Notes on ‘Can you believe it?’ by Michael Diers, 2009, and some thoughts

Notes on ‘Can you believe it?’ by Michael Diers

Begins by describing an installation by Ilya Kabakov “Incident at the museum” accompanied by a sound piece by Vladimir Tarasov. Presented as part of an exhibition called ‘Vision du futur’ at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2000. The exhibit looked at “secular and religious visions of the future from Babylon till now.“ As one would imagine the objects “were magnificently presented. However, when visitors stepped through the curtains into the final room, they found themselves in a dimly lit space filled with plastic buckets, tin tubs and plastic sheeting, like a giant broom cupboard. Water was dripping form the ceiling into numerous judiciously placed containers.”  The viewers were at first “taken aback and disorientated” until one guy said “its art, its an installation.” The work “ the misery of the art business in provincial Russia and the related demise of a political utopia … central to the artistic ploy was to create an all embracing, immersive deception” Diers goes on to comment that “for the exhibition goer, finding himself in the completely convincing illusion of the gallery space was like stepping into the wrong film, and he was forced to re-orientate himself. In that brief moment of uncertainty , as the brain was urgently  casting around for some explanation, it bounded in seven-league boots through the history of art and the various stations of trompe l’oeil since antiquity – and was astonished to find that the Parrhasius effect still works today.”

Incident at the Museum or Water Music 1992, Installation view at Ronald Feldman Gallery

Parrhasius comes from the story of a contest between Parrhasius and another painter Zeuxis who were competing with each other to make the most naturalistic illusion in 58BC, Zeuxis painted grapes so real that birds flew down and tried to eat them. Confident in his victory he challenged Parrhasius to reveal his painting, in so doing making the Parrhasius the clear winner because his painting was already revealed; being an image of a curtain covering a canvas.

Diers continues, Tromp L’oeil has classical roots in painting reaching its height in the 16-17C in which artist created life sized still life’s to create the most naturalistic image possible artist examples: Juan Sanchez in spain, Samuel Hoosstaren in holland, and Cornelius Gijsbrechts in Denmark (images in that order):

La Condition Humaine (1933)

Diers compares Gijsbrecht’s work with Magritte’s, commenting on how both artists have used painting to “reference the iconic status of the picture …. that paintings can reflect both on themselves and on their relationship to the viewer.” I think what Diers is talking about is how the picture contains referents to objects that the viewer then interprets  ie. in Magritte’s work we are able to get a sense of space from the wall/window frame detailing, and can recognize curtains and a painting on a stand that reflects the scene through the window. Magritte’s composition also points out to the viewer that picture itself is an object; both a collection of materials (canvas, paint etc. ) and also a representation of the artists selection of details from a given point of view.

Diers then talks of a shift towrds sculpture when Tromp L’oeil is used by pop artists. As with Jasper Johns Ale Cans (oil paint and bronze, 1960) and Warhols Brillo Boxes (screen print on wood, 1964)

Moving on Diers comments that “in the early 1990’s there was a reawakening of interest in its techniques, aesthetics and philosophy.” Diers names Ilya Kabakov “one of the pioneers of rediscovery of what has become a widely used strategy.” At this point Diers also mentions artists RobertGober, Peter Fischli and David  Wiess, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Janet Cardiff, Guillaume Bijl, Christoph Buchel, Maurizo Cattelan and Ron Muek, ” all have their own take in their own media — sculpture, installation, video, photography — on this tool, where a moment of bewilderment puts strain on our perceptions and, in so doing, may deepen our appreciation of art and of the artistic image as a multilayered tangle of multiple aspects of perception and knowledge.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss
Detail of Untitled (Tate) 1992–2000
Carved and painted polyurethane
Courtesy Eva Presenhuber/Tate
© Peter Fischli and David Weiss


Robert Gober 

Mark Wallinger reproduced very accurately protest signs and photographs he had taken and exhibited them using virtually identical materials. The work was based on things from Haws Peace Camp, the real objects had been destroyed  months earlier, by reproducing and displaying the replicas Diers suggest that Wallinger created a “a political still life or historical painting ..  also highlighted the narrow aesthetic dividing line between art and reality.” Diers goes on to comment that this mode of replication differs from the methods of “Warhol’s brillo boxes and Fischli & Weiss’s coloured polyurethane sculptures.” This question of materials is in important, Wallenger uses the same materials as the originals to create replicas, Warhol silk screens images of objects onto wood constructed into the same dimensions as the original. For me this raises interesting questions with regard to my own work, as i am using actual objects in my works then adjusting them. My intention being that the resulting object represents itself, while simultaneously representing the painted image of itself. Engaging with the idea of the painted canvas  as an object and also as a device to house a visual representation of a concept. It interests me that these two disparate ‘truths’ can co-exist together so easily, and that in general we tend not to notice. Perhaps this is because we are so familiar with the constructs of painting and looking at flat images, upon viewing said objects the image takes precedence and the method of delivery takes a back seat, only relevant in terms of the quality of that delivery and perhaps the process behind the generation of the image, as opposed to the object itself. Just like a white frame around a A4 printed image disappears upon viewing it.  Where this proposal is      challenged is when the image and the object stand on equal footing. For example with Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed media collages:

Anyway, back to Diers who moves on to address the photographers using trompe l’oeil. In particular Thomas Demands 2003 Venice Biennale contribution, the clearing. 

It takes a moment of close inspection to realize that the work “absent of any frame” is really a photo of thousands of bits of crafted paper. The image is the same scale and perspective as the landscape behind it. Reminscent of Magrittes La Condition Humaine (1933) which i mentioned earlier, “is a depiction of the view from a window, partly hidden by a painting on an easel. The painting, a landscape, fills in almost seamlessly the view of the real countryside outside the window – on the same scale, in the same colours and with the same perspective so that picture and reality seem to have become one: an illusion that gives (visual) form to a long art-philosophical discussion.”

The work is “a lengthy, technically complex process of reproduction that had ultimately returned the image to exactly the same spot where it had started.” For me this relates back to the question of representation, the image blends with the nature behind it linking the image to the referent (which is the surrounding landscape), upon seeing the illusion the image gains a new referent (the complex process/materials). The skill of the illusion means the eye is able to slip between these two referents easily; balanced out by each other they come together, conflicting but also co-existing. One cant rule out the other. I think this is the true usefulness of the Tromp L’oeil, the ability to create a singular work refers to two different representations in a seamless flowing fashion, so that it is impossible to ignore either. In this way activating both the image and the art object. 

Diers last point is also relevant, “it is particularly the use of technical media that allows this picture to fulfill its ambition as a photographic image of a (man-made) image of a photographic image. As in antiquity, the element of deception promotes a self-reflective assessment of the medium and is, to put it rather grandly, beholden to the truth of the image – as it were, making free use of Max Leibermann’s maxim: “Nothing is less deceptive than appearances.”


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