The Right to Ambiguity

With Unlearning Optical Illusions at Trondheim Kunstmuseum, Toril Johannessen shows how art’s claim to ambiguity can open up a space of aesthetic transcendence.

Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions, installation view from Trondheim kunstmuseum. Photo: Anders Solberg.
Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions, installation view, Trondheim kunstmuseum 2016. Photo: Anders Solberg.

What does it mean to unlearn? It requires a certain effort and an even stronger persistence to discard common knowledge and break with patterns that have become all too familiar to us. The assumption that what we see with our own eyes provides some kind of evidence of what is, objectively speaking, represents one such familiar pattern.

In what is promoted as her first museum show, Unlearning Optical Illusions, housed in the Gråmølna section of Trondheim Kunstmuseum, Toril Johannessen has made a truly astonishing attempt to bring two discourses together that would normally pull away from one another: science and colonialism. Using allegedly authentic West African wax printing technology, she has produced more than five kilometres of cloth displaying optical illusions that were scientifically classified in the course of the 19th century.

The lineages of science and colonialism seem rather odd and uneven to us, but only from today’s vantage point and most likely due to their merger under the banner of cognitive capitalism. If one were able to close one eye and try for a moment to unsee the catastrophes of the 20th century, the lines running up to the current state of techno-science and those resulting from the postcolonial condition might turn out as strikingly parallel.

Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions (I), Unlearning the Hermann grid Illusion, 2016, wallpaper, and Unlearning Optical Illusions (I), 12 spreads from the book Unseeing, 96 pages. Published by      Hordaland Art Centre as part of the series Dublett, editor: Eva Rem Hansen. Foto: Anders Solberg.
Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions (I), Unlearning the Hermann grid Illusion, 2016, wallpaper and Unlearning Optical Illusions (I), 12 spreads from the book Unseeing, 96 pages (published by Hordaland Art Centre as part of the series Dublett, editor: Eva Rem Hansen). Photo: Anders Solberg.

Unlearning Optical Illusions connects the different layers of a long-term project that started in 2013 with the artists’ book Unseeing. By using the artists’ book as a starting point rather than a conclusion of artistic research and production, Johannessen goes against the grain of what might be considered the default artistic process. In one chapter of the book she investigates the work of scientists who designed optical illusions, such as Ludimar Hermann, Franz Carl Müller-Lyer, Johann Christian Poggendorff, Ewald Hering and Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner. In Gramølna these pages of the book have been afforded their own room, but only in a footnote of the text does Johannessen mention the “combinations of two- and three-dimensional imagery” that is found in “a type of fabrics that has become very popular in West Africa”.

What probably appears in the eyes of most Europeans as the cliché of authentic traditional African cloth is actually the result of an industrialised mass production almost exclusively controlled by a company from the Netherlands. In the 1840s, Vlisco appropriated the knowledge of batik printing technology from the colonies in Java and started to mass produce the cloth, which up until today is still produced in the Netherlands, across West Africa in a large-scale project of commercial expansion. Women in Ghana and neighbouring countries have built commercial empires based on the trade of wax print, and the patterns of the Dutch cloth are widely used to communicate not only authenticity, but also status and reputation.

“Hollandaise”, as the originally Indonesian batik technique is called in francophone Africa, was also the title of an exhibition at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam in the autumn of 2012, as well as half a year later in the art centre “RAW Material Company” in Dakar. Curator Koyo Kouoh had invited five artists from both the Netherlands and different parts of Africa in order to deconstruct the meshwork of colonial and postcolonial ex- and re-appropriations as “an emblematic tale of commercial domination that began in the middle of the 19th century and continues down to today”.

Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions, installation view, Trondheim kunstmuseum 2016. Foto: Anders Solberg.
Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions, installation view, Trondheim kunstmuseum 2016. Photo: Anders Solberg.

Toril Johannessen began working with the cloth at the same time, but unfolded it in a slightly different direction, being fascinated rather by the potential of an actual overlap of cultural and optical illusion. After designing her own patterns based on selected optical illusions and showing them first in a series of seven photographic prints, she began to explore the possibilities of producing wax-print fabric in the last remaining factory in Ghana. Despite the increasing competition with Chinese manufacturers, it is still part of the Vlisco group from the Netherlands, and it brands its products as “The True Original”.

It is a peculiar feature of the wax-print technique that it generates the same colour intensity on both sides of the fabric, which consequentially become not only interchangeable, but also suspends the distinction between front and back, inside and out. In Gråmølna the textiles that Johannessen exhibited last year in the Skulpturbiennale at Vigelandsmuseet in Oslo are draped across the main exhibition space. Partly still wound onto big rolls, they scale a partition wall and reach out towards a large storefront window that faces a shopping mall across from Gråmølna, the colorful patterns fading into the graffiti that adorn Kapitalistischer Realismus – Lars Ø. Ramberg’s permanent installation just outside of the museum, consisting of six concrete elements from the Berlin Wall.

Toril Johannessen collaborated most recently with the Oslo based design collective HaiK, who will issue a spring/summer 2017 collection of clothing made from her fabric. Five samples are exhibited in Gråmølna, while a preview of the collection is currently on show in WIELS in Brussels as a part of Foreign Places. However, Unlearning Optical Illusions does not only present the output of the different stages of a long-term artistic work process; it also touches in various ways on the actual potential of the work of artists.

HAiK with Toril Johannessen, Interpretations, Summer Collection 2017, 5 shirts; Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions (II), The Zöllner Illusion, 2014 and line on the floor (550 cm). Photo: Anders Solberg.
HAiK with Toril Johannessen, Interpretations, Summer Collection 2017, 5 shirts; Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions (II), The Zöllner Illusion, 2014 and line on the floor (550 cm). Photo: Anders Solberg.

After all, Unlearning Optical Illusions is an exhibition that also has to be seen in the site-specific context of Trondheim as Norway’s stronghold of science and technology. Here, it opens up the potential of creating new understandings or misunderstandings of the relationships between art and technology. Art’s engagement with technology amounts not only to applying technological innovations towards artistic ends, but also involves questioning their paradigms both critically and self-critically.

To realise that authenticity is not natural, but an illusion produced according to rather paradoxical patterns, requires a form of “unseeing” that makes visible what is not visible in the image – at least not at first glance. As long as art demands a right to ambiguity and opacity, it can indeed contribute to such a process of unlearning, which makes us see the world differently: for instance by uncovering the fetish of surveillance and information, which is presented as evidence or the ideal of total transparency – what Diedrich Diederichsen recently termed “cybernetic positivism”.

Of course, such arguments are not directly embedded or immediately visible in the abstract geometrical patterns that Johannessen is exhibiting. But by following her instructions, by moving forward and backward along a dashed line on the floor while holding one hand in front of the right eye, a different kind of visual reality appears that exists only in the mind. This repetitive motion of coming closer and moving away from the work provides access to a realm of hallucination or the “transvisual” – a term coined by the art theorist Carl Einstein. He mapped it as an antirational space of aesthetic transcendence, opposed to the territories of perception and cognition, where the rationalisation of the images of the world takes place and where a standardised continuity is generated in order to be conceived as causality.

Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions (II), The Müller-Lyer Illusion, 2014 (left); Unlearning Optical Illusions (II), The Hermann Grid Illusion, 2014 (right); and lines on the floor (both 550 cm). Photo: Anders Solberg.
Toril Johannessen, Unlearning Optical Illusions (II), The Müller-Lyer Illusion, 2014 (left); Unlearning Optical Illusions (II), The Hermann Grid Illusion, 2014 (right) and lines on the floor (both 550 cm). Photo: Anders Solberg.

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