Rome: Pictorial Space, the picture plane and Mike Nelson, part 1

Mike Nelson defines himself as a sculptor, “I make sculpture, but sculpture that you walk inside”.

After many galleries, many museums and watching so many people in so many galleries, some thoughts are starting to repeat themselves. Classical statuary, since Praxiteles if not before, was designed to be seen in the round, ie no framing picture plane to establish the illusion.

This begs the question: why does the Renaissance visual conception still dominate our way of seeing? I.e. the picture plane as a window and the conceptual space that develops autonomy. “First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen” (Alberti: Della Pittura”, page 54 Penguin Edition). The stimuli from Roman sculpture and ruin was all the visual information Alberti, Brunelleschi et al had to go on, why then construct a perceptual world view that is so firmly planimetric?

Why try to recreate Apelles when all you have to go on is text, the desperately dull Pliny for example.

Certainly Brunelleschi’s fiddling about with mirrors and images in the doorway of Santa Maria della Fiore in Florence made a two dimensional process in which forms could appear to be fully modeled in three dimensions. Unlike Praxiteles’ Doryphorus though, you can’t walk around Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’ (the first Renaissance ‘hole in the wall’ painting on the nave of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

Those early Renaissance artists came from craft studios that could turn out work in any media you wanted. If it was permanence the Lenzi’s wanted when they commissioned Masaccio, a three dimensional marble object would have had greater physical impact and lasted longer than a fresco. Was there in 15th century Florence, such a significant cultural hierarchy that prioritized the two dimensional? No, not really. So, why the power of illusory space? Why not the real thing?

The planimetric view is now the DNA of our vision, the camera, the TV the film the computer screen, the phone screen all depend on “a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject … is to be seen”

You might say that theatre in the round is the exception rather than the rule, but the proscenium arch, like the Albertian window is always with us. Had it not been so, no doubt the digital miracle workers of our age Jonathan Ive for example, the Lumière Brothers and Daguerre before him, would have been able to work out how to create images out of three dimensional light that we could walk around, as Praxiteles had conceived. 

What caused the change in perceptual world view that gave us Brunelleschi/ Alberti/ Masaccio and onward? I can only put it down to the increasing ubiquity of the book, that flat surface which can present the reader with a limitless, autonomous conceptual space. Which begs the next question; will the E Reader and the hyperlink presage a new change? If artists are supposed to be gifted with foresight, this years Biennale thought not.

The introductory book to Mike Nelson’s Installation presents different forms of space: the political spaces of the ‘Free Pirates’ in Madagascar, notiosn of anarchic (in the proper sense of the word) temporary autonomous zones free from hierarchical state interference. Fantasies much loved by graphic novelists and cyberpunks, Nelson has referenced Jules Verne and this sort of thing before.

In the book, Dan Cameron (‘Memories of Trespassing’) points out that Venice is an equally artificial space. What was once the meeting of East and West, a liminal space at the edge of empires is now an artificial reconstruction of the past. An artificiality based on gondoliers, repeated samples of Vivaldi, imported food from southern Italy like pasta and pizza and imported goods from the Far East like fake Prada and Raybans.

The constructed space that is now Venice, sells fake luxury as hard as it can to the vast queues that shuffle from San Marco to the Rialto to Accademia and back to San Marco, hot tired and presumably satiated. Does this Venice have anything to do with the Biennale? Middle aged men in black linen muttering about entropy and fierce women with short black hair and red heels discussing the positioning of practice; they wouldn’t be seen dead in the queue to buy a David genitalia apron in the market; what news on the Rialto indeed.

Dan Cameron says that “Whilst not actually hostile, Mike Nelson’s spaces do emanate an essential unfamiliarity” and I think that was the essential problem with this show, it was not that unfamiliar and it wasn’t that difficult to work out the layout, it was relatively predictable. The lighting was very even, it didn’t smell of anything and every room had young English people acting as curators/ guards looking at their I Pads and happy to talk to you about the show and which art school they are studying at.

The thrill had gone. Was the show clearly better in it’s first incarnation in the Han itself in Istanbul, when the photos referred to the buildings you would have walked past to get there? Nelson says that he not only re-constructed the Istanbul piece but he also reconstructed the Han that surrounded that first work; putting a Biennial inside a Bienalle he calls it. A fascinating idea, does it quite work, is it convincing?

“Venice occupies a semi-haunted space where an aggressive commercial empire once flourished”. This could also describe the reconstructed Han that Nelson presents. As Cameron points out, it is now Istanbul that is commercially prosperous whereas Venice is a sinking Disneyland. The relationship between Istanbul/ Constantinople and Venice is still very strong, the looted treasures of the 4th Crusade in the 13th Century (the largely Venetian inspired sacking of Constantinople) are still on show throughout the city; the horses of San Marco for example. But this seems slightly beside the point when walking the fictive corridors of ‘I, Impostor’.

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