Activating Images: On Saskia Olde Wolbers’s “Pareidolia”

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Pareidolia. Say it again. Rolls off the tongue beautifully, like the name of an unusual flower. Pareidolia refers to the tendency of human perception to discover meaning in random structures where meaning does not exist. It is the perception of an image in a cloud or a pattern on the surface of the moon. It can also refer to an experience of the spiritual.

The phenomenon of pareidolia is more common than the obscurity of the word suggests. We project anthropomorphic and personal significance onto everything. When we hear a story, or see an artwork we ‘understand’ it by relating it back to ourselves; we bring what we know to every experience and this shapes each experience. We also shape things to become what we want them to be, we listen selectively, and create complex fantastical structures of meaning.

Saskia Olde Wolbers, a Dutch born, London based artist, makes films. In her films she shows us mesmerising, labyrinthine science fiction fantasy worlds and annotates them with tightly woven fables based loosely on real events. Last week I went to Maureen Paley gallery in east London to see a new film she made in 2011 called – you guessed it – Pareidolia.

For the occasion the gallery was outfitted very much like a cinema. In a darkened room a projector is hidden behind the back wall, there is a good sound system, carpeting, and a bench to sit on. There is something oddly futuristic about walking into a gallery and there being no objects, only a moving image. Although I’m projecting here (no pun intended) – video art has been around for a while – the idea of a futuristic gallery setting suits Olde Wolbers’ work, a kind of vision of a multicultural, modernist utopia of empty, unsullied institutions and corridors.

In the film we see flowers, or something like flowers, and an animatronic bird. These images have all the artificial crispness of something digital, but they’re meticulously crafted models, made of found materials as diverse and unusual as vitamin E capsules and cyber-goth hair extensions. In the film we see a lecture hall reminiscent of a set from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and we see a temple. These ‘sets’ are dipped in paint and filmed underwater so everything that’s not tied down floats about and opaque coloured drops drip from flowers with unearthly slowness like a lava-lamp snow-globe.

Saskia Olde Wolbers. "Pareidolia."

Saskia Olde Wolbers. Pareidolia. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

I walked in halfway through this 12 minute film. There is a narrative, a fable I said before, that accompanies the film. It’s told by a man speaking English with a Japanese accent. This story is told in fits and spurts like a recitation of an epic poem, there’s a transcription available in the office, and it’s printed out in lines like the Odyssey or Paradise Lost. I lost track of the story, an arrow is shot in the dark and it splits another arrow. Then some more flowers. The film started again and I listened more carefully.

There is a professor, a scientist, his colleague and a Zen master. The professor is European and he is visiting Japan with the intention of writing a book to “export Zen to the post war west.” The scientist studies Jurassic fossils and thinks he sees in them microcosmic versions of all earthly life. He is relieved of his position because of his unorthodox views. He is courting his colleague, as is the Zen master who has unusual ideas about archery. When the professor learns of the scientist’s relation to the Zen master through their mutual love of the same woman, he asks to meet the Zen master and if he, the scientist, will serve as his translator.

This story closely parallels a series of events that led to the publication of Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen In the Art of Archery. Herrigel and our professor experience a similar epiphany. He asks the Zen master archer if he can hit his target in the dark. He does, twice, and splits the first arrow in two. They do not speak each other’s language but the Zen master archer manages “non-verbally” to communicate the phrase “It, the divine, has shot.” His translator – our scientist – was not present when “what [the professor] thought to be Zen had finally presented itself.”

Saskia Olde Wolbers. "Pareidolia."

Saskia Olde Wolbers. Pareidolia. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The professor’s book is eventually published in the west and achieves cult popularity with people seeking an unconventional spiritualism. The professor brings a preconceived notion of Zen to the east and returns with it intact. His search for meaning completes when his translator is absent. Pareidolia suggests the professor’s spiritual epiphany stems from a moment of misunderstanding. It is the key to Olde Wolbers’ work. Her film functions as a kind of artistic essay. Her imagery illustrates a text but the effect is like simultaneously inhabiting parallel worlds that each present dim reflections of the other.  It is unclear what is imagined and what is experienced.

Above all Olde Wolbers’ films are aesthetic; her clear as a bell vision is unmistakable and unique. Her austere story lends an element of majesty to her, sometimes, whimsical imagery. Ultimately it is our desire to find meaning that allows these two worlds to sit comfortably together. Such is the luxury of the artist: to place into context incongruent ideas that do not logically cohere or follow from each other. This is the artistic imperative to create new worlds, new possibilities by combination of unrelated concepts and mediums.

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