236 Pender St East,
13 Oct 2023–10 Feb 2024
12 October, 2023
T. +1 604.683.7395
02 October–20 October 1990
Curated by: Nancy Shaw
The OR Gallery is proud to present Daniel Congdon’s exhibition of his new sculptural works.
Catalogue by William Wood
He first demonstrated his system of perspective on a small panel about half a braccio square. He made a representation of the exterior of San Giovanni in Florence, encompassing as much of that temple as can be seen at a glance from the outside. . . . And he placed burnished silver where the sky had to be represented, that is to say where the buildings were free in the air, so that the real air and atmosphere were reflected in it, and thus the real clouds seen in the silver are raried along with the wind as it blows… [H]e made a hole in the painted panel at that point in the temple of San Giovanni which is exactly opposite the eye of anyone stationed in the portal of Santa Maria deI Fiore, for the purpose of painting it. The hole was as tiny as a lentil bean on the painted side and it widened conically like a woman’s straw hat to about the circumference of a ducat, or perhaps a bit more, on the reverse side. He required that whoever wanted to look at it place his eye on the reverse side where the hole was large, and while bringing the hole up to his eye with one hand, to hold a flat mirror with the other hand a distance that more or less approximated in small braccia the distance in regular braccia from the place he appears to have been when he painted it up to the church of San Giovanni. With the aforementioned element of the burnished silver, the piazza, the viewpoint, etc., the spectator felt he saw the actual scene when he looked at the painting. I have had it in my hands and seen it many times in my days and can testify to it.
– Antonio di Tuccio Manetti, The Life of Brunelleschi1
The preceding account of Filippo Brunelleschi’s ‘demonstration panel? records the first known experiment in linear perspective performed by an artist. Although detailed enough, one gets a bit impatient with Manetti’s awkward way of explaining the procedure for the illusion. His hesitancy is surely related to his biographical purpose: to record what Brunelleschi did rather than provide a technical explanation of perspective. Even so, Manetti seems to also have a problem with how to present what the apparatus actually did, and rests back comfortably on the rhetoric of mundane metaphor and trompe d’oeil. He wishes away the problem of technically produced (or induced) deception. It would be nice to refer elsewhere, but, since the panels are lost, we rely on the biographer, discomfited by detail, attesting to illusion’s effectiveness – happily fooled, punctuated by an old mirror trick.
Several items of interest can be drawn from the demonstration, not the least of which is the idea of demonstration itself. Brunelleschi was not making art so much as he was making an instrument in order to illustrate principles that would be of interest to an art of spatial coherence. The local arid specific nature of the effect is enough to satisfy its proof of principle, but the methodology does seem cumbersome: using both hands, a double reversal of the sky, a panel painted either in or on a mirror, a single eye, a precise location – a coordination of devices for something you could see right in front of your nose.2 Nonetheless it is the complex ingenuity of this instrumentation – even the idea of a simulated visual substitute – that substantiated the illusion. And the most strident effect waS the declaration of an apparatus that took account of the spectator by controlling his relation to the illusory painting and providing that glimpse of passing clouds to supplement the static architecture of the proportioned “temple.” The deliberately repeopled representation of the piazza provided the relief for the illusion; the idea of persons inhabiting the space was left potential, perhaps even volatile.
By concentrating on miniaturizing the scene and by exploiting the virtual flatness of the mirror image, Brunelleschi modelled the body’s elision through framing so that the scrupulous organ of the eye accepted arid willingly recognized the fixed relations of its spectatorship. The spectator was not fooled into being there but was so exactly sited as to go along with the artifice of a manually devised form of seeing. Attuned to similar ideas, Daniel Congdon installed a type of demonstration panel in the Simon Fraser University mall in 1982. placing a mirror to cover the screen of a television monitor displaying videotext information to the student pedestrian, he brought to the quadrangle a spatial coherence that was also a specular quandary. The spectator was intended not so much to attend and accept the mirror’s reversed reading of that space commanded by the monitor, but to confuse the mirror with a potential recording or surveillance of the architecture from another place or time. The lack of coordination between mirror space and travelled space, though rational enough, was utilized to suggest an aporia about tine mental imagining of institutional territory.
Where Brunelleschi proved the susceptibility to recognition of a regulated and controlled vision – using a regulated and known civic space – Congdon demonstrated the potential for misrecognition implicit in televised communications by including the public space of the university. His aim was not to provide an illusion replacing that space, but to suggest the habitual practice of viewing as disembodied and turned away from the somatic location of the spectator. Congdon’s linkage was not to the lineage supposing the mirror as falsifying plane, but to its tropic possibility as the phantasmagoric component of instituted subjectivity. The passing student was to see their own body as only temporarily of the scene projected; tertiary to the scene’s relentless appropriation of bodies and subjects in place in the institutional sphere. To recognize one’s position here was an acceptance of transparency in relation to one’s own body. The guaranteed illusion of the mirror not merely replaced an image, but expressed a capitulation to the administration of space that intimated your particular replacement. The ideal spectators were those who saw their campus peregrinations as continuous with a history made in contest with the authorized version of their presence within the monitoring scope. They were meant to include, along with their somatic positioning, that exceptional yet ordinary sense of being within and without the scope of their authorized placement.
What links these two demonstrations is their differing relations to forms of visualize. Brunelleschi’s proportioning and microbic illusion speaks of the calculating mercantilism of his Florentine surround, while Congdon’s intervention marks the phantasmagoric relation of the subject to an administered space. Where the painted panel had the (slightly redundant) virtue of prescribing the subject’s relation to its work, the mirrored monitor indicated how the subject can be tricked into assuming that things go on elsewhere, exterior to the surroundings and the experience of a specific, institutional site. These conceptions of space, institutional and somatic, replaced and reconfigured, are the foundation for Congdon’s subsequent projects.
Brunelleschi’s panel initiates an investigating activity among artists proceeding along two avenues: the preparation of more complex means of linear perspective (often using mechanical devices) and the use of optical instruments as aids to vision. Both are ways of being elsewhere, of seeing otherwise by systematizing experiential relations and framing the site of artistic production. The grids and veils of perspectives rendering, the geometry of the picture plane, the camera obscura and the geometrical telescope, anamorphosis arid the Dutch peep-show perspective box all belong to this history – as does the presentational technology of photography. Where the first strand develops artificial methods for transposing planar information onto surfaces, the latter processes empirical vision through glass, mirrors, inversions and reversals, aiming to refine the eye’s abilities to organize and concentrate upon the scene at hand. Though perhaps divergent in their respective virtual and empirical approaches to cognizant spatial organization, there can be little doubt as to the regime they served. By placing and transporting visual objects onto planes, the schemas and devices posited a vision exterior to the body, maybe not corporeal at aII, which could be assumed or mimicked by the producing and receiving subject of the work in question.
Congdon’s Untitled (Project) has an ironic relation to this history inasmuch as it looks like (and is) a precision instrument, but delivers a rather simple visual experience. Set against the wall of the gallery, a squared-off conical scope and a forty-five degree mirror is spied into to reveal the gallery one just crossed to use the instrument. The principle proved is surely familiar, but the reflection does contain other elements -in particular, a black frame, similar in proportion to a cinema screen, appears at the edge of the image, almost a trace of the otherwise now – invisible instrument regarded on approach. The mirror as well, through its silver and liquid contents, attenuates flatness and acuity, ‘bringing up’ the light as it hits the white wall, while the frame crops any moving object in the reflected space, partialities the whole one seemingly ‘left’ to put an eye to the scope.
“I like to watch” is a clever rejoinder in this instance, for the coyness of its admitted pleasure does the necessary work. What is apparently beyond the principle proved, and commonly taken as extrinsic to the precision exemplified by tine scopic instrument, is the spectator’s imbrication within vision as an unprincipled subject. The regulation of vision, and its relation to the subject’s realization of space, has been exploited and disabused in an unspeakable manner, turning time again on the matter of spatial coherence as opposed to cognitive position. Untitled (Project) is a probe in this area, for its banality is also its provocation, It contests the gallery by reproducing it without questions or qualities; it punctuates the scopic viewer in another way by voiding the viewing body and framing the space instead. One does riot just look into the scope, one gazes into it to locate oneself within the frame of an ideal visualize only to find vision implicating a crouched, human, monocular organism subject to seeing as a peremptory form of speech. The user of the scope recognizes that the spectacle offered is not simply a view but represents a position taken by tine spectator-that position makes not just tine scene but the seer open for direction. As Lacan indicates: “it is through the gaze that I enter light and it is from the gaze that I receive its effect. Hence it comes about that the gaze is the instrument through which light is embodied and through which-if you will allow me to use a word, as I often Coo, in a fragmented form – I am photo-graphed.”3
Lacan’s fragmented word harks back to the early connection made between images formed using light-sensitive chemicals and the idea of these images as written. Fox Talbot proudly called his collection of photographs The Pencil of Nature, and began his chemical investigations after having produced unsatisfying transfers of landscapes by hand using a camera lucida.4 To him, and to many photographic promoters, these notions followed from the seemingly ‘objective’ character of the technology; its distinct aloofness from the human hand and its utilization of given light and dumb materials. Yet the development of that technology has shifted the idea of writing from the light exposed to the plates produced, stressing that the image is written by the operator of the camera and not by nature herself.
With this emphasis, the photograph became a cipher for the domination of nature, proceeding through the analogy of the lens with the eye and the camera with the mind. Even recent theory, by taking over a linguistic model, has read the image produced as an iconographic treasure-trove with little consideration for the arrangement of materials and processes required to make an image appear. Photography remains an expression of the operator of an unaccounted-for instrument, even as the photographer is reread as a socio-political subject and the photograph itself is interpreted as a collective fetish. Congdon’s slide-projection works attempt to address this lacuna in our understanding of photographic technology by stressing an unresolved doubt.
To do so, Congdon exploits a number of simple aspects of photographic projection. He has combined the parts of standard slide-projection systems-lamp, lenses, transformer, mirrors, Screen-in rational schema, but in a way rarely presented. If technology covets the covering box that both protects the equipment and mystifies its workings, Congdon does away with the box. Rather than hiding and containing the device, the elements are placed on aluminum shelves extending from gallery walls, and the spectator approaches them from the side. The placement of lens and screen and slide is easily understood, yet the devices retain a sense of mystery, power, estrangement, as the light from the unprotected bulb spills out across the wall and the image ends up oddly undone by the apparatus. The milled surfaces and bright light effect the image they transfer, rendering an innocuous representation of nature into a microbic, miniaturized representation of its delivery system, or making a camera a projection device rather than a faithful recorder. The photographer is absented more by the array of technology than by the indifference of the actual imagery, and Congdon foregrounds the apparatus to the point where it appears as if the image were expelled from tine device rather than facilitated by its arrangement of parts.
The suggestion, as in his other work, is of an unknown force regulating the process, an other writing representation rather than inscribing this particular image into codes of semiosis. The shelves and technical instrumentation intimate a laboratory setting, a testing arrangement for spectacular effects-the aspect of external control redolent in aII projecting equipment.5 The aluminum lateral support discourages the spectator from taking an anthropomorphic position behind the lamp; we must approach from the side, and the projection thus becomes a spatial scheme instead of a replacement for vision. In Corner Piece a mirror reflects the image around a right angle, delivering it intact but invisibly to a small theatre. One gazes into this blackened anti mirrored box as into a doll’s house, to meet a picture of leafy branches arid twigs multiplied across three mirrors. The scale is miniature, almost cosy, yet uncannily disjointed from the projecting appliance. It seems that it should be bigger – or is bigger some place else – and that this appearance is the prototype of an image-machine of monstrous proportion. Which it is, in a sense, for Congdon uses stock parts from Kodak projectors with their industrial standards for illumination, film stock, screen material arid heat filters.
Again, it is the field of management which intrudes, along with the compliant spectres of residual epistemological regimes. Corner Piece bends light and makes it travel as in many an elementary optical experiment, while proving simply the system’s continued efficacy. Praktik, meanwhile, reverses the camera’s recording function by using it as a projecting lens, opening up the back to deliver a picture of the camera itself to paradoxically trepan the model of the mind as a camera obscura. Appearing upside down and showering the wall in an anamorphic distortion, the projection carries a humorous reference as the unshielded bulb casts a truly indexical shadow of the camera above its illusionistic picture. The shadow, the cave, the spectator not yet ready to go out into the sunlight . . .
There is a game being played out in this arrangement that revels in the topsy-turvy moves of inversion and reversion, negative/positive, citification and enlargement that characterize photography as a technology arid as an imagination. It is the fascination with this certified visualize that Praktik interferes with, making a case for an unhappy interpenetration of subject and object. The mobility of tautology and qualification inhabiting the political economy of photographic standards is raised against the iconographic assumption of identification arid projection in the imagery. The photograph is then not writing by light, but is instead written by human agencies, utilities and social organization. Even the title, with its modish relation to praxis as a model of theory becoming actualized, declines as well into practice, discipline, habit – the domain of subjective construction rather than the action of positive proof.
Congdon’s work with optical instruments takes advantage of what Martin Kemp has called an attempt to define areas of “valid operation of the ‘Arts’ in contrast to the ‘Sciences’.”6 Kemp notes how the breakdown of relations between science and art – in terms of perspectives studies and optical instruments-occurs alongside the emergence of segregationist aesthetic theories and romantic ideology. The separation of disciplines then speaks of the aesthetic as a distinctly subjective area of endeavour, while the sciences occupy territory quite objective anti Seemingly super-natural. an accordance with the aesthetic attitude, the alien presence of the scientistic ‘spoils’ the enjoyment of imagery with lights and devices that don’t make things comfortably viewable arid identifiable as potentially experienced. We might think as well of Jonathan Crary’s parallel description of the abandonment of the camera obscura as a model of the observer’s primarily visual cognition in favour of a conception of the body as receptive to and productive of a variety of sensual stimuli. “The perceiver,” he writes, “here becomes a neutral conduit, one kind of relay among others to allow optimum conditions of circulation and exchangeability, whether it be commodities, energy, capital, images, or information.”7 We can recognize in his terms the traces of technology used in Congdon’s art, and its attempt to render opaque the institution of neutrality in reception.
It must appear odd, then, that Congdon’s latest work for this show is a ‘straight’ photographic print. Showing a technical high school in Vancouver, the print is an admirably sober representation of the school as part factory, part public institution, part of an altogether unexceptional urban landscape. These qualities are quite intelligible, as is the slight ironic use of reflection in the image-a puddle close to the camera reflects the cloudless Sky, a liquid analogy for the plate’s receptivity and the acuity of the lens. However, cast among the scopes and projectors, the disjunct illusions and regulated viewings, this image condenses and qualifies much of the other works’ eccentricity. It is a place of techniques that is sited, a school to teach procedures and processes, to cultivate skill and instill fidelity to a neutralized technology.
The question the technical school raises concerns the status of knowledge, which, after all, is what Congdon’s tropic devices have repeatedly frustrated to suggest the gaps of habit, regulation and instrumentation in our relations to mental and physical space. The school’s shops and tools, its class and gender biases, its stress upon production are all intertwined with its pragmatic obedience to dominant pawers. Here, in a sense, is the training ground for the millers and grinders, technicians and printers who fabricate the devices arid images Congdon uses for his investigations. That we relay read this picture without recognizing this condition is yet another discontinuity in our knowledge of the management of imagery, technology and experience. That we may riot notice that the school is unpopulated in the picture – that it is an empty, virtual image of subjection like Brunelleschi’s piazza-is what makes it wholly appropriate in the gallery.
1 Antonio di Tuccio Manetti, “From The Life of Brunelleschi,” in Brunelleschi in Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974), 65-66.
2 Brunelleschi did do a similar panel for the Piazza del Signori, but did without the mirror by making a cut-out of the buildings that one could hold up to the sky.
3 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis, trams. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 1O6.
4 See Martin Kemp, Science and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 200.
5 Els Barent, “Typology, Luminescence, Freedom: Selections from a conversation with Jeff Wall,” Jeff Wall: Transparencies (New York: Rizzoli, n.d.), 99.
6 Kemp, Science and Art, 221 .
7 Jonathan Crary, “Modernizing Vision,” in Hal Foster, ed., Vision and Visuality (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 42.
1990 MFA, University of British Columbia
1985 BFA, Simon Fraser University
1978-80 University of Calgary
1988 Projector, Western Front Gallery, Vancouver,
1987 Cinema, Window for Noncommercial Culture, Vancouver.
1984 Two Sculptures, Simon Fraser University Gallery, Vancouver.
1982 Untitled installation on the campus of Simon Fraser University.
1988 New Sculptural Works, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver.
1987 Grunt Or Artspeak, Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver.
1986 Objects of Labour, Park place, Vancouver.
1985 On the Subject/Object of Money, (N)on Commercial Gallery, Vancouver.
Office Structures, vacant offices of the Vancouver Stock Exchange, 536 Howe Street.
1984 Ex Academe, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver.
Poco Rococo, Coquitlam, British Columbia.
Davis, Tod. “Ex Academe,” Issue, Vol. 2, No. 3, Jan. 1985.
Fee, Collin. Vanguard, Vol. 1 6, No. 4, Sept/out. 1987.
Godley, Elizabeth. “Grunt Or Artspeak,” The Vancouver Sun, June 19, 1987.
Godley, Elizabeth. “Reflections on labour, from a revolutionary viewpoint,” The Vancouver Sun, Nov. 12, 1986.
Harris, Mark. “Ex Academe,” Vanguard, Feb. 1985.
Johnson, Eve. “Modern Art from the Suburbs’?,” The Vancouver Sun, June 5, 1984.
Lindsley, Robert. Issue, Vol. 2, No. 7, June 1985.
Muirhead, Ross. “Project,” Artery, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1988.
Perry, Art. “Elegant Exhibit,” The Province, Jan. 11, 1988.
Ramsey, Ellen. Vanguard, Vol. 1 3, No. 7, Sept. 1984.
Talve, Merike. New Sculptural Works, Contemporary Art Gallery, 1988.