Look, Observe, See: The Nightmare Before Christmas
What do you see when you look at things?
Look, observe, see … Although these words sound similar, they differ fundamentally in meaning. You look with your eyes, observe with your mind, and see with your heart, i.e., your higher consciousness. How you look at the world determines what you actually see. Because seeing is a way of seeing, and the way we see affects us and our place in the world.
Your eyes and your mind are the windows to your heart, which is the centre of your inspiration and creativity in art. You can block access to your heart by keeping your windows closed. Or you can choose to open them widely, so you can see the light that comes from within.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)
We’re sometimes too close to see the possibilities in front of us. Because we’re blinded by our nearsightedness. Or we’re manipulated to see things differently from their true nature. The original meaning of things or their wide spectrum of meanings is often covered or hidden away. Furthermore, how we see is mediated by culture, which influences, changes, or alienates the original meaning of the things we look at.
"Of course, I've been too close to see! The answer's right in front of me." (Jack Skellington, The Nightmare Before Christmas)
The good news is that we can change our perception, rewire our brain, and access our higher consciousness at any time! If you’d like to know how, you might want to read this blog post till the end. Because I’m gonna be talking here about the fundamental difference between looking, observing, and seeing, as well as about the relationship between the concept of seeing and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. 🦇
The difference between looking, observing, and seeing
Seeing can’t be reduced to visual perception. Our eyes are only an instrument. As the American philosopher of science, Norwood Russell Hanson, said,
“Seeing is an experience. People, not their eyes, see. There is more to seeing than meets the eyeball.”
For example, when I look at the sky (one of my favourite sources of inspiration, by the way), I usually get a fugitive impression of its colour. But when I look at it slowly and mindfully, I begin to notice the movement and shape of clouds along with a myriad of tonal values and contrasts. I sense a feeling in my body, and I become aware of it. I’m delighted by the blueness of the sky, or impressed by its dramatic scenes. I feel my spirit expanding, and I liberate my mind.
The sky is where fear ends, and freedom begins. The more I observe the sky, the more I see: the sky reveals its meaning to me.
When we look around us, we merely capture the sight of things, and their unstable, constantly shifting image. We capture fleeting impressions, bits, and pieces of reality. Because looking always happens from a distance.
When we look at things close up, we look slowly. We start noticing them, and we begin to pay attention to how we look at them, too. We eventually sense a feeling about the things we perceive that outlives the first fleeting impression. And when we make use of the mind along with the feeling we sense, we don’t only observe the objects of our perception but also our own selves.
Observation is a mindful, slow, and thorough way of looking at everything. It’s a conscious act of non-judgmental exploration of reality. Observation enables us to see not only the form itself but also the spectrum of possibilities behind the form. He who observes can see through and beyond the limits of physical vision.
Time and an awakened eye that curiously and patiently looks at the form and beyond it are essential here. But what’s the difference between looking at the form of things and looking beyond their form?
The answer to this question can be briefly summarised as follows: looking at the form of things is a matter of outer perception – an objective view on a consensually shared reality. It’s basically about that what every human being sees when looking around and recognising things as such. In contrast to the outer perception, looking beyond the form of things corresponds to the inner perception of reality, which is your individual, unique view of the world.
Be a mindful and active observer of the world. Notice the banal, familiar, and ordinary, and don’t stop wondering at it. By the sheer act of observation and wonder, you make the ordinary into something unique and extra-ordinary. You transform it into something different. Provided you drop your expectations and don’t anticipate the outcome, but stay in the process and go with the flow.
Your inner perception of things is essential to your art-making process. Because every inner perception is an act of creation through active transformation. Yes, the act of observation is not passive. There’s creation involved in it. And there’s no art creation without observation.
The way you look at reality is unrepeatable. There’s always something magical to me about the uniqueness of human perception! Just think about this: nobody else on planet Earth sees reality the way you do!
As a visual artist, I always start with a gaze, with an act of slow and deep looking that folds itself out in myriad ways and continues its perpetual journey in the eyes and the mind of the beholder. I imagine that gaze stretching each time the entire Universe!
Conscious looking is an act of creation which, in its turn, fosters more observation with magnifying glasses on both the artist’s and the beholder’s side, thereby triggering a new act of slow, deep looking, and yet another act of creation and re-creation of reality, and so on ad infinitum ...
Observation is an enabler of seeing: you can only see if you observe intensively and practice your art relentlessly.
I like to collect microscope photos, and I often take close-up pictures of pretty much everything because it "peels my eyes" and opens up new perspectives to me. I, then, transform the patterns I identify and the connections I make into a series of abstract works. I call this practice an immersive approach to reality.
It’s like snorkeling the sea. Or like Pipilotti Rist’s Pixelwald from 2016 – both a picture that is visible from a distance of 200 metres and a pixel forest which you can literally enter and in which you can move. The pixel forest offers you a totally different perspective on the picture as it actually is when you take a close-up look at it, not as it appears to be from a distance. If you’d like to learn more about this installation and the concept of seeing from within, read my blog post entitled “Seeing like an artist: the secret revealed”.
Mastering the art of observation opens up endless possibilities for you to re-invent the ordinary, identify unique patterns, and make unusual connections between usually unrelated things.
Seeing is an intimate act. We don’t see from a distance. We can only see up close. As a matter of fact, the deeper we observe and the more we practice, the better we see as visual artists. Paradoxically, when we look up close we see far, too; further than the limits of physical sight, further than the Universe! Because seeing is infinite.
“People complain about Picasso – how he distorted the human face. I don’t think there are any distortions at all. For instance, those marvelous portraits of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter which he made during the thirties – he must have spent hours with her in bed, very close, looking at her face. A face looked at like that does look different from one seen at five or six feet. Strange things begin to happen to the eyes, the cheeks, the nose – wonderful inversions and repetitions. Certain distortions appear, but they can’t be distortions because they’re reality. Those paintings are about that kind of intimate seeing.” (David Hockney)
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The takeaway from this remarkable Disney movie is a matter of perception: it depends on your understanding of the facts. Here’s my interpretation.
Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas shows the role that perception plays in the making of reality and the extent to which the limits of vision can impact human relationships. But it also illustrates the power of inner transformation, and, ultimately, the capacity of the heart to distinguish between truth and appearances, confirming, thus, that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).
Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King from Halloween Town falls into a swirling vortex that sucks him into Christmas Town, where he had never been before. He is confused and cannot understand why things are so different there.
"What's this? What's this? There's colour everywhere! What's this? There are white things in the air! What's this?" (Jack Skellington, The Nightmare Before Christmas)
He cannot see beyond the end of his nose; he misinterprets everything and takes over Christmas together with his followers. Christmas becomes a nightmare, the second version of Halloween.
Jack is confronted with a different version of the world, which he cannot grasp. Because he’s a prisoner of his own perception of reality. He tries in vain, pretty much like in a hamster wheel. He searches, on his own, for an answer in rationality, which proves to be misleading. Because the mind is unable to see beyond the limits of rational understanding.
But Sally, who is secretly in love with Jack, can see the truth. She understands his misinterpretation and helps him see so he can save Christmas in the end. Because Sally is the artist who sees through and beyond personal and cultural limitations. She doesn’t see only for herself but can make others see, too.
There’s a happy end to this story: Sally and Jack unite in love. The power of the heart prevails over the obstacles of rationality. The heart is the seeing organ par excellence. With it we can "gaze into the stars" as Jack tells Sally.
I’m an advocate of conscious seeing. Because conscious seeing can help you unlearn the conventional ways and change your perspective on things. If you change the way you see and you start seeing differently, the world around you will change, too.