Constructed perception and the spatial plane
Mark Gisbourne / 2008
There is no such thing as an innocent perception, what we see of the world is only ever a process of attaining different degrees of perceptual awareness. The act of looking takes the part of an assimilative experience that is active and/or passive, an admixture of taking in and putting out. In general terms when 'looking at' the process is receptive, when 'looking for' it takes on an uncertain direction of the conceptual.1
Two types of consciousness interact and emerge within perception, namely the phenomenal and the psychological. This does not mean, however, that phenomenal-psychological perception excludes immanent categories, which still interact within the perceiving experience.2 Immanent contents can and do still reside in an artwork, whereas perception as transcendence cannot–by obvious inference it refers to something that has passed beyond or is not there. As in Latin the term percepio or perception has the meaning of collation (a comparison for the purpose of verifying), expressed as receiving, collecting, an action of taking possession, and a simultaneous apprehension of the mind and the senses. But with the advent of modern methods of photography the idea of what is a perceived phenomenal truth, that is, as distinct from that called psychological reality,has become increasingly problematic and left open.
The Düsseldorf artist-photographer Hannes Norberg constructs and generates perceptive photographic experiences, which is to say he creates images that operate in an uncertain interstice between the phenomenal and the psychological. On the one hand this has the effect of negating the old Cartesian chestnut of the mind-body problem,3 while on the other avoiding even older suppositions of there being such things as pre-ordained ideal or conceptual forms.4 The French theorist Henri Focillon long ago clarified many of the issues as to the meaning and complexity of forms, beyond the simple either/or of perception and idea, "We must instead envisage form in all its fullness and in all its many phases: form that is a construction of space and matter; whether it is manifested by the equilibrium of its masses, by variations from light to dark, by tone, by stroke, by spotting; whether it be architectural, sculptural, painted or engraved."5 Given that he was writing in the period immediately before post-war and modern conceptual photography, his observations can be similarly extended to the complexities now found in the modern photographic image. More than in other media, perhaps, form and perception are inexorably fused together within contemporary creative photography.6 In Norberg's case this is even more to the point, because he generates distinct sets of formal elemental relations, which he then photographs in such a way so as to remove their formal certainties as to mass and scale.
Some arguments have suggested that Norberg's constructions and models, which he subsequently photographs, are driven by architectural concerns.7 However, while it is true that architecture and an obfuscated three-dimensional use of architectonic space are foregrounded, they are not the primary purpose of Norberg's art making. The main purpose behind Norberg's work is that of picture-making. Indeed, he has observed, that he considers his photographic work today to be closer to painting than to the sculptural spatial forms that architecture usually supposes. It is a personal pursuit of a unique pictorial autonomy that he believes exists between the abstract and the figurative that is his central driving force. The architecturally constructed contents, vital though they are, remain but mechanisms of presentation that have been integrated into his working processes. While Norberg began in the late 1980s, by photographing landscapes and architecture, the images have subsequently become ever more pictorial. Taken from a fixed viewpoint the photographic images operate in a state of semi-suspension. And, his use of suspension, is intended to create a pictured sense of embodied duration, that is to say a sense of liminal (threshold) timelessness that somehow retains a palpable sense of perceptual presence.
The constructed contents are made simply with varying thicknesses of Styrofoam insulation and then assembled into Norberg's chosen formal relations. This procedure follows on from small freehand pencil and crayon studies, which are then scaled up, and with more detailed studies planned out on graph paper or with small documentary photographs. The Styrofoam components are then often painted prior to being placed in the spatial field the artist has chosen. However, it is important to Norberg that the component elements retain a sense of their original haptic data. He does not choose to hide the fact of the material's origin, or reduce things into cool unrelational specific objects, as was the case within Minimalism.8 In this way Norberg is able keep a sense of the ongoing relational or visual interaction between the percept and the idea. The overall photographic effect is to extend the pictorial aspects as against that of emphasising the works sculptural or model contents whence he began. Often, and particularly so in his earlier works between 1999-2002, Norberg adopted a mural-like or long-lozenge format for the presentation of the images as in for example No. 9 (1999) or No. 27 (2001).9 The point being that this again furthers the work's sense of pictorial opticality and duration, and since at that time they were always photographed frontally it created another example of their interstitial tension. Thus the images hold both their reference to three-dimensionality, while at the same time emphasising a flattening two-dimensional planometry. The latter term meaning literally the art or process of gauging a planar surface, and further stressing a perceptual assessment as distinct from the familiar aspects of conventionally constructed perspective. It is this mutual interaction, which generates the strange feeling of optical tension in the image, while at the same time retaining a state of paradoxical timelessness.10
Hence space linked to the planar field is vital to our understanding of the quiet expectancy that we find in Hannes Norberg's images. But at the same time the artist's use of planometry and space has evolved and become increasingly modulated. In a whole series of works from 2000–2004, Norberg specifically engaged with what Focillon called the 'equilibrium of masses', developing them by casting shadows as colour tones across the surfaces of the composed sculptural and planar elements. This has the effect of changing our experience of the content's differing volumes, giving a teasingly optical frisson to the photographic images. Stasis and flux is thus evoked. Stasis being set by the flat frontal planes and low horizon of the spatial settings, and flux by the images interiorised tonal modulations. The planes thus take on a distinct and inherent quality, what Deleuze has called the 'plane of immanence', which means it is not one of a particular individuation, but one of an indefinite singularity. An indefinite singularity to the extent that they achieve their own autonomy, and it is a com- mon error in understanding the life of forms, to conclude that individuality and formal autonomy amount the same thing. Hence the spaces of Norberg's images become formally verified and problematised at the same time; this is the reason why we speak of a 'life of forms'. What appears initially to emit a sense of impersonal and constructed detachment, takes on a highly personal feeling of modulated involvement. This again reminds us of the modular effects often found in painting. A work like No. 60/2, 2003, is not that far removed from the early 'tubism' of Léger, or the oblique angularities (though usually completely flat) sometimes found in Robert Mangold.11
If this all seems a little far fetched then one might consider again works like No. 88, 2004, or No. 95, 2005, and Neue Sicht der Dinge, 2005/2007, where in the former the back plane is established by a wood grain wall, or in the latter cases where the rusticated architectural model exists in a recessive ground space made up of either coloured or black and white newsprint. This is not that far from Cubist papier collés and/or later collage, but with vital differences.12 Whereas in Cubism and collage the extraneous elements refer (along with their formal role) to events and potential narratives outside of the work, in the photographic images of Norberg they are not intended to individuate the works to a particular reading intimating a specific time and place. If industrious art historians of early modernism have spent much of their time tracking down Cubism's original sources of newsprint, or in pursuit of the manufacturers of early twentieth century wood grain paper, it serves little or no purpose to do so in the case of Norberg's images. Though he has a strong awareness of typefaces and other extraneous materials like maps that he uses, as in No. 125, 2007, they are not intended to form a social or cultural commentary beyond their formal role of juxtaposition and inclusion.13
In one sense for the artist Norberg they are purely abstract, rather than their standing in for something that has been abstracted or extracted from the world. The contents for the artist are simply built into small models for the purpose of their being photographed. Though they do introduce pictorial variety and inevitably outside allusions, the approach and procedure remains exactly the same. In works from 2005, however, another development has emerged in Hannes Norberg's work, namely that the small architectural model elements are not always photographed frontally. Sometimes the space setting remains horizontally and vertically planar as in No. 86, 2005, where the central and single Styrofoam component has been photographed at a subtle oblique angle within the constructed space. And, in the case of S.M.N., 2005, the idea has been extended to creating a spatial plane that is photographed at the diagonal echoing the internal structural components. This has the effect of emphasising or, it might be said, even making us question what we might imagine to be the potential of a light source. Commonly, light is usually something that modulates our understanding of volume or mass, but Norberg's use of light is minimal and made coeffective with the same sense of constructed perception that informs all his photographic images. He does not dramatise his internal light effects so much as structures them, and they form a component aspect of his work just as much as the actual model materials he uses. Yet recently there has been a shift with a tendency to fragment the Styrofoam contents of what were formerly very structured architectural models. Norberg has changed to exposing the simple conditions of the components themselves (as formal component elements), something that is evident in more recent works like No. 108, 2006, and No. 109, 2006. Here instead of highly composed architectural settings the Styrofoam parts have simply been stacked (placed or piled) within the spatial field. Interestingly, the images recall something of landscapes rather than his usual architectural format. This approach reminds us where he began in the photographing both architecture and landscapes.
Whether they are intended as landscapes or not, these too are highly pictorial images, No. 108, 2006, appearing almost like the cool bluewhite of a fractured ice floe.14 Again they operate in the space or inter- stices between simple abstract components on the one hand, and potentially referential or interpretive figurative allusions on the other. The fact that they appear randomly or informally stacked also dramatises their presence, and in another respect it breaks with the planar approach of Norberg's other works previously described. As a result our pictorial perception is strangely multiplied as the viewer's eye picks up subtle colour differences and changed tonal points of visual engagement.
However, I would be remiss if I do not return to discuss again architecture. Earlier I indicated that painting and the pictorial as the driving force behind Norberg's photographic artwork. But to stress this exclusively would ignore the fact that he has also always been interested in architecture and its concomitant architectonic forms. Yet the artist's architectural curiosity is not fixed to a particular time, he is just as interested in Classical buildings like the Pantheon, as in the contemporary buildings produced by International Modernism. Like many artist-photographers architecture is for him a point of visual and perception-based interaction. It has less to do with the monumental forms of architecture, as something static and volumetric, but rather directed towards the properties they generate in relation to the act of perceiving.
In a unique and collaborative project for St Paul's, Worms, Norberg is creating a sort of contemporary or updated version of a Grubenhaus, that is an appended or slightly sunken construction attached to a side portal of the church. The primary structure is made of plates of corten steel, erected in planar form but with varying aspects of symmetry and asymmetry set to the wall of the church. The interior has a wall of silk-screened glass with circular forms. Sandblasted on their exterior, the interior circles echo those pre-existing in the windows of the church. The same system is apparent in the small skylight (0.6 × 2.6m) above the entrance to the construction. This has the effect of stressing three dimensions on the one hand (the total structure is 3.2 × 4m), while establishing planar interfaces at the same time. The planometric coloured glasses that are inserted within the structure are also produced by the silkscreen print technique, but with a high level of heat intensification and colour saturation that has required an actual fusion of the colour application and the glass (650 degrees Celsius). The portal structure therefore creates a series of polyvalent perceptions, hard and soft, textured and flat, transparent and opaque. What it carries forward from the photographs and the models is again a sense of 3-D (it is actually three dimensional), but also the feeling of visual tension through the use of flattened spatial planes. While the photographic images remove the models at the point of presentation, in this case a reversal has taken place, and that that was the product of photographic experience and research has been referred back to the status of an actual architectural object.
It seems to me that Hannes Norberg's relation to architecture and to space is predominantly optical rather than merely conceptual, which is to say he presents things as objects (models) but subtly dissolves their apparent stability as objects at the same time. This it seems is central to Norberg's feeling for a space that exists between perception and the idea, between what we actually see and what we imagine we see. If it is optical then it is shaped by Norberg's fascination with the pictorial. Indeed, in conversation with the present author he has stated "I try to paint with the camera." The idea and its realisation therefore resides in the processes and attitudes Norberg generates and has to the role of the camera itself. If painting with a camera is a possibility, then it is so only because contemporary photography has been able to achieve the same ends by using differing means. It has made immanent within photography things that were formerly possible in painting. Vilem Flusser, a theorist and philosopher of the photographic image, has linked this directly to the concept of models and design "One can say of this sort of painting that, moving between content and container, between material and form, between the material and the formal aspect of phenomena….." has become the achievement of today's photographic engagement with painting.15 What lies at its base is a newly conceived understanding of the processes of perception and photography. I have simply called this approach constructed perception, and it is hardly surprising that it was where Classical and Post-Renaissance ideas as to innovative image-making originally began.16
It was a somewhat utopian idea of the 1950s and 60s, that imagined that it was possible to create perceiving machines capable of simulating human perception, see, James G. Gibson, Perception of the Visual World (1950), and The Sense Considered as Perceptual Systems, Boston and London, 1966. A residue of these ideas can be found in contemporary developments within robotics which began at much the same time.
Immanence means 'to remain within', as regards the pictorial 'plane of immanence', understood as 'within and upon' see, Gilles Deleuze, Immanence a Life in: Pure Immanence: Essays on Life, New York and London, Zone Books, 2002, pp. 25-33
Rene Descartes, Sixth Meditation: The existence of material things, and the real distinction between mind and body and On Meditation Six: the real distinction between mind and body, in: John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, Descartes Selected Philosophical Writings, Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp.110-122, and 143-150
Plato's theory of ideal forms is found throughout his writings of which the Symposium and Timaeus and Critias are but two examples 'The physical world is only a secondary reality, and knowledge of it is bound to be imprecise' 'The world a unique copy of a unique, perfect, and eternal model', Timaeus and Critias, London, Harmondworth, 1965 (and subsequent editions) pp. 40-43
Henri Focillon, The World of Forms, in: The Life of Forms in Art, New York, Zone Books, 1996, p. 33 (French original Vie des Formes, 1934).
Vilém Flusser, The Image, in: Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London, Reaktion Books, 2000, "The space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a signifcant context." p. 9
Markus Löffelhardt, Construction and Idea, in: Hannes Norberg, ex. cat., Galerie Benden & Klimczak, Cologne, 2005, pp. 64-69 (German, 'Konstruktion und Idee' pp. 6-11)
Donald Judd, Specifc Objects, in: Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist's Writings, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1996, pp. 114-117 (the text was first published in 1965)
References to the woks made between 1999 and 2005, are reproduced in Hannes Norberg, Ex. Cat., Galerie Benden & Klimczak, Cologne, 2005, pp. 18, 39, 45, 51, 55, 61 and 63
Though it might seem unusual, Hannes Norberg frequently speaks of the influence of Cezanne on his artistic development. However, this has to be understood in quite a particular way, that is, perhaps, as related the late landscapes from Les Lauves by Cezanne (notably those of Mont Sainte Victoire) which also share the same tension between form and perception, retaining structure while at the same time dissolving their surface through perceived opticality. For as to how this has been related to ideas on perception and painting, see, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, Eng.trans., Carleton Dallery, in: The Primacy of Perception, Evanston IL., Northwestern University Press, 1964 (and subsequent editions)
The expression 'tubism' as regards Léger was coined derisively by the French critic Louis Vauxcelles in 1911, and referred to cylindrical shapes in Léger's works between 1909-1919, often used for the human fgure the were used also to give inanimate objects and forms the same cylindrical appearance. See, Robert T. Buck (et al), Fernand Léger, New York, Abbeville, 1982. For Mangold, see: Richard Shiff, Robert Storr, Arthur C. Danto. Nancy Princenthal, and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Robert Mangold, London and New York, Phaidon Press, 2004.
See, Anne Baldassari, Picasso Working on Paper, Eng. trans., George Collins, London, Merrill, 2000. The book served as a catalogue for an exhibition at the Musée Picasso and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, that dealt with Picasso's relationship to newsprint and papier collés in the Cubist and post-cubist period.
The map as ground space in No. 125, 2007, is of a section of the Norwegian Fjords. In conversation with the present author, Norberg made reference to De Chirico paintings which sometimes include painted maps. Also the white screen in this work can be connected in some respects to the famous white screens of Hiroshi Sugimoto. (taped conversation)
In some respects it is reminiscent of Casper David Friedrich's Wreck of the Deutschland also called Wreck in the Sea of Ice (1824), Norberg mentioned a Friedrich exhibition taking place at the time of making No. 108, 2006, though he is not certain as to whether it directly influenced him in this work.
Vilém Flusser, Form and Material, in: The Shape of Things : A Philosophy of Design, London, Reaktion Books, 1999, p. 27
Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, Book 1, No. 2, (1434), Eng. trans, Cecil Grayson, Martin Kemp (intro.), London, 1991, p. 37 "The first thing to know is that a point is a sign which one might say is not divisible into parts. I call a sign anything which exists on a surface so that it is visible to the eye. Noone will deny that things which are not visible do not concern the painter, for he strives to represent only things that are seen.
Mark Gisbourne is a British art historian, critic, and curator living in Berlin.
Published in: Monograph Hannes Norberg, Salon Verlag, Cologne, 2008. With essays by Mark Gisbourne and Gregor Jansen, English / German. Hardcover, 22 × 28 cm, 80 pages, ISBN 978-3-89770-334-6