A screenshot from Werner Herzog's 1972 film, Fata Morgana. Fata Morgana was shot in the Sahara Desert, with much of the footage consisting of long tracking shots. Fata Morgana was originally conceived as a sci-fi story where they would cast the shots as extraterrestrial landscapes. Herzog abandoned this concept when filming began. Temporary exhibition artist Scott Johnson was heavily influenced by this film, naming his second-floor Steiner Gallery installation after this movie (image source).
Desert mirage showing the illusion of a body of water
in the distance. The pool is a product of an inferior mirage,
a combination of temperature difference between the surface
and sky and bending light rays (image source).
A Fata Morgana is an optical phenomenon (see our blog post about optical illusions) that occurs in the very narrow horizontal space above the horizon. Fata Morgana are mirages, rather than hallucinations because they can be captured on camera; mirages have to do with bent light rays producing a displaced image. There are two types of mirages: inferior and superior. The well-known types of inferior mirage are the illusion of a faraway body of water in the desert, or an oil spill on hot tarmac -- when in fact, neither the water nor oil is actually there. It's "inferior" because the mirage image, the body of water, is under what is causing the reflection, in this case, the sky.
An example of a superior mirage. Above the perfectly
horizontal band on the horizon are the normal looking
mountains. Between the mountains and the water
is the "duct" where the superior mirage occurs
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James Turrell | Trace Elements: Light into Space
Scott Johnson | Places Apart
July 14 - Sept. 30