‘Merry go Round’ by Hugh Pryor
A commentary by Stephen Priest
In a sense, perceptual experience is dominated by, or grounded in, either a first person or a third person paradigm. For example, there is the subjective experience of being on the merry go round, in motion, and the surrounding world is a blurr. There is the point of view a spectator has on the merry go round, and the perceived objects are comparatively distinct, defined. Pryor’s ‘Merry go Round’ blurrs this distinction between perspectives or points of view. The image may be read as the presentation of the subjective blurr to a third person perspective, or the comparatively well defined objects to a first-person singular perspective. Pryor’s art, in this case, therefore allows us access to experience which is normally denied us. In the normal course of things the two points of view are strictly separated, or at least seem to be.
I say ‘seem to be’ because they are, at least conceptually, mutually constituting or contaminating. If one sees the merry go round ‘from the outside’ it is hard to make sense of it as a merry go round unless one has some idea of what it is to ride on it, unless one could in principle psychologically reconstruct the experience of being on it in motion. Conversely, if the world is to be more than a blurr in riding the merry go round, for example, if in riding the merry go round one knows that one is doing this, then the third person perspective has to be imaginatively available, to project onto the blurr even if only as background. Now, this mutual constitution of perspectives is depicted, or at least suggested, in Pryor’s ‘Merry go Round’. The blurr of interiority is ‘read into’ the objects presented from the standpoint of exteriority and vice versa. In a sense, Pryor presents us with a holism, a synthesis of perspectives which grounds them in their seeming separation.
In an Einstein-world, it is not the case that there exist three separate realities; space, time, and physical objects. Rather, physical objects are themselves space-time continuants with spatio-temporal properties. Once we have specified the spatio-temporal properties of objects or events, including the spatio-temporal relations between them, there is no residue to call ‘space’ or ‘time’. If there were no universe there would be no space-time. Space-time would not, so to speak, be left over, if the entirety of objects or events disappeared. On this view, a physical object is itself an event. It has an origin, a duration, and end, and is itself make up of events. Now, Pryor’s ‘Merry go Round’ allows us to perceive the Einsteinian departure from classical (Newtonian) mechanics. There are indeed Newtonian objects but these dissolve into, or are enmeshed by, Einsteinian space-time continuants. Physical objects are stretched out into events or processes which ‘occupy’ space-time only in the sense of being spatio-temporally related to one another. Rather than being well-defined individuals which are readily discriminable in the perceptual field, physical objects are strung out. Normally, that is, at a conditioned or commonsensical level, we perceive the world as Newtonian, or roughly Newtonian. Pryor’s art allows us to see the limits of this ordinary view, or view it just as a view. Pryor shows us the Einsteinian embedding of the Newtonian; a grounding that is normally not perceptually available to us. Pryor shows us a world of movement, of process. What he take for granted as static is in flux. Our assumptions are Aristotelian. Pryor’s world is Heraclitean.
Having said that, Pryor’s photographic creations are framed pictures. They de-pict. This means that there is an element of the static, the unmoved, in his depiction of flux. This unchanging is now. There is therefore a permanence, a stillness, which haunts the depicted flux. We could try to explain this as the relatively enduring perspective of the artist, the photographer, the composer. This is not wrong. There is the artist as the source of the visual field, who will be replaced in that kind of position by the viewer of the work of art. There is, to this extent, a perspective on the synthesis of perspective. Yet, all this is grounded in the monolithic given-ness of the picture in the now.
Stephen Priest is a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University and a Research Professor at The Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion in Oxford.