Petran Kockelkoren / The Empyrean Gaze (en)
Anyone who longs for an innocent view of the world, for an experience that is prior to cultural influence, is bound to be disappointed.
Right from our very first perceptions, cultural codes are imprinted in us that bring about order in the initially dazzling array of impressions. Later, as adults, we sometimes hope to be able to regain something of that original open-mindedness by visiting exotic spots or by exposing ourselves to untrodden nature. In fact, however, we are trying to jump outside our own shadow, because the very desire for such experiences of landscape is itself culturally determined.
The term 'landscape', is of Dutch origin and has been adopted by many languages in the world. The seventeenth-century painters gave the term currency through their pastoral canvases of the Dutch countryside. Nevertheless, those views were by no means unspoilt. Every sign of early industrial activity for agricultural or hydraulic purposes was carefully erased. At the time the landscape of the landscapists represented an urban longing for unblemished nature. No matter how we consider it, whenever we experience landscape we shall only encounter our own history.
Willy-nilly, the most remote spots in the world owe their fame to the first explorers who discovered and described them. What secrets does the Silk Road hold that have not already been revealed by Sven Hedin? Who can go in search of Inner Dolpo today without Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard in his pocket? Even in the case of less demanding destinations, every sunset is still partly coloured by the expectations raised by its announcement in the travel brochure. Is there no escape from this? Gerco de Ruijter's landscape photography seems to offer a way out. He takes his photographs by flying a camera on a kite, from where he offers us an unmanned view of the ground. Environments that are completely familiar to us offer no points of reference because of the arbitrariness of their edges. The images offered to us lack relief or horizon. There is no compass orientation. The earth is presented in a frame, but not in a constructed window as in Renaissance linear perspective. So are we free from the interference of culture at last? Is the earth that we see in Gerco's photographs the earth as it 'really' is?
I doubt it, but it is certainly the case that his photography challenges and contests the conventional cultural codes. How that takes place and what it means cannot be understood by means of lyrical descriptions of the beautiful pictures that are produced, no matter how praiseworthy they may be. Only a cultural case history, an exercise in recalling earlier artistic codes and their rivalries, can fully bring out their aesthetic significance and the importance of the whole enterprise. As a child 1 learnt at school to identify cultural history with the history of ideas. History was thought to be propelled by great thinkers, by philosophers and strategically-minded politicians. Material culture was presented as a derivative of the theoretical position. Technology was taken to be no more than an applied science. This is still the current view in our universities, where 'learning', means reading books and reproducing texts. My work at the art academy forced me to pay more attention to the visual components of cultural history and certainly to their media as well. The popular conception of the relation between idea and material world turned out to be wrong. History is not propelled by ideas at all. On the contrary, the shelf-life of ideas is closely connected with the material substratum on which they are based. As soon as the media or instruments of perception through which we see the world change, the related ideas lose their validity. Ideas serve only to stabilise our historically changing experiences.
Once a cultural equilibrium has been established, it usually capsizes with the introduction of new media. New stabilising ideas are called for. This materialist approach to philosophy is not new. After all, Marx had already advanced it. The infrastructure of a culture, i.e. its material relations of production, determines the superstructure, the philosophy that legitimises an era. But Marx's view of technology was too monolithic. Technology (note the uncritical use of the generic term) was taken to alienate us from our natural basis. On the contrary, I would like to dispense with any reference to a so-called natural basis and at the same time with the notion of an undifferentiated technology. Human perception is always, inevitably, mediated. It is mediated by language, art, technology. Each new technology requires new metaphors and a new conferral of meaning. Nobody has ever had to say goodbye to his unmediated experience in order to be able to enter the domain of culture, because there never was such a thing as an unmediated experience to start with. People are alienated by nature.
The philosophical anthropologist Helmuth Plessner was right to speak of the natural artificiality of human beings. The replacement of the primacy of ideas by that of material mediation has far-reaching consequences. Any acceptance of the primacy of ideas usually goes hand in hand with a universalist view of the human body and its sensory perception. In that case, the body is seen as an unchangeable given on which culture - the world of ideas - is inscribed from above, as it were. Different cultures, on that view, are characterised by different conceptual frameworks that are laid on top of the underlying, universal, corporeal order. if, on the other hand, you set out from the premise of the primacy of material or technological mediation, sensory perception itself becomes historically differentiated. New technologies open up a different repertoire of perception, which has to be physically and conceptually accommodated. As Michel Foucault put it, every culture or historical era produces its own bodies.
In his Filosofie van het Landschap (Philosophy of Landscape), for example, the Dutch philosopher Ton Lemaire shows that the linear or centralised perspective that replaced the medieval composition of the image (with its suggestion of depth by means of vertical stacking) was not just a device, or a changed construct that was laid on top of sensory perception, but that it in fact concerned a completely different regime of sensory perception. From then on people perceived in a different way from how they had perceived in the past, and their relation to the world around them changed with it. The medieval regime was not by definition more natural than the new one. Nor did the centralised perspective offer a more adequate way of representing the relation between a body and its environment.
It is simply that there was a changing of the guard. A new body was produced. And this revolution of culturally produced bodies and modes of perception provides me with a starting-point for positioning Gerco's photography within the present-day constellation. An unprecedented sensory regime was installed in the Renaissance. Ton Lemaire's account follows the pioneering art historian Erwin Pariofsky, who had argued that linear perspective constituted a revolutionary procedure for the composition of a picture. The gaze is directed from a monocular standpoint towards a central point on the horizon-line. That strategy brings the world to a standstill as if it were a scene for external inspection. At the same time, the participant in the dynamics of the world is transformed into a detached observer. The world becomes objective, its perception becomes indifferently subjective. Panofsky claimed that this in principle uninvolved subject, brought to life by the techniques of central perspective, was later conceptually filled out by Descartes, the founder of modernity, and hailed as the autonomous subject.
This self-understanding of the modern type of individual became the axis of a historical period that now seems to be heading towards its end: the period of modernity. In a valuable contribution to the discussion of the modern modes of perception, entitled Scopic Regimes of Modernity', Martin Jay has argued that linear perspective was certainly not the only organisational framework of experience of that time. To support this claim, he first follows Svetlana Alpers, study The Art of Describing. Alpers draws our attention to the difference between the scopic regimes of the Renaissance in the North and the South. While Renaissance painters in Italy developed linear perspective, their colleagues in Holland and Flanders adopted a different course of their own. Linear perspective is based on a mathematical construction: the projection of a spatial form onto a window in relation to a single standpoint.
The gaze is on the level. The Northern painters - among whom Vermeer was the most prominent -, on the other hand, were much closer to cartographers. They looked down on the earth from a great height as though it offered them a legible surface. They painted in bird's-eye perspective, from above and at an angle. They were primarily interested not in the method of projection but in texture or the rendering of material. If the Italians were constructors è la Descartes, the Netherlandish artists were empiricists á la Francis Bacon. Alpers illustrates her point with a sixteenth-century painting showing Amsterdam from a bird's-eye viewpoint, seen from such a height that it is even possible to see the shadows of the clouds passing over the city. So the Northern Renaissance produced a different subject position and tackled a different subject from its Italian counterpart. In addition to the Italian and the Northern scopic regimes, Martin Jay mentions a third: that of the Baroque painters with their trompe-l'oeil experiments. This scopic regime saw the world neither as a construction nor as a legible surface.
The Baroque artists replaced transparency with the indecipherability and illegibility of the world. The subject produced in the Baroque disappears laughing in his own hall of mirrors. It should be borne in mind that each of these rival attempts to determine a position vis-à-vis the world is based on specific material mediations. In the Italian Renaissance, the standard equipment of an artist included a 'window', to draw on and a peep-hole through which the monocular gaze was directed. The Northern artists employed lenses and magic lanterns. Later on the Camera Obscura became a popular aid for landscape painters. The different subject positions that were tried out were very closely connected with the mediating instruments that contributed to some extent to their constitution. In spite of all the competition, the autonomous subject - the detached observer whom Descartes elevated philosophically to a higher power - now rules the roost.
The modern worldview has been constructed around this axis. Why? Ton Lemaire thinks that the production of the autonomous subject was gradually automated by the emergence and widespread diffusion of the camera, which enables an endless multiplication of the externalised scenes from an uninvolved observer's position. In histories of photography the camera is usually presented as the logical successor to the Camera Obscura. There is a lot to be said in favour of that. The Camera Obscura consists of a darkened room with a peep-hole in one of the walls, sometimes with a lens in front of it, through which the outdoor light falls, so that a representation of the outside world is projected onto it (though one that is upside-down unless it is corrected with a mirror). Artists could take a portable Camera Obscura outdoors with them to assist them in making landscape paintings. As soon as the Camera Obscura is reduced to the size of a box and the internal projection is recorded on a light-sensitive film, you have a camera. But before this development, the Camera Obscura was already the rage outside the art world as a philosophical metaphor. Inside the Camera Obscura the outside world is represented in an interior world. In this respect the Camera Obscura was soon taken as a model for how the eye works: a representation of the outside world that could be deciphered in an interior was taken to be reflected on the retina of the eye. It is only one step further to suppose that the autonomous subject is provided with an inner world in which a unique representation of the outside world is situated. In this way the formal autonomous subject of the Renaissance is furnished with a psychological inventory. What was at first a metaphorical vision of the inner world subsequently took material shape in the camera that turned the production of this type of subject into a completely everyday matter. Other forms of subject production could not compete; if they survived at all, it was on the margins of culture.
Since its conception in the art of painting and the dissemination of its birth announcement by Descartes, the autonomous subject has been around for more than three centuries. It was only relatively recently that Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault started to spread the news of its demise. All the same, according to Ton Lemaire, this detached observer keeps going, supported by the camera and the TV. Still, everything has its price. Lemaire sees the environmental crisis as a consequence of the objectification of nature that is an inevitable concomitant of the construction of this type of subject. The success Story of modernity to date does not mean, however, that its central notions have not come under attack in the past.
On the eve of Romanticism, the autonomous subject had become a rather lonely figure. He had subjected the world to his will by imprisoning it in the geometric web of perspective, before the era of flying he had risen above it to adopt the bird's-eye view, and he had looked straight up into a Baroque painted sky to which angels ascended and from which the moaning damned were cast out. He had freed himself from the medieval celestial dome and taken his place on the divine throne. And now he was all alone. This is illustrated most beautifully by the famous paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) that represent an isolated figure on the edge of an abyss; the world does not lie transparent and legible at his feet, but is mist-covered and menacing. This way of portraying the condition humaine even became a rage among Romantic landscapists under the name of la vue plongeante.
The autonomous subject enjoyed his finest hour when, under these harsh conditions, he was brought into contact with the 'sublime'. On the outermost edge of his circle of mastery over nature, the subject encounters something that is bigger than he is: nature in a form that can never be reduced to human dimensions, the awesome sublime.
In his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1757, Burke already referred to the liminal experience of overwhelming nature (mountain ranges, tempests, caves and volcanoes) as a confrontation with the sublime', but it was Kant who gave the 'sublime' a definitive place in his Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgement) of 1790. Kant swept the autonomous subject away from the edge of the abyss. Continuing in the tradition of Descartes, Kant had even assigned the subject a transcendental status in his earlier critiques. The transcendental subject formed the basis of his theory of cognition, so he had to save the subject for that reason. In the confrontation with the sublime, the subject is on the verge of destruction. All of the purposiveness that still plays a role in the aesthetic experience is lost. But it is precisely in the failure to control this that the subject rediscovers himself and that the reason feels its superiority in the face of all opposition. Confronted with finitude and his own limitations, the capacity is awakened in the subject to think the infinite and to remain undaunted by it. Kant's philosophical tour de force was the salvation of the subject. The Romantic idealists - Fichte, Schelling, Hegel - could retain the subject as the pre-eminent philosophical cornerstone and hang the whole world on it.
This is not to say that all was plain sailing. In his Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Jonathan Crary shows how in the nineteenth century all kinds of instruments of perception were invented that undermined the hegemony of the Camera Obscura, such as the kaleidoscope, the stereoscope, the phenakistoscope, and the zootrope. All of these instruments have in common that they demand a physical action on the part of the observer. He has to do something to make the image capable of interpretation.
He can no longer allow himself to be a detached, external constructor. Crary detects here the emergence of the experimentally involved, scientific observer. As homo faber, he was to point the notion of the autonomy of the subject in a new direction, if only through the new mediatory devices that were put into currency.
The heaviest blow was dealt to the Renaissance subject by the introduction of the train in the first half of the nineteenth century. Centralised perspective serves to bring the world to a standstill as a framed scene for detached observation, but that strategy collapses in the train. On the contrary, the bulk of the first rail passengers felt ill from the moving gaze. Their coping strategies no longer worked. The landscape could not be fixed from a moving train. It took a few decades before artists had developed a suitable visual idiom, and in addition many accompanying measures were required to calm the cultural pathology that broke out. I am referring to the era of the Futurists, the panoramas and the world exhibitions with their fairground attractions that familiarised the public at large with the new sensory regime.
Photography and film emerged as an extension of the moving gaze. The photographic gaze provoked strong reactions on the part of the Post-Impressionists. Shaken in the train on the way to Provence, Van Gogh broke with the photographic centralised perspective to develop the so-called hyperbolic perspective. Cézanne experimented with it too. Van Gogh's famous view of his bedroom in the psychiatric clinic in St Rémy is in hyperbolic perspective. It invites the observer to enter the picture and thereby deliberately resists the detachment of the centralised perspective that had been made so familiar by the camera. Although Van Gogh is usually automatically trotted out as the champion of tormented, autonomous artistic creation, his works in hyperbolic perspective bear witness to an extremely critical analytical ability that was explicitly deployed against the equipment that constantly reproduces such autonomy.
The autonomous subject, a product of the Renaissance and authorised by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, has had its day. It lies on its deathbed. The construction of a consistent ego as the central director of a unique repertoire of representations of the outer world is being undermined today by new technological mediations. Film montage with its cuts and flashbacks - already made it difficult to hang on to the notion of a subject core. In CD-Roms the centrally directed narrative of the unique personality is already disturbed by non-linear navigational possibilities (combine all experience in which the colour yellow is to be found). Autonomous subjects are hardly to be found any more on the internet with its personal websites with hyperlinks; they can no longer be distinguished from avatars. It is hardly surprising that Barthes announced the end of the author and Foucault the death of the subject. A recent book on technological mediation distinguishes between the Remediated Self, the Virtual Self, and the Networked Self. From now on the subject is differentiated and hypermediated into the bargain. Modernity is in the grip of rigor mortis. The name of the next-of-kin, Postmodernism or Hypermodernism, has not yet been decided.
Amid this turbulence, Gerco de Ruijter makes photographs taken from a flying kite. His work is rooted in a long tradition. He works in birdseye perspective, familiar from the Dutch cartographers like Vermeer. But Gerco is no Niels Holgerson, he does not himself fly on the back of a bird. The view from above is unmanned. The standpoint is vacant. The earth appears to have no horizon.
What kind of a perspective is this? Is it perhaps emancipation from a culturally-determined perspective? No, you have to know the dominant cultural codes before you can recognise what is special about these images. Is it a confrontation with the sublime? Yes, certainly, but a remarkably calm one. The subject is not, â la Kant, confirmed in its self-positing, not even ex negativo. It is not there. Perhaps it has never been there, or at most as a brief flicker. It is certainly of the present. And beautiful too. Gerco's art defines a subjectless position, but it is still an experience: not the experience of nature as it 'really' is, but of a culture-nature, that has finally been freed from centralised appropriation.