This Mind-Boggling Installation Breaks The Laws Of Physics—Or Does It?

Artist Matt Kenyon exploits a common optical illusion in Supermajor, a commentary on the oil industry’s abundance and waste.

Ever heard of a "supermajor?" I hadn’t either. But if you grew up in an oil town or near the Gulf Coast, it’s probably a familiar term. It refers to the six biggest publicly owned oil companies, including BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil. It’s also the title of a new installation by Louisiana native Matt Kenyon.

Supermajor—the art piece, not the group of corporations—takes you by surprise. The installation is set up in a darkened room, with a single bulb casting a flickering light over six vintage oil cans. One of them has a rent in it, and a honey-colored oil pours out onto the white pedestal below. At least that’s what we expect it to do. But thanks to a complex optical illusion, the oil seems to be moving back into the can. Oil is flowing, though—stick your finger under the spout and it comes away slick with motor oil.

How does it work? More on that in a second. First, a bit about Kenyon, who teaches at the University of Michigan and is cofounder of SWAMP, a studio that addresses mass media, corporatization, and politics through art. Supermajor grew out of Kenyon’s horror and fascination with recent oil spills. "I spent a lot of time watching video footage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill," he explains in a recent interview with Gaspard Nemec, adding that news of another new spill had emerged in October. "These disasters give us a clear image of the implications of such abundance and waste. I wondered what other forms this faith might take." The installation foregrounds the difference between what our eyes see (oil slowly dripping onto the floor) and what we know must be true (oil is pouring onto the floor).

Kenyon seems to keep his cards close to his chest as to exactly how Supermajor works. There are a few things we can speculate on, though. First, check out this YouTube video, courtesy of a commenter. It shows a speaker playing a 24hz sine wave beneath a spigot of water. The water seems to slow down as it drips, simply because the camera’s frame rate syncs up with the vibrations. That’s not exactly what’s going on in Supermajor, but it’s close (I think). Kenyon has turned the gallery into a lo-fi camera by using the flashing light to create "frames." Our eyes try to make sense of the information coming at a new rate, and we "see" things at a different rate than they physically occur. It’s a pretty cool, and surprisingly simple, optical illusion.

Of course, I may have this completely wrong. Any commenters care to chime in?

[H/t Triangulation Blog]

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  • Jono James

    Like how the spokes on a cars wheel seem to be turning backwards when the car is obviously going forwards, the eye sees the next spoke in position just before the previous spokes position rather than seeing the current spoke in its new forward position. the fact that the spokes are identical makes the illusion possible.

  • Lu Nelson

    It's a combination of a variable high-frequency strobe light and a specially shaped spout that allows the flow and shape of oil the drops to remain consistent so that each drop looks like the previous one. That's crucial for the illusion and not necessarily what you get if pouring a liquid out of just any container.

  • Clint Keener

    Like the red light on a turntable. Some of the dots will go backwards.

  • Honukaimi

    it is a fairly simple optical illusion, similar to the interplay of framerate and motion speed that makes you think wagon wheels in old Westerns move backward. Imagine you see the first oil drop at a certain position during one flash of light. If the frequency of the light is tuned so that with the next flash you see the next drop of oil just a hair above the first oil drop's position, your brain will think the first drop moved just a bit upwards in a smotth motion, rather than  a good bit downwards in a jerky motion.