THE POWER OF THE IMAGE
“Our objects do not possess any meaning, except for the meaning we thrust upon them”.
Joshua Fields Millburn, The Minimalists
There is no inherent meaning in a thing. No object, even a work of art, already possesses the meaning that you can find through your gaze upon it. This is particularly true of visual art and the image - as artist, author and animator Christoph Niemann explains, “You are fluent in a language that you are probably not even aware of…you are fluent in the language of reading images”. And through this language an artist we might never have met, can touch us to our very cores. We are all so unique, and our individual gaze has the power to thrust personal meaning upon images, explaining why many observers find in the same work of art, diverse and yet profound significance beyond what the artist could have imagined. A single work of art can and has moved people far and wide, across different social contexts and cultural backgrounds.
We aren’t so much taught this language, Niemann says, as we develop it - through living in the world. Life experiences and our individual stories imprint themselves on our memories and emotional landscapes. We can arrive early on at a place where certain images, even the highly abstract, can invoke deeply powerful responses within us. This is because, Niemann reveals, “The deeper something is etched into your consciousness, the fewer details we need to have an emotional reaction”. This visual language can speak directly to the very heart of us, the soul if you will; it needs no mediation.
“We as (image) readers are incredibly good at filling in the blanks” he says, visual art comes alive in the mind of the observer. Images contain an unbridled potential to narrate, invoke powerful emotion, and empower us to make immediate and instinctive connections in the heart and mind - arguably beyond any other form of language. A single image can tell an entire story, it can communicate with us by illustrating an idea of love for example, or any other human experience for that matter. Art and design, indeed Niemann shows us through his own work, describe what cannot be described with words, but can perhaps be drawn, painted or moulded. He reflects:
“…and what I want to do is not show a realistic scene but maybe like poetry, make you aware that you already had this image with you but only now I’ve unearthed it and made you realise that you were carrying this image with you all along”.
In Niemann’s opinion, it is key for a designer to have a wealth of understanding as to the visual and cultural vocabulary of your intended audience however the most important skill for an artist is in fact empathy. And that empathy with those observing or ‘reading’ the image you put out into the world is best gained by becoming a better reader of images yourself. Because as Niemann illustrates, “…the real magic doesn’t happen on paper, it happens in the mind of the viewer when your expectations and your knowledge clash with my artistic intentions. Your interaction with an image, your ability to read and question and be bothered or bored, or inspired by an image is as important as my artistic contribution because it turns an artistic statement, really into a creative dialogue. And so your skill at reading image is not only amazing, it’s what makes my art possible”.
Key in this philosophy of art for the theme of art curation is that an object only becomes truly valuable to us, when we thrust our own meaning and therefore value upon it. We should therefore be under no pressure from external sources to follow the status quo when it comes to making choices about what objects, including works of art we bestow privilege of place upon by bringing them into our life and spaces. All we need to do is get clear about what adds value to our lives and feel free to reject anything else that in truth is just taking up space that we could be using for objects that better serve us.
Christoph Niemann speaking at TED 2018.
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