30 May 2013, Francisco de Corcuera, The Impossible Existence of a Mathematician
25 July 2013, The Birth of Cinema … and Beyond
Recently, I was fortunate enough to see two public talks given by the academic, writer and artist Evie Salmon at the Rosenfeld Porcini gallery in
’s Fitzrovia. Each talk was a detailed,
walk-through discussion of the gallery’s current exhibitions. On May 30th Evie spoke about Francisco de Corcuera’s show 'The Impossible Existence of a Mathematician' and on July 25th she discussed the gallery’s most
recent exhibition, 'The Birth of Cinema...and Beyond', a group
show that brings together Old Masters and contemporary artists. London
Judging by the content and thinking behind these exhibitions, Rosenfeld Porcini present contemporary art as an interdisciplinary form; one that is not only open to different fields of knowledge (i.e Corcuera’s apparent interest in mathematics, architectonics and cosmic principles) but one that also manifests its energies in matter other than canvas and paint. Whilst painting is, of course, well represented in the gallery’s curatorial decisions, this focus is productively supplemented via an interest in sculpture, video and the presentation of a series of fascinating performances involving dance and sound art.
Evie Salmon is the perfect choice of commentator to engage with and communicate this remit. Her work as a writer is similarly interdisciplinary whilst as a painter she articulates a corresponding interstitial position via the creation of images that mix music, psychogeography and synaesthesia. Working in both capacities, she has the ability to make obtuse links across different bodies of work and turn these various dérives into productive lines of thought. Thankfully, another of her gifts is intellectual clarity. It’s so easy for talks of this kind to either spiral off into vague, theoretical incomprehension or to plunge into over-simplified condescension. Both of Salmon’s presentations navigated these dangers well and succeeded in striking the right balance between content, format and audience awareness. The talks had the accessibility of a good conversation, the density and detail of a great lecture and the type of engagement you get with a carefully crafted story.
The session on Corcuera’s The Impossible Existence of a Mathematician took as its starting point the various questions suggested by the artist’s own creative rationale. In the exhibition’s supporting text we are told that his work expresses an attempt to negotiate a fundamental conceptual tension:
Raised in a strong Catholic background, he has been haunted by the impossibility of living life by the rigid structures which organised western religions impose upon the believer. He has endlessly posed himself the question: can one live life by order and rules alone or will life itself inevitably get in the way? His paintings, not withstanding their formal development, have conceptually always illustrated this dynamic quandary.
At first glance, it’s difficult to equate the abstraction of the canvases with the personal and highly specific nature of this project. Corcuera’s designs appear more like idiosyncratic blueprints similar to the imagined geometries of Archigram rather than motivated heterodoxologies. As illustrations of this “quandary” it seems that the profusion of harsh angles and perpendicular lines shows, at best, the dominance of a particular kind of order (mathematical or by analogy, religious) as opposed to an oscillation between fixity and fluidity.
Salmon’s argument navigated this problem by focusing on the idea of cartography. According to the gallery’s literature, Corcuera’s family heritage can be traced back to one Rodrigo de Corcuera, a 16th Century map-maker. Using the idea of the map as an interpretive tool and combining this with Corcuera’s emphasis on points of intersection and erasure, she did not attempt to 'decode' the images but considered their signifying potential as maps. That’s to say, rather than spuriously reading the composition of a line allegorically, as either a 'sign' of authority or its converse distortion, Salmon considered the diagrammatic potential of the abstract images: “What kind of space is Corcuera mapping?”
Wisely, Korzybski’s maxim that “the map is not the territory” was kept in mind and the answer to the posited question was that the paintings represent acts of intellectual mapping. Salmon argued that Corcuera used his paintings to represent not an idealised space that one might wish to step into, but a space of activity in which such a territory is imaginatively sought. The former concept is very much the domain of H.P. Lovecraft’s story 'The Dreams in the Witch House' (1933) in which a scholar of both mathematics and folklore thinks “too much about the vague regions which his formulae told him must lie beyond the three dimensions we know”. The story suggests that certain accumulations of extreme architectural angles in specific spaces hold the key to “transgalactic” movements: literal pathways to other worlds, other knowledge and other forms of behaviour. The mirror image of this text and one that aligns with Salmon’s analysis is J.G. Ballard’s 'Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?' one of his iconic Ambit 'advertisements' from 1967. Rather than positing cosmological transformation, Ballard’s cryptic geometry speaks of epistemological and structural intersection as that which forms the locus of paradigm shift. The emphasis is not on the transition to a hitherto unknown 'outer space', but a re-calibration of one’s entangled surroundings, the sphere of 'inner space'. Similarly, Salmon argued that Corcuera offered a comparable invitation to speculative thought. His stated intention to “chart, to measure, to embody the very nature of thinking”, (his interest in what he terms 'sobjectivity') was read in terms of Georges Bataille’s notion of 'the impossible'. Put simply, this is a striving for that which is desired, a striving in which the deferral that underpins the desire operates as a productive motor. Corcuera’s project is impossible at a representational level, but it is precisely this impossibility that drives the work, is depicted in the work and hence constitutes its 'sobject'.
Salmon’s most recent talk on The Birth of Cinema… and Beyond proceeded using a similar methodology of gentle but incisive deconstruction. It began by looking at the exhibition’s main statement of intent:
A virtual idea of cinema existed many centuries prior to the actual invention of the medium. When people entered a church in Catholic Europe or a noble palace, they were confronted by paintings from the Old and New Testament, or well-known scenes from Greek mythology. Calling upon the oral or written accounts of the complete narrative in question, they could elaborate a virtual film from their own imagination. The understanding and appreciation of the artwork was therefore an active experience.
Here the exhibition pitches itself as an intervention in the debate on cinematic pre-history. Conventionally, this is a narrative that constellates around the parallel developments of Edison, Muybridge, the Skladanowsky Brothers and the Lumière Brothers, amongst several others. The development of film as a medium and art form at this point is seen to amplify the potentiality of the moving image whilst cinema takes the nomadic exhibition of this material into specially designed halls of consumption. However, this fin de siècle ground zero is built upon a long history of the image that is connected to media other than celluloid and nitrate film. The development of devices such as the kinemetoscope, and the zoetrope date back to the mid-19th Century whilst the magic lantern dominated public shows and private séances throughout the 18th Century. Richard Stanley tells us that Athanasius Kircher described the basic principles of projection in his Ars Magna Lucis et umbrae (1646) while the use of the procedure to ‘conjure’ demons goes back even further. In Stanley's account, sometime in 1540 the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had an encounter with shadow, light and smoke magic in the ruins of the Colosseum. In his papers he describes it as a carefully organised spectacle using images of various sizes, (no doubt amplified due to the acoustics and architecture of the space).
This lineage takes us to the period of the earliest paintings included in the Rosenfeld Porcini show, particularly those by Giovanni Lanfranco ('Aeneas fleeing with his family from Troy in flames') Ferrau Fenzoni ('Christ nailed to the cross') and Andrea Michieli ('David and Goliath'). The problem with hypothesizing their inclusion in the history of cinema is that the latter form pursues a line of development via various types of moving image projection. Cinema is born out of and plots a historical line that is proximate but nevertheless parallel to that of painting.
In her talk, Salmon engaged with this issue with an efficient focus on the notion of painting as a representational mode that is able to approximate if not manifest a virtual moving image. She made a very interesting parallel between the lines of focalization used in static compositions and the manner in which these guide the viewer in a 'narrative' around the paintings. Coupled with the point in the exhibition literature regarding the elaboration of recognised mythic scenes, this arc of the discussion put forward a convincing argument for an aesthetic understanding of the persistence of vision. Persistence of vision describes the mechanism of the moving image whereby its smooth kineticism is made possible due to the perception of an afterimage on the surface of the retina. Salmon’s argument was that this physiological persistence, essential to film, finds parallel in the cultural persistence of resonant icons, thereby permitting the narrativization of certain paintings at the point of (ap) perception.
This fascinating opening salvo continued into a second strand that looked at the engagement with cinema and film on the part of contemporary artists such as Gideon Kiefer and Fatma Bucak. In a discussion of Kiefer’s surgical imagery in 'The Solemn Moment' (2013), Salmon offered cinema’s solemn moment as the cut, the edit; the point of invisibility that sutures the frame and thereby generates significance. These points lead to some of the most interesting comments of the talk. Offering the gallery itself as a kind of cinema, Salmon presented a brilliant reading of the mounting of the canvases as the site of a productive system of juxtapositions in excess of any direct cinematic content in the frames themselves.
The talk concluded in the final room of the gallery in which Antonio Joli’s 'Campo vaccino' faces Bucak’s video installation 'Blessed are you who come'. Here Salmon expertly drew together the various strands of the discussion. The layout of the room brilliantly exemplified the proceeding point about parallel developments but also foregrounded the imagery of the ruin that had been to a lesser and greater degree present in most of the other works of the exhibition. This motif was discussed in relation to Walter Benjamin’s famous passage from 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1936):
By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.
This is one of Benjamin’s most utopian pronouncements and it’s often used (rightly) to make a convincing case for the formal specificity of film, particularly within an evaluative critical context. Salmon acknowledged this but also drew upon the painterly influences that structure Bucak’s composition. At this point is would be easy to conclude on a note of formal relativism: everything is cinema and everything is painting. However, Salmon instead chose to invoke video as a cardinal concept. Meaning 'I see', 'video' pleasingly brings together the ideas of the visual and the epistemological as to 'see' means, of course, to perceive and also to know. The point made, then, was that the historical parallelism between painting and film need not be antagonistic or evaluative but needs to be understood in terms of dual specificity. The exhibition highlighted the extent to which the representational mediation of the visual sphere marshalled a range of techniques that shape the consciousness of the consumer in the act of vision.