Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Last year I realised I had written only one single blog post about a female art historian / scholar / theoretician, so this year I scheduled two posts on women (that I would have written anyway) for March. This first one is about a German book that was published only ten years ago, Der irritierte Blick: Kunstrezeption und Aufmerksamkeit by Nina Zschocke. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it yet. The title can be roughly translated as, “The irritated gaze: art reception and attention” (albeit “irritated” in the sense of “confused”, not “annoyed”).
The first ~70 pages of Der irritierte Blick form an introduction to reception aesthetics and its psychological prerequisites. This first part is well worth reading in itself, but the second part introduces Zschocke’s concept of visual irritation with which we’ll deal today. Recipients are visually irritated when they “think their visual interpretation is ‘wrong’ because it contradicts other assumptions or information about the perceived situation” (all translations mine). Within visual irritations, those that contradict basic rules of perception acquired during childhood (regarding the formal attributes of colour, shape and space) can be distinguished from phenomena that contradict assumptions “of a higher level”, i.e. regarding the perceived content. Another distinction can be made between stable “illusions” and multistable phenomena: multistability occurs when several mutually exclusive interpretations appear equally plausible. In any case, the viewer sooner or later experiences a sense of failed perception and irritation.
Zschocke’s point is that visual irritation is an artistic strategy. Contemporary artists (Zschocke examines the examples of Josef Albers, Anish Kapoor, and Thomas Demand, among others) deliberately compose their works in such a way that the recipients are astonished, their perceptual sensitivity is heightened and their attention is turned back on itself, so that they are encouraged to reflect on the act of perception.
Does visual irritation occur in comics too? A prime example of a visually irritating comic might be L’Oud Silencieux (Die Schweigende Laute / “the silent oud” or “lute”) by Martin tom Dieck (L’Association, 1996). This wordless 22-page comic has a page layout of two panels on top of each other. From the panel transitions it soon becomes clear that the horizontal connections across pages are stronger than the vertical ones on the same page. In other words, the upper panels tell one story (a man playing an oud) and the lower panels another (a man dreaming of some sort of fairy).
So far, so interesting. While the two stories seem entirely unconnected at first, it is fun to look for similarities between them. For instance, both men watch television at some point. Furthermore, one man falls asleep and wakes again when (i.e. on the same page as) the other stops and starts playing his oud.
The real point of visual irritation occurs on the fourth page: on the top panel, the oud player sits on his rooftop, while on the lower panel we see the other man’s television. The funny thing is, the television screen shows the oud player on the rooftop from the top panel. So clearly the two stories are connected after all. However, what is their exact chronological or spatial relation? I can’t think of a single completely satisfying explanation. For instance, the upper story cannot be a film that is shown on the TV in the lower story, because when the man in the lower story wakes up (p. 20), his TV is blank instead of showing what’s going on in the upper panel. Thus L’Oud Silencieux contradicts the reader’s assumptions about comics, as the sequence of images in a comic is usually thought to be “intended to convey information”, as Scott McCloud’s famous definition says. (The second part of this quote, “… and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, is often forgotten.) Ultimately, the recipient is left visually irritated and, perhaps, pleasantly amazed.
[EDIT: Speaking of Martin tom Dieck, another “multistable” comic is his Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt, because one cannot decide whether it depicts the real warehouse district in Hamburg or not. I have written about this ambiguity in a conference paper from 2011, albeit without having read Zschocke’s book back then.]
When the city of Hamburg joined the German Empire, it was granted a free port where merchants were allowed to store, trade and process goods without having to pay taxes. As a result, new storage buildings were erected to form the Speicherstadt (warehouse district), inaugurated in 1888. The warehouse district inspired Martin tom Dieck to his avant-garde comic hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt, published in 1997 when the buildings were already no longer used for sea trade (see also my paper “Hamburg’s warehouse district in Martin tom Dieck’s hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt“). After 124 years, the free port has now been dissolved on January 1, and the whole harbour area in Hamburg is henceforth a regular part of the German customs territory. (Other free ports continue to exist, though, in Germany and elsewhere.)