Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art

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Mark Dion, installation view of Neukom Vivarium, 2006. Photo by Vmenkov

The art critic Ben Davis recently described the artist curated works at the 33 Bienal de Sao Paulo (components of an exhibition curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro) as “eschewing spectacle in favor of a much more contemplative” experience, which is focused on using works of art to develop the viewer’s attention span (Davis, 2018). Davis stated:

“today’s endless slurry of bad news mixed with frenetic entertainment—which is replicated in the intellectual, optical and spatial overload of a lot of international art shows—tends to render the mind frantic. It paralyzes extended analysis by the same measure that it overpowers any more-than-superficial aesthetic experience. And so, art’s use as a space to train attention may be less superfluous than it seems, and worth salvaging.” (ibid, 2018)

In Pérez-Barreiro’s exhibition titled Affective Affinities, comprehensive scrutiny and deeply reflective assessments take priority over aesthetic convergence and art for art’s sake. Pérez-Barreiro selected seven artist/curators to curate ‘mini-exhibitions’ that feature their own work along with work by other artists of their choice. This open ended concept allows for significant affinities to be realized among a group of diverse modern and contemporary artists (and the inventor of Kindergarten, Friedrich Fröbel!).

Affective Affinities (on view through December 9, 2018), offers a respite to the banal, superfluous, abject, depressing and perverse headlines currently dominating Brazil’s cultural landscape. While art alone cannot solve all of society’s problems, taking time to look at and engage with artwork helps us to become better focused, make qualitative relationships and judgements (Eisner, 2002) and be more in-tune with our critical thinking skills. Because of these aforementioned benefits, art makes us more attentive to the complexities of a world in flux and therefore enables us to make adjustments to life’s challenges by crafting innovative solutions in collaboration with other disciplines.

Spectacle is all around us. We have access to vast amounts of information at our fingertips, however, the amount of misinformation and sensationalized media we are collectively subjected to is at an all time high. Too often, our obsession with spectacle translates to moments in culture where entertainment or scandal overshadows the potential teachable moments and reflective outcomes that works of art can provide. Modern Museums (such as Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1677 and the Louvre Museum in Paris, founded in 1793) opened as public spaces where people of all social and economic statuses could go to learn about objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.  Some contemporary museums seem to have lost sight of this democratic ideology and have become sites of divisive controversy and exhibitions for entertainments sake. Instead of focusing on blockbuster exhibitions, or populist exhibitions, today’s museums should be designing shows that make viewing art relevant to the lives of the viewers and the diverse communities where the museums are located. Artworks and their curatorial incorporation into exhibitions should be culturally appropriate, serve an educational purpose, and all the while, their inclusion should remain open-ended enough to account for inquiry based viewing and mindful enduring understandings on the part of the gallery goer. In other words, artworks in museum exhibitions should hold our attention and inspire us to learn more about the content after we leave the museum.

One of the many important ‘Habits of Mind’ that art offers us is the ability to pay close attention to details or ‘noticing deeply.’ Most artists scrutinize each and every aspect of a work of art during the creative process. Whether they are drawing sketches for a painting or writing a proposal for a large-scale public art commission, artists meticulously plan, revise and consider many different facets and perspectives before their work is presented to the discerning public. Paying close attention to details continues to be an important aspect during the presentation of a work of art in the form of critiques by fellow artists, curators, art critics and anyone else who finds themselves standing in front of the artwork. In fact, the Feldman Method for Art Criticism requires the critic to spend a great deal of time with a work of art in order to truly engage with its stylistic and symbolic elements. Multiple viewings are typically required to fully describe, analyze, interpret and make judgements about an artwork.

Art education teaches us to pay close attention and to become adept ‘part to whole’ and ‘whole to part’ thinkers. A mastery of inductive (part to whole) and deductive (whole to part) reasoning is necessary to our participation in daily life. Mastery of anything requires education and experience. Similar to other areas of growth such as speech and movement, we develop artistically through “phases.” That is to say that a child’s (or older beginner’s) understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time with experience and education. A good framework for assessing artistic development is the ‘multi-dimensional model’ of artistic development, suggested by Linda Louis (2013). This model acknowledges a key fundamental element of artistic development, which is that exploration leads to discovery, which leads to insight. An earlier philosophy regarding artistic development came from Viktor Lowenfeld, who was a pioneering theorist on the way children’s art progressed through what he called “stages.” While his model of artistic development inspired the contemporary multi-dimensional model, the multi-dimensional model provided by Linda Louis is more apt because it recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages and can be both phase one and phase two (or three and four and so on) learners at the same time…The six phases of artistic development are: 

  1. Explorers/Discoverers
  2. Deliberators/Planners
  3. Communicators
  4. Inventors
  5. Illusionists
  6. Expressers

In the multidimensional model of artistic development (Louis, 2013), young artists develop as inductive thinkers around phase number two (Deliberators/Planners). They create imagery and symbolic meaning by piecing together parts to form a whole. This is why you’ll generally observe them creating a figure that is depicted in multiple parts (separate shapes for each body part and confined shapes) rather than render a whole interconnected image. Additionally, Deliberators/Planners are becoming quite observant of their environment, therefore, attention to details are given significance within their artwork (skin tones, facial features, accessories, etc). As the child moves from phase two into phase three, they begin to think deductively, while shifting to inductive thinking as needed. The most important element in their work is their desire to be understood as a communicator of information and therefore, they focus on image making using conventions that serve depiction.

As the child receives more artistic education and experience, they become meaningfully expressive, which means that they feel their art must say something significant. In other words, both the thematic concept and aesthetic experience informs their artwork. They consider their work to be a fluid body (series, period, style), which takes the viewer’s experience and perception into account. In fact, they are able to view their own work through a critical and reflective lens. They’re interested in a cultural discourse, which includes the art world (the history of art, as well as the current visual culture). Often times, they’ll appropriate works of art or iconography from visual culture to make a statement related to their experience within the cultural landscape. It is more important than ever to qualify this phase with prior artistic learning (throughout each phase, students are building skills and exploring materials in a developmentally appropriate manner), so that the students can utilize their combined artistic experience to create personally meaningful work. 

Professional artists seamlessly fuse inductive and deductive thinking in the planning, communicating, inventing and expressing of their artwork. Making art is a multi-disciplinary process, which starts with a ‘big idea’ (a.k.a an inspiration, framework, theory or thematic focus) and continues with essential questions, within which the artist must reflect the most important issues, problems and debates related to their big idea. After the artist poses significant questions and gains insight on themes that they want their work to address, they embark upon realizing the aesthetic and expressive strategies they will use to communicate these issues.

In educational settings, the ‘big idea’ directs the information and concepts that are included in a curriculum. It is followed by essential questions, which are open-ended, exploratory and allow for student-centered inquiry. Finally, enduring understandings are what makes the big ideas and essential questions relevant in the lives of each student.

Both professional artists and professional educators have to hone in on the necessary details that are imperative to successfully express big ideas, essential questions and enduring understandings to a diverse group of individuals. A successful work of art should have relevance and capture the attention of its viewers, while a successful curriculum should be relevant and engaging to students. This is why Ben Davis argues that utilizing art to train our attention can be a good thing. While all forms of art can be beneficial in strengthening our attention span, there are some artists whose work especially requires a high level of attention. Two of these contemporary artists are Mark Dion and Alisha Wessler.

Mark Dion’s work is the epitome of multi-disciplinary art-centered inquiry. Dion’s practice blurs the boundaries between art and science in an effort to explore the objective and subjective nature of our natural environment and human psyche. This is the case with his most renowned work of art titled Neukom Vivarium (2006). At first glance, a viewer will recognize this work as a fallen tree, covered in moss and other plants. Some might recognize the 80 foot tree as a Western hemlock, which is a native species on the West Coast of the United States. It is Dion’s intention for the viewer to inquire about the significant meaning of installing a giant tree at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington. Dion acknowledged this to be true when he stated:

“I think that one of the important things about this work is that it’s really not an intensely positive, back-to-nature kind of experience. In some ways, this project is an abomination. We’re taking a tree that is an ecosystem—a dead tree, but a living system—and we are re-contextualizing it and taking it to another site. We’re putting it in a sort of Sleeping Beauty coffin, a greenhouse we’re building around it. And we’re pumping it up with a life support system—an incredibly complex system of air, humidity, water and soil enhancement—to keep it going. All those things are substituting what nature does, emphasizing how, once that’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult, expensive and technological to approximate that system—to take this tree and to build the next generation of forests on it. So, this piece is in some way perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system, it’s virtually impossible to get it back. In a sense, we’re building a failure.” (See: https://art21.org/read/mark-dion-neukom-vivarium/)

Apart from the overarching big idea of humanity’s impact on the environment, Dion wants us to pay close attention to the details that are not so obvious, such as the smallest elements of an ecosystem. These facets such as lichen, small insects and microscopic bacteria, are often harder to discern via the naked eye, and are largely overlooked when gazing at the gargantuan specimen of Tsuga heterophylla. While the hemlock tree’s life came to an end, new life has formed and continues to grow on and around the fallen tree, albeit due to human interaction such as climate control in the form of the artist built greenhouse enclosing the tree, essentially keeping the complex ecosystem alive on life support. One essential question in Neukom Vivarium is “what makes up an ecosystem?” Dion’s answer to the essential question of “what makes up an ecosystem?” is revealed by providing visitors with magnifying glasses and illustrated field guides featuring the organisms that the viewer is likely to see while gazing at the tree through the lens of the magnifying glass. This is where an attention to details formulate significant meaning within the work of art. Dion engages us to explore and spend quality time with the thriving yet delicate ecosystem that he has preserved. We alternate between our magnifying glasses and our field guides and our attention becomes focused on identifying and observing the various specimens of animal and plant life. We can see the complex communities of insects, lichen and bacteria living as if they were in their natural habitat. Our attention span is held steadfast by the wonders of the natural environment. Perhaps, during the elongated moment of careful and astute observation, we forget that we’re inside a human made environment and that everything we’re looking at would cease to live if removed from its life support. However, the moment we step back and put down our magnifying glasses, our awareness of the tragic situation comes to light.

If we had not experienced this installation and we were just walking past a dead tree in the forest, would we consider the possibility that there is an abundance of life within the confines of this tree? If we didn’t take the time to scrutinize the tree’s nooks and crannies, we’d likely miss out on the thriving life within the fallen tree. And while it may seem like there is an abundance of other trees surrounding this deceased tree, would we realize that this complex ecosystem, which nature incredibly maintains, is in danger of vanishing before our very eyes due to our civilization’s polluting of the elements (air, water, humidity and soil) that are needed to sustain all natural life on Earth? The enduring understanding in Dion’s installation is that life cannot sustain itself without the basic elements, which include healthy air, humidity, water and soil. Once these elements are gone or negatively altered, it will be nearly impossible to get them back. Dion’s work raises our consciousness and awareness about nature’s intricacies and how fragile our natural resources truly are in our hands.

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Alisha Wessler, detail of From Afar It Is An Island (Case 1), 2013,
aqua resin, pigment, cardboard, sodium chloride, wax, clay, fabric, thread, wood, bone, fur, leather, citrus peels, petrified carrot, bird feet, dried kelp, milkweed seed pod, modeling material, foam, glassine envelopes, polystyrene, tissue paper, found hardware, insect pins, iron and wood stands, museum vitrines. Courtesy of the artist.

Another artist whose work requires an elongated attention span is Alisha Wessler. Things are not always what they seem in her intricate constructs, which blur the lines between reality and fantasy, biology and cryptozoology and fossil and artifact. In order to take in Wessler’s highly detailed work, a viewer needs to exercise a great deal of scrutiny.  For example, Objects and their Doubles (2017) presents tactile objects –such as aqua resin, a plastic umbrella handle, metal rod, wood, flattened pinecone, polymer clay, iron hook, rope, embroidered thread, dental mold, rusted wire, rock, water caltrop (devil pod), leather glove, leather glove tip, steel rod, cholla cactus skeleton, milkweed seedpod, human hair, pigment, dried plant, paper, methyl cellulose, fishing net, fabric and thread– juxtaposed with the artist’s technical rendering of that same object in watercolor and ink. Similarly to the work of Joseph Kosuth, Wessler employs visual tautology, where representational objects appear the same but are manifested through different materials. At first glance, the eye is tricked into thinking that these materials are not what they seem.

Wessler is very skilled at manipulating materials to make graphite look like lace (Pictures on Surrounding Objects, 2013), and objects like citrus peels, petrified carrots, birds feet, dried kelp and milkweed seed pods, to resemble ancient relics that could have likely been uncovered during an archeological dig (From Afar It Is An Island [Case I], 2013). If you casually walk by the pedestal or display cases containing her work, you’re likely to miss the hidden properties and characteristics latent within these seemingly inscrutable works of art. If a viewer pays careful attention to all the fine nuances, akin to the way a keen archeologist studies arcane antiquities, they will come to the realization that these ‘artifacts’ are in fact, ordinary objects imbued with novel taxonomies.

Wessler’s artistic process is also very detail and time oriented. In order to manipulate everyday objects into astonishing hybrids, she utilizes an alchemy-like art methodology where materials are ‘cured’ and chemically transformed through dehydration or crystallization (to name a few of the experimental processes Wessler employs), after which they’re further manipulated by more traditional artistic actions like painting, sculpting (additive and reductive) and sewing. Wessler’s big idea is that ordinary objects have extraordinary underlying qualities. Her essential questions include “how can I fuse two opposing elements together to create new and mysterious hybrids?” and “how can materials be manipulated in uncanny ways to express indeterminate dualities?” The enduring understandings are that things are not always what they seem and that artists can create symbolic new meanings and perspectives through an experimental transformation and repurposing of materials.

Throughout the course of this blog, the various benefits of creating art and learning through art have been explored. The multi-dimensional phases of artistic development (mentioned earlier in this post) illustrates how explorations in creating art lead to discoveries and insights, which enable highly significant and personal modes of expression. Because artists always seek big ideas, ask essential questions and synthesize important ideas and core processes (enduing understandings), creating art makes us life-long learners inside and outside of the classroom or art studio. From the cited examples of artworks by Dion and Wessler, it is evident that viewing art is also largely beneficial to our lives. Studies have shown that spending ample time identifying and articulating the intricate layers and details within works of art improves our cognition, our ability to think critically and our emotional well-being. In an age of 24 hour news cycles and constant burlesque distractions, the benefits of creating, presenting, viewing and responding to art are seriously needed.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. “What will art galleries look like in the future?” The Australian, 15 April 2016, https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/2c030-whatwillartgallerieslooklikeinthefuture.pdf.

Davis, Ben. “The Bienal de Sao Paulo Makes a Bold Attempt to Change the Way We Look at Art. Can It Work?” Artnet, 17 Sept. 2018, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/33rd-bienal-de-sao-paulo-1347956.

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761.

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