Cosmic Vision: Intimacy and the Unknown in Steven Beckly’s Commission for the Dal Grauer Substation

Arpad Kovacs

Steven Beckly’s photographs often appear dreamlike and evocative of an otherworldly plane, a place that melds the physical with the psychedelic. In his installations, he regularly plays with, and occasionally chafes against, the expectation for photographic prints to be two-dimensional objects that faithfully describe the world as seen on the other end of the camera’s lens. Regularly depicting fragments of subjects, fleeting moments, and constructed scenes that a viewer is then positioned to reassemble, his compositions can easily elude a quick reading. These approaches to the medium call to mind the works of other artists whose practices aim to visualize a feeling or an abstract concept. In this way, Beckly’s practice alludes to the origins of conceptualism in the 1960s, but as approached by artists a generation later, like Félix Gonzáles-Torres and Uta Barth. Beckly brings together individual elements that together suggest a larger idea found outside the bounds of the frame. 

Phantom Eye, the monumental work commissioned by Capture Photography Festival for the façade of the Dal Grauer Substation in downtown Vancouver, exemplifies Beckly’s interest in juxtaposing multiple points of reference. As a composite of two separate images – one created by the artist and the other sourced online – the work points to two opposing ideas. One is the human eye, the organ that allows us to perceive and understand our environment and which has also served poetic and psychological functions in literature and art. The second is an image of cosmic matter; it too is a composite of multiple images, here representing the largely unknown, recorded by mechanized lenses that can provide a glimpse into the previously unseen. These images, which evoke parallel meanings about ways of seeing, are layered one on top of the other. When installed, the large scale also magnifies a naturally small organ. The eye becomes nearly the size of a telescope’s mirror, amplifying what can be seen. The disintegrated pupil in the image, however, negates the eye’s core function and potentially subverts a clear comparison of the eye as functioning as a telescope that allows us to see the previously invisible. Increasing the scale does not make for a more powerful and perceptive organ.  

As Beckly was thinking about his source material and making this photograph, he repeatedly returned to the idea of moving back and forth between two states of mind: clear-eyed vision and knowledge gained through the lens of psychedelics – altered states of mind. This reminded me of the ever-unresolved distinction between the human eye and the machine eye – the camera. We often take for granted that they are one and the same but forget that they allow for very different types of vision.

Phantom Eye was originally inspired by an aerial view of an ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2021. The disaster resulted from an underwater gas leak that sparked a blaze on the water’s surface. This image of a giant ball of fire surrounded by violently churning waters was more akin to a visual translation of the literary tradition of magic realism than the documentary tradition circulated in newspapers. Media coverage seized on the dramatic literary potential, and many outlets employed language like “eye of fire” to describe the unbelievable event and related images. This form of anthropomorphizing an ecological disaster is a way of straining to understand the seemingly impossible, something that can perhaps only happen in the depths of a fever dream. The combination of two diametrically opposing elemental forces, water and fire, is evocative of the surreal while also serving as a perfect expression of a collective anxiety. The constant stream of warning signs with which we are inundated by nature and ecological activists does not compare to something so visceral. For Beckly, this was a moment of awakening: a moment that resonated and spurred a deep dive into thinking about how we see the world around us with limited capabilities.

Beckly’s allusion to the eye is metaphoric and follows a long tradition that has consistently wavered between depictions that embrace physiological accuracy or move into the territory of the abstracted form that is more evocative of the poetics of vision. Many artists associated with the early twentieth-century movement known as surrealism adopted the eye as a motif to communicate a range of ideas, including the limitations of sight and its association with knowledge of the self. The 1929 silent film by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, Un Chien Andalou, known for its dreamlike sequences achieved through the use of montage and double exposure that evoke the irrational logic of the unconscious, also includes a now-famous scene of a razor blade slicing an eye (an effect created using an ox’s eye). Scholars of Surrealism, like Mary Anne Caws, have interpreted this scene “as a Surrealist symbol of inner vision and as a confrontational assault on the moral detachment of spectatorship.”1 The following year, the Belgian artist René Magritte painted The False Mirror (1929), a canvas depicting an eye with clouds around the retina. Its amalgamation of multiple parts suggests associations that range from the conscious perception of the world to the unconscious imagery of dreams. Caws has written that it can be understood as “looking at a clouded sky reflected on the eye’s surface or a mirror reflection of eye and sky, or perhaps a firmament which exists behind the eye, as if it were a window onto the idea of what appears there.”2 Man Ray’s Larmes (1930–32) is a closely cropped view of a woman’s eyes with glass beads dotted on her cheeks. Widely understood as a metaphor for the artifice of photographs at a time when the camera was conventionally associated with truthfulness, it also mocks the overly sentimental.3 All three of these works ridicule the notion of believing what one sees, because our eyes have always had a penchant for deception. Phantom Eye, with its allusion to the spectral, also suggests an inward turn and resonates deeply with the surrealist ethos.   

Photography is inextricably linked with vision and perception; in fact, we often think of the camera as a stand-in for the human eye. Our perception of the world is mediated by the pupil, which regulates the amount of light that reaches the retina and thus manages the information fed to the brain. It is this concept that underlies visual instruments like microscopes and telescopes. The Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990) and the James Webb Space Telescope (launched in 2021) represent relatively recent advances in technology that have allowed us glimpses into territories that, for most of humanity’s history, have existed only in one’s imagination. These two tools – which have been compared to giant eyes that use mirrors to take in massive amounts of light, akin to the pupil – have provided mesmerizing and often perplexing views of the cosmos. Much like Beckly’s photograph, these images of the universe are composites, stitched together from multiple views. Individual images are enhanced by adjusting the brightness and contrast to draw the eye to specific details and to emphasize the scientific value of specific observations.4  Manipulating images to highlight, or diminish, specific aspects of a subject is certainly not a recent phenomena. In fact, it can be traced to the early days of the history of photography.

For Beckly, seeing a rendering of the cosmos is at once an act of complex scientific achievement and an example of a form of mysticism that exists outside of ourselves – one that could possibly also be a reflection of our collective desire for knowledge through sight (a proposition that is admittedly inherently faulty in its premise). The eye that gazes out at the viewer in Phantom Eye, and perhaps looks towards the cosmos, is that of the artist’s partner, Dylan. Possibly a minor detail, but also a realization that visual perception is so often intimately personal. Beckly printed this image of Dylan’s eye on a transparent sheet of paper, melding it with the dramatically illuminated shapes of gasses that the James Webb telescope has captured. The gaze is one of intimacy and knowing, even when so much of what’s out there is unknown.

1. Mary Ann Caws, ed., Surrealism (London: Phaidon Press, 2004), 144.
2. Ibid., 70.
3. Katherine Ware, In Focus: Man Ray, ed. Weston Naef (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999), 56.
4. Bella Isaacs Thomas, “How the James Webb Space Telescope Captures Stunning Images of Space,” PBS NewsHour, accessed December 6, 2022,
Steven Beckly, Artist’s studio, 19 October 2022

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