seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees

The first time I encountered Robert Irwin’s work was when I went to Dia:Beacon a few years back. The installation, Excursus, Homage to the Square is a perfect example of the kind of non-hierarchical experience Irwin had been pursuing for years.

In his conversation with Olafur Eliasson in 2007, Irwin talks about the Dia installation:

“You could enter the piece from any point; there was no beginning, middle, or end. At every point you had a minimum of eight choices to make, but there was no hierarchy in those choices. And when you left, you found the necessity to go back to it again, because it didn’t have handles on it.”

Eliasson then added:

“It was also nonhierarchical in terms of time. One of the reasons I went back was that not one moment seemed more important than another, which for an artistically organized experience is very unusual.”

Getting rid of hierarchy flattens space and time, making the space within the installation otherworldly and infinite.

Recalled in the book seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, a quote from William Blake, as found in James Turrell’s notes from the LACMA collaboration with Irwin, can be used to explain how Irwin managed to create this sense of infinity in his work:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Throughout his career, Irwin has been exploring, tirelessly, ways to get rid of the confinement of perception, to allow people to ask questions about what they perceive instead of jumping to conclusions of what they have seen.

The curved canvas from his dot painting period was a seemingly simple gesture of ballooning the center of the canvas by less than 2 inches. The purpose was to undermine the edges of the canvas ever so slightly that the viewer’s perception could be subtly changed. In a sense, Irwin was creating an illusion of a fading canvas that was meant to be experienced, not looked at or analyzed.

Led by the question “how do I paint a painting that doesn’t begin or end at the edge”, Irwin moved on to the discs. Despite his effort in creating an experience purely about perception, his viewers couldn’t help but put symbolism into the picture. “The most consistent and widespread of these translations was a Jungian conceit that the discs were in fact mandalas, and Irwin had a hard time dissuading such translators.” I find this kind of reaction to Irwin’s disc very interesting. We as human beings have the tendency to find patterns and meanings in everything. And Irwin was trying to persuade us out of seeking meanings and into experiencing. Though I don’t think there is definite right or wrong in either approach, Irwin’s effort in ridding people’s perception of preexisting conclusions is itself extremely valuable.

In seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees, we get to see Irwin’s progression as an artist. Though he transitioned from a painter to an installation artist, his motivation stayed consistent. As said in the book, Irwin’s “aesthetic progression was animated by experiential rather than intellectual concerns.” He is always propelled by questions, not answers. He operates on the intuitive side of the spectrum rather than the intellectual. And he is always pushing the limits of experience and perception.



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