“After nearly five decades of picture-making, of gazing into the world with no camera at all, I still wonder what I have been looking for. What is the practice of seeing? How is it done and why? These are very large questions, wrapped in mystery and, I suspect, wrapped specially for each of us to find afresh from within our own solitude.” Michael Mideke, photographer, 2004
In a recent lecture, my friend, artist Bruce Aiken sat next to his peers Ed Mell and Shonto Begay and said (to paraphrase) “I don’t know why I can see things that other people can’t see. I don’t know if they could see them if they just tried.”
It’s a question I’ve been grappling with, in various forms, ever since college. I have longed for most passionately to be in the present moment, to really see things. Many people agree that being in the moment involves being ultra aware of our senses and our surroundings. I love being in the moment at the beautiful art exhibits and museums that I visit. But sometimes I’m disappointed with my attention span, and realize that I didn’t concentrate on something and couldn’t recall the picture at all.
“How is seeing done and why?” asks Mideke. Some people focus on the lights, the shapes and textures, or even the figures to be able to “see.” They have extensive color theory knowledge and can differentiate the hues and identify the saturation. I love color fields, and can get lost in them. But ultimately, for me seeing is really and truly activated when my other body systems are contributing to the process.
A great example of this happened over Christmas vacation when I saw “Our Lady of Sorrows” at the New Mexico History Museum. I had walked into the room of the exhibit “Painting the Divine”, and hadn’t noticed her, until I turned around and suddenly she was there. I gasped. My pupils dilated, blood rushed to my face. She caught me by surprise. Her wig was made from
real human hair, her face had real sorrow etched into the circles under her eyes. She made my head pound. I was so struck by her that I was a little intimidated and had to force myself to breathe slowly. I also had the urge, as I do sometimes, to touch the museum piece (which I would never do, what a faux pas!) and I could feel the textures in my imagination, as I rubbed her various components between my finger pads.
Perhaps you can see why I was so activated from the picture here on the left.
When I’m really looking, actually seeing something in a museum, as I did with Our Lady of Sorrows, I start to notice my heart-beat. I feel my body, notice how I’m inhabiting it. I gesture in a similar way as the figure, or as the movement of the art piece. Sometimes, if the piece is also emotionally moving, I feel a shiver down my back, or as if someone is gently pulling individual hair strands.
Whereas externally looking at art or beauty in the natural world inspires me to go inward, reading (an internal activity) inspires me to look outward. I’ll stop between fantastic sentences and I’ll look around at my scenery. When Jane Eyre said “I had heard it–where or whence, for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being–a known, loved, well-remember voice–that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe wildly, eerily, urgently,” I had to physically look around my present surroundings for the voice. I remember Colorado mountains and plains that accented these words and their strange metaphysical meanings. Jane Eyre’s words needed my landscape to be heard by me. The inner needed the outer to be seen.
When we see something, by reading words on a page, or by witnessing beauty in paintings, nature, or through humans, we want to integrate our images. We don’t want to look without registering. We want their meanings to sink in. We need comparison, a contrast of the body’s reactions, or the outer world to become the analogy to the stories we have just read. We need a connection to something tangible. The known, whether it is corporal or contextual, helps us to recognize the unknown. My physical world helps bring meaning to what I see. When I am paying attention to myself or my surroundings, I am able to listen to words and see meaning in pictures.
As for why I want to see, it’s only because I want to be as alive as possible.