BLIND SPOTS IN OUR CULTURAL IMAGINATION

Artist With partial sight Erica Tandori illuminates vision. Eye specialist and non-related observers respond.

IPortrait of Germana for Sarah.jpg

By Erica Tandori
THE ARTIST

Central vision loss has an enormous impact on daily life. The simplest things, like eating, reading, shopping and transportation, are all affected. One of the most difficult aspects of central vision loss however, is the inability to see the faces of family and friends. Most often, faces are completely obscured by a central scotoma, which either appears like a thick fog in front of the face, or renders people’s heads completely invisible, with only the shoulders and arms evident in the peripheral field.

Several things can impact the recognition of others, including lighting, contrast and distance. If the surrounding environment is dim, and tonal values are similar all around someone’s face, then their face will appear invisible. In a famous portrait like that of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci, the beautiful and serene expression of Lisa Gherardini is completely lost in the Renaissance landscape.

In my work Invisible Mona Lisa, the muted tones blend and melt together like warmed chocolate; there are no sharp edges or contrasts, just a homogenized fading away that leaves only shoulders, arms, fabric, and delicate fingers, to indicate the presence of a woman.

In daily life, there are three choices when conversing with others – viewing the scotoma, using my peripheral vision to look ‘around’ the scotoma, or moving closer to my fellow human being, in order to see them better.

Each of these options presents a problem. As so much communication is non-verbal, looking at the central scotoma means I lose the visible readings, and subtle nuances, of our human exchange. If I try to look ‘around’ the scotoma, I have to look away from the person I am talking to, which gives the disconcerting impression that I am talking with someone else over their shoulder.

This is an awkward and unsettling option for both of us, and so it is a maneuver I rarely make. The third option is to move ever closer during conversation, so that the scotoma diminishes in size and impact.

It means I can watch the emotions rippling across a face, and communicate on levels that go beyond words. But in our society, proximity is considered an invasion of personal space, and all too often I choose the simplest path, which is to converse with the scotoma centrally placed, and in plain view, over someone’s face. In the painting Portrait of Germana, I consider how the scotoma intrudes into our conversation, partially obscuring my friend’s features.

 'Vegemite Jar' by Erica Tandori 2016.

'Vegemite Jar' by Erica Tandori 2016.

By Dr Anthony Hall
THE EYE SPECIALIST

We all see using the retina at the back of our eyes. The retina is a thin layer of cells. Some of these cells are the photoreceptors (rods and cones) that actually receive the light and turn it into an electrical signal. That signal is processed and then sent down the optic to nerve to our brain and that is how we see. The central part of the retina is called the macula. We use the macula for clear detailed central vision, like reading and writing and recognising people’s faces.  

Stargardt disease is an inherited macular degeneration. It affects people's clear central vision. People with Stargardt disease are born with normal vision and then the deterioration starts around school age. People with Stargardt disease do not lose their peripheral vision and are still able to see to get around and eat and dress etc. Ironically, people with Stargardt disease are least able to see the very thing they are looking at. They can see around it but not actually see it.

Erica Tandori’s Vegemite Jar painting works on a number of levels. At its most simple, it is an achingly beautiful representation of the vision of a person with macular degeneration - the clear periphery and the blurred and stippled centre. The viewer can recognise the object and the scene but not clearly see the centre. The painting shows the frustration of central visual loss. We can see where the artist is looking and we can share the pain of missing a piece of the puzzle.

The painting also asks us to imagine how the artist transcribes her vision and her visual loss onto the canvas. Everything the artist looks at directly is missing. She must look away to see her brush and her brushstrokes. She must guess at where the brush is and what it is doing, and then do a retrospective analysis of what it has done. I can only suppose the artist relies on dexterity and her sense of touch to help create the piece.

Also telling is the representation of an object we all know so well, an object that the artist would remember from her childhood and an object that she will never see with the same clarity again. The viewer and the artist all know what is missing.

 

 'Bowl and Spoon' by Erica Tandori.

'Bowl and Spoon' by Erica Tandori.

By Jessica Cassidy
POET

Cheerio, morning
Sugary film that rots the centre
the fillings I await with feelings

Cheerio then, whole gone middle and
Holy be this cheery Sunday morning

Piece them back together, for morning peace
       Or else leave me making sharp 90 degree turns through
spatial fields

sheltering myself from exploding bowls of breakfast

somewhere not completely discernable
I drown my cheerios in paint

By Kate McLaughlin
PUNTER

My parents come from New Zealand, so I grew up eating Marmite rather than Vegemite. Not that one must justify the choice of the former over the latter, for any reason at all.

Because Australians cling desperately to Vegemite as a cultural signifier, being a Marmite eater caused me, on occasion, to be subject to questioning by friends in their kitchens growing up: 'Why don't you just eat Vegemite?' or ‘Marmite is gross’. I felt that I had to defend my choice of the less-favoured yeast-based spreadable, I felt I had to take sides with it. You could say this kind of banter is harmless, or you could say it is indicative of a very problematic kind of exclusive and prescriptive nationalism. I sit somewhere in the middle.

Bruce Pascoe says, wouldn’t it be great if instead of extolling foodstuffs like Vegemite and Pavlova (itself a kiwi invention) as our national culinary contributions, we could show off the fact that this country’s first peoples were the planet’s first ever bakers, grinding flour over 36,000 years ago. Or how we had the most sophisticated agricultural system on the world. And yet Vegemite - perhaps the most tyrannical of our national icons – is always the thing that’s taken overseas, to show new international friends, to watch with delight at their disgusted first bite. 

To me this painting of the Vegemite Jar fading away is about the blind spots in our cultural imagination, and the fragility of the identity of our settler culture. Perhaps if our attachment to cultural symbols like Vegemite were to fade away, it would leave room for more robust and historical cultural understandings. Or indeed, as the painting suggests, perhaps this process is already happening.