Seeing is Forgetting The Name of The Thing One Sees

Robert Irwin is a master in illusion. For him, “aesthetic perception itself [is] the pure subject of art. Art exist[s] not in objects but in a way of seeing.” It requires an active viewer to take it in and, hopefully, become altered, even if only for a second. Irwin induces a change in perception through his work, making the viewer reexamine their environment – which includes themselves. He believes the role of artists is to prod the relationship between the mind and the body, as two parts that are “equally dependent and mutually exclusive”[source]. This to me is the real magic of art; it can force an awakening of the mind and the body as separate things. When you become aware of the whole of you, in the environment, it produces a jolt of exaltation. It’s the most spiritual act I’ve experienced.

Irwin’s exploration of art outside the canvas excites me. If art is about manipulating perception, then a canvas is very limiting, as are the confines of a gallery. His work acknowledges its surroundings and pushes upon them to manipulate the viewers attention. Much of what he does is “taking the symbolic meaning out of the mark and the line.” This could be restated as an attack on signifiers of societal importance. Irwin pushes against the viewer’s existing means of perception, expanding their awareness of their environment.

I also find comfort and inspiration in Irwin’s story. The reading begins with a word of caution about the cohesion of his life in the rear view mirror. He’s spent his career in relentless pursuit of questions, constantly trying and failing, generating new questions along the way. His musings often verge on revelatory and the diversity of his work is astonishing. It’s likely Irwin’s journey has felt messy, disconnected, and uncertain, but he follows his passions wherever they lead. He’s worked tirelessly, considering every detail for the subtlest of illusions, even if the execution is painful. It may have been a gamble but it’s clear it has paid off.

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