Christopher Sheils worked commercially in Melbourne winning the Victorian Advertising Photographer of the Year in1999. In 2001 he switched professions to nursing working with people with neurodegenerative disorders and then acute psychiatry. He developed an interest in the neurosciences particularly visual perception and it is this knowledge which underpins the structure of the images and the unique application of depth and spacial orientation illusions in the manner of Escher. He is represented in Los Angeles by Fabrik Projects and is a member of the Soho Foto Gallery in New York. His work is in public and private collections in Australia, United States and Europe.
The Event Horizon
Imagine if you can, a world in which we can perceive multiple realities simultaneously. Our politicians could be insane and sane at the same time. The cat could be alive and dead at the same time.
Due to the complexity behind my work it would be impossible to describe it in a few words. This being the seventh of a series loosely called Time is an Illusion, It has evolved from an interest in visual perception in the context of psychology, neurology and semiotics. Secondly, if you are expecting flowery, romanticised prose that resembles something written on the back of a wine bottle, playfully incorporating subtle hints of blackberry, molasses and a with a delicate undercurrent of surrealism, you will be sadly disappointed. Instead, it would be more sensible to explain the insights gained from my study and how they contributed to the construction of the images.
Years back, when I was reading about visual pathways, I came across an illusion called the Nekker Cube, a black wireframe cube on a white background which changes orientation as you view it. The implication of this observation is that the brain can only perceive one reality at a time and will when conflicted, switch between the possible realities. This makes sense as the experience of having multiple realities is called psychosis and hardly advantageous for the success of the species. I have since discovered a second response which is to merge the conflicting realities into a plausible unreality. This is mainly due to the nature of our vision. Our most detailed vision is in the centre and at just eight degrees from the centre we are legally blind with peripheral vision more involved in the fight and flight response. In this region the brain extrapolates the absent data from surrounding areas, movement and memory. This is the region that my images target as it is the area wherethe brain is most suggestable.
The Nekker Cube revealed one other insight. Why do we see a two dimensional ink figure on a page as a three dimensional object. The answer lies in how our vision develops as infants. Without going into detail, depth perception is learned and not instinctual. It is based on two immutable truths. Those being that a distant object will appear smaller than a closer object and that a closer object will obscure a distal object. This is how we can perceive depth in a photograph without stereoscopy. The last series called Fake Views created illusion by deliberately breaking these immutable truths.
In every series there has been a sociopolitical aspect. In Full Time, the duality derived from multiple competing images merged to create a nonsensical urban landscape which represented the absurd political outcomes that occur when opposing ideologies refuse too compromise. The last series, Fake Views was a series of photographic illusions based on depth and perspective illusions. These represented the power of misinformation and influence on populations, creating a false reality by
controlling and manipulating the source of information.
This series is called The Event Horizon which is the point, when entering a black hole that escape becomes impossible. The symbolism is multi faceted.
Stylistically this series shifts more towards surrealism than illusion, though still occurring occasionally, the illusions are subtler and moderated by proximal elements.. They are designed to resemble Escher prints, monochrome, borderline illustration and tinted but with a split tone to emphasise depth perception and thus illusion. It is also done with the deepest respect to Escher whose work I never thought possible photographically until When Escher Meets Gehry. In spite of two suspended lighting rigs with different vertical planes to prove the falsity of the image, the brain will still accept and believe the image as being one continuous space. This is a prime example of two conflicting realities being merged to create a plausible unreality.
From a personal perspective, I have a diagnosis of PTSD. My life the for most is rarely leaving the house, interspersed with the odd trip to distant lands to show some work and a life of doctors, lawyers and bureaucrats.
Apart from the Kafkaesque reality I live in, the strangeness of the images has correlated with the deteriorating socio political state of world affairs. The title The Event Horizon particularly to which countries will buckle under and descend into civil war and which countries will emerge from the pandemic ahead. COVID 19 has also influenced on a global scale the sense of unreality with the perpetual ideological wars still being played out in the digital arena.
Other insights have emerged that are worth consideration. The construction method is particularly useful for validating or invalidating Gestalt principles. Possible conclusions are that the principles are hierarchical with Focal Point being the most dominant. The images are mostly populated, more than previously as this defines the vertical plane in multiplanar images. In other words, an area of the image which is upside down, your brain will try and justify as being the right way up when proximal to the position of a person (or giraffe). The reason for this is that any person or animal standing erect will be the reference point for the vertical plane as we have learned to perceive a person standing as vertical or they would topple over when even slightly off balance.
As per symbolism, semiotics is highly cultural and even more so individual. The assignation of meaning then is so flexible then that any viewers interpretations are as valid as mine, thus the placement of the elements lead to an open narrative.
More importantly, the placement of the people in the images is because Homo Sapiens is a very egocentric species and a populated image will always prompt an emotional response and makes a perfect focal point. We did after all, make God in our own image.
The image reflects on the mess the world is in as a result of my own generation’s supervision.
The sole character in the image, in spite of his placement well off centre becomes the focal point due to the egocentricity of homo sapiens as a species. The character distracts from a depth illusion with the pillars in the centre of the frame and strikes a relaxed pose, seemingly oblivious that he is isolated in a Sysiphian world where there is no way in and no way out.
The previous series was focused more on depth illusions. This series is predominantly experiments in orientation and perspective of which this image is one of those. When viewed from a distance the space is conceivable as a whole, however if the image is examined closely then the viewer’s sense of orientation within the space alters depending on which area of the image they are looking at.
Apart from the immutable truths regarding depth we learn as our vision develops, we also learn immutable truths like the horizon is level, a person standing erect or a wall or a tree will be perpendicular to the ground.
The features of the image that the viewer will concentrate in certain areas are the regions which approximate a horizontal plane. In these areas the brain would be looking for places it can imagine itself within the space therefore, whether it be a floor, wall or ceiling the brain wil perceive it as a floor.
Prior to CT, MRI and PET scanning, we learned most about brain function when it stopped working. I learn most about the way we see and navigate through the space around us by disrupting the process of visual perception. The secrets to this image lies more in the stages of construction when effects are most notable. The surprising conclusion was not that the Gestalt principle of Focal Point had influence over the perception, it was the degree of influence that surprised and showed how the foocal point dominated all other principles.
At the Crossroads
Unsurprisingly, this is the image that took the longest. Over six months working on it almost exclusively. The girl is well camouflaged partly due to tonal similarity. Certainly in this image the person is not the focal point. In fact she is being overpowered by the strength of the W and X lines as well as the convergent lines of the girders. While she is at a crossroad, the only way out is back the way she came.
Scaling the girl led to an odd problem. Where she is positioned she is proximal to two different scalings and to be correct she needs to be bigger and smaller at the same time. I opted for midrange which should be doubly wrong but somehow seems right. Still, who cares when you live in a world of daisy chains and laughs, where you can believe in six impossible things before breakfast.