What Bridget Riley can teach us about attention

The consulting team went to see the Bridget Riley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on Thursday. You should go this weekend: it ends on Sunday. Riley is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, and her superficially stunning and philosophically deep works will continue to inspire other artists well into the new century.
Looking at people looking at Riley’s work is fascinating. As you go round the gallery, you see people initially transfixed in front of the paintings, enveloped by the experience. Then gradually they start bobbing and turning their heads, making the lines dance or reveal hidden colours that aren’t ‘objectively’ there. People get up close, and then retreat to see the same painting from a distance or a different angle, with different visual effects. Then you see them look away and rub their eyes, because it’s all a bit too much. And then they do it all over again.
Riley’s work is about the act of perception. The work changes as the distance between you and the work changes, or as you focus or relax your eyes. As she says of her own work, in some ways, her medium isn’t paint and canvas. Instead, ‘perception is the medium’.
This has big philosophical implications. We like to think of ourselves as self-contained, unique individuals, hermetically sealed from the world outside. But this is nonsense. We are who or what we are because of our relationship with the world around us. I am myself and my circumstances, as Ortega y Gasset has it. The exhibition rightly highlights Riley’s relationship to the Impressionists, especially Seurat. But her work also illuminates the thinking of von Uexkull, Merleau-Ponty and even Heidegger – and in a spectacular, visceral fashion.
What does this have to do with advertising? Christ, does everything have to have something to do with advertising? Oh well then, how about this. Staring at a Bridget Riley painting reminds you, totally and fundamentally, deep in your very bowels, that this is NOT how people look at advertising. People glance at ads, their eye flits over it, occasioning all the visual elisions and mental assumptions that we see in our data. As advertisers, you are doing something quite different from artists, and you would do well to remember that. As the great Jeremy Bullmore once said, art is, but advertising does.