The Gleam of the Magic Lantern
by Marit Paasche

Consisting of three separate works, Extraordinary Popular Delusions was shown at ‘dOCUMENTA (13)’ in Kassel in summer 2012, in one of the smaller rooms on the ground floor of the Ottoneum. The Ottoneum, built between 1603 and 1606, was once Germany’s largest theatre, but was later converted to display art and natural history objects and artefacts. (01) The fact that the venue was devoted to a relaxed, yet far from simplistic dialogue between nature, science and art, together with Toril Johannessen’s unique talent for translating scientific concepts into art, made it only natural for her works to be situated in this building – natural in two different senses.

The darkened room was dominated by a giant magic lantern, or laterna magica. This early device for projecting images is not dissimilar from a modern slide projector. When first invented, candles were used as its light source, later on these were replaced by oil lamps. It was the latter that Johannessen used in her installation, a choice that was made visible by the presence of an oil drum conspicuously connected to the lantern. In other words, the light was fuelled by oil, which in turn produced the image. The connection between the light and the image was further emphasised by what Johannessen had chosen to project onto the circular screen in the Ottoneum, namely a solargram. (02) As we know, without the sun there would be no organic material, and it is the sun that renders the world visible. The elements of Extraordinary Popular Delusions suggested a cycle, which, on a philosophical level, can be interpreted as primarily concerned with art, perception and science. One way to approach this work is to consider in greater detail what happens at the boundary between art and science and to ask why this interdisciplinary dialogue has always been connected to Johannessen’s work like a persistent shadow.


I. The light and the cave

Central to the concept of art is the way humans negotiate the world around them. At the core of this negotiation is the interaction between the senses, thoughts, objects, images and language. This is a theme the ancient Greek philosopher Plato explores in his famous ‘allegory of the cave’, which he presents during a discussion about education (paideia). The two people involved in the discussion are Socrates and Plato’s brother, Glaucon, with Socrates taking the leading role. Plato writes:


Next, said I, compare our nature in respect of education and its lack to such an experience as this. Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet-shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets.

All that I see, he said.

See also, then, men carrying past the wall implements of all kinds that rise above the wall, and human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent.

A strange image you speak of, he said, and strange prisoners.

Like to us, I said; for, to begin with, tell me do you think that these men would have seen anything of themselves or of one another except the shadows cast from the fire on the wall of the cave that fronted them?

How could they, he said, if they were compelled to hold their heads unmoved through life?

And again, would not the same be true of the objects carried past them?


If then they were able to talk to one another, do you not think that they would suppose that in naming the things that they saw they were naming the passing objects?


And if their prison had an echo from the wall opposite them, when one of the passersby uttered a sound, do you think that they would suppose anything else than the passing shadow to be the speaker?

By Zeus, I do not, said he.

Then in every way such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.

Quite inevitably, he said. (03)


According to Plato’s account, there are two levels of existence: the realm of ideas and the realm of the visible. Light plays a central role on both these levels. Ideas (which are conceptual) constitute absolute illumination. Sensory reality (which belong to the visible) consists merely of ‘shadows’ of phenomena, whereas the conceptual seeks to grasp their ‘true nature’, their essence and existence. As humans, we live among shadows, unless we strive for higher knowledge of phenomena by means of thought. And the closer we come to the true ‘idea’, the intenser is the light, or the illumination, of the conceptual, whereas the shadows or representations, in all their variations, remain at a greater distance, and hence lacking illumination.

It is this logic that makes Plato situate what he calls the mimetic arts, such as painting and sculpture, at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Pictures of the world are in his view merely pale renditions of phenomena; even the craftsman achieves something better, for at least he succeeds in designing something useful. One passage in Book X of The Republic illustrates this well, using the example of a couch. For Plato, the couch can exist in one of three forms: as the idea of the couch, as the couch made by the craftsman, and as the couch depicted by the painter. The painter cannot represent the couch in three dimensions, but only in two, and consequently his version is furthest from the idea.

Plato’s allegory is an attempt to construct a model of truth using a linguistic image (the cave). It is a metaphor that has had an immense influence on discussions about the concept of representation in the arts, and in the development of film. The shadows in the cave can be regarded as a kind of ‘foreshadowing’ of the medium of film, while the camera obscura, the magic lantern, the cyclorama and the panopticon can all be seen as steps towards the realisation of the dream of a perfect copy of the visual world. In other words, in presenting a model of a magic lantern in Extraordinary Popular Delusions, Johannessen is connecting with an ancient tradition and a venerable philosophical debate. (04) Just as the fire casts shadow images on the wall of Plato’s cave, the magic lantern projects a flickering solargram onto a circular screen in the darkened room in the Ottoneum by means of an oil-fuelled flame. (05)

The video work Non-Conservation of Energy (and of Spirits) was shown in the same room as the lantern and the solargrams. It consisted of a transcribed conversation between the artist and a so-called spiritual medium, in which the latter established contact between the artist and a collective scientific awareness, in which the late nuclear physicist Niels Bohr featured prominently. The theme of the seance was the first law of thermodynamics, which states: ‘The amount of energy in the universe, or an isolated system is constant. Energy can never be created or destroyed, but can merely be converted from one form to another.’ Via the medium, Johannessen put a number of questions to the collective consciousness, which were answered with either a Yes (a single knock) or a No (two knocks). An excerpt from the transcribed conversation, which scrolled across the screen, reads as follows:


Can energy be used up?
(Knock, Knock)
Is the energy in the universe perfectly balanced?
(Knock, Knock)
Is there such a thing as a perfect balance?
(Knock, Knock)


Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, the first law of thermodynamics, or the energy principle, as it is also called, has had considerable impact on many fields of activity. By allowing this discussion to unfold within the course of a spiritual seance, Johannessen elegantly hints at the way neo-religious groups have used science and the energy principle to legitimise and promote their own speculations about a life after death.

The installation in the Ottoneum demonstrates how Toril Johannessen is in her practice preoccupied with identifying the pivotal points in the conceptual models and metaphors used in scientific research, and turning them into art. From the perspective of these pivotal points, she contemplates mankind’s attempts to find forms that allow us to comprehend the world, a perspective that also allows us to see the weaknesses or shortcomings of the construction. This is particularly noticeable where Johannessen draws attention to the ways scientific discoveries are translated into language and metaphors, and how such metaphors can migrate from one realm of conceptual activity to another. Her familiarity with the language of science and its modes of expression can in itself make viewers think it is science rather than art that she is presenting. But this is a misconception, for it is art that she works with, not science. Let us do what Johannessen herself likes to; let us consider what is implied by the terms art and science. There was a time when these labels for our human attempts to understand the world were virtually inseparable, whereas now they are seen as referring to two very different domains. Broadly speaking, the reasons for this can be traced back to the seventeenth century.


II. Art and science

Maybe it was because the circular screen with the projected solargram in the Ottoneum was so reminiscent of an eye that it brought to mind the phrase ‘I won’t believe it until I’ve seen it’, which is indicative of the primacy of the sense of sight in western culture and research. (06) This standpoint was reinforced with the breakthrough of the modern research tradition in seventeenth-century Europe. At that point, the view of nature and the cosmos associated with Plato and Aristotle was challenged and replaced by a new paradigm that built on the discoveries of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei. (07) The discoveries made by these and many other scientists triggered a major dispute, which in France came to be known as the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Beginning in the early 1690s, this primarily literary and artistic quarrel shook the esteemed Académie francaise to its very foundations. There were two parties to the dispute: the ‘Ancients’, led by the poet and literary theorist Nicolas Boileau, and the ‘Moderns’, led by the writer Charles Perrault. Boileau was an advocate of the perfection of antiquity and the necessity of neoclassicism. Contemporary writers and thinkers, he argued, could not surpass the ancient masters, whom as a consequence they had no choice but to imitate. This was a view the Moderns opposed. In his book The Century of Louis the Great, published in 1687, Perrault expressed the view of this latter group with the verse: ‘Learned Antiquity, through all its extent, / Was never enlightened to equal our times.’ (08)

The debate between the Ancients and Moderns was the expression of an entrenched conflict between the idea of progress and the notion that history carried authority. In his seminal article about the history of aesthetics, ‘The modern system of the arts’, the philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller describes two major consequences of this dispute: the Modernists used the literary debate to conduct a systematic comparison of the achievements of the Ancients on the one hand, and of more recent generations on the other. (09) The clear outcome of this methodical survey was that, in the field of science, the Moderns could easily be regarded as having gained supremacy over the Ancients. Many of the then new discoveries exposed fundamental errors in the scientific hypotheses of antiquity. In the field of the creative arts, with its dependence on talent and taste, however, the supremacy of the modern era was by no means so easy to determine. The upshot of this discrepancy was the first clear demarcation between the arts and the natural sciences, a distinction that had played no part in the discussions of the antique, medieval or Renaissance periods. As a result, art was pushed to one side and defined as ‘something else’. The defining quality of art was beauty, while that of science was truth.(10) This is relevant in relation to Johannessen’s art, which probes the relationship between science and truth, and the models and metaphors that play a part therein. By examining scientific truths from the vantage point of art, she recovers some of the territory lost to science.

During the latter half of the eighteenth century, German thinkers applied the French insights into the nature of beauty to develop a philosophical theory of aesthetics. In his Aesthetica of 1750, Alexander Baumgarten set forth a general theory of the arts as a separate philosophical discipline with a well-defined and secure place in the system of philosophy. Consequently, he is regarded as the founder of aesthetics. Even so, it wasn’t until Immanuel Kant had turned his attention to the subject that it became a fully-fledged branch of philosophy. For it was Kant who raised aesthetics – as the philosophical theory of beauty and the arts – to the same status as the theory of truth (the metaphysical theory of knowledge) and the theory of the good (ethics). (11) This was a momentous development for the tradition of systematic philosophy, insofar as neither Ren. Descartes, Benedictus de Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, nor any of their predecessors in antiquity or the medieval period, had established the fine arts as worthy of independent consideration in their theoretical systems. And once it had been incorporated into systematic philosophy, art also found its place in the social sphere.

Kristeller offers an interesting perspective on this development; he points out that notions of aesthetics prior to Kant were characterised by contributions from a broad range of authors, writers and other wellinformed citizens, whereas after Kant, thinking about art became a part of the philosophical tradition and hence the preserve of ‘greater minds’. As a result, the dialogue between art and its audience, which had hitherto been written as a matter of inquisitive reflection, became the domain of a handful of philosophers. Against this background, Johannessen’s art takes on an importance – if not indeed an urgency – since it requires us to establish a dialogue between art, science and the public as one of multiple voices. It makes it necessary to involve all those who feel an interest, those who are willing to discuss and express themselves enthusiastically about what they see. What we need is greater dynamism.


III. Illusions

Plato described the world of perceptions (i.e. the figures on the walls of the cave) as mere shadows. As we have seen, Socrates puts it to Glaucon that the people in the cave ‘would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects’. In conceding to this point, Glaucon’s affirmative response indicates that the people in the cave are trapped in an illusion, which takes the form of perceptions. For Plato, this illusion can only be broken by striving for the world of ideas by means of thought.

Were we to define an optical illusion today, we would say that it consists of a situation in which the perceived object does not match the facts. Everyone knows what it is to gaze down a street full of equal-sized buildings. In such a situation the houses furthest away tend to appear smaller than those closer to the viewer, although this impression does not correspond with reality. Thus Plato’s use of the word shadow is comparable to a modern definition of illusion. An illusion sits at the very pivotal point of science. It is both rational and irrational, and it has been discovered that several optical illusions, such as perspective, are culturally acquired or conditioned. Perspective is the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, and its history in western culture is closely associated with mathematics, architecture and art. Starting in the Renaissance, perspective was established as a central model of what is involved in seeing; it became a ‘symbolic form’, which laid the foundations for the development of the way camera technology renders space. (12) Just as Plato had developed his world-view by means of the allegory of the cave, later generations used perspective and the lens to give the world a form. And in a visual echo of Plato’s allegory, the eye, the lens and the world slowly and imperceptibly merged to become one.

Models of seeing find a natural place in Johannessen’s circle of interests. For the Ottoneum it was the magic lantern that she took as her point of departure. At the time of writing, Toril Johannessen is exploring illusions in a book project that forms part of this publication. The precursor to her contribution has the title Unlearning the Müller-Lyer Illusion (2012).

All optical illusions are rooted in perception, in other words in the ways we respond to the world of sensory impressions. The brain continuously compares sensory impressions with memories as a means of increasing the probability that the conclusions we draw will correspond with reality. Even so, once in a while we still draw the wrong conclusion, as is often the case when confronting the Müller-Lyer illusion. This illusion occurs when gazing at a geometrical figure consisting of two lines of identical length, one of which appears longer or shorter than the other. The force of the illusion may be due to our tendency to interpret an optical impression in terms of certain internalised visual codes, or it may be entirely due to physiological factors, such as the way our eyes move and a sensitivity to contrasts that is fundamental to our sense of sight. But remaining for the moment with visual codes: several studies have shown considerable variation in the susceptibility of test subjects to optical illusions. (13) Interesting variables here include the age and cultural background of the subject, factors that again lead us back to models of seeing. If one has been acculturated in a certain set of visual codes, then one will use them when interpreting an image. And the same applies to scientific paradigms, which don’t just provide access to a particular understanding of the world, but also shape that understanding. In working with these paradigms, Johannessen alludes to major narratives and complex discourses. These narratives are, however, not referenced explicitly in her artworks. Instead, she condenses them to a kind of poetic garnish, which she uses when recreating the models of science. In this sense, the models she presents are not exact copies, but something else, something that gives us a clear view of the shadows we cast ourselves.



(01) The Ottoneum was designed by William Vernukken. The conversion took place in 1690 under the direction of architect Johann Conrad Giesler.

(02) A solargram is produced by exposing a light-sensitive material directly to sunlight, i.e. there is no use of a camera involved.

(03) Plato, The Republic, Book VII [514a-515c]. Translation by Paul Shorey, 1930.

(04) The installation is built around a magic lantern of a type that arose in the late seventeenth century. It was constructed by Wolfgang Engels, a physicist who specialises in the reconstruction of old scientific instruments. The model is not identical to, but loosely based on, the original type.

(05) Johannessen’s magic lantern comprises a total of four different versions of the solargram. The other three show a black sun, a sun with sunspots and a double sun.

(06) For a discussion of this, see Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes. The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, 1994.

(07) Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was a mathematician of immense importance to science. He showed particular interest in astronomy and the more experimental aspects of science. He constructed a telescope, and his groundbreaking astronomical observations provided crucial support for the Copernican theory (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473–1543) that the planets revolve around the sun rather than the earth. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory caused the indignation of the Catholic Church. One of Galileo’s supporters was the German Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). Kepler discovered the three laws of planetary motion that are named after him, the most important of which is that every planet moves around the sun in an elliptical orbit with the sun at one of its two foci. Kepler was also the first to give precise accounts of how light behaves in passing through a telescope, and of how the human eye functions as an optical instrument.

(08) In French: ‘La docte Antiquité dans toute sa durée / A l’égal de nos jours ne fut point éclairée’. Bernhard Le Bovier de Fontenelle followed this up with his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688), in which he argued that a modern education should enable people to surpass the knowledge formulated by the Ancients.

(09) Paul Oskar Kristeller, ‘The modern system of the arts’, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1951.

(10) It was the Abbé Charles Batteux who first sought to systematise the ‘fine arts’ in his influential work Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe from 1746. For Batteux the fine arts were music, poetry, painting, sculpture and dance. Further, he attempted to show that the principle underlying all these arts lay ‘in imitation of la belle nature’.

(11) Kant formulated these ideas in his three great masterpieces, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Critique of Judgment (1790).

(12) The first discussion of perspective as a symbolic form is to be found in Erwin Panofsky, ‘Die Perspektive als Symbolische Form’, in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1927, pp. 258–330.

(13) See for example Lanette S. Shizurua and Anthony J. Marsella, ‘The Sensory Processes of Japanese-American and Caucasian- American Students’, in The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 114, No. 2, 1981; Anselm Uba, ‘Cultural Determinations on the Auditory Split-Span Technique of Selective Attention’, in The Journal of Psychology, Vol. 106, No. 2, 1980; and D. Broota and H.C. Ganguli, ‘Cultural Differences in Perceptual Selectivity’, in The Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 95, No. 2, 1975.



Marit Paasche is an art historian and former head of research at the Norwegian Video Art Archive. She works as an art critic, curator and writer. Paasche received her Dr.Phil. in art history from NTNU – Norwegian University of Technology and Science for her thesis on the tapestry artist Hannah Ryggen. She is the author of Hannah Ryggen: En fri (2016).

The Gleam of the Magic Lantern was published in Dublett – Toril Johannessen, an anthology with texts by Espen Sommer Eide, Peter Galison, Mette Karlsvik, Marit Paasche and Theodor Ringborg. Edited by Eva Rem Hansen and Maria Lyngstad Willassen. Dublett series editor: Anne Szefer Karlsen. Published by Hordaland Art Centre, Bergen, 2013.