Eyes, lies and illusions

    With the angel of death as the warm-up act, the Hayward Gallery’s interactive journey into science and magic presses all the right buttons for Waldemar Januszczak

    “Hang on a bit,” I hear all you sensible readers out there guffawing in unison at the above musings, “how can one show do all this?” It’s a fair question. And I intend to answer it. Just as soon as I tell you a little more about the fun that I had in here.

    Eyes, Lies & Illusions, as the optical extravaganza is rather stolidly entitled, begins with shadows. You walk into darkness and a spooky circle of silhouettes dances around you and above you. Some of these shadows are cast by other visitors to the show, who, with a simple trick of the light, are made to seem like a race of giants stomping about the Hayward. A skeleton does a jig. The angel of death, or something that looks just like him, circles around your head.

    Now, as a rule, I hate shadowplay. Certainly I hate shadow puppets of the sort that act out tedious folk tales for tourists in Far Eastern hotels on Saturday nights, or play the afternoon slot at the harvest festival back home. Few things cling more grimly to a phoney sense of civilisational innocence than the Indonesian shadow puppet. But this opening burst of black-and-white action at the Hayward is of a different order. By mixing up folk art with modern art — the circling angel of death is actually a mobile by a contemporary favourite, Christian Boltanski — and by blurring the mysteries of the past with those of the present, the Hayward show engineers a seamless psycho-optical experience of real intensity. From the moment you walk in, you feel transported.

    Once the shadows have worked their magic and made you feel all primitive and up for it, Eyes, Lies & Illusions continues its exploration of miraculous optical effects through a half-dozen categories. Tricks of the Light sets out to prove that vision is the least reliable of the senses, chiefly with the aid of some excellently deceitful mirrors. Riddles of Perspective confronts you with exactly what it says on the tin. There’s a full-sized room in which, if you stand on the left, you look like a giant, but if you stand on the right, you’re a dwarf.

    Thus, the show quickly persuades you never to trust what you see as it dumps you into a busy storm of absurd optical experiences. With more than 1,000 exhibits in it, ranging from seaside peep shows to masonic code handbooks, from secretly pornographic playing cards to micro-photographs smuggled in pens, the display never lets up for a moment as it teases and re-teases the eye. It’s immediately fun to explore. But working out exactly what it is that you are exploring takes longer. What is this exhibition’s point? What is all this stuff?

    Most of the exhibits come from the collection of optical bric-a-brac assembled over the past 30 years by Werner Nekes, a German avant-garde film-maker. I hope Nekes won’t mind me describing him as an optical-effects anorak, but that is what he seems to be. There are photographs of him in the catalogue surrounded by shelf after shelf of ridiculous apparatus, arranged in descending order of reasonableness: magic lanterns, stereoscopes and microscopes at the sensible end of the optical spectrum; phenakistiscopes, myographs, coptographs and anorthoscopes when the lunacy of the lens takes proper hold.

    All these wacky contraptions seek to delight in probing the optical discrepancy that exists between science and magic. Nekes’s collection covers a 500-year span, from the Renaissance to today, but the bulk of the exhibits come from the century between 1750 and 1850, when scientific advances and superstition progressed so excellently side by side, and the human mind proved itself to be such an excitable learner driver in the age of reason.

    For instance, there’s a pack of German playing cards here that explore the latest theories about translucence and projection by displaying the Queen of Hearts when viewed in normal light conditions, and a naughty courtier tickling the queen between her legs when you shine a candle on the back.

    The technical term for all this stuff in the show, the gadgets and games, the contraptions and pop-ups, is, apparently, “pre-cinema”. There’s an exceptionally prosaic text in the catalogue by Laurent Mannoni, the terrain’s leading historian, which trudges through pre-cinema’s tortuous archeological past. Basically, the urge to fool the eye is an ancient one: a human given, you might say. And I was interested to see that the main subjects of pre-cinema — travel, porn, horror, comedy — are pretty much the main subjects of post-cinema — the internet, cyberspace and all. We are, it seems, hard-wired to seek the same psycho-optic thrills as our ancestors.

    What I really like about this show’s dark opening is the sense it achieves of pushing you into a cave. The flickering shadows and darting phantasms on the walls reminded me exactly of some sights I once encountered in a cave in Spain, filled with art. All the artist had done in this cave was to highlight the edges of the shadows cast by the rocks in torchlight and, hey presto: he had conjured up bulls, mammoths, rhinos. Trying to trap shadows was art’s first task. And for all science’s contrary efforts, it remains art’s task today.

    Most of these exhibits were made to be ephemeral, disposable, a trick in a box, a momentary effect. Yet, to address my opening claims, I believe Eyes, Lies & Illusions ans-wers some fundamental questions about the meaning and origins of art. In fact, I think we can see here exactly what art was for in the beginning, and exactly what it does for us now. In a nutshell: you can take the human being out of the cave, but you can’t take the cave out of the human being. Art is there to slake our continuing appetite for mystery. Sure, science can these days count the exact number of molecules in the piece of op art included here by Ludwig Wilding. But can it ever explain why having your eyes baffled by Wilding’s crazy grids is a pleasure?

    So, that’s one level on which to enjoy this show. Another approach is to come along and push every button going in an orgy of interactive optical fun.