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Letters from Downunder

Impossible constructions

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

"So then let us climb the mountain, not by stepping on what is below us,
but to pull us up by what is above us, for my part at the stars; amen."
M.C. Escher

(3/2014) Way back in the 5th century BC the Greeks were hard at work putting on dramas and religious plays for the benefit and education of the polis. These works were nothing like the things we see today, but they did put in place the fundamentals of this art form, including, it has been said, all the plot lines that have ever existed. It took a good deal of imagination, in all probability, to relate to them, but that didn’t bother anyone, for all religions need imagination. One of the things they tried to master was that of realistic, or at least understandable scenery. They had good painters and designers, but they found it hard to depict depth. They actually resorted to moving scenery further away during the performance to indicate increasing distance, or using new screens with items reduced in size to achieve the same thing. Everyone knew that distant objects appeared to be smaller, but to them art and the appearance of reality were in different spheres.

It was not until 1413 that the way we see distance represented today was finally in place, when Brunelli introduced true perspective into scenery at the theatre. The result was so startling and realistic that all painters and artists have followed that practice ever since, developing its potential in sometimes bizarre ways. Artists, like most other talented people, experiment and try novel ways of proceeding, and some, notably Maritz Escher, a Dutch illustrator and graphic artist, (1898- 1972), introduced us to some new and startling ways of seeing everyday things.

Perspective takes our eyes – and thus our minds – toward a distant point that is suggested by two or more lines converging near the edge of the sheet. Our curiosity is piqued by what may lie beyond that point, even as we gaze at two dimensions pretending to be three. It is this perception that Escher exploits in a series of impossible creations that seem, at first glance, to be wonderful structures in three dimensions, but which soon cause us perplexity, because they could not exist in reality: Staircases that go up as they go down, arches in a back wall that is also the front one, and many other strange things.

The concept of perspective has been so important that it has rolled over into many other disciplines and areas of life; we are told to have some perspective when we are dismissed from a job or suffer a loss, to take a long view on government policy and so on, but the ideas that Escher and others have come up with are now firmly established and far more potent. They are actually superb illustrations of the complexities of daily living, the difficulties we all have of deciding the best ways to proceed, and the deceptive claims and dead ends that are built into the many schemes for the unwary.

For instance, what starts out as a picture of white swans finishes up as a creation of black fish, or a portrait of a fine gentleman turns out to be made of fruit and vegetables, as in the famous work by Fukuda. These are artful deceptions, and fine as art; when incorporated into prospectuses they can be fatal - unless you know how and where to look. Here’s an example: It is a fact that if you blow the whistle on corruption and money is recovered as a result – it is estimated that over five billion dollars have already been unearthed this way – you will receive a percentage of the recovery. So far, that has resulted in a few turnips from the portrait of the smiling man being produced, but little more. It’s caused by inertia more than deceit, but it still acts as a hoax.

There are plenty of other examples, but the one that is most shocking can be seen in a drawing by Sandro Del-Prete from 1961. Titled ‘Cosmic Wheels’, it shows two interlocking spoked wheels with a Mobius strip as the hub, and is nigh on impossible to make sense of. It is, to me, a perfect illustration of your gun laws. Listening to the arguments in favour of allowing the laws to continue their free reign, the circular reasoning used is so ridiculous that the flaws should be easy to spot, but that is not so. They sound logical, have interlocking reasoning with emotional beliefs and patriotic appeals, but the outcomes are actually impossible to validate in any civilized society. Taken to the only possible and logical conclusion, they say – ‘Let all citizens carry a gun and then everyone will be safe because they can defend themselves’. A Mobius strip only has one side, and the gun lobby has worn a path around it.

Their constant chant is as ridiculous as the cosmic wheels, which have "E= mc2" inscribed in the centre – a reference to the amount of profit available to the industry.

One of my favourite works of Escher is ‘Ascending and Descending’, from 1960. It shows two sets of monks passing each other as they walk up and down the same set of steps at the same time. Impossible? Not in two dimensions! It surely is a genuine illustration of congress – how it is possible for two groups to tread the same ground in opposite directions, toiling away, always climbing toward a just conclusion, never achieving it, while being watched by a couple of dropout citizens - with bemusement.

Such things happen when the nature of the real world is reduced to two dimensions. Bureaucrats and fundamentalists see life this way because it makes their dogmas easier to explain and swallow – after all, they probably believe it themselves – so they write or spout laws, sermon or creeds on pieces of paper where they seem to make sense. Should the third dimension of reality intrude, however, those without hoodwinked eyes see the impossibility of their constructions. No one pretends that reality is easy, and it is decidedly uncomfortable at times, even horrendous - but it is all we have, Hollywood notwithstanding.

If you have, or can obtain a copy of Masters of Deception, printed in 2004, have a look at ‘Warp’ by Akiyoshi Kitaoka on page 153. A warning, however – if you suffer from epilepsy or a similar neural disturbance, do not look at it, for the image seems to vibrate and pulse in sync with your brain waves. It is truly an amazing piece of digital art lying flat on the printed page, and which appears to become three dimensional as we move our eyes closer to it. It serves to illustrate how we are so easily deceived and seduced, as such constructs are often built into advertising of all kinds. Our brains vibrate, the offers get larger, and unless we are made aware of the deception built in we accept the things we see as true.

Perhaps this does not matter too often, seeing we often make decisions based on incomplete knowledge or spurious claims, but there are times when casual acceptance of a proposition leads to disaster, even ruin. I know many of you do not trust the government, (we have the same problem), but we have to put trust in something or someone. And while it is us who elect people to that institution, I hope you look carefully at each major decision you are asked to make, being aware if the impossible constructions around.

In so doing you may join Herr Escher in climbing the mountain by reaching for all that is above and beyond, not by treading on the necks of those below. To recall a song, the impossible dream is motive enough, whilst if the impossible construct is at best diverting.

Lindsay, down under, where the air is hot but the stars are twinkling.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker