At a party one night in the early 1990s, artist Derek Ogbourne was punched in the eye. It caused him to experience inexplicable nervousness each time he crossed the road but more importantly began an obsession with the darker side of the human psyche. ‘My fascination with eyes and death began then,’ says Ogbourne. The result of this dark journey can be seen at Sharjah Art Foundation’s Collection Building until 3rd October; a ghoulish promenade of plywood rabbit boxes and Frankenstein imprinted rings. It is all part of an exhibition on life, death and final visions called The Museum of Optography, The Purple Chamber.
It is a look at the little known pseudo-scientific art of Optography, which has captured the attention of a small number of amateur scientists over the past century. Over long days and sleepless nights they worked on capturing the final fixation of an object on the retina, a split second before death. Ogbourne says there are examples of this to be found at the exhibition and compares it to the temporary imprint on an arm after it leans on an object. ‘They can be produced quite easily. Albino rabbits and frogs tend to offer up the best results,’ he says.
A few years after Ogbourne’s assault at that party, he says he came across a Time-Life book that described a Jesuit priest’s experiment on a frog. It says the amateur scientists accidently discovered an image on the retina of the animal. Ogbourne remembers: ‘I became attracted to the idea of the eye as an organic camera and the possibility of playing with this notion for artistic purposes – at this point I had not yet connected this budding interest to the incident at the party. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised my whole body of artwork, including the Museum of Optography, was rooted in that unfortunate, or should I say fortunate, thump to the eye.’
Like other pseudo-sciences, such as alchemy, there is a evident charm behind the story of Optography that blends concrete historical records with myth into an unshakable idea of human resolution. Ogbourne says he spent years obsessively collecting any object or information he could find on the subject, before the hunt ran dry and he began to invent items and stories to tell its tale. ‘The viewer is invited to become a detective, investigating a grand experiment performed both by a scientist and an artist. However, the scientific aspect is really quite minimal,’ he says about the exhibition. ‘Visitors to the Museum of Optography need an open mind and the inquisitive spirit of a detective.’
The Frankenstein enthused ring is just one of the items guests are invited to explore, entitled Exhibit One, the Weapon. Encased in a transparent box, it resembles an insect pinned down in a display case during an entomology study. From it hangs a blood stained label on a piece of sting. ‘When I was hit in the eye the cut produced a lot of blood, and I later imagined that the man who punched me might have been wearing some sort of ring. This section, or room of the exhibition, is called Loss of Innocence,’ Ogbourne reveals.
He admits it is a terrifyingly dark subject, ‘In fact, it gets darker the further into it you go, but it has light and fun moments as well,’ he says. ‘One enjoyable aspect of the exhibition is piecing together all of its elements like a puzzle to create a larger, richer picture.’ The universal language of death that the exhibition focuses on means the display has been as popular here as in Europe where it was born, and Ogbourne believes the aridness of the Emirate’s deserts and colours of its spice souks link well with the story. ‘We have a morbid fascination with this inevitability. Perhaps this is what attracts people to my Museum of Optography. Perhaps it will be displayed at a photography-orientated venue or, dare I say, a hospital or an abattoir, next.’