Hands that See and Eyes that Touch


Belkis Ayón, collograph (detail,) from the show, NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, at El Museo Barrio, New York

We live in an ocularcentric culture, one that gives sight precedence over all over sensory stimuli. In one of my all time favorite books, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Juhani Pallasma writes about the sensory deprivation that results from the proclivity to rely primarily on foveal vision—focusing on what is right in front of you, in the line of sight.

When that becomes the cultural norm, it is easy to see where we over rotate. It leads to a biased take on the world, one that underutilizes the rest of the human perceptual apparatus. In addition to the other senses of taste, touch, smell and sound, we possess valuable perceptual tools such as peripheral vision, memory, shift in focus, imagination, inter alia. In the words of Goethe, the hands want to see, the eyes want to caress.

Pallasma, an architect as well as a philosopher, states that “focused vision confronts us with the world whereas peripheral vision envelops us in the flesh of the world.” Because of that distinction, he suggests we reconsider what the essence of sight actually is.

From Eyes of the Skin:

A forest context, and richly moulded architectural space, provide ample stimuli for peripheral vision, and these settings centre us in the very space. The preconscious perceptual realm, which is experienced outside the sphere of focused vision, seems to be just as important existentially as the focused image. In fact, there is medical evidence that peripheral vision has a higher priority in our perceptual and mental system.
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These observations suggest that one of the reasons why the architectural and urban settings of our time tend to make us feel like outsiders, in comparison with the forceful emotional engagement of natural and historical settings, is their poverty in the field of peripheral vision…Peripheral vision integrates us with space, while focused vision pushes us out of the space, making us mere spectators.

What lies outside the zone of focused vision is a primary theme for me, and I have addressed that marginality many times during these 11 years of writing on Slow Muse. My previous post, The Just Out of View, focuses on the invisible rather than the peripheral. But the unseen and the peripheral are of a type:

So much in us is unseen. These just out of view elements are the esoteric and yet essential building materials that we cannot see, but we cannot create without them. For artists who work in the mystery and magic of emergence, the just out of view is a welcome indicator of pending arrival.

This is also a topic that comes up a lot in my conversations with artist friends, especially those who are “peripheralists” like me. One of my favorites, verbally and visually, is Karen Fitzgerald. In discussing two exhibits we are both amazed by—one at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice entitled Intuition curated by Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti, and the Belkis Ayón show at El Museo Barrio in New York—Karen had this to say:

I think what Vervoordt is talking about, is making exhibitions about, is peripheral seeing. Not just physical peripheral seeing—but a unified, perceptual peripheral seeing. That is what intuition is. When we tune in to intuition, we are using a kind of spiritual/holistic/metaphysical peripheral thinking/seeing/understanding. And like peripheral seeing, as soon as you attempt to bring it into focus, POOF. It vanishes. Like an electromagnetic particle becoming a wave and then switcher-ooing back to a particle. Like Belkis Ayón’s work skating along on the Nkame content (peripheral seeing) but actually articulating (foveal seeing) conundrums of the human condition. The metaphors become so clear that the Nkame content ceases to exert any significant interruption in interpretation. Because of the seamless shift within her visual language, she is able to reach a higher plane of communication. And that is exactly what our intuition is urging us toward: a higher plane. We each must figure out what that higher plane of function is—what actions we need to take to put ourselves there.

What are we are seeking? That which is invisible and beyond visuality altogether? The just out of view? The world that lives in the periphery? The domain of knowing that comes in through other means (hands that see?)

I’d say e) All of the above.

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