Ben Thorp Brown Goes Deep Into Depth

THE DAILY PIC: At the Whitney, a 2D video by Ben Thorp Brown quotes Oliver Sacks on losing his 3D vision; his colleague regains hers.

THE DAILY PIC (#1669): One of my favorite moments in recent art came with the so-called “documentary turn” of the 1990s, when artists stopped fussing about style and zeroed-in instead on pointing things out in the world – on simple (or not-so-simple) ostension. Lately, an artist named Ben Thorp Brown has been one of my favorite ostenders, first late last year at PS1 and now – today in fact – in a show called “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art” at the Whitney Museum in New York, where a screening at 6:30 tonight will include his video Drowned World. Two voice overs, belonging to the neuroscientists Oliver Sacks and Susan Barry, talk about losing (Sacks) and gaining (Barry) the ability to see the world in three dimensions, while various depth-filled scenes appear on screen. (Click here to see a clip.)

The piece is riffing on, and picking apart, our current obsession with pictorial depth, as expressed in the current crop of 3D movies and virtual-reality devices. But I’m just as interested in its ties to a tradition of pictorial illusionism that dates back to the Italian Renaissance and beyond. Sacks talks about how his loss of stereoscopic depth perception (which by the way plays a relatively minor role in perceiving space) was made up for by a new ability to recognize compositions and patterns in the flatter, more picture-like world he started to live in. I wonder if he would have thought in those terms if he hadn’t lived his life in a European culture shaped by the spatial innovations of Giotto and Leonardo – and Mondrian.

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