There are three different kinds of eye movements according to psychologists. They are described as vergence, saccadic and pursuit movements. Vergence movements involve the synchronisation of both eyes to allow for an image to fall on the same area of both retinas. This results in a single, focused image. Saccadic movements jump from one position to another and are used to rapidly scan a particular vista or image. Pursuit movement is smooth eye movement and reconciles the image, enabling the ability to follow objects in motion.
In early modernism, this perceptive travelling of the eye was understood to be an important element of the nascent linear and geometric abstractions of artists such as Piet Mondrian, whose strict form of rectilinear and perpendicular patterning produced a surface over which the eye was encouraged to travel, to find equilibrium and repose. A darting then resting of the eyes was also stimulated by Mondrian’s colour play between yellow, blue, red, black, white and grey, and between the thickness and thinness of lines, which urged the eye to dart and shift before settling. Mondrian’s apparently simple, still and non-representational surfaces were in fact busy with perceptual exercises.
Perception plays an important part in the works of Perth-born, Melbourne-based artist Stuart Ringholt – in particular, the activation of the study of perception as part of a kind of examination of gestalt psychology in relation to its interest in how the human mind apprehends and maintains meaningful totality in an apparently chaotic world. The ‘gestalt effect’, as it is known, is the capability of the brain to generate whole forms, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of comprehensive figures instead of just collections of simpler and unrelated elements such as points, lines and curves.
For Ringholt, this pursuit of balance and wholeness is both a theoretical and actual quest. It is one that demonstrates his interest in being a part of the canonical modernist project from early abstractions through semiotic surrealisms to the phenomenological projects of minimalism; and one that shows him searching for a state of wholeness and stability through self-organising principles and actions.
Ringholt has engaged in this research and pursuit for steadiness through performances that involve participants in surreal scenarios: in anger workshops, naked gallery tours, solo public actions, as well as in the creation of a number of confounding object sculptures and items that require the audience to investigate puns, conundrums, ovoid and phallic propositions, ‘Freudian slips’, semiotic puzzles and contradictory materiality – often with a scatological inference. The creation or embrace of embarrassment, humility, honesty and vulnerability are part of Ringholt’s modus operandi to keep chaos and uncertainty in play as a motivating impetus as he works towards the constant requirement to readjust and find equilibrium.
A classic project within Ringholt’s oeuvre, the incision, displacement, rotation collages titled Circle heads force the viewer to do a double-take. Using the simple procedure of replacing eyes, mouths and sometimes whole heads on reproductions of faces activates the vergence, saccadic and pursuit impulses that filter visual information – collages that levitate heavy things, dislodge others and transplant anatomies.
In his vitrine presentations, which create meaning by juxtaposition and accumulation, Ringholt displays icons of modernity, portraits of well-known figures and historical documents, and images that produce a kind of cryptic seizure, such as speed boats, the Twin Towers burning, books, words and ephemeral messaging from popular culture. Ringholt’s re-arrangements, while frequently dark in temperament, cross-examining the fallacy of the gestalt, nevertheless offer playful visual encounters that restore a kind of optimism to the act of looking. Ringholt’s inventions intensify the viewer’s engagement with received meaning through one of its most potent agents – photography – to interrogate its core concerns of facsimile and truth. Ringholt’s topsy-turvy world documents fact in flux, which seems to be a real truth.
Juliana Engberg is Senior Curator, Global Contemporary Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.