Four Windows to the World


23.12.2002 – 14.04.2003

Projections by Werner Nekes
Foto: ©Andreas Mangen/waz

Media Magica

The creative possibilities of innovation are usually slowly disclosed by old forms, oldinstruments” (László Moholy-Nagy)

Writing in 1859, the time between the invention of the daguerreotype and cinematography, photography and film, Charles Baudelaire described the curiosity of his contemporaries as “a thousand hungry eyes […] bending over the peep-holes of the stereoscope, as though they were attic-windows of the infinite.” Yet for a long time thereafter, the ever-accelerating development of modern visual media precluded any retrospective insight into their origins. Walter Benjamin lamented this as early as 1931, and little has changed to this day. Consequently, much credit should be given to Foundation DKM for initiating a perceptual shift in its gallery at Duisburg’s Inner Harbor, an endeavor undertaken jointly with the internationally renowned film artist Werner Nekes. The (outwardly directed) film installation Vier Fenster zur Welt (Four Windows to the World), gives significant, sensorial insight into the magical realm of moving images from a time before film existed. The installation Il sole non vide mai nessuna ombra—Niemals sieht die Sonne einen Schatten (Leonardo da Vinci) (Il sole non vide mai nessuna ombra – The Sun Never Saw a Shadow) constitutes the prelude and companion to a project series initiated by Foundation DKM with Nekes and Duisburg cultural institutions, an undertaking that sheds light on what likely constituted the very first «light plays»: the shadow arts.

Every evening finds the four front windows of the gallery transformed into movie screens, while the night itself becomes a darkened cinema for passers-by. Luminously beautiful and accessible, the ancestors of photography and film emerge from the darkness and also from the obscurity of a five-hundred-year history—the magical protagonists of Media Magica, Werner Neke’s singular documentary series, appear. The piece is a filmic tour, as charming as it is scholarly and precise, through a collection covering the prehistory of visual media from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century—one of the most extensive and important private collections in the world. Starting with the camera obscura, a precursor to the pinhole camera, it continues to the first projector, the magic lantern, and on to perspective theater to stroboscopic discs, «wheels of life», zoetropes, flipbooks and their successor, early film around 1900.

Elaborately reanimated, visitors are treated to a demonstration of diverse optical trick apparatuses and experimental instruments. Various historical, imagination-spurring devices, conundrums and mirages, «change-seers», montage toys, motion illusions and optical illusions abound. Visual animation techniques and transformation effects demonstrate that, not least, most of the modern optical techniques (the staggering of picture planes, multiple fading or morphing) are based on centuries-old principles, applied in a highly inventive, resourceful way.

Beyond that, the specific presentation of these films within the gallery concept gives rise to an array of distinctive charms and shifts in meaning. The construction already inherently bears many signatures of visual, historical forms of perception and representation. The gallery becomes a large magic lantern at night. The framing of the films in a window grid—the doors of what was once a garage for trucks, transformed into a work of light art with kaleidoscopic qualities as one moves away from it—may likewise recall Albrecht Dürer’s drawing grid for central perspective. Out of this display window to the world emerges the central idea of Renaissance painting, namely that pictures are both surface (superficies) and open window (finestra aperta): the pictorial space appears as an ongoing continuum of the viewer’s space. It was precisely this interaction that Bill Gates had in mind when he named his computer program «Windows».

But the most striking feature of this presentation is its simultaneity. The four, one-hour films in the Media Magica series appear simultaneously on the «retinas» of the four windows, non- stop and without sound. The films are sorted by subject: Durchsehekunst (See-Through Art) explores the history of the camera obscura, the exploration of perspective and its anamorphosis (distortion) experiments, along with the colorful realm of shadow arts. «Belebte Bilder (Animated Images)» looks at scientific and popular entertainment applications of the «terrifying» laterna magica; innumerable paper animations divulge its turning, folding, pulling, or levering mechanisms. We find curious changing pictures, postcards, books with skipping ropes and wrigglers—popular as the peep-box thanks to the miraculoustransformation processes of its illuminable trans-illuminated images; as well-loved as the panoramas for ocular travelers.

«Vieltausendschau (Multi-Thousand Picture Show)» baffles with unexpected transformation via montage principles, the zoetrope with perspective toys: both simulate motion using the eye’s inertia, the afterimage effect, combined with stroboscopic effects. In this way, phantom images become endless loops: a ceaseless stream of rats seems to crawl out of the center of a rotating phenakistiscope, for example, and disappear over the edge of the disk.

If optical apparatuses and effects are normally classified as «pre-cinematographic» phenomena in a historical continuity, with cinema as its ultimate outcome, then an important gain of the simultaneous film screening is certainly that it undermines to some extent this linear media-historical narrative: There is no one, simple genealogical line from the camera obscura of the Renaissance to the cinematograph. The polyperspectival, nonstop labyrinth of images with shifting simultaneities and transitions conveys the creative experience that the work of the past has nowhere to go, nor is it finished. It is incalculable in its effect.

Moreover, the impressions from this historiscope add up to a grandiose panorama that combines the historical relationships of experimental research, instruction, and popular entertainment in a sensory way, as all this is itself. And the simultaneous effect gives an idea of how widely ramified the optical, kinetic arts are, how manifold their overlaps and connections – and how many artificially visualized spaces of experience existed at the same time. However, relationships between optical inventions and the industrialization of the nineteenth century only flash up by chance. When, for example, early film shots of the first railroads appear and crank panoramas or spinning zoetropes appear in the film window next to them, it becomes obvious that their development was influenced by the wheels of
«locomotion». On the other hand, there is the association between, say, certain parlor games to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. They promoted insight into the formability and changeability of the world and social identity, of ideas. The montage-like juxtaposition of films here becomes symbolic of this attitude. The flight of momentary images, the heightened impression of change and mutability also has something of a dreamlike, hallucinatory quality. The installation is first and foremost an aesthetic event. The space it opens is full of phantasmagoria, impressions, sensations, stimuli, metamorphoses, theatrical experiences; we find sparkling firelight color magic, created by gyrating colorful spirals behind translucent perforated images, reminiscent of chaser light advertisements. The flickering magic of shadow figures, but also their striking naturalness; the crane plucking its feathers in a Chinese shadow play. Glittering lantern projections of ocean waves and moonlight, grimacing, eye-rolling chimeras. The dramatic suggestion of spatial depth. Flash-like rapture, seeming to be transported into scenarios of times long past. Into St. Peter’s Basilica, into a machinery hall at the World’s Fair in Paris. The magic of transparency pictures: with incident light you see Versailles by day, in backlight it appears by night, with illuminated windows, starry sky, fireworks. Summer becomes winter. Or London Moscow. Infinite horizon expansions. And insights into the technical conditionality of auratic phenomena. In short: Just as Neke’s windows to the world show the history of experimental seeing as something that is remarkable to both experience and think about, they themselves become just that.

Svenja Klaucke

Translation: Amy Patton