Art, Desire and Vision Loss: An interview with Erica Tandori
Erica Tandori is a legally-blind artist, academic and public speaker who was diagnosed with a form of macular dystrophy in her first year of art school. Her writing and practice examine the lived experience of vision loss, and the relationship between sight, vision and desire. With a PhD from the University of Melbourne, Erica shares with us some of her thoughts on what it means to 'see' the world from this unique and 'eye-opening' perspective.
Erica - you are an incredible artist and writer, with amazing technical skill. It is impossible to know from your paintings alone that you are legally blind. Can you tell us what part, if any, does blindness play in your identity as an artist?
Thank you, Faraday, for your kind words and interest in my work as an artist. It is very much appreciated. My first thought is that blindness itself plays no part in my art practice, in that it does not stop me from making work. I use every tool available to me to achieve the image that is burning in my imagination – an image or feeling that I see and feel so clearly, and that is so urgent for me to bring to fruition.
But the issue of vision for an artist is complex. During my PhD I discovered there were many famous artists with significant vision problems. The French Impressionist Edgar Degas comes to mind because he may have had an eye disease like my own, which is a juvenile form of macular dystrophy, known as Stargardt’s Disease. It is said he continuously bemoaned the large blind spot at the centre of his vision, never being able to ‘see the subject itself, but always looking around it'. Due to this disease, it became very difficult for him to work directly in the landscape, as macular dystrophy causes a sensitivity to light. It may have been the reason he chose interior subject matter. However, he made great works in mid and later life despite his central vision loss.
The heartbreak these renowned artists must have felt, and the stigma which must have kept them silent on the demise of their vision, can only be imagined. When I first came to art school at the VCA back in the 1980s I remember being in drawing class and suddenly realising that I could no longer see the life model in front of me. Bursting into tears, I told my drawing teacher (who became a renowned Archibald prize winner in later years) that I had just been diagnosed with an incurable eye disease. My poor teacher sped across the quadrangle to inform the Dean of the college of my distress.
So, I understand how shocking it is for an artist to face the potential loss of sight, as if though the soul of the artist is in the retina. And yet it is not - for the soul of an artist, if there is such a thing, is driven by imagination and desire! Researching my PhD, I came to understand how visual perception works, and that the retina plays a very small part in this role. Instead, we create the world through our brains, constructing a considered view of the world through Individual and revolutionary processes. In that sense, my blindness does inform my art because I am more aware that my eyes don’t have that much to do with it.
Having said all that, I still have enough vision to be thrilled by colour and light, and the mood they evoke in me. Despite the loss, I’m still driven to pursue visual pleasure through the making of art.
Throughout your artistic and Phd career, you’ve explored ideas surrounding the sight/vision dualism: what it means to see versus what it means to have a vision. Can you explain for us what these ideas mean to you?
The great neuroscientist Samir Zeki explains it well by saying that processes of seeing the world around us cannot be untangled from processes of understanding that world, therefore seeing is understanding. This connects with the scientists Purves and Lotto’s empirical theories of visual perception. More on this here and here.
So, retinal seeing is using sensory information, which is meaningless unless we seek to understand what we are seeing, and attempting to make sense of it. I think seeing art works from a young age made me see the world in a certain way, or even want to see it in a certain way, and this becomes vision more than sight. Sometimes I have thought, “It’s an Ellioth Gruner kind of light this morning”, or “The light is so Titanium white today”, or “This evening panorama seems so Glover”. All of this is nonsense of course, but denotes my way of seeing, or rather, relating to, the places around me.
But I think also that to have a vision means to desire to see something in a certain way. A desire to create the world in a way that invokes meaning to the self. People have said art is a window, a framework through which we see the world. But perhaps art is more like a mirror, reflecting aspects about our understanding of the world, or a desire to see the imagined world perfectly reflecting back at us.
Despite my vision loss, and the apparent demise of colour perception which is supposed to happen with this disease, colour for me still invokes mood and intense emotion, and it is this intense emotion triggered by the images in my mind’s eye, that impels me to create the work.
Your grassy landscapes are hauntingly beautiful, and have this misted, wavering quality about them, as if we were looking at the scenes through frosted glass. Is this stylistic effect intentional? I’m wondering, what does ‘realism’ in painting mean to you?
Thank you, I’m glad that you get those feelings from the work because that’s what I get when I’m in a landscape, even though I can’t see it very well. I use photography, the camera’s eye, to capture the landscape, and just like the retina, it is only a tool, not the end in itself. In this way, maybe realism in painting could also be a tool, (just like abstraction or cubism or anything else) and is not an end in itself. Perhaps we could say that the image, the art work we’re creating, is a vehicle by which we transfer the emotion that we are trying to evoke. Maybe the stylistic effects function as a way to carry the emotions too. All these things are the conduit of emotion from artist to viewer, who also participates in the art creation.
Am I haunted by the landscape? Yes, the transience of light and time, and of those who have painted the landscape in the past. I’m thinking here of that astounding painting by David Davies, Moonrise, from 1894. What an astonishing painting. There, that's the difference between seeing and vision! And even between realism and poetry!
David Davie's 'Moonrise' (1894). See it in the NGV collection, here.
Humans rely heavily upon their sense of sight to navigate the world around them. We tend to preference the visual. How has your relationship to painting - a visual artform - changed since your diagnosis with macular degeneration at a young age?
My future as an artist looked grim at the time of my diagnosis. The eye specialists could not tell me how blind I would become, exactly when that would happen, or what the world would look like with diminished vision. They said leave art school, go learn touch typing.
But my relationship to painting and to art has changed significantly, particularly through the process of researching vision loss. It has been quite profound to discover that there is no scientific instruments on this earth that can convey how visual lost appears from the perspective of the patient, other than the patient and artist conveying that experience through art. No medical expert, no computer, can tell me what I do and do not see, and how I see through my vision loss. So when the doctor said to me, “leave art school, give up, it’s no use”, I should not have listened. I should have recorded my own diminishing vision through my art.
But I did not know that at the time of diagnosis, I did not know how important art could be to exploring the world of vision loss, until I began my PhD. Now I see very clearly that art has a significant contribution to make to cross disciplinary research, to medicine and science. I have realised that there is no better language on earth, no better research tool or method of investigating the experience of vision loss other than through the very visual language of art.
Lotto talks about how we use vision as humans and how we use colour to try to make sense of things in the world. It is a very evolutionary thing. As artists, we are also scientists, exploring the behaviour of colour, light and form to make sense of the world.
There have been instances where artists have lost their vision and continued painting, so the relationship to painting does not necessarily change despite vision loss. Why is this so? Why haven’t some people stopped painting despite almost total loss of vision? See in particular the British artist Sargy Mann.
In keeping with the notion above, how have your experiences of the world outside of your own body changed?
Yes, I have found instincts and feelings predominate as my sight diminishes. The world is somewhat overwhelming - people move fast, things are blurry. I don’t drive, I can’t read text, I can’t see faces except at close range.
Day-to-day life is more difficult and it is easier to be in my studio painting or at my computer, because in those places my face is close to the canvas or the screen.
Visual fatigue is a big one for me, and I do feel unsteady on my feet and feel a sense of imbalance because of diminished vision. If I’m out shopping or walking it helps to hold onto someone’s arm, or to use a shopping trolley for balance.
To return to the theme of art as a mirror, painting becomes a safe place where I see the world clearly, where there is beauty, colour, light and drama, a world created not through the diseased retina, but through a desire to escape it.
You can view Erica's available work, here.
Interview by Faraday Boydell.