In the last decades, there has been a contemporary debate around the experience of the image in general and the artistic image in particular. In this context, the notion of “seeing-in” plays an important role. Way back in 1980, the British philosopher Richard Wollheim introduced it and, since then, this concept has never been ceasing to stimulate discussion among aestheticians.
Wollheim spoke with Ludwig Wittgenstein. About thirty years earlier, he had dealt with the phenomenon of ambiguous figures in one of the most influential philosophy books of the twentieth century: the Philosophical Investigations. He was particularly struck by the figure of the duck/rabbit, which quietly appeared in 1892 on the illustrated magazine “Fliegende Blätter”, and then it became one of the most famous cases of the psychology of perception:
Putting my eyes on this image, I see the profile of a rabbit (Wittgenstein preferred the hare) looking to the right, its beautiful ears stretched back to the left. After few seconds, as if somewhere a mysterious switch were pushed, a strange change occurs: the rabbit’s ears become the duck’s beak, his muzzle transforms into the back of a head; only the eye remains in its place, but now his gaze is turned to the left (not necessarily in this order: first the duck and then the rabbit).
It’s a static picture, this is not the cinema. Nothing changes in the material configuration of the image: the features of the picture remain the same. And therefore, the perceptive stimulus, that hits the sense of sight, does not undergo any modification. Yet, everything changes at the level of the sense of perception: now I see that figure as a duck, now as a rabbit. “Seeing-as” is the formula adopted by the Viennese philosopher to characterize this curious phenomenon. It is undoubtedly an experience worthy of extreme attention. However, Wollheim points out that this is an experience which fails to explain a crucial factor in our way of relating to images: in fact, the support in which the image appears is neglected by “seeing-as”. It focuses on the figure (the duck rather than the rabbit), without worrying about the medium that allows one or the other animal to appear. Thus, we can understand the meaning of the correction proposed by Wollheim: we must consider not only what we see, but we must also consider what allows the figure to manifest itself. This is the reason that justifies the shift of the preposition: from seeing-as to seeing-in.
Seeing-in presupposes the possibility of coming and going: not between two visions of the same figure (as in the case of seeing-as a duck or a rabbit), but rather between the figure and its own medium. In fact, in front of an image, we can always focus our attention now on the image itself, now on the medium support. In front of a panel or a painted canvas or a photograph, I can decide to look away from the image to concentrate on its material substrate (the cracks in the wood on the painted surface, the texture of the canvas that supports the pigments, the grain of photographic paper).
Of course, even moving images present the same arrangement of figure and support: we understand this when, while we are watching a movie in an open-air cinema, suddenly the summer breeze flexes the screen deforming the faces of the actors; or when, traveling by train, we are watching a video on our cell phone, and a ray of sunlight suddenly illuminates the glass, forcing us to change the angle for continuing to watch the video and not our own face reflected on the screen.
In our cultural tradition, as users of images and, above all, of artistic images, we do not have access to this material substrate except through a particular modulation of seeing-in, which allows us to focus our attention on the support. And, touching it directly is an operation exclusively reserved to restorers, whose delicate task is precisely to take care of wood, canvas and paper. In the eighteenth century, the birth of the contemporary “museum” institution, with the emergence of aesthetics as autonomous discipline, favored the sense of sight (“seeing but not touching”) as the sensorial channel for the artwork pure contemplation without any practical purpose. In the long wave of the Kantian influential doctrine, the aesthetic attitude is satisfied with the object as a pure image, regardless of its actual existence.
It is in this context – still dominant today – the challenge of tactile museums is played out: revealing to the spectator’s experience the possibility of the direct touch of the support usually reserved for restoration professionals. And disclosing it not for a repairing or conservative intent, but for an authentically aesthetic one. In full recognition of the deep meaning of the term “aesthetics”, preserved in its etymological origin of aisthesis, i.e. sensitive, corporeal knowledge as a whole and not just optical. Opening up to appreciate the medium, in its irreducible materiality, that medium hosts and lets the figure to show itself: touching-in.