Hanging on a vision

There is an unlikely combination of exhibitions at Coffs Regional Gallery at the moment. The controversial and internationally- acclaimed performance artist, Stelarc is here, along with local artist Nicholas Kachel–the pairing of which is tribute to the genius of gallery curator, Dr Lee Summers.

This unlikely combination of works is refreshing. The work of both artists is sublime though arrived at in remarkably different ways.

As regular M&Gazine readers will know, my articles are written with a cognitive neuroscience slant. By examining how creative licence is used by artists to convey their messages, information can be gleaned about the parameters of human perception. So off I went wearing my intrepid researcher hat, only to find that analysis of these exhibitions was challenging in more ways than I expected …

Picture this… Stelarc is hanging 30 metres above the Copenhagen skyline, suspended by hooks through his naked flesh. Vulnerable and exposed, all he can hear is the “the whooooshing of the wind, the whiiirrring of the crane motors and the creeeaking of the skin”.

Remarkable in itself, but extraordinary when one learns that Stelarc is neither a fan of heights or of pain. What’s curious about Stelarc’s work is that his artistic intent is dependent on dampening the emotional reactivity of his audience to hooks through flesh long enough to view the body objectively.

How does he do this?

No doubt a number of psychological mechanisms are at play, but I would hedge a bet that at least one of them has something to do with how ‘thrifty’ Mother Nature is. She doesn’t waste valuable cortical real estate on unlikely visual input.  A key element of Stelarc’s installations is their real life improbability… 

What we do see is the mountainous, fleshy landscape of skin pulled taut upwards by inserted hooks from which Stelarc’s body hangs in space. It’s tangible evidence of gravity pulling down, and the volition of another who controls the elements causing the upward force on the hooks. In essence, the body is placed in an improbable state of in-between.

It seems unlikely Mother Nature would bother equipping us with the cognitive hardware to understand the empathetic response required of an improbable state of in-between. Hence, once emotional reactivity is removed, all that is left is an objective appreciation of the body’s sculptural eloquence and physiological limitations. 

Test my theory for yourself when you visit the exhibition. Watch the video of Stelarc’s Ear on Arm suspension and observe in yourself the moment at which the beauty of the event comes to rest on your consciousness. My guess is that it will be at the point of in-between. 

What we do see is the mountainous, fleshy landscape of skin pulled taut upwards by inserted hooks

I can feel you calling to me is the title of the exhibition of oil paintings by Nicholas Kachel concurrently housed within the gallery space.

It has been proposed by some researchers that the more neurons a visual image activates in the brain, the more aesthetically pleasing the image is deemed to be. Kachel’s work seems to do this – many of his works were sold prior to the exhibition even opening! His paintings seem to command our attention and hold us there, lighting up the brain in cascades of neural activity- piquing our feel good neurotransmitters and flooding our cortical pleasure centres. 

Using elements of rhythm, numbers, balance, motifs and symbols he creates a visual poetry of sorts that direct us into the emotional space of the internal landscape. This is in stark difference to the ‘literalness’ of Stelarc’s work. Having said that, both artists’ work is imbued with a compelling allure which suggests that brain functions are competing for inputs into a perceptual synthesis.

Kachel has been painting for 25 years, and is co-director of the First Avenue Gallery at the charming beachside village of Sawtell, just a short 12 minute drive from the Regional Gallery. It would make a perfect complement to your day. While there, why not treat yourself and partake of some of Sawtell’s delicious cuisine? You could follow this with a headland meander as you contemplate the notion of artist as neuroscientist: those who intuitively manipulate the parameters of visual perception in ways scientists can only dream of.     


Editor’s note: Stelarc’s show contains graphic imagery and is suitable for adults only.


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To read more about Stelarc

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