Friday, 15 January 2010

Ganzfelds, Śūnyatā and the Restless Eye

Captivating, entrancing and engaging, the tactile and visceral experiences of Anish Kapoor’s last exhibition at the RA, wonderfully explore and investigate self reflexive optical effects and immersive surfaces, tools that were perhaps once common place in Architectural lexicon. Upon entering the exhibit we are immediately confronted by one of Kapoor’s signature elliptical voids fabricated from an impressive weight of Coreten steel. The surrounding material around the vagina like opening fills our entire peripheral vision convincing us that it is a giant solid volume penetrated by a sensuous hole. As we begin to circumambulate the structure expecting it to occupy the entire room we realise the illusion created by filling our peripheral vision; the solid volume reveals itself as a thin facade and we see the solidity of the void. This is a great example of an architectural Ganzfeld effect.
The Ganzfeld, German for entire field, is more commonly associated with parapsychology experiments where test subjects experience homogeneous and un patterned sensory stimulation to produce effects similar to sensory deprivation. The lack of discernible sensory input is conducive to internal imagery is comparable to the technique of ‘Scrying’ (which appears in many traditions in various forms) where smooth, polished, translucent and reflective surfaces are used to facilitate visions believed to be from a God, Spirit or divine realm.
Kapoor’s sculptures echo and use this very tool of homogenous and un patterned sensory stimulation to produce art works that encourage states of ‘inwardness’ that feel somewhat surreal and other worldly or Spiritual.

His giant reflective blobs and mirrors certainly produce this effect and are some of the most engaging and entertaining pieces in the exhibit. Kapoor describes the effect of the highly polished reflective concave and convex surfaces as seeming to ‘reverse, affirm and negate’ the space and view. The objects have a threshold and a presence that one enters into and the slightest movement of you head and body, i.e. your perceptual position, creates a dynamic and fluid reflection that is totally absorbing.
But Kapor is not the first to use these optical techniques on such a scale. The ‘Architectural Ganzfeld’, has been around for millennia, and has often sought the most intensive craftsmanship and production techniques for its execution. The first that springs to mind is the hypnotic geometric patterns found in the fractal mosques of the middle east.
Here intricate Islamic geometry is used over such a large architectural scale that the individual detail and intense pattern is lost until close examination and an engulfing, homogenous surface that the eye can’t quite settle on is created. The shimmering fluctuating effect produces responses akin to the ‘inward projections’ of the Ganzfeld and it is clear to see why such an architectural tool would be used in a place of worship.
Kapoor’s work also combines other optical effects to create these giant immersive fields. One of his most refined techniques is the use of pure colour and pigment to create surfaces with immense spatial and expansive qualities. The perceived depth in the colour of Kapoor’s work reminds me of the depth of colour techniques employed by the Tibetan monks in their Shrine rooms.

Śūnyatā, in Mahayana traditions of Buddhism literally means ‘emptiness’ and refers to the insight that arises from realising the impermanent nature of all form. The concept of formlessness, impermanence and emptiness often manifests itself in the processes used to create Buddhist vernacular buildings. Woodwork panels, walls of shrine rooms as well as traditional Thangka paintings often go through a laborious process of colour application that is symbolic of Śūnyatā and has effects akin to pigment works of Kapoor. Bright colour, made from pigment collected from natural materials and stones is mixed with egg yolk and painstakingly applied on to surfaces in extremely thin layers. Often a complimentary colour such as green, is first applied to a surface that will eventually be red. The layers of colour are built up slowly, sometimes between 50 – 100 layers, and result in a colour so intense the eye can not rest on the surface and an incredible perceived depth occurs. In Thangka paintings Buddhas and deities appear to have shimmering auras, when used in the architectural scale - rooms appear to subtlety pulsate with colour and the walls seem less solid and more ephemeral.