us to perceive things in a different way because these are the tools we have at our disposal and we have been used to them for so long to do what we need to do. We attend to different aspects of the world differently and our perceptions are different to someone else’s perceptions. So the work is an invitation to the audience to view the whole work together and to communicate with each other their experiences.
What is coming up next for you?
‘Lucida’ is part of a trilogy of works. ‘Lucida’ launched at Tintype, London and ‘Lucida III’ launched at the Science Gallery, Dublin. I am now going to concentrate on completing ‘Lucida II’, which will launch at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art (CFCCA), Manchester in January 2017.
Each work uses the eye tracking technology in a different way. ‘Lucida III’ will track the viewer’s eyes and only reveal the artwork to that viewer according to their eye movements. So it will be possible for two people in the exhibition to be both looking at the same video but see something different.
‘Lucida’ continues until 22 October at Tintype, London N1 2SL. For more information, visit http://www.tintypegallery.com. You can also watch an interview with Suki Chan and vision scientist Colin Blakemore on the development of ‘Lucida’ here.
Find out more about Suki Chan’s work at http://www.sukichan.co.uk.