Beyond Illusion

Günther Kebeck, A Cave for Plato, 2009

One of the most impressive examples of illusionist painting is Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling fresco “The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius” gracing the nave of the baroque church of San Ignazio in Rome, painted between 1691-94. The painting makes the flat barrel vaulting appear to the observer like a continuous space of extraordinary depth. Following Leon Battista Alberti’s theory on perspective the centric ray of the visual pyramid (“il principe”) is used to link the observer with infinity. In order for this work to develop its illusionist potential the visitor has to stand in a prescribed viewing position. This lies in the centre of the projection and is marked by a circular brass plate on the floor. Only when observers remain still and – to be precise – only when they observe the picture with one eye, is the illusion perfect. Once they move from the projection centre first the architectural elements and then the figural depictions begin to “collapse”. Deformations appear and ultimately the painting looks flat and its subjects are scarcely recognisable. Relating to this particular situation is Glaucon’s reply to Socrates after he introduces him to Plato’s cave allegory: “A strange image and … strange prisoners”. Photographer Carsten Gliese also uses central perspective for his folding screen installation “Paravent” but does this in a decidedly different way.
Firstly about the genesis of the work: The starting point here is the architecture with its 556 x 550 cm, virtually square exhibition space (378 cm high). Following the proportions of the walls or rather the position and dimensions of the key elements to the room (door, windows and corner projection) two 19.4 cm high models made of layered cardboard were made. These models consist of individual wall elements facing different directions. The models are independent objects that were then re-photographed. This meant the models became a picture again. Finally, the pictures were greatly magnified, printed onto non-woven fabric and affixed in large expanses onto the walls of the screen (approx. 5 running metres in length and 305 cm high). “Paravent” is thus a sculpture and a picture at the same time.
A “paravent” or screen generally describes a folding, portable wall that serves as a room divider or to shield view. It consists of individual elements that are movably connected to one other. The fact that the angles between the different panels are almost freely adjustable means the curve of the screen can be varied as required. Depending on their age and design folding screens are considered valuable though also unstable. Their practical task is to shield parts of a room from the view of entering observers or to hide people or objects located in the room from these observers. Gliese’s installation displays key differences to the traditional screen – ones which are key to understanding the work. The first concerns stability. From a side position the observer recognises the 7 cm thick construction. These screens are not scenery props. They are real walls. The installation is a temporary piece of architecture with its own stability, weight and volume. The screens stand at a distance to the wall and do not reach the ceiling. They therefore constitute an intervention in the existing space whose limits and specificities remain visible (e.g. water connections and tiles). The second difference relates to their variability. While there are manifold angles, each screen ultimately consists of one rigid element with a fixed curve. Contributing to the intended confusion here is the fact that the observer standing in this right-angled exhibition space expects – as in architecture generally – to find right angles also in this curve, while the screens in fact predominantly feature obtuse and acute angles. The third aspect relates to the lack of shielding provided. Gliese’s screens are no room dividers. The observer cannot walk behind them. Nothing is shielded from view here. On the contrary, the screens make something in the room visible in a new way: the exhibition space.
While baroque illusionist painting precludes stationary observers who destroy the illusion once they decide to move, Carsten Gliese’s installation demands a “self-determined observer”. Only to this kind of observer is the installation’s aesthetic quality revealed. Here there is no “ideal” point of observation or designated position. Only by moving within the space, changing direction and varying distance can we view the work. Two examples: located on the screens are elements of multi-stability. The idea is that as you walk along the piece, individual elements (for instance wall protrusions) seem to detach themselves from the picture in an illustrative manner to become independent visual objects. In this movement they are subject to formal constancy. Altering the angle of observation does not reveal a new object but a rotation. Another example: illusionist art is bound to deny its materiality. However, when an observer approaches an image surface in this piece it becomes practically impossible to deceive him/her. Gliese’s work requires the observer to look at the work in both ways and compare. Initially Gliese perfectly exploits the opportunities of illusionist photography. The architecture shown on the screens is clearly structured. Base elements like the wall, column, ledge and opening stand out clearly. By contrast, the horizontal repetition of the elements beyond the curve lead into continual lines and an amalgamation. Every screen is seen as an object. This is the decisive pre-condition for creating the illusion of architecture via the simulation of a uniform and natural distribution of light. At the same time, Gliese makes it possible to see the texture and material of the original model by means of strong magnification. This means the working process also remains visible. Either confusion or simultaneity arises, the illusion is jeopardised.
On entering the exhibition space the observer initially has the impression of order and clearness. If they linger and alter their points and angles of observation the complexity of the installation becomes apparent. It overtaxes human perception. The observer is not in a position to join together the parts into a conclusive picture. This fragmentation is an agenda in itself. Imagination takes the place of illusion. Observers are invited to complete the fragments in their imagination – though not like in a kind of puzzle but in a new space. A space that can only exist like this in their imagination. The installation “Paravent” creates an as favourable starting point for this as possible because it is elaborated using extremely skilled and formal precision. It presents an object of great aesthetic quality which makes several experiences of simultaneity possible.