Oblique or Obscure – Psychology & Art

For the past couple of years, I’ve been part of a small artist group, the Larks and Ravens. My personal interest, as ever, is psychology – in this case exploring  how visual art can trigger new  ways of viewing our everyday world and disrupt accepted thinking and behaviour. Our focus is social and environmental issues.

AnimalEyes-http_www_futurity_orgFrom early student days, I’ve been interested in the way the structure of our human visual system generates just one possible image of the world. A different structure generates a different image & different behaviours (or the reverse in evolutionary terms).


I see some of what the Larks & Ravens are trying to do as the equivalent on a conceptual level – can we play with structures which mean we glimpse the ‘normal’ world around us differently – even if just for a moment?

In parallel, I’m on a learning curve trying to grasp what visual art is, how it engages people (or not) and what role it can play in triggering social change. As part of that process, our group visited Tate Modern last week and saw 3 different exhibits. Each had a very different effect but each seemed to have something lacking (at least for me).

First we visited the Wolfgang Tillman exhibition. Here the aesthetics and technical sophistication made an immediate impact on my art colleagues but (I admit slightly shamefacedly) little impact on me.  I struggled with what Tillman “was trying to say” especially when I was aware of gallery visitors earnestly studying the exhibition booklet more than they were studying the art on the walls. To a large extent, this is probably my problem of not yet comfortably reading the language of art but, in any field, I find this level of obscurity off-putting. The definition of ‘obscurity’ is “not clearly expressed or understood“. Is that sometimes the artist’s intention or does it not necessarily matter if he or she has expressed their own ideas? I don’t know but I don’t want our Larks & Ravens’ art to be obscure, i.e. to require explanatory booklets for the uninitiated. I want our work to be accessible but ‘oblique’ (i.e. “expressed indirectly“) or it won’t offer new understanding or insight. How hard is that to do?

C9W_vEdV0AAUYZ_Next up, we visited the community engagement exhibit organised by the new Tate Exchange programme – “A space for everyone to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life, through art“. For me, the art in this exhibition went to the other extreme. Its strength was that the interactive exhibits had been created collaboratively with a variety of artists working with community groups. But the exhibits seemed obvious and somewhat playschool in style. The advantage is that they afforded immediate physical engagement – balloons to blow, coconuts to throw, a hammer to wield and post-it notes to draw or write on – all of which appealed to children. But the disappointment was that most of the exhibits failed to elicit deeper thinking or emotional engagement with the underlying concepts of money, value and exchange. With the odd exception, the concepts seemed rather superficially realised. Clearly the depth of the socio-psychological concepts as well as the power of the visual art does matter.

IMG_20170413_164642Finally, we stepped outside and witnessed the Fujiko Nakaya’s immersive fog sculpture where, every 5 minutes or so, the outside  arena was submersed in dense fog for a period of 5-10 minutes before it cleared again. This made everyone smile. The visual effects were powerful as people were transformed into ghostly outlines or faded from view completely. But the thing which was most striking was the crowd appeal. Every time the fog started, people rushed out of the building and into the fog. Children raced around with delight appearing and disappearing and the adults took selfies with their ‘phones. So, the  fog experience was compelling and playful in a way it would be great to be able to reproduce. Ironically, whilst “obscuring” in its visual effect, it wasn’t “obscure” in its tangible realisation. No explanatory booklet required. But is it OK for it to feel more a form of art entertainment than a thought piece? It’s certainly a crowd puller.

So, our experiences at Tate Modern on one day have given me plenty to think about and ponder on with my Larks and Ravens.

My dream, as a psychologist working with visual artists, is to create experiences which have real visual and visceral impact, which enable people to see their ‘normal’  world differently and which trigger new thinking and conversations about important socio-political issues. I want to avoid work that’s so obscure it requires an accompanying booklet or so obvious that it doesn’t challenge or surprise. I’d like to create work that’s oblique but grabs attention – a combination which I’m learning is hard to achieve.

Meanwhile, my learning curve continues to bend…….


About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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3 Responses to Oblique or Obscure – Psychology & Art

  1. caerhendre says:

    Can I challenge you on how you can know what effect anything has on anyone else? what traces remain in the subconscious or even the conscious mind? could be the temperature, smell, sound or any of the visual stimuli that link to some past or future experience/ conversation.
    One of the great unknowable things in art, perhaps also elsewhere, is what effect are we having on each other.
    As an artist I know people interpret what they want to when engaging my work. Also they are effected by ho much they know of me and my intentions.

  2. Alison Kidd says:

    Agree. You certainly can’t know or control the effect you have even if you want to! You can listen and watch for outward responses, comments, actions and then make assumptions (albeit often inaccurate and biased!) about whether this was attributable to the art you shared or something completely other. As Scrooge so famously commented when seeing Jacob Marley’s ghost “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”.
    But I still want to try to disrupt our normal accepted views of the world, even if I don’t know and can’t tell what effect that has!

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