What we are seeing
Søren Gosvig Olesen (b. 1956), author and associate professor of philosophy at University of Copenhagen
What do we see? Something. We never look at anything without seeing something, a motif, a meaning. This is our faith in the world. We believe it exists. Advertising exploits this. We attach what we see – happy people, cool types – to the product. The press show us pictures of politicians, again to prove that he or she said exactly this or that at this very moment; very annoyed, or angry, reckless even. We think it’s our senses that come first and our consciousness kicks in afterwards. Which is why we believe in what we see. We believe our eyes, now we’ve actually seen something for ourselves. Always seeing things set within some order, a context. We know the shape of a dice is a cube; a square made up of right-angles, whatever our perspective of it is when we see it. We don’t see a dice as pointed or blunt because we straighten out its lines, however we’re seeing them, predicting, as we can, how it would feel to touch and roll a dice between our fingers. We see a house with its gables and sides and a roof as a unit because we are able to walk around it and go inside. Vision is not simply what we can see, and touch not only what we are able to feel. Nothing is more constructed or more suspicious than a sensory impression. The artist must distrust his principal familiarity with the world. If there’s anything he needs to know, it’s that we are not seeing what we see at all. Otherwise he won’t be able to give form to his motive. Photographs don’t lie, we say. Yes they do. Continually. But they lie in order to hold something true. A snapshot image will reveal something to us if it allows us to understand what it is made of, and how this moment was able to come about at all. Such a photograph will also be able to successfully indicate our distance from what we are looking at by means of what we are being shown. This is a picture of a tree. It is 9.500 years old. Which might be true. I don’t see it. With such an age I would expect a giant, but all I see is a scraggy minor. Anyway, it’s not the tree that is this old, I’m told, but its roots; the tree itself its most recent shoot. In this way, I’m redirected not only by what is underground but also by quantities, technicalities, natural science, by a tale of how my awareness of what I’m seeing is to depend on all kinds of information, which I have to take on and acknowledge. I’m taken to a place of distance from what I’m looking at. The motif disappears. Then reappears, tainted yellow or brown, old and new at the same time. Antique or with patina? Is this a technique of the original photographic imprint or maybe of its fixation? I’m being drawn even further away from what I’m actually seeing, and being made aware of it; what I can see, I’m seeing through a medium, through a filter. Even how I’m able to see, that I’ve been standing at a distance from it from the very beginning. Even directly across from it, I’m using the shadows and colors of the photograph to build up what I’m seeing.
What is a tree? What does it do? It just stands there. We plant trees and we cut them down. For plantations, for timber; trees with a purpose and an expiration date, even when they are given long life, even when it’s the oaks planted to be used for new ships, after the English took our fleet, more than two hundred years ago, which were announced ready for delivery only recently; the age and life of these trees proven incommensurable with that of man. What would we do with a grand fleet of wooden ships, proudly swaying in the wind, today? The oak trees of Dyrehaven Park are hundreds of years old. Imagine what they could tell us if they could speak! About history and different eras; all the people who have walked here, with their different styles of dress and custom, responsibilities and purpose? Which presumes the trees noticed! As if everything is always about us. On the contrary, we are the ones always running about, busy in our comings and goings. The trees, on their part, remain where they are. Holding their silence, their foreignness. Not that man has considered himself to be the ruler of the planet since the beginning of time, far from it. It’s just that animals and plants have always counted less. Indeed, according to the measure of rank during medieval times, man was infinitely slighter than the highest of all beings. Before God, wise men are but fools. This was known. So tall stands God above all that he is not even of this world. God may not exist in a concrete way, but is seen as an exact measure of what existence is. Below God stand his messengers, the angels, seraphim and cherubim, and below them are the archangels, so individualized that they have names: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael. The lesser of these are the guardian angels who accompany each and every one of us. Then comes a being so low that it needs to have an actual body to be able to exist and acknowledge this as presence. This is man. If you would want to think of something even lower than man, it would be organisms with a body but no awareness. Such as animals and plants and so on. Even here there is a hierarchy. Animals can move about while plants are stationary. To this Thomas Aquinas reasons that the plant kingdom must therefore rank lower than the animal kingdom. In our time, attempts are being made to remedy this by attributing to animals the power of thought. And trees are described as being able to speak with one another. Which amounts to no more than diluting the idea of what thinking and speaking means, and it is still only acknowledging other forms of existence by equating them with that of man. As if nature needed us and not the other way around. Here is a tree. It stands where it stands, as it has done for centuries or millennia. Doing what no human is capable of. Look how peaceful it is! Not going anywhere. Without things it is obliged to get done. Not even capable of being indifferent to us humans. We have already strayed from our unity with nature, once and for all, and can’t find our way back. Cherubim guard this fact with their flaming swords. This tree shows us the same tale. That time is short; our existence limited by our births and our deaths, despite all our many plans and projects.
This is not a tree. It is a series of images of a tree, all one and the same. As if they are trying to sustain it. But the tree disappears. Into fog, or is it dusk, or night arriving? It vanishes into shifting shades of color. Where is it? In the cold, covered by snow, in winter, so near the Arctic Circle. Standing there without its branches, as if it had once stood close to many others. A long time ago? Here the tree appears only as a shadowy silhouette, an illustration from a newspaper or an old film still. Never revealing itself to us as itself. The actual tree and how we see it never reaching a final conclusion. That which is the tree always absent. So we always see more than we actually can see because we are always seeing less than we think we can see. We have to be like the seer, which Arthur Rimbaud talked about, imagining the rest of the tree onto the tree we are seeing, illuminating what the tree might look like from behind, its changing appearances of greens and browns and greys, all its ages. The tree becomes a poem. A message brought to us by these photographs. Whether we believe that they are it is up to each of us. All we have are these images, apparitions seeming to confirm the existence of a tree somewhere out there. A fabled entity. The tree a myth.