The Oakes twins follow art down the rabbit hole

Ryan and Trevor Oakes are undertaking brilliant experiments with observation and perception, changing views on reality along the way

Taking the Dart to meet Ryan and Trevor Oakes at Dublin's Science Gallery, I start to suspect that people might be looking at me. I wouldn't blame them; I have been winking a lot. I've also been holding my notebook up to one eye and squinting around the edge of it, and trying to do that child's trick of seeing both sides of my nose.

If people are looking at me, I can’t be certain of what they see. None of us can. Colour differs depending on who is perceiving it; colour is impossible to describe, except in relation to itself. For example, you might describe something as “blue, like a cornflower”, but you can never know if the person you’re talking to perceives a cornflower to be, say, in a greener hue than you. Add to this the distortions of perspective and the differences in depth of field we all share, and you start to wonder if there’s any way to know what reality really looks like.

Keep thinking about it, and you begin to get that down-the-rabbit-hole feeling, of losing your grip on what you might have once thought of as immutable truths. Get there, and you’re in a really good state of mind to explore the work of New York art duo, the Oakes twins.

When we meet, they point out that a blue object – such as the water bottle I have with me – is, in fact, everything except blue. Its colour appears because it has absorbed all the others on the spectrum, rejecting blue, to bounce it back into our eyes. "You could say its soul is red and yellow," says Ryan Oakes.


Ryan and Trevor Oakes are identical twins, although they have made life easier more recently for interviewers, by adopting different hair styles. When I meet them, Ryan has longer locks, but they both share an intense green-eyed gaze, spare frames and a habit of making strong eye contact while gesturing, to get their increasingly complex points across with as much precision as possible.

For a start, they don't say "drawing", but "pen work", when describing the marks made on strips of paper, attached to a series of concave panels in front of us. These strips build up to create, in the first instance, a delicate black-and-white line drawing of a natural history museum interior. Alongside this is a coloured scene from a graveyard, which, from a distance, looks as if it could be the work of French post-impressionist, pointillist artist Georges Seurat. ("Lately I've been digging Seurat," notes Ryan.) And finally there's a more chaotic image, of concentric circles, overlaid, which, as Trevor picks it up and takes a few steps back with it, resolves into a cityscape of rooftops, chimneys and low sun.

All have been made using a specially designed easel, plus headpiece, that enables them to pull off the trick of transparent double vision (the seeing both sides of your nose thing), and draw exactly what is in front of them. (That’s where the winking comes in, as I try, without their apparatus, to replicate what they’re describing.)

The twins are in Dublin to create a pair of camera obscura images of the city’s iconic Pigeon House towers, which they’ll show as a kind of stereogram; these are pictures within a picture, and when viewed correctly the object appears in 3D. The project is part of a new exhibition at the Science Gallery that explores the art and science of seeing. And despite their conversation, which brings in optics, physics and geometry, the twins are coming at it from the art side.

"We studied art at Cooper Union, " says Ryan. "But we always had a systematic approach to what we were doing; we did physics and math in school. Trevor is more into trigonometry."

“Yes, I can handle the math,” says Trevor. Frequently during our conversation, I have the uncanny sense that they are thinking simultaneous thoughts in their sweetly geeky enthusiasm.

Concave panel
They were born in 1982. "As kids we worked together all the time," says Trevor.

“Our favourite thing to do was go make stuff,” adds Ryan. “Our phrase was always ‘Let’s go make stuff’.”

The drawings we're looking at, which also include a watercolour set of strips of paper, not yet mounted to its concave panel, range from 2009 to the present day. They show the steps by which the pair have experimented with observation, through trying to draw exactly what meets the eye, to prove that everything is pretty much an optical illusion. As we talk I'm reminded of Irish artistic duo Cleary Connolly's Meta Perceptual Helmets, which were exhibited in Ireland, and at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris last year. In that project, viewers were invited to don helmets that gave them the visual perspectives of different animals – including a horse, chameleon and hammerhead shark – and in so doing experience utterly different versions of "objective" reality.

Trevor picks up on that “seeing is believing” fallacy. “People’s immediate, uncontrollable desire is to understand the object. In many ways it’s a natural human urge, but it almost sideswiped us in our early artistic explorations.”

He goes on to outline one of the divisions at the heart of art: between subject and object. “People would say ‘What’s your subject matter?’ but mean ‘Why are you drawing this object and not that object?’ But it’s not about the object, it’s about how we see what’s in front of us.”

“One of the great things about art,” says Trevor, “ is that it shows you the perceptions of another human being, and how they’re not all the same. But the space between the object and our perceptual interface, that’s the core subject matter we want to investigate.”

The inspiration at the heart of their work is the realisation that we see by means of light bouncing off objects that meets our eyeballs and is translated through the optic nerve and brain function into our idea of reality. And all this takes place by means of circles.

Just look at the aura around a candle flame, to see that light reflects and projects in circles and spheres, and our eyeballs are, of course, curved as well. Hence the Oakes’s concave picture planes. Their process has evolved from the ultra-faithful mark-making of the natural history museum drawing to the seemingly crazy organised chaos of a cityscape, which is actually the view from American artist Chuck Close’s balcony.

Discoveries of perspective
In the course of art history, images have seemed to increasingly strike more accurately at what "reality" is. There was the discoveries of perspective in the Renaissance, followed by optics and lenses – which David Hockney has argued were used by the likes of Caravaggio and Holbein – followed by the invention of the camera. "But that's only there because that's the way the eye works," says Ryan on the subject of perspective.

Trevor takes over to talk about the way art has canonised the flat rectangle as the basis of all images. “You can overcome many distortions if you use a curved surface,” he says. Think of the implications of flattening the globe, which is what happened when Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator created his 1569 map. Suddenly we had a sense of how the world looks, but it is a vastly distorted one.

We start to talk about distance and sonar; a world imagined coated in something reflective, like chrome; the “spilled code” of light bounced, both caught and bypassed; visual static and the constant shifting of our eyeballs; and a “million semi-spheres” (Trevor) “frothing in space” (Ryan).

“You could go mad,” I say.

“That’s already happened,” says Trevor drily.

The Oakes Twins aren’t mad. But they are quite brilliant.


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Watch the limits of art with Patrick Tresset's A Human Model Is Drawn by 3 Robots Named Paul, which does exactly what the title suggests.

Make eye contact with Seen/Unseen by Alia Pialtos, as the artist reveals the invisible sight lines connecting our interpersonal communications.