Illusionism is the conscious use of illusion to capture attention. It works because where something conflicts with expectations about reality we’re hardwired to look again. The spatial world is a foundation reality for all human beings. We know not to walk out in front of a moving car, that climbing takes more energy than sitting, the full range of behaviors characteristic of being human. Behavior is part of the circuit of perception. What we see is always in flux and as we move there’s a constant bodily adjustment. Walking up the street might involve dozens of small avoidance maneuvers and though much is unconscious it’s a language we understand at our foundation. And it’s visual.
The illusionist works with perception to create a believable impossibility, to have the viewer react as though the illusion is real. And when they recognize their mistake they are rewarded with laughter and all the measurable physical benefits it brings.
Using what’s known about how perception works illusion can be used to attract attention and pose questions. What attracts me to illusionism is working with the concept of truth in relation to human concepts. The history of human thought is a trail of mistaken absolutes, so maybe a good evolutionary step would be to stop the battle for the right idea and focus on how all the different ideas work together and how context affects which ones are most useful. The time and mental energy throughout intellectual history that is lost in the competition to be the one true thing doesn’t recognize the limitations of human intellect. An illusionistic image can make conflicting realities seem equally real and remind us of those limitations. We evolve when we recognize our mistakes. Anything that loosens the clutch of a fixed worldview enables the mind to grow.
Watching a TV show called “The Carbonaro Effect” ( “a hidden camera magic TV show”) always makes me feel connected to all different kinds of human beings. When he creates the illusion that a living creature is inside the museum artifact (One of many imaginative illusions he creates, the show is a candybox full of them) the unknowing subject’s expressions of amazement strip the face down to pure wonder that is beautiful no matter who or what style of person is reacting. Mirror neurons sing with astonishment as intrigue and curiosity grow on their faces. I’m smiling during most of the show feeling true affection for the participants when the persona drops. Like a trompe l’oeil mural, the unexpected revelation that something is not what it seems plunges us into a state of attention pure and in the moment.
The fact that the interest in illusionism is so widespread reinforces my view that the arts have an important role in the evolution of the human mind. All of the arts train overall judgment and sense of proportion. The additional use of illusion adds flexibility of thought. Using the universal language of space speaks directly to our foundation understanding of the world. In a global society, images need no translation.