Seeing is Forgetting - Robert Irwin

'Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees' by Lawrence Weschler is not a punchy title but it is a beautifully resonant exploration with artist Robert Irwin about his work. The opening ends like this:

"All I want to say," he continued, "is that the wonder is still there." Whereupon, he simply walked away.

The central theme of Seeing is Forgetting is that perception is the fundamental art act. The artist's role is therefore to create situations where the viewer can become aware that they are aware.

When we become aware of being aware it is both a beautiful, meaningful experience, and somewhat unsettling. Unsettling because the way we know ourselves is shaken, and enlivened.

My own interest in Buddhism and Philosophy drew me very strongly to Irwin's work, which is a pragmatic exploration of phenomenology - the study of how we perceive.

In case this is all sounding a bit boring and dry, there are plenty of funny stories. Irwin's joy for life shines through the text, and is evident in the pictures of his work, which is luminous and beautiful. 


One story that makes me laugh is Irwin being invited to create work for an exhibition, which he agreed to. Irwin's work is always 'site specific,' so this meant Irwin would need to go to the location and respond to it with a work. To cut a long story short Irwin was initially offered space inside the exhibition and funding, both of which were eventually retracted. Irwin sat outside wondering about what to do and saw four trees shedding their leaves. On his own dime Irwin went to a hardware store, bought a length of rope, and tied it around the four trees to create a subtle frame, bringing attention to the scene.

After the exhibition nobody commented on the work at all, either positively or negatively. It was like it didn't happen. Then one day Irwin overheard a committee deciding whether or not they would fund one of his projects. One committee member who'd been on the board of the previous exhibition said "Don't give any money to that son of a bitch Irwin, he'll just tie a rope around something and walk off with all the money!" 

Hearing Irwin tell this story with a smile on his face is heartening for any artist, and there's so many lessons to learn there. 

A huge lesson in the book for me is that the act of seeing is something that one can and should cultivate, and it takes time.

In a social-media era creative people can often feel an urge to share work instantly, continuously or even while it's being made.

It's refreshing to hear Irwin mention that it took him five years to be able to really see what he was doing on one particular project that involved coating fluorescent tubes with lighting gels so they hummed just right. 

As a photographer I was curious to read that for many years Irwin banned photographic reproductions of his work. For Irwin photography captured everything that the work wasn't about about, and nothing of what the work was about - it's presence.

Irwin's early line paintings, for example, weren't about a line, they were about looking. This looking would only happen in front of the work, whereas looking at a small photograph of it the viewer would likely think "a yellow square with two lines on it, so what?" 

This reminds me that the now ubiquitous camera image is not the only way to see. It's a beautiful world out there, which is always changing. We inhibit it with two eyes, and the weight of our body.  What we can smell, or hear, or who we're with, changes the way we see. Can we remain present to that?

Can we keep the wonder there?