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See Inside The Science of Perception

Sculpting the Impossible: Solid Renditions of Visual Illusions [Preview]

Artists find mind-bending ways to bring impossible figures into three-dimensional reality

In an impossible figure, seemingly real objects—or parts of objects—form geometric relations that physically cannot happen. Dutch artist M. C. Escher, for instance, depicted reversible staircases and perpetually flowing streams. Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose drew his famously impossible triangle, and visual scientist Dejan Todorović of the University of Belgrade in Serbia created a golden arch that won him third prize in the 2005 Best Illusion of the Year Contest. These effects challenge our hard-earned perception that the world around us follows certain, inviolable rules. They also reveal that our brains construct the feeling of a global percept—an overall picture of a particular item—by sewing together multiple local percepts. As long as the local relation between surfaces and objects follows the rules of nature, our brains don't seem to mind that the global percept is impossible.

Several contemporary sculptors recently have taken up the challenge of creating impossible art. That is, they are interested in shaping real-world 3-D objects that nonetheless appear to be impossible. Unlike classic monuments—such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.—which can be perceived by either sight or touch, impossible sculptures can be interpreted (or misinterpreted, as the case may be) only by the visual mind.

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