Seeing and seeing again: Mici Boxell’s photo-collaged prints
In many ways, the process of watching has become a process of forgetting. 1
So declared John Stezaker in a conversation with Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Lynda Morris in 2007. Stezaker, one of the most important photo-collage artists of the late 20th century, comments as much on collage as a technique as he does on the act of looking. We now live in a visual-age where our senses are bombarded and overloaded with images. Television, print and digital media, billboards, smartphones and tablets project an endless stream of images from the moment we wake to the time we rest our heads. In many ways, we have no choice other than to engage with them. However, engage does not necessarily mean that we are fully aware of what we encounter. We are, as Stezaker points out, more likely to forget. Viewing is no longer dictated by a process of concentration. We have forgotten that looking, as David Hockey so poignantly states, is a more positive act than you think, that it’s something that you have to decide to do. For most of us we hurry through life never contemplating the act and process of looking, or any other sense for that matter. Do others taste things exactly as we taste them? Do others hear music exactly as we hear it? Is a scent smelt identically by each of us? Do we all see what we see the same way?
For artist Mici Boxell, this last question is one that she has had to confront through necessity. Diagnosed with prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, she navigates life without the ability to recognise familiar faces. For Boxell, knowing people comes through identifying them by their gestures, their voice and other physical attributes. Seeing is a sense that she is acutely aware of and one, that in more recent times through her artistic practice, she has begun to explore in detail. She asks of herself and the viewer, what is it that you are looking at and do we share a similar vision and perception.
Boxell’s investigation is framed by the ideas of the German philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. One of the 20th centuries most important philosophers, his work interrogates the logic of language and also notions of seeing and perception. In his Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously, Wittgenstein explores the theory of aspect perception, the idea that the exact same image can appear to be two different things. Wittgenstein describes it thus: "I observe a face and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience 'noticing an aspect'." 2 Drawing on the illusionistic image of the duck-rabbit by the psychologist Joseph Jastrow – a simple line drawing which looks both like a duck facing left and a rabbit looking towards the right – Wittgenstein seeks to explain this idea further, incorporating the complex reliance of language to decipher images:
I see two pictures, with the duck-rabbit surrounded by rabbits in one, by ducks in the other. I don’t notice that they are the same. Does it follow from this that I see something different in the two cases? – It gives us a reason for using this expression here.
“I saw it quite differently, I’d never have recognized it!” Now, that is an exclamation. And there is also a justification for it.
I’d never have thought of superimposing the heads in this way, of comparing them in this way. For they suggest a different mode of comparison. The head seen in this way hasn’t even the slightest similarity to the head seen in that way — although they are congruent.
I’m shown a picture-rabbit and asked what it is; I say “It’s a rabbit”. Not “Now it’s a rabbit”. I’m reporting my perception. – I’m shown the duck-rabbit and asked what it is; I may say “It’s a duck-rabbit”. But I may also react to the question quite differently. – The answer that it is a duck-rabbit is again the report of a perception; the answer “Now it’s a rabbit” is not. Had I replied “It’s a rabbit”, the ambiguity would have escaped me, and I would have been reporting my perception.
The change of aspect. “But surely you’d say that the picture has changed altogether now!” But what is different: my impression? my attitude? — Can I say? I describe the change like a perception; just as if the object had changed before my eyes.
“Ah, now I see this”, I might say (pointing to another picture, for example). This has the form of a report of a new perception. The expression of a change of aspect is an expression of a new perception and, at the same time, an expression of an unchanged perception. 3
The oscillation of perception, which Wittgenstein unravels above in the context of language is used by Boxell as a lens for creating images that go to the heart of her own question: do we all see what we see the same way? Her fragmented, collaged images retain an ambiguity where multiple layers push and pull and recede and advance, both creating and disrupting that which we are trying to perceive. In Cowboy Hats and Hands (2017) we are instantly drawn towards the sunglass-wearing-face which occupies the central focus point of the work. Our eyes continue moving down, connecting the head with the denim-covered torso, aiming to complete the disrupted image of a cowboy. In the next moment, we are drawn to the two hands, which seem to be holding and unveiling the cowboy’s head simultaneously. Next, we see a pair of black boots, revealing a secondary figure in the composition. What and who is it that we see. Is it the unidentified figure holding a photograph or is the cowboy peering through a ripped surface? TV Face and Camera Eyes (2017) similarly challenges us to consider what it is that we are encountering. Is it a kneeling figure wearing a television over its head or a sci-fi inspired image where the subject of a 1970’s television show has morphed its way our out of the screen schizophrenically? Even focussing purely within the frame of the television screen we are confronted with an image which is both a young lady holding a camera up to her face and another without. In such works, Boxell references Strezaker, who she sites as a reference, and younger collage-based artists, such as the American Jessie Draxler, whose work is likewise centred around ideas of transformation and illusion.
This idea of ambiguity, so present in the composition of the final work, also exists in the actual methodology which Boxell employs. On the one hand her works are digital prints; arguably within the realm of post-photography. On the other they are collages and sit within the century long-tradition of this artistic strategy. However, unlike Strezaker and other photo-based collage artists, such as Hannah Höch, Lois Dourado and Jesse Treece, Boxell does not present the collage as the final work, instead printing a large-scale photographic scan of the initial construction. Complicating the collage methodology even further, Boxell does not cut and paste her original source material: images from early National Geographic magazines. Instead, she scans the originals and uses the copies to experiment and to permeate multiple works – as is evident in the image of the autumnal leaves of a maple tree which appears in the three works Autumn Winter Fall (2017), Autumn (2017) and Mickey (2017) – further creating the ambiguity which is central to her practice.
Writing about Stezaker, Charlotte Mullins declared that “there is something material and real about the clean-cut lines of Stezaker’s collages and their fragmentation and reconstruction of the face that compels us to return to them again and again.”4 The same came be said for Mici Boxell’s works. They engage the viewer in a way that all good art should: they ask us to go back and keep on looking. By doing so they force us to look seriously, closely and with conviction. They confront us with the question which is at the core of this artistic project: do we all see what we see the same way?
Dr Vincent Alessi
Department of Creative Arts and English
La Trobe University
1 “The Encounter with the Real: John Strezaker in conversation with Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Lynda Morris.”, The UnMonumental Picture, exh. cat., New York, New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007, p. 116.
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4th edition, 2009, Sussex, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p. 431.
3 Ibid, pp. 435-7.
4 Charlotte Mullins, Picturing People: The New State of the Art, New York, Thames and Hudson, 2015, p. 58.