Thursday 11 December 2014

Aerial Visions – the Flight of the Mind

There’s a lot of speculation on the influence of photography from an elevated viewpoint on the way we model the world in our imagination. The proposition is that before the development of the skyscraper and powered flight it was very difficult to conceive of how the world would appear from above and that artists exploited this shift in viewpoint into new and dynamic forms. Tall structures, often in the form of fortifications or bell towers certainly existed in the past but artists made little of the opportunities they offered for taking a radically fresh viewpoint on familiar things. Kirk Varnedoe wrote in A Fine Disregard, 1990, about the fundamental shift in viewpoint in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that inspired artists and photographers from Degas and Caillebotte to Malevich and Rodchenko to reimagine conventional pictorial space and explore a new vocabulary of form. The subtitle, Flight of the Mind was his phrase to describe what happened when Rodchenko’s photographs “broke the axis of relation between the horizon and the ground”.

I suspect I’m far from alone in deriving great pleasure from examining the world below from a position of great height. It’s not the distant horizon that commands my attention but what is more or less directly below my feet. When elevation supplies a panoramic view it’s always interesting but the spatial recession of patchwork fields, human settlements, rivers, hills and valleys, whether pictorially harmonious and uplifting or darkly sinister and unsettling, is a familiar sensation. The natural topography of the planet delivers an abundance of vantage points which it could be argued we are evolutionally programmed to note for their values as defensive or offensive positions. What is least familiar to us is the space we inhabit as seen from directly above our heads – when what we normally see only in elevation is suddenly visible in plan. New and unanticipated formal relationships are revealed in which abstract qualities predominate. Physical elevation offers the reverse of the vision of the infinite and sublime that a painted ceiling by an artist like Tiepolo is intended to evoke. Instead of looking upwards and sensing our insignificance, we look downwards and indulge the fantasy of possessing mastery over our personal Lilliputian kingdom below.

These photos of Turin were taken from the observation deck of the Mole Antonelliana, an odd and over-ambitious building, planned as a Synagogue on an epic scale, that had to be rescued and repurposed when the money ran out and construction was abandoned. In form it’s a bizarre vertical stack with a pagoda-like pinnacle on top of a double-height temple on top of a duomo on top of a gallery on top of another classical temple. After 15 years of painfully slow construction the city authorities took over the completion of the building, finally achieved in 1889, and it’s currently put to use as a National Museum of Cinema. A glass-walled elevator transports the public in a vertiginous parody of the Ascension through the dead centre of the duomo and onwards to the deck above. These photographs are a record of what became visible when the city of Turin was rotated through ninety degrees. 

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