Lucida by Piers Masterson

On 08/03/2017 by Marianna Tsionki

In one brief instant a close up image of a human eye shows the pupil the small dark hole at the middle of the hued iris resolved as a black disk or sphere as a line of white light passes across it. To the upper left of this void there is a fleeting flash as diamond shaped prism of light reflects off the glassy surface of the eye. The scene then shifts to an empty chamber devoid of light. Gradually lines of light emitted from the edges of doors and windows arc around the room tracing out the details of the interior. At the same time spectral images of the details of the space outside the room such as road signs are projected on to the office walls. Gradually a sense of location and our place in the world begins to cohere.

In Lucida Suki Chan continues her exploration of perception through the cinematic technique of time lapse photography. As the artist writes:

Time lapse filming has taught me that everything changes, even when we stand still, lock off the camera and focus on a static object: the scene changes because light is constantly moving as the earth revolves around the sun.

This cosmological symbolism can be found in Lucida with that burst of light appearing from the pupil recalling the moment of the ‘diamond ring effect’ in a total solar eclipse when the Moon moves away. Observation of the May 1919 solar eclipse provided the the first proof of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity establishing him as a global celebrity. The 1919 observation also provided the basis for gravity lensing, a technique that has expanded astronomy and the extent of the observable Universe. This interplay between senses of scale from the personal to universal is explored by Suki Chan in her previous piece Still Point (2012), where we are transfixed as her gaze takes in the holy sites of Jerusalem, a city that in the European medieval world view was the ‘universal meridian’, the centre of the cosmos. One Still Point section in particular prefigured Lucida when a square of light from a window in an abandoned house in the Golan Heights tracks around the empty room before – in an extraordinary moment of harmonious alignment – it frames the open window through which the contested landscape outside can be seen.

Photography was essential to the 1919 observations, emphasising how new visual techniques and mechanisms had become central to the understanding of Einstein’s Universe. In making Lucida Suki Chan has collaborated with Moorfields Eye Hospital, using their scanning instruments designed for mapping the structures at the back of the eye. Chan has observed the similarities of these structures to pictures of the night sky. The finer detail provided by the scanners of the eye’s imaging mechanism has led Chan to further exploration of the processes by which the brain uses attention to edit the raw sensory perception it receives to create ‘sight’. The Camera Obscuras in Lucida provide a metaphor for this process, by reducing the amount of information to a few images, the viewer has to work harder to piece together the available data to understand what they are seeing.

Through Chan’s dialogue with the neurobiologist Sir Colin Blakemore, Lucida begins to tantalisingly explore what visual data the brain – through its learned process of attentiveness – chooses to omit. Blakemore’s research focuses on how people who have lost part of their brain function are able to develop new neural functions to ‘work around’ the defect, in the same way that the brain routinely compensates for the eye’s physical blind spot. Chan’s time lapse camera takes in more data than the eye on first viewing will pay attention to. It is only by a process of close attention that the viewer will be able to assemble from the different sources, that one of the Camera Obscura rooms in Lucida is the laboratory of Colin Blakemore. The theme of attention and how the psychology of sight historically has been changed by new technology and mediated by visual art, is explored by Jonathan Crary who places Manet’s In the Conservatory (1879) in the context of the proliferation of new visual mediums in the 1870s and the development of scientific and political theories. Crary by linking Manet’s painting with the contemporary publication in Paris of Muybridge’s Horse in Motion marks a historical moment where the emergence of an entirely new medium creates a shift in attention in visual art as a ‘guarantee of certain perceptual norms and as synthetic, centripetal force holding together a “real world” against various kinds of sensory or cognitive breakdown’.[1]

Lucida with its depiction of the constantly moving eye asserts that seeing is a dynamic process informed as much by biological limitations and neurological conditions as cultural expectations. Chan’s Camera Obscuras show that within the set confinement of the sealed room and a singular fixed point for the entry of light, the gaze of her camera creates sublime moments. The viewer only needs to pay more attention.


Piers Masterson is a writer, curator and lecturer based in London, UK.
[1] Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1999), p. 91. Crary continues in the same chapter to discuss another visual technology innovation the Kaiserpanorama that predicts that fashion for contemporary immersive ‘virtual realities’ catering to a single spectator.

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