On Beauty by Elaine Scarry

In On Beauty, Scarry mentioned about the phenomenon of how a visual event may reproduce itself through other senses, such as touch. It can happen in a non-linear way, extending inward and outward towards many directions, at any moment of time, and continue indefinitely.

I recently experienced what Scarry described(and the opposite of that) in an art exhibition. I was annoyed by the physical sculpture installation in the center of the exhibition space. There is a gigantic mirror installed on the floor. The piece itself is a self-coherent kinetic artwork called the all-knowing eye. It’s a gigantic eyeball that rotates to gaze at exhibition viewers. However, the reflective mirror on the floor and the projection of the video texture on one of the side walls felt distracting. It reminded me of a person who would talk loudly and do not give others a chance to chime in. I also do not connect with a few digital photography work. The photographer took photos of transparent glassware, distorted and layered them to form an intricate abstract collage. I looked at it and my mind went blank.

The artwork I connected with the most is Weiyi Li’s 3D scanning pieces. It was very different from the 3D scanning based artists in New York. I was touched by the presentation of these moments of imperfection captured by the artist. It invited a sense of “unceasing begetting” ( Scarry, 2011, P.5), the “perpetual duplicating of a moment that never stops.” ( Scarry, 2011, P.5).  It reminded me of the graduate class I teach here at the department, New Media New Form. Our 3D scanner is very low fidelity. So, when students scan their portraits, they have to be very close to the camera. Sometimes a bit of their scalps, arms or shoulder would go missing. They would try to patch it up in 3D modeling software but more often than not leaving a dent in the model. The dent, the handshake, presented here as weirdly mutated two-headed women or dysfunctioning objects, moved me beyond words could describe. I felt as an audience, my existence was acknowledged, requiring no explanation or justification. I am allowed to be, with my three arms and missing scalp, just because of who I am, no more, no less. The manifestation continues. I thought about another 3D scanning work made by our classmate Michelle. She accidentally applied a swirling effect to her scanned model. The model was somewhat deformed, while trying to portrait a human figure at the same time. I was captured by a sense of strength through the deformation/representation.

As I continue to read, I asked myself, what would I write about if I were to write about Beauty? I remembered a few weeks ago, I tried explaining to Judy in her office hour, how a seemingly normal Chinese girl in her mid-30s resonated with a videogame playing a homosexual male lick another’s genital gun in a filthy public bathroom modeled after a real bathroom 1962’s Mansfield Ohio. As I finished speaking, Judy raised her head, gave me a long, silent look, and said, “I don’t the understand what you are saying, but I can tell that experience must have been very real for you.” Scarry writes, “the willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education.” I also think the willingness to honestly acknowledge one’s location is equally touching. In a time and space where things change at a speed that’s beyond the limit of comprehension, we no longer have the option to be there for each other as quickly as we are needed. Pushing ourselves to change beyond limits will drive us crazy or break us. It’s more likely than not, that when we speak, our listeners, friends or loved ones will no longer understand what we mean. Beauty becomes those inexplicable moments when we look each other in the eye, and say, “I do not understand what you mean. But I know you must have felt something very real and important to you”.  

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