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Art, Mysteries, and Context

Article

Ben Radford

Volume 36.5, September/October 2012

escher-style art

In my books and workshops on scientific paranormal investigation, I discuss how best to conceptualize a mystery: basically, an event out of context. A live dolphin lying on a Manhattan sidewalk is a mystery; that same dolphin in a tank at an aquarium is not. Ten thousand gallons of boiling caramel inside a Boeing 747 airplane is a mystery; that same caramel in a candy factory is not. Every mystery or strange event has some surrounding circumstance or context that will render it non-mysterious.

The investigator’s job is to find a scientifically plausible context in which the mysterious phenomenon makes sense. Often a mystery is created when the facts are merely lacking a context, but a mystery can also be created when the facts are put into the wrong context.1 Thus, one of the chief duties in examining “unexplained” claims is un­derstanding the (environmental, social, cultural, psychological, etc.) context of miracle reports, UFO photographs, and so on.

I was reminded of this during a recent visit to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One featured exhibit, Lifelike, “invites close examination of artworks—startlingly realistic, often playful, and sometimes surreal—based on commonplace ob­jects and situations.” The show featured ninety works from fifty artists, including Alex Hay’s Paper Bag (1968), an exact replica of an ordinary paper bag (except that it’s six feet tall and made of fiberglass); Vija Celmins’s Freeway (1966), a photorealistic oil painting one would swear is a photograph at first glance; Daniel Douke’s Ace (1979), a seemingly ordinary mailing box complete with packaging tape and scuffs yet mounted chest-high on a wall and made of acrylic and Masonite; and Ron Mueck’s Crouching Boy in Mirror (1999–2000), a stunningly realistic life-size sculpture of a boy looking at himself in a mirror. In this world, scale and apparent utility cannot be trusted: pocket combs are as large as filing cabinets and working elevators are scaled down to the size of a deck of cards.

This is fertile playground for artists, illusionists, and skeptics: Things that seem real often are not, and things that don’t seem real sometimes are. Every­thing must be questioned: every basic assumption and premise, even the ordinary—especially the ordinary. The same is true for investigations and skepticism in general.

One of the most interesting pieces at Lifelike was also the most mundane (and for the same reason). It was Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s still.life (cardboard leaning on the wall) (2009). The piece, about four feet square, is a slightly banged-up piece of cardboard, with all the familiar patterns and creases we’d expect to find on any ordinary piece of cardboard sitting next to a city dumpster. It is in fact an incredibly detailed bronze sculpture (see Figure 1).

Figure 1Figure 1. This seemingly ordinary piece of cardboard is actually a bronze sculpture.

Which brings me back to the issue of context. A photograph (indeed, even a close visual inspection) of the piece does not betray its true nature. Without touching or weighing it, we have no way of deducing anything about it. The same is often true for photographs of Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, etc. This is where context informs the investigation: If I photo­graphed still.life in an alleyway, there would be no reason to think or assume it was anything except what it seems to be.2 Rondinone’s sculpture, seen or photographed, does exactly what it is in­tended to do: fool the viewer. (Even when photographed against a gallery wall, the context doesn’t give the viewer much of a clue to its true nature.)

But what if there was an additional piece of important information that gave the mystery (or, rather, apparent non-mystery) context? If I showed someone a photograph of still.life and mentioned that the photo was taken at a famous art museum, that changes everything, providing both a reason to doubt its apparent nature and context for solving the mystery. The information doesn’t completely explain it—after all, it could simply be a piece of discarded cardboard leaning against a wall in the receiving dock because it’s too big to fit in the trash. But it provides a clue, an important first step in solving mysteries.

Art means many things to many people—and it can even include les­sons in skepticism from a piece of cardboard that’s not really a piece of cardboard.


Notes

1. For example, if a woman is thinking about her friend who then suddenly calls, that context might make them think they share a psychic link, whereas the correct—and less mysterious—context is that the incident was likely an illusion created by confirmation bias.

2. Note that this is not a fallacy but instead a completely reasonable and logical assumption; in fact, since the piece is unique in the world—there are no other bronze sculptures that size that look exactly like an ordinary creased cardboard panel—one would be completely justified using Occam’s razor in assuming it is precisely what it appears to be.

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.