Editorials · Stray Thoughts

Arthouse Hideout: Symmetry and Asymmetry

So basically, how do these two building interiors compare? (Click to enlarge) Left: Cupola of Mausoleum of Turabeg Khanum |Right: Artsy Gatchaman Headquarters
So basically, how do these two building interiors compare? (Click to enlarge)
Left: cupola of Mausoleum of Turabeg Khanum; Right: Artsy Gatchaman Headquarters

If one steps into the interior of an early Islamic mosque (600 AD to 1400 something should do just fine), he or she might notice something peculiar. It might start in the ceramic tiles of The Alcazar or the stalactite ceiling of the Masjed-E Eman, but the eyes would immediately sense an astounding symmetry in the art. Believing that God is the root of all understanding, architects in service to Islam decorated their buildings in rigorously measured, geometric patterns so symmetrical and expansive that the experience is almost overwhelming.

But something interesting would happen while staring lost in thought! The eyes of the observer wouldn’t be able to focus naturally on a single object or shape. People aren’t much attuned to seeing something perfectly symmetrical; the occurrence of true symmetry in everyday life where things are constantly in motion is a truly rare phenomenon. The effect is almost hallucinatory: eyes accustomed to the humdrum daily life of chairs, cars and desks wouldn’t be able to survey it without meandering, not when so much of the same shapes are aligned perfectly. It’s a beautiful, wandering hallucination, similar to staring into a kaleidoscope.

So maybe you’ve seen Gatchaman Crowds, and if you have, you’ve probably raised an eyebrow at the sight of the Gatchaman hideout. At first inspection (and third, fourth, any really), it looks rather chaotic. And you’d be right: it’s a modern art exhibit without any regular theme in each piece, far from symmetrical. Attempting symbolic interpretation of each individual piece would probably only lead to frustration. Since parsing the logic behind it a single exhibit would only confuse, it’s times like these where we turn to our senses.

Left: Gatchaman Crowd's hideout; Right: An olive
Left: Gatchaman Crowd’s hideout; Right: An olive

When we look at the hideout from a distance, we’ll probably sense that it’s a mess. Fair enough. The colors are all over the place, the statues seem random and there’s no unifying theme. It’s disconcordant, simple enough. But if you look around at the picture above, you’ll notice a pattern: each object (ammonite shell, bird head, platform, lantern, etc.) appears twice. Any object is duplicated and simply rearranged in such a way that isn’t reflected. The appearance of the room isn’t random at all, it’s simply asymmetric.

The value of this is probably best explained in food terms. Ferran Adrià labels his style of cooking deconstructivist (think architecture, not Madoka), because he simply rearranges, reduces and transforms a normal food’s ingredients so that the texture, flavor and temperature are different. The brain might identify the liquid olive above as an egg, but for all cases and purposes, it is an olive. But because we see it and feel it as something else, the brain goes into a slight “shock.” This visual and textural rearrangement of ingredients is the core of what makes up a very different perception of the food and makes it stand out. The differing sensations are asymmetric, conflicting and exciting.

If symmetry is beautiful, asymmetry is intriguing: if something is askew, it becomes the point of focus. The three most noticed and most expressive features on the human face are the eyes, mouth and hair, in that order because not only are they points of motion, but because they are very rarely equal. Although facial symmetry is a key component of human assessment of beauty, a cute mole next to a girl’s lip or zit on a sweaty teenager would draw the attention of the eyes almost immediately. And this applies to art as well: symmetry in art eludes the eyes in (beautiful) confusion, while asymmetry draws their attention.

So how perfect that a main hideout of a series about perspective encourages rearrangement, seeing everything in multiple dimensions, the Hajime way. For the individual art pieces, I guess I could attempt some sort of symbolic analysis. Maybe the bird heads call up a reference to the original Gatchaman series, which used them frequently. Maybe the ammonite shells, a recurring motif and widely used representation of the golden rectangle, represents symmetry and order in Fibonacci spirals. Who can say? Whatever the case, just know that no interpretation will compare to the very first time you peeked into the room, lost your focus to it and thought, “What in the world is this?”

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Notes:

  1. Mira at Hachimitsu wrote something interesting on harmony and asymmetry in Crowds, here.
  2. Beauty is not mutually exclusive to symmetry just as intrigue is not mutually exclusive to asymmetry. Stating the obvious, each can be found in each other. So yeah, take that!
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