The Eye of the Camera

Renate Puvogel, Arbeitslicht, 2009

There is a centuries-old tradition behind the theme of sculptors’ drawings, but to this day, it is still not very common for photography to be of much significance to a sculptor. In the 1990s so-called model sculptors such as Thomas Demand, Oliver Boberg, and Lois Renner appeared. They surprised us with photographs of interiors, urban sites, or grotesque, fanciful architecture, and it is practically impossible to tell from the photos that they are based on handmade or artfully constructed models made of paper, cardboard, or wood. The viewer rarely gets to see these small, three-dimensional, technical marvels; rather, it is the end product—namely, the mysterious, yet revealing color photograph—that is considered the work of art. It is the visual, partially symbolic result of the artist’s observations, reflections, and critical explorations of the world.
In contrast to the model builders, however, photography is the starting point for Carsten Gliese’s work. He uses the camera to systematically feel out the space of each site for which a work is planned, and where it will be seen. Gliese explores the history, architecture, and function of a space, comes to an understanding of its character, and then directs his attention, i.e., the camera, to special features of the building, such as ledges, oriels, stairs, plumbing, wiring, or heating units. This extensive analysis is manifested in the photographic documentation, which provides the material for his constructive interpretation of the space. This re-formulation of the space through photography is not so much systematic as it is subjective and highly original, offering, as it does, new ways of nurturing sensory impressions and intellectual perceptions.
One of Gliese’s first installations, o.T. (Untitled, 1993) (1), is in the gateway of the Kunstakademie. It has been described repeatedly, since the five-layer "optical pyramid" is, in a certain way, at the core of all the rest of his sculptures that are based on photographs. By way of example, one can see from this pyramid-like structure that Gliese generally starts with the images perceived by the eye of the camera. Although the camera actually sees a round image, its mask cuts it into a rectangle. In every case, the camera image represents a surface. Starting with this rectangular surface, one can imagine a pyramid shape reaching from the camera to the object in the image, which is cut off by the plane of the image; this is the camera’s visual pyramid. The pyramid spreading out from the camera lens to the targeted object is a conflict for the viewer’s two eyes, since they can only selectively perceive objects. Unlike the wandering gaze of the eyes, the camera is able to simultaneously perceive and capture portions of the space next to and behind each other. The astonishing effect of the above-mentioned protruding sculpture is probably due to the fact that it seems to blend together, in a disturbing way, several lines of sight and motion so that they cannot be separated. Essential to our context here is also the fact that the camera produces a rectangular image—a decisive parameter for Gliese’s photo-based works, as they are all modeled on a series of planes with rectangular boundaries.
As a result of this fundamental characteristic, all of the details of the photos, as well as the three-dimensional models and sculptures, have a certain minimalist form. Curves are rare. Gliese also does not adjust this basic standard, even when he is digitally processing the photographs. The classic, unadorned form of architecture and structure determines his creative vocabulary; there is no room for extravagant fantasizing. Nevertheless, his creations harbor sufficient aspects that transcend the framework of reality. Gliese finds and invents surprising, convincing ways to visually intervene in the structures, in order to shake up our trust in the usual ways of understanding, to unhinge our sense of stability and the hierarchical order of architectural structures. He creates downright dizzying structures, such as a work for a ceiling called the Modell Hagen (1999) (2). Since Gliese incorporates sections of existing structures into his overall composition, the transitions from two to three dimensions flow as they would in a baroque ceiling mural.
In the individual photos, it is still entirely possible to recognize characteristic elements of a space; Gliese even sharpens our eye for parts of buildings that are usually overlooked. Yet because he blends specific details, they turn into a playfully developed semiotic system of signs, forms, and symbols. As in a domino game, Gliese lines up one photo-building block after another. Although the result is a logical unreeling consistently in accordance with each spatial direction, the changing perspectives—determined by the angles of the photographs and the selected dimensions—are still confusing. And it is amazing how Gliese is able to take these exclusively sharp-edged architectural citations and occasionally create an almost curved, overall composition that focuses on a central point, such as the Modell Osthaus (3). In the irregularly shaped hall at the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Hagen, the curves of angled shapes are almost kaleidoscopically inscribed, as it were, in the colorful carpet, producing ornaments and repeated patterns. The overall composition of all of the works share a high degree of abstraction, although everything originates in an object of some sort, and can be traced back to its specific object at any time.
If we look at Gliese’s Zwischenbebauungen, or "in-between structures" (4), we can see how intently the artist explores architecture, and how he has internalized the formal vocabularies of historical and contemporary architecture. These structures can be described as photographic interventions in urban building façades. Here, too, Gliese does not intervene in the existing substance of a building, but simply adds a temporary photo-application, which can be as high as the building itself. Obviously, he does not seek out harmoniously structured buildings for his concepts, but rather, individual buildings or groups of buildings that seem to be lacking something. With these purely optical interventions, he disturbs our usual visual perceptions. This effect is intensified when the photo covers the building so that it seems to replace the edges of the structure, moves rows of windows, or else breaks up and reassembles a staircase, like a collage, so that, ultimately, the staircase just seems like a metaphor for a staircase. By focusing on the architectural details of a building—honing, reproducing, or enlarging them in photos, or combining them with other details—he emphasizes building features that previously seemed coincidental, or have been neglected or covered up. This gives a building, or even an entire ensemble of buildings, the complexion of a good piece of modern architecture. Furthermore, Gliese’s visual and even visionary offerings are remarkable solutions to the problem of restoring existing structures, especially the average post-war type of building. All too often, a redesign for a façade degenerates into decoration, completely burying the original look beneath an unsuitable covering. Gliese reinforces, in a new way, the justifiable demand that restoration tasks be entrusted to an expert designer or an artist, because an artist such as himself produces a fresh design through a combination of architectural knowledge and independent creativity.
Documentary photos are put back into architectural space not only through Gliese’s two-dimensional works inside and outside, but also through his three-dimensional models and sculptures. Here, they either cover the surfaces of individual sculptural elements, or else they take on a completely sculptural form when applied to a model. It would not be unreasonable to compare Gliese’s process with the analytical and synthetic methods of Cubism, but there is a difference: both occur in each individual work. Whereas in the photos, synthesis follows the analytical path of evaluating the situation, whose details it combines; the sculpture leads to an analytical exploration of the space, so that, ultimately, the existing space and the artist’s objects seem to interpenetrate. Three levels of reality collide in the sculptural works: that of the photographs, that of the solid sculpture, and that of the real space that envelops the other two components. These three modalities also have different, competing standards; architecture has a different standard than sculpture, while in the photograph, all of the standards are abrogated. Gliese deliberately pits these contradictions against each other in his works, since the voluminous sculptures forcefully jut into the space. Considering the minimalist appearance of the sculptures, it is difficult to reconcile their visual form with their logical construction and function. As a comparison here, we can cite Richard Artschwager’s strange angled sculptures—such as the sculpture of a table that looks like a piece of furniture seen from a single perspective. In comparison to this, Gliese adds a combination of several sight lines to create a multi-part sculpture.
For the past few years, Gliese has been extending his method—photographing interiors or exteriors from different perspectives—to autonomous photographs, in which the light, and only the light, radically re-interprets a spatial construct. Gliese takes multiple exposures, some up to one hundred times; this over-illuminates sections of the space so that they and their contours become almost invisible, as if they have been erased. Corners of rooms are eliminated, shifted, or doubled; even entire sections of spaces are added, without ever once forcefully altering the given substance. Unlike Georges Rousse, Gliese does not blend one space into another to create a strange ornament; rather, his intriguing optical interventions benefit solely from the materials at hand. And, once again, these changes are due to the camera, because it creates new spatial contexts. Ultimately, the final photograph contains a wonderful dialogue between the sections of light and dark; they are so perfectly balanced that the photo can be read as an abstract composition. The objects and sections of space in the picture oscillate between perspective (rendered into planes) and their spatial and sculptural qualities. Both the illuminated and dark areas demarcate very fine nuances in the intensity and degree of light and color. One of the reasons for this kind of sensitive gradation and sensory aesthetics is that Gliese only works with an analog camera. Analog processing is more difficult than its digital equivalent, but this difficulty is offset by the incomparable, unique quality Gliese brings out in the photographs. The artist retains small, disturbing features in the picture. In more recent photos, even the light source itself can be seen in the photographs. Thanks to the method of exposure, a row of tiny dots of light from the light bulb encircle the central motif like an ornamental band (5). The bulb itself can become a light object, although not a self-referential one, as Horst Keining would portray it; nor is it didactic. Rather, the worklight becomes a wonderful visual motif. And here, Gliese actually once again creates a rounded object: the image of a blooming, flower-like lamp, which seems to be revolving around itself (6).
James Turrell has used artificial light sources, as well as the sun, to create his famous color spaces and similar niches of light in spaces, but if one is going to draw comparisons, then it seems to me that the best one would be with the early twentieth-century Constructivists, specifically László Moholy Nagy, whose work can be compared with Gliese’s, an artist who also takes pleasure in experimentation. Nagy was a Hungarian artist who created an oeuvre of pioneering interdisciplinary works, eliciting from them a mobile and moveable conversation among object, light, and space. Even his light-drenched photos are filled with this sense of calm, internal motion. It is not about the details of the formal vocabulary, but rather, the comparison can be made to the free, experimental, yet conceptual treatment of these kinds of materials and disciplines, an area in which Carsten Gliese also operates.