The Art of Perception

How we perceive the external world is a fascinating subject that has long attracted the attention of great thinkers from Kant to Nietzsche.  Kant knew that we possessed some sort of interior filter that enables us to perceive the world and Nietzsche knew that this filtered perception was always an interpretation of the world.  Modern neurobiology has made significant advances in figuring out how our sensory apparati process the exterior world but much remains to be learned about how this translates to our interior world.

Over at Seed Magazine, Greg Boustad has posted an arousing story on the work of Luke Jerram — an artist who explores perception at the interface of aesthetics and science.  Be sure to watch the accompanying slide show — Jerram’s work is perceptually stunning; I especially like his glass sculptures of microbes and acoustical work.

I did not know until reading this article that plants emit sounds!  The story lede is also arresting:

When Luke Jerram was growing up in the sleepy town of Stroud, England, he discovered that he suffered from dichromatic colorblindness. But instead of lamenting this fact, he construed it as a gift, his own auspicious window into the world. Jerram became obsessed with the mysteries of human perception, both its idiosyncratic nature and its innate limitations.

Later, he began investigating these mysteries. Where does the visual perception of an object end and the memory of it begin? But when it came time to choose a course of study at university, instead of tackling such questions through systematic inquiry, Jerram took a different path. He enrolled in art school. “Scientists and artists start by asking similar questions about the natural world,” Jerram says. “They just end up with completely different answers.”

[I]t was really the breadth of methodology and lack of formal structure that attracted him to the arts. “The nice thing about being an artist is that I can jump around from one area of interest to the next — microbiology one week and the gravitational pull of the Moon the next,” he says. “Scientists don’t seem to be allowed to do that anymore—they have to specialize in their own little field—which is a shame, I think.”

Though some might be tempted to perceive dichromatic colorblindness negatively, think for a moment about Ansel Adam’s gelatinous platinums or the ethnographic photogravures of Edward S. Curtis — they force us to see differently and the results are beautiful.  I was just wondering last night why no one has ventured a color analysis of the paleolithic cave paintings in Europe.

A dichromatic perspective might provide insights into these images, especially considering that some intoxicants can induce such perception, with the black-yellow palette of tobacco shamanism being a perfect example (but one that is limited to the Americas, where the tobacco plant originates).

As for Jerram’s comments about scientific specialization and the ways in which a scientifically constructed world can be limiting or artificial, his words have the translucent aroma of truth about them.

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