the shattered mirror of photographic utopia


catalogue text by Jakub Majmurek

for:  Dorota Walentynowicz , Tomasz Dobiszewski “If everything is repeating” 2014

The history of Western modernity is simultaneously a history of the eye and its gaze. The disintegration of the Christian Christianitas of the Middle Ages, whose decomposition brought forth modernity, is also associated with visual revolution. In the 15th century, with the birth of modern absolute monarchy (Louis XI in France, Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, Maximilian I in Austria and Henry VII in England), the invention of bronze canon, capable of turning to dust the fortresses of barons, centres of old, feudal power, the invention of three-masted, ocean-going sailing ship, the all-European movement rediscovering Roman law with its central concept of exclusive and inviolable private property, the- re appears yet another innovation which will give shape to the early modern age: the one-point linear perspective in painting. The 15th century is a departure from painterly representation of space based on overlapping planes and foreshortening to a new form of spatial representation relying on the illusion of the third dimension. An illusion founded on one-point perspective, where all lines in the image converge in one spot: the point to- wards which the eye of the viewer is directed. But there is so much more. This shift of perspective, the change in the manner of representing space is not only an aesthetic device. It engenders a range of metaphysical and political stakes.

Let us ask ourselves a question: who looks at a Renaissance picture? Who is the eye, whose gaze assumes Flagellation by Piero della Francesca or works of Tintoretto, which unfold into the- ir own depth? Although an empirical answer may vary (monk, aristocratic patron, contemporary tourist from Singapore), the “viewer assumed by the image” has a clear-cut identity. It is the modernity’s emerging rational, bourgeois subject.

The radical Marxist culture critics of the ’68 generation, such as Marcelin Pleynet, consider Western painting based on linear (one-point) perspective (from the 15th century to Impressionism) as an embodiment of the idealistic, classical project of European metaphysics, stretching from Ionia to Jena. The system had always focused – as lines in the painterly tradition discussed here – on one notional point. In the Middle Ages, that point was God. First its Platonian variety (Christianity as “Platonism of the people”) then Aristotelian, and eventually the fickle and unconstrained either by law or charity, sovereign god of the 15th-century nominalist breakthrough.

In the 15th century, once the nominalist crisis had been overcome, human beings, confronted with the capricious and unpredictable God, “cut themselves out” a certain space in which they make the world a more bearable place to live, through their own rational and instrumental actions. In that space the subject, as the centre of metaphysics, begins to dethrone God. This is expressed in the linear, one-point perspective. In it, the eye of the beholder in which the image is focused becomes at each instance a metonymy of the subject, the new centre of the We- stern universe after God had been cast off his throne. The perspective not only elevates the human to a central position, but also tames the world, makes it an object of masterly gaze and rule. It encloses the world in a geometric formula, staging it for the eye, so that it begins to appear as something which exists first and foremost for and vis-à-vis human being. As a place which is geometrically measurable and yields to re- presentation. As a space which surrenders to goal-oriented, ra- tional and technical manipulation. A space which lets itself be “tortured” by diverse apparatuses of knowledge, which by force extort the “laws of nature” from reality. In this sense, and going against Pleynet’s claims, one should appreciate the materialistic moment inherent in the birth of this form of visuality. Although naturally one can envisage a different, less anthropocentric and dominance-based materialism. As in the classical Chinese land- scape painting, where nature is not focused in the viewer’s eye; it unfolds in front of it, not because of it – all the while remaining free from any transcendental gaze.

Still, we shall agree with Pleynet when he observes that photography is born – though necessary knowledge had existed long before – only when Hegel finishes his history of painting. When the classical, illusionist painting nears its final days, acquiring self-awareness. Eventually it would be freed from the space into which Flagellation forced it by Impressionism (although signs of imminent change may be sought in Constable and Turner). Yet from the times of Goya, through the academism which donned the masks of bygone styles or Pre-Raphaelites who sought the lost “golden age”, it experiences an evident crises. It is no longer capable of “innocent” staging of space for the eye – the bourgeois subject.

Photography adopts the model of spatial representation from painting. The camera is placed in the very same spot from which the eye of the viewer envisioned the works of Italian Quattrocento. Photography, as the dominant visual medium of the 19th century, takes over the painterly functions of visual consciousness of bourgeois civilisation. It is photography which documents the greatest triumphs of the latter: construction of railway, military victories, iron bridges, factories, mass production. At the same time photography, in a manner more powerful than painting had ever achieved, becomes a literal component of power relationships forged by the bourgeois subject. It serves first to catalogue criminals, then all citizens (passports, identity cards). Inmates in prisons and colonies are documented. In photography, the amalgamate of the look and the power of rational and deliberate subjectivity becomes singularly literal and vivid, much more than it had ever been in painting.

In the 20th century, this function of photography is largely ta- ken over by cinema. Cinematography also fits in with the space of Renaissance representations; it also fuses literally and directly with the devices of power (surveillance cameras etc.). Simultaneously, photography and cinema, given their very nature as a medium, make it possible to undermine the power of the looking subject. Due to mechanical, indexical nature of photographic and cinematographic images (produced as a result of chemical reaction of film “exposed to reality”), they open a space within for an “inhuman” look. For a look that cannot be assigned to any subject, in which for the sake of “looking” (be- ing the source of image) one subjectivizes objects, animals, and states of the subject excluded from the rational, goal-oriented paradigm (dream, delirium, insanity). This creates a certain radical plane of immanence where human and non-human look, rational and insane vision may exist side by side. This produces a kind of visual democracy which is radically different from the system of domination-look of the Renaissance perspective. Here lies the essence of photographic utopia. The same utopia, extended to encompass duration and time which photography fails to capture, is promised and facilitated by cinema.

In view of the indexical nature of photographic images, they are frequently described using the mirror metaphor. Interestingly enough, photography is born when modern realist novel comes into existence, the novel whose classic, Stendhal, called a “mirror which one parades along a high road”. The metaphor of mirror, a smooth surface capable of capturing reality “as it is”, unencumbered by the claims of domination-seeking, rational and goal-oriented subject, is the second moment of photographic utopia. A promise of photography (and later cinema) as acheiropoieton – an image free of the intervention of human hand, guided by the looking-and-ruling eye.

The mirror of the realist novel was smashed as the World War I ended, if not earlier. The world of the ever accelerating modernity eluded its mirrory gaze, required new techniques based on collage, montage, expressive distortion of reality. Several deca- des after the end of the Great War, Jean Baudrillard wrote that we had lost faith in such objects as mirrors or philosophical notions, in their smooth surfaces which could capture reality. Images and reflections collapse into reality, they cannot be distinguished from what they reflect. Baudrillard wrote after the great orgy of ’68, perhaps the last joyful orgy of modernity which, in a jubilant act of emancipation questioned the structures of knowledge, power, vision and domination which had been embodied for the first time in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation.

Broken mirror is also the theme in the works of Dorota Walentynowicz, She places the fragments of a shattered mirror in camera obscura, with which she takes photographs. With a primitive camera and at the same time a device which serves painters to work on images based on the illusion of the third dimension. Images obtained in this fashion give the impression of “cut-up”, fragmented, “smashed” space. Devoid of a centre in which the eye assumed by the image would be found, an eye dominating that which is visible in the image.

Picking up the shards of a smashed mirror, the “slivers” of photo- graphic utopia (another utopia in which we, the post-modern people, have lost faith, just as we had with all others?), the artist de- constructs the Renaissance space of look-power. She reminds us of the utopian path of photography which the latter – in its history as a medium – has always chosen with hesitation and reluctance.

Photography and cinema and their associated utopias, experience their demise today. As analogue photography was the predominant form of visual consciousness of the 19th century, followed by analogue cinema in the 20th century, so digital image defines it in the 21st century.

This abolition of cinema and photography in the digital format is obviously Hegelian in nature – that which is negated is preserved in what abolishes it. Still, the digital image loses its indexical nature. It becomes again a space of boundless manipulation. In the digital space, to see means to have absolute, instrumental power yet again. Within, the dominant form of visibility is being transformed, from illusionist representation of three-dimensional space to its simulation in 3D cinema and photography. This transformation is referred to in the works of Tomasz Dobiszewski, which are based on 3D printouts.

How can one deliver cinematographic and photographic utopia in the digital 3D reality? How to save their promise of exodus beyond the instrumental-rational vision/domination, towards the non-human looks and acheiropoieta? Today, this is the most fundamental question, the highest stake in the game, for everyone who uses that medium.