THEO ESHETU | The Phi Phenomenon


When a rapid succession of static images is presented to the human brain, it combines them into an illusion of movement.—as it does when we view a film or a flip-book. This perceptual function is known as “the phi phenomenon.” 

In this work, Theo Eshetu animates hundreds of photographs of African religious objects in the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG), reactivating objects that have been decontextualized from their religious and ritual settings and rendered static within the framework of ethnographic display. Eshetu’s film links the art works together by a movement or transformation that does not exist in reality, the brain compensating “realistically” for this lack of transition.

Through Eshetu’s hypnotic animation, the aesthetic experience of the static museum via its photograph is returned to the quest for heightened emotionality that the objects once served in ritual contexts. The role of  visual perception in rites and ceremonies often is to move the viewer toward the invisible and inexpressible—an ineffable emptiness or “in-betweenness” not unlike the gaps that “the phi phenomenon” enables our brain to bridge, so that our perception registers, instead of absence, potent presence.