Visual language: Aphrodite, Muybridge and the Buncefield fire

Two examples of the way we create visual symbols and then come to see them as reality. Ive just been in Cyprus for the day job, and managed to see the Cyprus Museum of Archaeology. In here is a 1st Century BC statue of Aphrodite, found at Soloi. It struck me at once that this statue has the same elongated neck found in Botticellis Venus.

I assume Botticelli never saw the Cyprus version, and that the elongation of the neck is a visual sign or convention to indicate female beauty rather than some reference to what a specific woman looked like. All the male statues from the same period in the Cyprus museum had realistic anatomy. Yet if you actually saw a woman with a neck as long as this Aphrodites she would look quite deformed.

Which made me think (thanks to Aaaron Scharfs book) of Eadward Muybridge and his photographs of horses in motion. Horses gallop too quickly for our eyes to freeze the motion, so painters had grappled for centuries with making a realistic static picture. The consensus way of showing speed was to paint the horse with fore legs stretched out forwards and hind legs kicking out backwards. People thought about this a lot, and tried hard to get it right – after all, horses mattered then, in a way that we can scarcely imagine today.

When Muybridges photographs showed us what galloping actually looked like there was quite a controversy. A few brave souls maintained that Muybridges cameras were wrong; the most sensible comment quoted by Scharf is Rodin, who said:
“…it is the artist who is truthful and it is photogrpahy which lies, for in reality time does not stop, and … the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment…”

In other words, what is real depends largely on human perception.

Both examples make me wonder about the process by which we use these signs.
1. A convention becomes a means of indicating something. Long necks = female beauty. Sometimes we are aware of the convention – eg repeated lines in comic strips to show motion. Another example would be the way we represent emotions by gestures in painting or sculpture.
2. But often, after a while, we no longer notice the exaggeration, and it becomes realistic to us. It becomes an expected internal consistency of a fictional world.
3. Sometimes we may not even be aware that the convention is in fact wrong: we actually think we see things that way.
3. If we are lucky, someone shows us the same subject through new eyes.

Theres plenty of evidence that our brains automatically make a whole range of assumptions, especially when interpreting complex signals that we cant easily see, in order to produce an interpreted version of reality that makes sense to us. Indeed, we sometimes even think that real things are a simulation.

It is indeed very difficult to see through other eyes. Ive been to a couple of presentations about the Buncefield fire now, and both times have been proudly shown an aerial photograph of fire hoses laid out around a roundabout, to illustrate the large amounts of fire hose laid and the huge quantities of water taken from a nearby lake and sprayed on the fires to keep them under control. As an Englishman, the first time I saw this picture I was impressed. (I still am, by the courage, organisation and hard work of the fire crews.)

However, European safety engineers Ive discussed it with find the image hilarious. The joke? Well, the hose all goes the long way round the roundabout, as you would if you were driving on the left hand side of the road as we do in the UK. Other cultures would either have gone the shortest side, or indeed straight over the roundabout. The picture is seen as an example of literal-mindedness, or a very legalistic approach to regulations, on something like that. Apparently thats what the Brits are like, but I had to have this explained out to me before, I could see that it is actually quite amusing.

On this analogy, Muybridge was allowing us to see our conventions or rules through new eyes. It makes me wonder:
(a) what visual conventions are still out there
(b) also what 3D, dynamic conventions we are using in our simulations and dynamic representations of life.

Just as we used to think horses galloped with their legs stretched out, do we view some aspect of human life – relationships, social dynamics, economics, whatever – in a certain way, just because thats how our simulators curently simulate it? What Muybridge is lurking in the future to show us we are wrong?

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