Saskia Olde Wolbers’ twelve-minute video work Pareidolia currently on display at Maureen Paley is based on the following story: in the 1930s a German university professor called Cassar moves to Japan where he meets the Zen bowery master Okakura. Fascinated with ‘all things Japanese and Zen’, Professor Cassar felt that he could follow in the footsteps of D.T. Suzuki and write about his experiences in Japan. Here, the fictional story of Cassar meeting Okakura evokes many comparisons between the real-life story of the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel’s encounter with the Zen master Awa Kenzo. Herrigel’s observations on mystical religions and his encounters with Kenzo were subsequently published as Zen in the Art of Archery – a global bestseller which inevitably helped to shape the West’s image of Japan when the book first came out just after World War II.
In Olde Wolbers’ video however, the story of Cassar and Okakura’s culturally complex encounter is told in a fragmented and purposefully deconstructed format. Added to this, the story is told from the perspective of a Japanese translator who claims to have facilitated philosophical discussions with Cassar and Okakura, while neither of whom spoke each other’s language. The climax of this encounter occurred at an incident at which the translator was not present. Asked by Cassar if he could practice his art blindfolded, Okakura first shot one arrow at a bale target, before he shot a second arrow straight through the first one. Despite the absence of the translator, Cassar later wrote in his book that Okakura said: ‘The shot was not my doing but ‘It’, The Devine, has shot!’
The monotone voice and the Japanese accent of the fictional translator narrating the story is underpinned by atmospheric music which further locates the video in the realm of meditation and transcendence. Yet it is the images, those bizarre and totally unearthly images in Pareidolia that have the most dramatic effect. Filmed underwater, in slow motion and upside down, Olde Wolbers has created an utterly psychedelic and alienating montage of images that range from miniature interiors of Japanese rooms drenched in silver paint to strange impressions of colourful birds that appear fictitious as much as they appear to be real. These visually extremely stimulating images, coupled with the complex story told by the translator, makes for dense viewing. Olde Wolbers’ work literally overwhelms the senses.
The title of the video, Pareidolia, is derived from the Greek words ‘para’ and ‘eidōlon’ which, in combination, can be translated as ‘beside image’. Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon which manifests itself when a visual stimulus is perceived as another object: a cloud that looks like a rabbit, a tree that looks like a witch, a piece of toast that evokes the image of Jesus Christ. In Olde Wolbers’ video, the notion of pareidolia is probably best applied to the strange looking birds that, in reality, might be made of rubber. To focus on these technical aspects however would not to Olde Wolbers justice. Pareidolia actually refers to a larger overarching narrative explored in the video: the fictional versus the real. Even though the story might be based on a real encounter, all the details, the characters, the places are, much like the strange-looking birds, inventions of the artist’s imagination. The blacked-out space of the gallery further creates an atmosphere in which the viewer becomes completely subjected to a world that is surreal, comforting, and at the same time, haunting.
The Saskia Olde Wolbers Files: And While I Have Been Lying Here Perfectly Still is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.