Reply To: The Experience of Art

  • Christina Florkowski

    June 23, 2023 at 2:55 am

    Back to the topic. A number of years ago, Lawrence Weschler wrote a book based on his conversations with the artist Robert Irwin titled, “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.” In the chapter ‘Art and Science,’ Irwin is invited to work with Ed Wortz, who at the time was head of the lab working on environmental control systems for NASA’s manned space flights at the Garret Aerospace Corporation. For the sake of brevity, I must pass over the circumstances that brought them and the artist James Turrell together to study perception in an anechoic chamber at UCLA, but that is what Irwin is speaking about in this excerpt.

    “After I’d sat in there for six hours, for instance, and then got up and walked back home down the same street I’d come in on, the trees were still trees and the street was still a street, and the houses were still house, but the world did not look the same; it was very, very noticeably altered.”


    “We’d speculated that the difference came from one’s having been isolated in total deprivation of audio or visual input. For one thing, what happened is that these two senses changed their thresholds. In other words, there is a certain way you look and see and listen every day, but when you are suddenly cut off from the world of sight and sound for six or eight hours and then return to it, there occurs a change in the acuity of the mechanism. In addition, there may be a shift in sense dependence. That is, when you’re in a space having no visual or audio input, which are the two primary senses, you tend to begin to take in more information through the other senses. You start spending more time making a tactile read, building your world in that black, soundless space with information from those other senses, so that when you come out, that shift simply persists for a while, it continues to be honored, and you take in different degrees of information. And we all know that the complexity out there is…we might as well say infinite…”


    “For a few hours after you came out,” Irwin continues, “you really did become more energy conscious, not just that leaves move, but that everything has an aura, that nothing is wholly static, that color itself emanates a kind of energy. You noted each individual leaf, each individual tree. You picked up things which you normally blocked out. I think what happens is that in our ordinary lives, we move through the world with a strong expectation-fit ratio which we use as much to block out information as to gather it in – and for good reason, most of the time; we block out information that is not critical to our activity. Otherwise we might well be immobilized. But after a while, you know, you do that repeatedly day after day after day, and the world begins to take on a fairly uniform look. So that what the anechoic chamber was helping us to see was the extreme complexity and richness of our sense mechanism and how little of it we use most of the time. We edit from it severely, in time to see only what we expect to see. “