Modelo ocular, 2006

Eye Model, 2006
Installation, Variable dimensions

Constructed as a camera obscura, Eye Model (2006) is an installation that recreates an optical experiment described by René Descartes, one of the fathers of modern philosophy, in his essay Discourse on the Method, Dioptrics, Meteors and Geometry from 1637. While in his treaty the philosopher and physician speaks of ‘the images that form on the back of the eye’, Gusmão and Paiva literally materialise the Cartesian hypothesis on human vision.

Eye Model recreates an experiment on an eye under observation. It consists of a mechanism placed on a table, in a dark space. On the table, two long and thin vertical supports hold an element each, as if suspended in the air: the broken shell of an ostrich egg and a glass lens. Near the table, a whole ostrich egg hangs from the ceiling. A spotlight strategically illuminates the installation: the image of the whole egg is projected through the glass lens inside the broken shell.
Descartes explains that the objects we observe leave perfect imprints on the back of the eye. And he compares them ‘with the images that appear in a chamber when, having it completely closed except for a single hole, and having put in front of this hole a glass in the form of a lens, we stretch behind, at a specific distance, a white cloth on which the light that comes from the objects outside forms these images’. And he continues: ‘The chamber represents the eye; this hole, the pupil; this lens, the crystalline humour, or rather, all those parts of the eye which cause some refraction; and this cloth, the interior membrane, which is composed of the extremities of the optic nerve.’ In Gusmão and Paiva’s Eye Model, the camera obscura is the human eye, the broken egg is the pupil, the glass is the crystalline humour and the white wall is the eye’s interior membrane. Images of things are formed in the inner eye and the pupil like a reflection of the real objects outside.

The work has a philosophical and symbolic dimension. According to the authors, it is possible to draw a parallel between human vision and philosophical knowledge, since the aim of an observing eye is the same as that of a philosopher: the production of truth. In the same way as the eye obtains an image of things through an optical mechanism, reason is the tool available to human knowledge for achieving a global image of the world. And on a symbolic level, while the egg is a symbol of fertility and of the origin of creation, in Eye Model it functions as the sun in the famous Plato analogy on human knowledge: as the source of knowledge and truth.

Gusmão and Paiva possess a great ability for turning concepts and purely theoretical discourses into images. While in other works they evoke notions of the universe akin to those of early Greek philosophers or animism, in this piece they recreate with literal precision an experiment from the beginning of modern science. Formally, they incorporate resources such as shadows and reflections to their installations in a game of metaphors and analogies. The artists transform the exhibition space into a sort of alchemy laboratory where the rational and technological search for knowledge becomes a form of perception that is closer to myth and magic.

Technical details

Original title:
Modelo ocular
Registration number:
Gusmão, João Maria & Paiva, Pedro
Date created:
Date acquired:
MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation
Object type:
Darkroom system with wooden table, ostrich eggs and focus
Variable dimensions
Edition number:
Ed. 2/3 + 1 P.A. + edició especial
MACBA Collection. MACBA Foundation. Work purchased thanks to Puig Foundation
© João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva
It has accessibility resources:

The MACBA Collection features Catalan, Spanish and international art and, although it includes works from the 1920s onwards, its primary focus is on the period between the 1960s and the present.

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