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Optical Illusions That Help Us Understand How We See

Artist Daihei Shibata uses illusion to help us see the role our consciousness plays in seeing.

A shadow illusion produced by artist and video director Daihei Shibata (all images courtesy of the artist)

For Japanese artist and video director Daihei Shibata, daily life offers innumerable opportunities to present illusions. Among other commercial and artistic endeavors, Shibata has made Unexpected Outcome, a series of little video compilations that collect visual illusions generated in physical or virtual reality by the artist. An elevator door unzips like a vinyl jumpsuit; the addition of a battery to a simple electrical rig illuminates the battery case rather than the light bulb and fixture to which it is attached; a soccer ball drops and bounces once, before shifting slightly to reveal itself as a 2D photograph that falls flat to the ground. In every case, Shibata has identified, and then thwarted, the expectations we unconsciously generate about objects, based on our lived experience and the tiresome reality of physics. Oftentimes, the whimsical upending of the expectation we didn’t even realize we held succeeds in bringing a smile. But of course, for Shibata — like all illusionists — identifying the expectations we hold for objects is a conscious process.

A pharmaceutical tablet becomes a screw in Unexpected Outcome, ver. 2

“There are various techniques to make illusion,” said the artist in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “First of all, at the stage of drawing ideas, [making sure that] everyone can understand it, and we are trying to deal with themes that are not too strange. And within that theme, we find common items from seemingly unrelated things and link them together to choose concrete things that will create new value and discoveries.” Shibata has literally systemized this process, as a process sketch accompanying the Unexpected Outcome videos demonstrates. Shibata first aligns four objects directly with an associated value: bananas = yellow, push = open, chair = sit down. Then he reconnects each column with a different terminus; now a chair will light up, a banana will be sit upon, and push is, enigmatically, yellow. Perhaps each of these will not result in a fully rendered illusion, but it creates a jumping-off point from which Shibata instigates “nonverbal dialogue.”

An entire plug unplugs in Unexpected Outcome, ver. 2

“Nonverbal dialogue is very important to make it [the illusion] understandable to everyone,” he said. “Even if you do not use any words, to make everyone understand, it is important to make tests and repeat trial and error.” Shibata is clearly adept at rendering in CGI, but exhibits a charming proclivity for making illusions by analogue means, where possible. One video segment shows a bottle of brand-name soda, with the label pixelated, presumably to avoid copyright infringement. The next shot is clearly a cartoon Pokemon, with the same pixilation obscuring the majority of the creature, only ears and limbs extending into focus. But this time, the camera pans, and as we circle the subject, we see it is a stuffed Pokemon toy, standing in alignment with a colorful wall, built in blocks to mimic the 2-bit pixilation of a digital mask. Shibata’s fluidity between physical and digital reality adds an additional layer of surprise to his illusions — it’s unclear whether the trick will be CGI, perspective, or bait-and-switch.

“Nature Wall” (2015) created for the Takao 599 Museum

These illusions might be seen as idea sketches or a venue for practicing techniques that Shibata leverages to marvelous effect in his extended work as a video and installation artist. For example, “Nature Wall” is a 2015 installation commissioned for the opening of the Takao 599 Museum, which serves to illuminate the ecosystem and biodiversity of Mt. Takao. The wall presents taxidermied samples of the animals that inhabit Mt. Takao, arranged around a ghostly spreading beech tree, symbol of the natural beauty of the area. But rather than present this static and lifeless taxonomy of the denizens of Mt. Takao, a three minute video by Shibata lights up members of the wall and shows them gamboling through a seasonal whirl of life in the forest. Grounded by a return to the tree as focal point, Shibata’s video swoops from micro to macro, coming in to watch warthogs rummage in the leaves, before zooming into the stratosphere to take the viewer on the train trip from Tokyo that will bring them to the museum, and back out into the forest.

A cohort of visitors take in Shibata’s animation on the ecosystem of Mt. Takao.

“I try not to spare myself to learn for my interest,” said Shibata — a sentiment that restates a classic Eamesian Parable: Never delegate understanding. “Whether it is technical or even empirical, I try to do as much as possible.”

Part of the charm in Shibata’s work lies in his cleverness in rendering the illusion, but part comes from the realization of the previously unconscious visual bias we held as viewer. Whether it is animating a cardboard box to shatter like plaster, or animating the taxidermied specimens of nature a museum is meant to exhort, Shibata’s work seems to open the world to new and dynamic possibilities.

Works by Daihei Shibata, including his Unexpected Outcome series, can be found in his online portfolio. His designs for the Takeo 599 Museum remain on permanent installation.

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