'I' of the spectator

Jill Barker's anthropomorphic photography
Kelvin Grove Road Billboard, Cultural Precinct, QUT, Brisbane
January – May 2005

The curious effects of anamorphism have intrigued artists since antiquity. The process renders subjects in monstrously elongated perspective, so that only when they are viewed from a particular angle, do subjects assume normal proportions and become recognisable. The effect operates to deepen and complicate the reading of the work. Far from escaping into a window on the artist’s world, the spectator of the anamorphosis—or more precisely the participant—becomes a significant feature of the exchange.

Photographer Jill Barker places these demands on spectators of Face, a giant anamorphic photograph above Kelvin Grove Road outside QUT’s Creative Industries precinct. Barker’s Face blurs across the billboard site in a fuzzy trapezoid. The spectator is required to seize a slippery spot in the stream of traffic for the facial features to coalesce into a recognisable image. Thus the spectator is encouraged to self-consciously move through the process of viewing. This act of viewing is the flip side of the classical construction of vision. Cartesian perspective places the spectator at the node of a homolographic, mathematically coherent universe. Anamorphism perverts the process.

Plato described anamorphism as ‘Works which, when considered from a favorable viewing-point, resemble the beautiful but which, when properly examined, no longer offer the resemblance they promised’ (cited Baltrusaitis, 1977). Leonardo da Vinci explored and understood its curious effects in his Codex Atlanticus. Ghiberti, Alberti, later Baroque and Mannerist painters, delighted in mathematical play with the expectations of the spectator. The technique was cleverly deployed by Hans Holbein the Younger, and perhaps reached its zenith in the work of M.C. Esher.

In 1975 Paris hosted an important exhibition titled Anamorphoses: Games of Perception and Illusion in Art. Since then there have been several sparks of interest in anamorphic perception, and contemporary interpretations of the technique come with contemporary concerns. While in the past painters furthered the potential of their medium with the technique, Barker furthers the potential of technology. When in the past its meaning was invested with symbolism, anamorphism has become a metaphor for post-modernism’s relativity of vision. As an extreme example of the subjectivism of the viewing process, anamorphsis relates to post-modernism’s understanding of the subjectivity of human experience.

Jill Barker spins another post-modern twist on anamorphism through her subject. In the past, the effect has been widely used to surreptitiously depict subjects which artists might otherwise be reluctant to represent; the erotic, the scatological, the occult, the religious, the politically controversial and the philosophically abstruse. The ‘secret’ discourse is ideally suited for the depiction of difficult or illicit subject matter. Barker’s photograph, once the spectator deciphers the dynamics of the image, reveals a woman’s smiling face. Perhaps Barker is likening the process of recognition of the image buried in anamorphism to the Lacanian process of self-awareness. The spectator’s moment of recognition can be likened to the child’s moment of psychological separation from the mother in the mirror phase. The female face that emerges from Barker’s anamorphic image fosters the correlation. On the other hand, the moment at which the spectator decodes a banal smiling face (after risking life and limb on a busy city road) smacks of post-modern petulance.

To view Barker’s Face is to attempt to transform an oblique, non-uniform focal plane into a coherent two-dimensional image. The spectator becomes implicated in the dynamics of the image and must acknowledge the oblique and contingent nature of his/her point of view. Roland Barthes, in discussing ‘the total existence of writing’, issues a polemic:

A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where the multiplicity is focused, and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. (Barthes, 1977, p.148)

The anamorphic image binds the spectator to the object in such a way that the unity of the image relies on the movement of the spectator. The object invades the spectator’s space and remains there until the image converges at a point in the spectator’s journey. Classical perspective involves rays emanating from a (usually) ‘disembodied’ eye, which defines the space of the painting. Anamorphism inverts the relationship. Barker’s Face challenges the conventional relationship between the spectator and the object of vision until it is literally thrown off-centre.

Discussing the ‘Cartesian perspectivalist tradition’ inherited from Alberti and other Renaissance theorists, Martin Jay writes:

The moment of erotic projection in vision—what St Augustine had anxiously condemned as ‘ocular desire’—was lost as the bodies of the painter and viewer were forgotten in the name of an allegedly disincarnated, absolute eye. Although such a gaze could, of course, still fall on objects of desire—think for example, of the female nude in Durer’s famous print of a draftsman drawing her through a screen of perspectival threads—it did so largely in the service of a reifying male look that turned its targets into stone. (cited Foster, 1988)

What Jay might be warning us against is the potential for anamorphism to dictate a ‘proper point of view’. Barker’s photograph cleverly escapes the catch. The awkwardness of the viewer’s position when viewing Barker’s Face where one eye is on the image, one on Kelvin Grove Road, does not lend itself to casual contemplation. It is not the kind of image that one can meditate upon; but is glimpsed at (high) speed. When viewing Face, the moment of recognition cannot be frozen. The notion of an absolute eye is thus abolished, and Barker offers St Augustine little relief.

Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text: ‘Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? … it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing’ (1975, pp.9-10). Barker’s Face is defined by intermittence. To gain the ‘pleasure of the text’ requires a loss of previous readings. The image flouts rules of perspective and discomforts the viewer through near impossible vantage points. The image involves a kind of rupture in the text that Barthes speaks of. Barker’s Face casts the spectator in a special role, to perform an active function, and ultimately assume an identity.

Jill Barker, Face, 2005. Digital image, vinyl billboard skin, 900 x 4500cm. Courtesy the artist and Creative Industries Precinct, QUT. Photograph Peter Lavery. 

Jill Barker, Face, 2005. Digital image, vinyl billboard skin, 900 x 4500cm. Courtesy the artist and Creative Industries Precinct, QUT. Photograph Peter Lavery. 

notes: 

Baltrusaitis, J. Anamorphic Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1977.

Barthes, R. ‘The Death of the Author’ Image-Music-Text, S. Heath ed., Hill and Wang, New York, 1977.

Barthes, R. The Pleasure of the Text, Seuil, Paris, 1975.

Foster, H. (ed.) Visions and Visualities, Dia Art Foundation, Seattle, 1988.