a pansemiotic cornucopia

angela ndalianis at ACMI’s celebration of cinema pre-history

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/3/361_ndalianis_eyes.jpg" alt="David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton,
The Sound Before You Make It (2005),
kinetic installation with strobe lighting and audio”>

David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton,
The Sound Before You Make It (2005),
kinetic installation with strobe lighting and audio

David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton,
The Sound Before You Make It (2005),
kinetic installation with strobe lighting and audio


This extraordinary collection began in the mid-1960s when Nekes, a German experimental filmmaker and professor in film studies, started collecting examples of optical phenomena as teaching aids that highlighted pre-cinematic history. The objects, however, developed a mind of their own and grew beyond their pre-cinematic agenda into an encyclopaedic collection that now comprises approximately 25,000 devices devoted to the history of optical technologies.

If the Nekes collection can be understood as a contemporary wunderkammer that encases a micro-history of pre-20th century visual media technologies, then Eyes, Lies & Illusion might be seen as a micro-micro-history. Cameras obscura, magic lanterns, praxinoscopes, peep-boxes, daguerreotypes, kinetoscopes, panoramas and anamorphic lenses populate the appropriately darkened lower bowels of the ACMI building at Federation Square. The most impressive feature of this exhibition is that it represents a pansemiotic logic: each object is endowed with multiple layers of signification that speak of the past, the present and the present’s relationship to the past.

The exhibition is divided into seven thematic sections. Shadowplay, Tricks of the Light, Riddles of Perspective, Enhancing the Eye, Deceiving the Mind, Persistence of Vision and Moving in Time all introduce the audience to a gamut of spectacles, wonders of science and the technologies that create them: puppets, shadow theatres and magic lanterns manipulate light and dark to produce wonders that delight; prisms, lenses, mirrors and kaleidoscopes distort and alter light to reveal its mysterious properties; truly enchanting dioramas, panoramas, perspective boxes and a walk-in, distorting Ames Room all make concrete the mathematical principles of perspective; cameras obscura, scientific studies on anatomy, microscopy and astronomy, and examples of early photography reveal the way optics and technological innovation made visible the previously invisible; anamorphic images, visual cryptograms and optical illusions show how the human eye can succumb to artificially produced tricks of the eye; the wondrous motions of phenakistoscopes, zoetropes and praxinoscopes appear to magically create animated worlds; and pioneering experiments in photography and the cinema capture indexical reality opening the way to a new generation of optical illusions.

Teasing its audience with a rich, engaging and entertaining history of technological inventions that enhance and deceive human vision and perception, Eyes, Lies and Illusions typifies the active relations that many of these technologies command of their viewer-participant. The exhibition demonstrates the continuity of interest that has persisted in using media, in particular entertainment media, to push the boundaries of technology and vision, art and science through centuries. A pair of Florentine works painted on the natural stone known as pietre paesina (1620) depicts battle scenes and crumbling castles. Here, nature and art collide. In places, the natural patterns created by the stone’s surface portray smoke and crumbling castle walls; in other places, the artist’s hand takes over to depict the same subject matter. The eye is deceived. Where does nature end and human artifice take over? Perspective boxes and dioramas invite the participant to peep into their initially concealed spaces in order to discover alternate, virtual landscapes, theatrical performances and seascapes. Transparent pictures and Chinese shadow theatres transform their dark, two dimensional spaces into brightly lit, marvellous three-dimensional worlds. And in one of the 12 contemporary works, The Sound Before you Make It (2005), a kinetic installation with strobe lighting by the Australian artists David Lawrey and Jaki Middleton, the phenakistoscope’s reliance on the phenomenon of persistence of vision is given a new context as amused viewers watch small and static Michael Jackson figurines succumb to motion as the merry-go-round disc they stand on swings around and around to the rhythm of “Thriller.” The arrangement of all these objects serves to build visual (and audio) bridges that emphasize the playfulness of nature through the associative powers of sight.

Significantly, the experience of this exhibition reveals how no media are ever divorced from history. The camera obscura, for example, reveals its connections with the later invention of photography. The eerie 3D stereoscopic image of the filmmaker Lumiere reveals its connections to the spatially layered but illustrated 3D spaces of the dioramas. Marey’s chronoscope experiments expose themselves as predecessors of the digital animations used in current film effects—a fact also stressed in Carsten Höller’s 1998 work, Punkterfilm, which similarly maps a geometric depiction of movement. And perspective instruments, treatises and the objects that reflected its laws—dioramas, panoramas, and perspective boxes—reveal how they have found a new form of expression in the boxed screens that contain the virtual architecture of computer game spaces. But these objects are so much more than examples that highlight the path that eventually led to the diverse media of our own times. Almost every technological apparatus or depiction of wondrous media in action within this show shines independently of the role it serves as predecessor to a later media format.

The magic lantern is a case in point: walking through the show, the captivating properties of the optical devices have the capacity to ensnare the viewer with their mesmerising powers. It’s easy to forget the complex historical and cultural contexts that nurtured the production of these technologies and the modes of perception they evoked. As the concise and informative exhibition labels explain, and as is made even clearer in the excellent exhibition catalogue, the initial popularity of the magic lantern as visual entertainment has its origins in the 17th century. Athanasius Kircher, baroque scholar and scientist of encyclopedic proportions and the individual often (incorrectly) credited with the magic lantern’s invention, discusses its function and outlines his observations and experiments in light and shadow in his book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae of 1646 and in Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis of 1680, which is represented in the exhibition. Through their entertaining properties, these optical devices expressed the ways in which contemporary ‘science’ had altered perceptions of the universe.

The examples of magic lanterns range from simple, hand carved wooden boxes with lenses, to highly crafted metallic exteriors that depict the Eiffel Tower—all works of art in their own right. The sensory impact of the exterior designs further extends to the capabilities of the interior mechanics: a projection of H McAllister’s magic lantern slide of a dancing skeleton (c.1880), which was filmed by Nekes as part of his Media Magica film series (snippets of which are projected throughout the exhibition and successfully visualise many of the technologies in motion), drives home the fantastic and entertaining nature of the objects. Yet, the magical properties of these boxes are found not only in their well-crafted exteriors and the illusionist possibilities that this technology is capable of, but the micro-historical role they served. The various lithographs, prints and books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries accentuate this by providing snippets from time past: the image of a magic lantern projecting an image of a demon, for example, is from Gulielmo Jacobo ’s Gravesande’s two-volume book, Physices Elementa Mathematica (1748). As one of the earliest and most influential followers of Newtonian philosophy in Europe, ’s Gravesande’s image of the demon projection, and the accompanying image that reveals the interior mechanics of the magic lantern, visualised the theory of optics and light. A fantastic subject matter served a rational and scientific purpose that speaks of the arrival of the era of Enlightenment. Throughout its history, the magic lantern both enchanted and reflexively drew attention to the more rational function that these public spectacles served as scientific explorations of modes of perception, and of how the human eye is capable of being deceived through technological means. The books and prints in the collection play a significant role in highlighting the context of display; the magic lanterns the method and rationale of reception.

One of the most dramatic examples of this is the display of the frontispiece of Étienne-Gaspard Robert’s Mémoires Récréatives Scientifiques (1831), which depicts one of his famous phantasmagoria lantern projections. Better known as Robertson, he was a Belgian inventor, physicist and student of optics who improved the technology of the magic lantern, including its capacity to enlarge and decrease images. Robertson performed his most infamous show in Paris in an abandoned chapel surrounded by tombs. Crowds flocked to the dimly lit graveyard to experience (initially concealed) magic lantern effects of flying skulls and ghoulish apparitions against the backdrop of creepy lighting and sound effects. While it isn’t clear whether the frontispiece depicts this performance, the participants in the event, nevertheless, respond in similar ways by fainting, screaming and running away from the horrors that appear before them. Yet, despite the centrality of illusion and the theatrical emphasis on the fantastic, Robertson’s intentions were also scientifically motivated. His application of the magic lantern reflected Enlightenment concerns with scientific rationalism; reason and a scientific approach to the world could, it was believed, arm the individual with answers to the most fantastic and irrational of problems. Exposing his methods after the ghostly spectacle, Robertson’s aim was to arm the audience with scientific reason by showing them the technological and scientific means by which he conjured his illusions: the fantastic was a deception controlled by technological means.

For these magicians and popular scientists, there was nothing science and technology could not explain or achieve. But as commentators like Octave Mannoni, who contributes one of the chapters in the exhibition catalogue, has explained, and as those who experience this exhibition clearly understand, having insight into the means of the illusion’s production—its trick—exposed and explained through rational means and scientific process doesn’t make that illusion any less astounding. If only to experience this state of bizarre ambivalence, it is well worth visiting this fascinating and, in many respects, ground-breaking, exhibition.

Eyes, Lies & Illusions, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Nov 2, 2006-Feb 11, 2007

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 21

© Angela Ndalianis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2007