Clarifying Deceptions

Ernest W. Uthemann, Arbeitslicht, 2009

Ever since the invention of photography, and definitely since the invention of the technologies derived from it—film and television—the history of how we see the world has had to be re-written. Even though there used to be considerably fewer images stored in people’s minds, the vast majority of this archive consisted by far of things people had themselves seen. This is now changing: ever since mass production of images began, the number of images stored in the brain that do not come from media sources has been rapidly reduced. Of course, in comparison to our ancestors, our memories contain an excessive number of images of the world, but fewer and fewer of them stem from our own experience. Even more crucial still are the effects of changing the viewer’s perspective. Just like someone viewing an object, eyewitnesses to an event have an individual point of view, subtly differentiated by each person’s location and size. In an amphitheater or at the marketplace, each person present has his own perspective, even if it is only slightly different from that of others. Even in a proscenium theater, hundreds of pairs of eyes are looking at the stage from different directions. An object in a photograph, however, or a photograph of an event, is frozen forever from one particular standpoint. Anyone looking at a photograph is forced to take the camera’s point of view.
One could argue that this is also true of painting, but painting does not have the same bonus that photography enjoys: the trust in the authenticity of what is depicted, and in the notion that, in a certain way, the world depicts itself, that the viewer is witnessing a moment that occurred in exactly that particular way and looked exactly it does in the photograph. This means that we acknowledge that each painting represents the individual perspective of one person—the painter; frequently, though, on top of photography’s claim to objectivity, is still layered the awareness that even in the case of photography, a separate point of view determines the image.
In point of fact, a photograph is nothing more than a flat pattern, made up of sections of dark and light. Of course, these constellations resemble the way the world looks, the way we seem to perceive it through our own eyes. Yet we must keep in mind that photography was invented in nineteenth-century Europe, where art had been marked since the Renaissance by a tradition of naturalistic portrayal, which was constantly being refined—a kind of depiction that also constructed illusionary perspectives out of lines and planes. Anthropologists have stated that the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego could not recognize photographs of animals from their own environment, since the pictures did not correspond to their own way of depicting these creatures. Who knows if medieval Europeans could have recognized more than just an abstract pattern, a sort of chiaroscuro lacking any object-related references. This is the way Carsten Gliese uses photography. He "dissects" photographs of interiors, for instance, separating the planes along the boundaries of lighter and darker sections, without always differentiating between figure and background.
Now, in looking at photography (and in comparing photos and our own perception of things), our experience with it allows us to come to conclusions about the nature and appearance of what is depicted—and above all, about its volume. Still, we cannot be completely sure: we only see certain planes, which our minds turn into constellations of volume and space. Gliese plays with this kind of ambiguity. For example, he implies that the plane in a photograph, perceived as a space under a table, could, with equal justification, possibly be seen as a solid figure. So he lends volume to this form inside the picture, adding it to other parts of the picture, converting them into three dimensions to form a sculpture, without taking the original context into consideration. This creates solid figures that continue to retain traces of the original image here and there: a table leg is like a channel cutting across a trapezoid; the back of a chair can still be vaguely recognized as a distorted shadow. In the end, however, we see a sculpture that seems to be governed by a set of Constructivist rules. And ultimately, that is what it is: Gliese exaggerates the abstraction of the world presented in photography. We become aware that a photographic image does not provide a clear view of the world, but simply suggests ways it can be interpreted.
Gliese is also interested in the question of "What is going on with the things that are behind what we see?" This interest is expressed in his design for a sculpture commissioned by the city of Saarbrücken, for a firewall that is part of the building housing the Stadtgalerie. Like slices of toast, segments are lined up in rows, either next to each other or apparently behind each other; upon closer inspection, their form is derived from certain sections of the building’s façade: the windows, the pilasters, the gable, receding and projecting elements. Gliese has "cut up" the building and, in the process, discovered that the obvious assumption that there must be rooms behind a façade is not actually justified. A building could also be a compact solid figure, whose interior is completely different than expected.
The image of the world that we construct for ourselves is, of course, supported by our own experiences, but that does not necessarily mean that this can be applied randomly, without any reflection, to new situations. If each of us believes that our own points of view are perfectly capable of perceiving the phenomena of the world, then we will always be deceiving ourselves. Even our own individual experiences are not enough to interpret the things around us, because then, every time we encounter something new, we only look for the similarities it might have with something else saved in the limited storehouse of our own knowledge. A resemblance to something else, though, is the essential hallmark of the forgery, or the deception. Carsten Gliese is not a forger; he offers us alternative perspectives in order to sharpen our senses and our minds.
This is also the case in his work 5 Nischen (5 niches), which he designed for a room in the Stadtgalerie. In a gallery room on the second floor, which is closed off with panels and has built-in corner window niches, the artist pasted photos of cardboard buildings, printed on fleece wallpaper —of sculptural objects whose original size can be recognized when one realizes that the "tiles" on which they seem to be standing are, in reality, the square centimeter divisions of a cutting mat. The surface of the photographed elements is split up by horizontal cannelures, which bear a slight resemblance to Art Déco relief work. To the eye of the beholder, these horizontal lines are meant to simulate connections and protrusions on the projecting and receding ground. This means that when one changes standpoints, it is possible to see that what one thought was a closed wall has just turned into a free-standing pillar, thanks to a white caesura, while the direction of the pillar in the room has also changed, in comparison to one’s previous impression. It would not be right to say that nothing here is what it seems to be—everything is exactly the way it seems to be; it is only being depicted from a variety of different perspectives.
Doubtless, Gliese creates trompe-l’œils, but they do not confuse the senses. Rather, they are meant to clarify; they are not illusionary, optical deceptions, which function only as long as the viewer remains unsure of how they have been made. Gliese’s works have an austere, open quality, and they do not leave us in doubt about what we are seeing. On the contrary: these works animate the viewer to enjoy the change of perspectives, to take pleasure in the knowledge that the world becomes far more interesting when one is open to the ambiguity of phenomena and their images.