Synonymous for illusion and scientific unreliability, visual perception has always been cause for reflection and philosophical debate.
Pliny tells of a competition between the masters Zeuxis and Parrhasius during which the former painted a still life that seemed so real that a flock of birds started pecking it in order to eat it. The latter painted a tromp l’oeil curtain and convinced his rival that one of his paintings laid behind it. From its very dawn, western culture has tried to create a clear distinction between sensory perception and reason, giving the former a lower status. In the classical world, painting and sculpture – which required manual skills – were considered mechanical arts. Held in very different regard were grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, also known as the liberal arts because they were the only arts worthy of being studied and practiced by free men.
Unlike the creation of images, the arts that involved numbers and words were considered a higher expression of the human intellect and therefore worthy of each having their own muse. In Plato’s Republic, he recommends that the education of heroes should include the study of music, a discipline that allows humans to study both the mathematical and the harmonious order of the cosmos. Painting was treated with skepticism and caution because it was based on illusory images. Parmenides maintained that reason should strive to correct sensory perception in order to establish truth. Socrates spoke of the dangers involved in trusting one’s senses. Although the sensist philosophers maintained that the intellect could only understand things if first perceived by the senses, it was established that reason and perception were antagonists. Aristotle was the first to introduce the concept of induction, or abstract reasoning based on the collection of sensory information. From that moment on, such perception was slowly rehabilitated , although only as a process necessary for the demonstration of abstract theories – it was still considered inferior. This premise gave birth to modern science. Today, however, new technologies that allow reality to be altered and deformed have brought to light and, in many cases, reinforced ancient skepticism with regard to visual perception.
Right from the start, Stefania Galegati has explored the problems and countless possibilities intrinsic to human perceptual processes. Piano and untitled (1995) represent the debut of this artistic research, where the artist adopts the simple expedient of camouflage to insert her image into the keyboard of a piano or between the goal posts of a soccer field. In her subsequent works, this search becomes increasingly refined, involving sculptures, installations and performances. The artist begins to add »expedients» typical of mechanical and electronic devices to biological mechanisms typical of visual perception. In Sigh (1996) and Splat (1998) for example, the 180’ view typical of a fish-eye lens was translated into three-dimensional objects like a chair or a bunk bed. When looking at these sculptures, our eyes recognize the characteristically deformed image produced by a fish-eye lens, but are forced to translate it on a three-dimensional level.
A similar perceptual transposition takes place in the photo- graphs of the Rewind series (1997-2000), where the still image of a video being rewound was recreated in a space, then photographed. By inverting the initial process that gave rise to the image, the artist begins her work on a perceptual two-dimensional plane (the still image), passing to a three-dimensional place (the installation) to return to a two-dimensional plane (the photograph). In Fate Silenzio (Be Quiet, 1998), a room containing a number of objects commonly found in the kitchen has been painted entirely in shades of gray. The final result is that of a black and white photo or television image. The title is an invitation to pay a maximum attention to the work and evokes a domestic scene where those present have been ordered not to talk because someone is watching television.
In her works, Galegati makes use of artificial perceptual forms that are human invention: photography, cinema, television, and video. All are tools that have introduced new ways of looking at the world. Today our gaze has been e televisionized – we are capable of recognizing and distinguishing between numerous technological visual effects. Stefania Galegati’s works are the aesthetic manifestation of this process.
Our senses have evolved because they are biological instruments used for survival. Visual perception plays a key role in this process, not just by registering external stimuli, but also by proceeding in a far more selective manner through abstraction. The retina selects and processes information through a screening process; this data is then divided into categories like colors, shapes, dimensions and distances. Moreover, the visual field tends not to be organized in a homogeneous horizontal manner, but according to a hierarchical system.
This aspect is fairly apparent as far as shape perception is concerned. The eye initially registers the dominant shape in terms of dimension, repeating the process down to the smallest shape.’ This principle is overturned in an installation (untitled, 1999) in which Galegati inverts the conventional manner of perceiving an object. An entrance is placed at the end of a corridor, in which stands a man who is four and one-half feet tall. Closer to the viewer stands another man who is over six feet tall. In this way the artist pushes to the extreme the deformation normally provoked by the illusion of perspective. Our mind, which tends to group together similar, repetitive information, notices a perceptual anomaly and tries to correct it. During this process viewers at first find themselves doubting and reconsidering their own visual capacities. Only later do they try to apply a different reasoning.
Yet again the artist is testing our perceptions, forcing us to abandon preconceived conventions. By analyzing the psychology of perception, Galegati applies one of the fundamental principles of art. She forces us to assume another point of view by disproving and challenging the conventions that we so often take for granted. Her works are a constant reminder that things are never what they seem, and that sometimes they are not even what we would like them to be. In a famous scene where Groucho Marx is caught red-handed, he asks the person who saw him: Who do you o believe, me or your eyes? In front of Stefania Galegati’s works we are inclined to ask ourselves the same question.
1. For more information on this subject see: Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, 1969, re-ed. 1999, Uniu. of California Press, Berkeley.