Tricks of the Light

By Chris Darke


An eye-warping wunderkammer of optical toys lets us consider cinema afresh

A few years ago, at the Colindale Newspaper Library, I was consulting the various Gleaners and Gazettes that served the West Country during the early 1920s when, spooling through microfiched pages of births, marriages, deaths and county shows, a small news item caught my eye: ‘Daring daylight raid on local bank’.

What struck me most about the piece was the comment made by a bystander, who couldn’t decide whether he had witnessed a real bank robbery or a big production number put on for the benefit of ‘the cinematograph’. It wasn’t amusement at the eye-witness’ credulousness that imprinted the story on my memory (after all, his was really just a variation on the theme of the apocryphal spectator who, during an early Lumière Brothers’ projection, ducks to avoid the oncoming onscreen locomotive) but the sense of how contemporary the item felt. There was a certain consolation, in having come across it by chance in the pages of an 80 year-old newspaper, which only enhanced my happy realisation that to confuse appearance and reality was not some peculiarly postmodern condition.

I was reminded of this discovery at the recent exhibition Eyes, Lies and Illusions, for which London’s Hayward Gallery was transformed into an eye-warping wunderkammer of pre-cinematic optical toys, selected from the remarkable collection of German experimental film-maker Werner Nekes, who had himself drawn from his personal archive of 20,000 such objets for the show. From puzzle-pictures to peep-shows, magic lanterns to the marvellously named ‘jouets séditieux’ (‘seditious toys’), the exhibition revealed a 500 year spectrum of optical trickery in what was as much a warehouse of wonders as a cabinet of curiosities. With seven themed rooms on three levels, including over a thousand images, instruments and devices, plus work by eight contemporary artists thrown in for good measure, ‘Eyes, Lies and Illusions’ ran the risk of inundating visitors with optical overkill. So the staging and coherent conceptual overview of the show counted for a lot.

One entered (and left, fittingly) via the kingdom of the shadow. Our atavistic associated with a condition of beguiled rapture, enslavement by illusion. The first room, devoted to ‘Shadowplay’, collected examples of the ancient fascination with these negative traces of light that found expression in the 18th century craze for ‘silhouette-making’. This was a kingdom of the imagination populated by ghosts, demons and macabre dancing skeletons, as well as more subversive ‘reflections’, in which figures of authority could be mocked by the unflattering shadows cast by their backlit forms. The combination of puppetry and projected light here announced early animation and, still many years off, the beginnings of cinema. As the moment when the image started to walk, then to talk, the birth of cinema was the evolutionary horizon of the show, its pre-history chronicled in optical machines and ‘philosophical toys’, its coming light fossilised in shadows cast long ago.

The final room, Moving in Time, included the only ‘properly’ cinematic work: Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1974). Well, not cinema in its ‘proper’, institutionalised sense of seated spectators watching a story unfold on a screen so much as the cinematic projection-event turned inside out, its light made sculptural.

A high point of ’70s experimental film, McCall’s work was a well-chosen culmination and did exactly what it said in the title: over thirty minutes a beam of projected light described a perfect cone in a darkened space partly infused with smoke. And we, the visitors, were back where we came in, shadowplaying with hands and bodies in the cradle of light.

Along the way, walking through the galleries, one came across the Phenakistiscope, Thaumatrope and Coptograph, the Anorthoscope, Zoetrope and Praxinoscope. Today, these names sound like an inventory of antique surgical instruments, the neo-Greek compounds with their ’scopes, ’tropes and ’graphs evoking implements in a trompe l’oeil laboratory. Fittingly, the show explored how our unappeasable appetite for spectacular illusions has run in parallel with the quest for scientific illumination, indicating that science and art, experiment and entertainment, have been partners since antiquity in the dance of light and shadow.

Not that the partnership was ever easy. As Marina Warner points out in her catalogue essay, the word ‘illusion’ comes from ‘ludere’, ‘to play’ in Latin and, for early Christians, illusion was ‘the Devil’s medium […] From the first showings of magic lantern slides, optical illusions were ascribed to the Devil’s mischief.’ From the exhibition’s compendium of perceptual trickery it emerged that the many salon divertissements and fairground attractions – phantasmagoria, daguerrotype, camera obscura – were also the contraptions of a burgeoning rationalism which, through sober and enlightened appeals to science, were to banish the ‘Devil’s mischief’ of magic. But there was, paradoxically, always a blind spot in such science: vision was not the same as knowledge, seeing definitely not believing. Empirical objectivity, the truth of proof, was a matter of ‘point of view’. Hence the section devoted to Riddles of Perspective. Even as perspective developed geometrically-derived conventions that allowed three-dimensional space to be represented in two dimensions, these conventions were less stable than they appeared and much mischief was to be had at their expense: think of Holbein’s famous portrait The Ambassadors, a skull smeared across its low foreground, a memento mori whose oblique intrusion into the space of the painting gives the concept of mortality a disturbing, physical presence.

The exhibition made much of such distorted perspective, or ‘anamorphosis’, in works ranging from the Hogarth print Satire on False Perspective to various ‘peep boxes’ and ‘glass perspective theatres’. Particularly effective was the room designed by the American painter and psychologist Adelbert Ames which, when observed through a peephole, appeared to take on impossible dimensions. Among the contemporary artists included in the show the work by Markus Raetz, a Swiss connoisseur of visual ambiguity, was by far the most elegant, especially his room full of sculpted objects which were subtly transformed when one walked round them, a bottle becoming a glass, a glass a bottle.

The galleries of this fascinating assemblage were full of people bending to press their eyes to machines resembling antique wind-up gramophones, locking themselves into the required viewing position in order to participate in the truth of a moment of illusion. Then, stepping sideways, they saw the conditions of trickery revealed, that it is always a matter of point-of-view.

Eyes, Lies and Illusions showed at the Hayward Gallery, London from 7 October 2004 to 3 January 2005.

Chris Darke is a writer, critic and lecturer on the moving image. His book of selected writings, Light Readings, is published by Wallflower while his monograph on Alphaville is forthcoming from IB Tauris. He is also represented, with his film study Chris on Chris, on the DVD of La Jetée and Sans Soleil.