Impossible object  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

An impossible object (also known as an impossible figure or an undecidable figure) is a type of optical illusion consisting of a two-dimensional figure which is instantly and subconsciously interpreted by the visual system as representing a projection of a three-dimensional object although it is not actually possible for such an object to exist (at least not in the form interpreted by the visual system).

In most cases the impossibility becomes apparent after viewing the figure for a few seconds. However, the initial impression of a 3D object remains even after it has been contradicted. There are also more subtle examples of impossible objects where the impossibility does not become apparent spontaneously and it is necessary to consciously examine the geometry of the implied object to determine that it is impossible.

Impossible objects are of interest to psychologists, mathematicians and artists without falling entirely into any one discipline.


Notable examples

Notable undecidable figures include:


Swedish artist Oscar Reutersvärd was the first to deliberately design many impossible objects. He has been called "the father of impossible figures". In 1934 he drew the Penrose triangle, some years before the Penroses. In Reutersvärd's version the sides of the triangle are broken up into cubes.

In 1956, British psychiatrist Lionel Penrose and his son, mathematician Roger Penrose, submitted a short article to the British Journal of Psychology titled Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion. This was illustrated with the Penrose Triangle and Penrose stairs. The article referenced Escher, whose work had sparked their interest in the subject, but not Reutersvärd, whom they were unaware of. The article was only published in 1958.

From the 1930s onwards Dutch artist M. C. Escher produced many drawings featuring paradoxes of perspective gradually working towards impossible objects. In 1957 he produced his first drawing containing a true impossible object: Cube with Magic Ribbons. He produced many further drawings featuring impossible objects, sometimes with the entire drawing being an undecidable figure. His work did much to draw the attention of the public to impossible objects. Some contemporary artists are also experimenting with impossible figures, for example, Jos de Mey, Shigeo Fukuda, Sandro del Prete, István Orosz (Utisz), Guido Moretti, Tamás F. Farkas and Mathieu Hamaekers.

In fiction

  • In the 1982 Doctor Who story Castrovalva, the titular town is subject to apparently impossible architecture. The storyline also relied heavily on recursion, a favourite theme in Escher's most famous works, and used ideas taken from Belvedere, Ascending and Descending, and Relativity. Despite the use of its name, the Escher lithograph of the same name does not feature impossible architecture.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "I, Borg", a plan was made to destroy the entire race of Borg—malevolent cybernetic aliens whose minds were interconnected—by showing one of the Borg a picture of a highly complex impossible object. This image would be transmitted back to the Borg hive, overloading its consciousness in larger and larger attempts to understand the image. This plan was dismissed as being genocide, so its potential results were never seen.
  • In the computer game Diablo II, the "Arcane Sanctuary" region was based on impossible drawings.
  • Alan Moore's miniseries 1963 features a character called the Hypernaut that lives in a space station shaped like an impossible object.
  • In the video game Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem the Essence of Xel'lotath, the Sigil of Xel'lotath, is an impossible artifact resembling a warped angel.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror VIII", a blivet (or devil's tuning fork) can be seen on Professor Frink's yard sale. In The Simpsons Movie, Homer falls down miles of the impossible infinite House of Stairs while having an epiphany.
  • On the cover of July 1985 Mad magazine, a picture describing devil's tuning fork can be seen upon the wall along with a stuffed St. Bernard's head on the wall of Alfred E. Neuman's living room
  • The video game Echochrome for the PSP and PS3 features a mannequin who must traverse a series of impossible objects.
  • The set of the climactic scene in the Goblin King's castle in the 1986 fantasy film, Labyrinth, directed by Jim Henson, is based on M. C. Escher's "Relativity", and features impossible staircases and perspectives.
  • In Pokémon Platinum there is an area called "Distortion World" full of impossibilities such as these.
  • In the Family Guy episode "No Meals on Wheels" there is a scene parodying M. C. Escher's Relativity.
  • In "Science Girls", made by Hanako Games, the wormhole that leads to the aliens' home planet has a double Penrose Triangle as its power source, possibly to create a spacial paradox to warp dimensions.
  • The 1984 game Realm of Impossibility features levels which largely involve impossible objects.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Impossible object" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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