Geometry, Optics, Alchemy

Geometry, Optics, Alchemy
catalogue text by Iwo Zmyślony 2015

The works of Dorota Walentynowicz cause cognitive and aesthetic discomfort. They seem inaccessible, even hostile.

The disciplined, hermetic, geometrical structures may bring theatrical space to mind – they form the set of an abstract performance, with Platonic ideas of trapezoidal prisms and polyhedrons as protagonists. The mathematical serenity is pierced by glimmers of irregular, acute-angled mirrors.   Those figures make light of the viewer, living enclosed in their own, abstract world of obscure functions and meanings. Paradoxically, at the same time they spin a tacit, emblematic tale of the primal roots of photography, its links with philosophy, painting, alchemy and architecture.


     “I say that if the front of a building—or any open piazza or field—which is illuminated by the sun has a dwelling opposite to it, and if, in the front which does not face the sun, you make a small round hole, all the illuminated objects will project their images through that hole and be visible inside the dwelling on the opposite wall which may be made white; and there, in fact, they will be upside down” – Leonardo da Vinci noted around 1500 – “Then, receive these images on a white paper placed within this dark room and rather near to the hole and you will see all the objects on the paper in their proper forms and colours, but much smaller; and they will be upside down by reason of that very intersection. These images being transmitted from a place illuminated by the sun will seem actually painted on this paper which must be extremely thin and looked at from behind.”

    In the above fragment of Codex Atlanticus, Da Vinci relied on the writings of Muslim natural scientist and mathematician Alhazen (Ibn Al-Haytham), who almost five centuries previously, in the late 10th century, developed mathematical foundations of modern optics. Alhazen studied the processes of seeing, sources of optical illusions, propagation, refraction and decomposition of light, experimenting for that purpose with a variety of lenses and mirrors. The scholar is said to have discovered the mechanism of camera obscura by accident, noticing the reflection of sun on the wall of his room, coming though a minute slit in the window shutter during a partial eclipse. He noted at the time: “The image of the sun at the time of the eclipse, unless it is total, demonstrates that when its light passes through a narrow, round hole and is cast on a plane opposite to the hole it takes on the form of a moon-sickle.” Soon he noticed that the effect does not occur with larger holes, and the smaller was the aperture, the greater was the sharpness of the image. Following that line of inquiry, he formulated the theory about linear structure of rays of light, contributing to the development of geometrical optics. His observations served to create the first dark rooms used by astronomers to study phases of the moon, examine sunspots and draw maps of the sky.

    Alhazen’s writings were studied by e.g. Witelo (Erazm Ciołek) – a 13th-century Polish natural scientist, disciple of Thomas of Aquinas. St. Bonaventure and Roger Bacon, author of  de natura, ratione, et proiectione radiorum visus, luminum, colorum atque formarum, quam vulgo Perspectivam vocant, Libri X – one of the most important treatises on optics and psychology of perception of the early modernity. His ideas were known to and commented upon by e.g. Lorenzo Ghilberti, who formulated the rudiments of the theory of perspective in sculpture and painting. Later, they were drawn upon directly by Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, who incidentally dedicated one of his works to the Polish scholar.

    Apart from the analyses of the nature of optical illusions, numerous deliberations in Witelo’s opus magnum were devoted to the phenomenon of light reflection and physical nature of smooth, luminous surfaces. He was interested in the mechanisms of generating images both in flat as well as convex or concave mirrors, i.e. spherical, cone-shaped, cylindrical, parabolic etc.  He was also the one to discover and describe the functioning of optical prism, 400 years before Newton: “one takes a hexagonal crystal, may two of its surfaces be covered with wax, red or otherwise, so that the third surface between the two remains unchanged, then – if three others were positioned against the sun coming through a large hole, and if the place of operation were not brightly lit but substantially obscured, then from the crystal a small rainbow shall be visible: the most wondrous, the most beautiful, with the most vivid of colours” . Unfortunately, his interpretation of the phenomenon was erroneous – just as all his contemporaries, he believed that the colours are particles carried by light, not a mental sensation dependent  on its frequency.

    Geometrical optics was interpreted by Witelo in the neo-Platonic vein, by virtue of which the structure of reality was hierarchical while, in ontological terms, the light was the highest type of matter – categorially closest to the substance of God construed in the Judaeo-Christian spirit. Within such a framework, the world of visible things is merely an emanation of ideal orders established in consonance with the trinity of good, beauty and truth  found in the divine mind (which is beyond space and time). Light penetrates the universe, propagating order and harmony which give shape to the visible things. It is also a source of life, and in the case of the human being – the source of the soul (reason and psyche). The farther away from the light, the less order one finds, the more interference and deformation.

    Neo-Platonic thought was Manichean through and through – a borderline dualistic vision of reality in which the universe sprung from the struggle of two eternal, mutually equivalent divine elements: good and evil.  The first was directly identified with light and consciousness (logos, intellect), the other with darkness, chaos and persistence of amorphous matter. The concept had its influence on Witelo, whose early notions included the view that Lucifer (or the “bringer of light”) is erroneously considered to be the fallen angel, as this was contradictory to his nature and principal function. Subscribing to the Manichean understanding of the nature of light, Witelo attributed to him the role of the Prime Mover – the driving force behind the motion of the celestial bodies and the entire mechanics of cosmos.


    Thus, thinking about camera obscura we enter a symbolic domain at the juncture of natural science and cosmology – a singular patch of no man’s land, ousted into the sphere of myth by contemporary science. The image becomes complete with Magia Naturalis – the treatise on alchemy by Giambattista della Porta, a volume which gained tremendous popularity in the late 16th century, printed for the first time in 1558 and reprinted many times in the subsequent decades. The mechanism of the device was described in Book 17, which was concerned with “mysterious glass” or, as its subtitle states with “magnifying lenses and the curious images they show”. Della Porta is alleged to have constructed in 1569 a room, in which a group of specially invited guests were able to watch images of people behind the wall, who were completely unaware of the fact. It was as much a singular peep-show as an equivalent of today’s cinema.

    Among Dorota Walentynowicz’s works, the above contexts are perhaps best evoked in Recording Theatre. In terms of construction, it is nothing else but a camera obscura made to scale of small architecture. However, due to its open, interactive function, the work is not all too distant from performative arts. The association is further intensified by the movable platform on which the structure is placed, drawing on the tradition of itinerant street theatre in the spirit of the Renaissance commedia dell’arte or medieval histriones. The viewer becomes both the audience and the author of a singular performance, in which they simultaneously play a particular role. Once opened, the external panels form a proscenium which one can enter.  The proper performance of light, darkness and colour begins when those have been tightly shut. Then, images penetrate inside multiplied and intensified by fragments of mirrors. The effects may be recorded using photo-sensitive paper.


    In her excellent essay,  Franciska Kunze compares the abstract photographs created by Walentynowicz to Alvin Coburn‘s Vortographs. One could also quote the formalist experiments of Man Ray or light generators of László Moholy-Nagy. An even more interesting point of reference to the artist’s work is the oeuvre of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson – a pair of Polish artists who worked before World War II in Łódź and later in London. The congruence does not lie exclusively in the formal similarities but in the methodical, intermedial approach and envisaging the role of artist as a constructor and designer. “Seeking visions some choose the path of camera obscura, others laterna magica, while the synthesis of both + the principal element of that Changing World is motion.” , Stefan Themerson wrote in 1937, “Nature gave us vocal chords, but forgot to give us an organ that would produce light. We had to build it ourselves: the luminous eye of projection”. What he had in mind was obviously the cinematograph and its possibilities as a device serving to construct new, kinetic visual forms that were devoid of close analogies in the entire history of culture. He had already constructed an innovative trick table earlier, by means of which he combined photograms made previously into one, animated whole. Still, Themerson was also a visionary, speculating on art of the future: “A new avant-garde shall come. I know what I would like from it. I would like it to do what I would like to see.  And I would like to see clear, rational, commonsensical, visual statements. Yet what it should do is not what I would like to see. It should do to which it is compelled by its own URGE TO CREATE VISIONS.”

    Themerson’s predictions came true in less than two decades with Andrzej Pawłowski – sculptor, photographer, designer and engineer, one of the precursors of Polish design. In 1956, he fashioned a special device which he used for showings organised for invited guests at his private apartment. Juliusz Garztecki, journalist of Ty i ja magazine, described them as follows: “a plywood box, two broom handles, round tops of tables nailed on as knobs, in one wall of the box a piece of tracing paper as screen, tape recorded next to it. Andrzej would start the tape recorder, take the tops in both hands and begin to turn them slowły. The forms would appear on the small screen. Fairy-tale-like, unearthly, indescribable, emerging from a misty depth, coming and going, colourful and black-and-white, utterly beautiful. They did not represent anything and could be associated with everything, thoroughly abstract, in an inexplicable and powerful way alive, biological, born and dying a most genuine death, breathtakingly dramatic. And the music – the only possible music they could go with, which had Bach in it, and the vocie of Yma Sumac, the ondes Martenot and the animal cries. After the showing you could take a look inside the apparatus. Pieces of cardboard, shreds of cellophane, a few baubles, a light bulb and a lens. That is all.”

    Pawłowski chose to refer to those performances as Kineformy [Cineforms]. They were unique due to several aspects. The first essential quality was their highly intermedial nature – they were situated at the intersection of film, theatre, abstract painting, sculpture and technology, at the same time radically surpassing all those domains.  The second element was visual alogicity of images and total randomness of their generation. In that respect, they were akin to the painting of the matter, a popular current at the time, and to a degree anticipated happening. Another important element was the home-made, even amateurish construction of the device producing the images, reflecting the spirit of countercultural strategy of “do-it-yourself” and using materials of the “lowest grade”. It is therefore no surprise that they soon won admiration of Tadeusz Kantor, a person very often exceedingly critical of his fellow artists, who subsequently, in 1957, organised a showing the Cineforms as part of performances of Cricot 2. The following year Cineforms were an object of widespread interest at the Expo in Brussels.


    Hence Dorota Walentynowicz’s methodology of working with camera obscura possesses a broad spectrum of historical analogies and antecedents. Nevertheless, her oeuvre also includes mirror sculptures whose effect on the viewer is altogether different as they engender a slightly different range of associations and draw on the tradition relating to the nature of photography in a different manner.  Obviously, one could go no further than the complex and frequently ambivalent symbolic of the mirror – an object which has fascinated humankind since the Antiquity. Its Latin name (speculum) derives both from seeing (specio), as well as from speculation – intellectual exploration of invisible reality (Platonic ideas).  In iconography, it denoted not only self-cognition, introspective insight, but also vanity (for instance in the myth of Narcissus) and attachment to transitory, impermanent earthly affairs. The very reflection in the mirror was ambivalent – it might have been the “true self”, an unadulterated picture of the soul as well as a sinister Doppelgänger – an unwanted, dark nature, epitome of things displaced from consciousness: vices, harm done to others and evil intentions.

    However, in the context of contemporary art the above references prove anachronistic. They definitely do not exhaust the wealth of possible interpretations. More still, they can even disrupt the manner of interaction with a concrete, physical object. Therefore approaching the mirror-based objects by taking into consideration their intermedial nature seems to be a much more interesting option. Walentynowicz does not title the works, by virtue of which they do not exert their effect via narrative, but solely through their spatial form and properties of the structural material. After all, their shapes are not random – one readily notices the geometrical concretization of optical processes of light propagation. In that respect her works are strictly analytical, even self-referential.


    “The boundaries of a sculpture may be viewed depending on the attitude – either as a boundary which lends shape to the internal space, or as a boundary which shapes the external space”, Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński wrote in 1931. They saw the approach as an axiom of new theory of sculpture, a sculpture which is no longer construed as a mass, but a physical concretizationof abstract mathematical relationships.  Spatial forms created by Kobro, oneof the most eminent visionaries of international avant-garde, were an experimental elaboration of that approach.

    The essential parameter of the new notion of sculpture were space-time rhythms, understood as a series of successive sensory experiences. The latter found their ideal measure in geometric interpretation of the Fibonacci sequence. In practice, this meant that sculptures are necessarily experienced in motion, or in space and time, and thus in a manner which is actually cinematic, in contrast to painting or photography: “Since a sculpture is to be viewed from several sides and because each successive side shows a different aspect than the previous one, therefore it contains a double measure of time. It is an object found in space, but simultaneously occurring in time. This is its inherent truth, this is its significant feature” – Kobro and Strzemiński observed. The material properties of the sculpture’s surface determined its boundary with respect to the space. “Upon encountering space, colour reflects the force of its energy onto it. One could say that the impact of colour in space extends into infinity. Colour subdues space and radiates into it. The greater the intensity of colour, the greater the influence on space it exerts, subjecting it to the effect of its energy, spreading out from the sculpture into space, within which it opens a sphere of its own influence. By disintegrating the mass, the energy of colour simultaneously fuses the sculpture with space”.

    It is precisely here that the specificity of Walentynowicz’s works may be sought. In her case, resorting to mirror as structural material is thematically justified, being soundly founded in the range of issues in history of photography that she addresses. At the same time, such a method leads to remarkable formal consequences. The boundary between planes and the space of a place becomes blurred in the mirror – the rigid divisions into the internal and the external, the background and the figure, the object of experience and the “thing in itself” are all put into question here. Each surface contains an additional, paradoxical dimension – an illusion of depth of perspective. Some, facing one another at an angle, produce their mutual reflections, while the images thus generated multiply ad infinitum, creating an architecture we cannot access in the illusory space.

    If, in there realm of contemporary art, there is still room to pose questions which have intrigued humanity since the ancient times, then hermetic method is the best way to do it, without wooing anyone with an easily digestible, decorative form, without resorting to pseudo-philosophical gibberish. Only in this way can we protect the mystery about which we inquire and not deprive it of its depth, seriousness or ambiguity.