Screen print on Snowdon Cartridge paper
Screen print on Snowdon Cartridge paper
55.736462,9.124263 [Google Maps Street View]
Screen print on Snowdon Cartridge paper
Mishka Henner’s series of images from Google Street View ‘No Man’s Land’ is a study in voyeurism. Henner, also a keen street photographer, used the mapping software to locate and appropriate images as printed artworks, capturing episodes of bare life and seeming prostitution on global streets. The women depicted often stare out at the camera passively, their lack of performative or active participation with the camera further isolating them in an equally passive landscape.
The artist uses GSV as the vehicle by which to represent prostitution and bare life. The aesthetic of Street View has become somewhat iconic following its popularity and infiltration into the modern psyche. Google’s images are often vaguely saturated, the edges warped, with breaks in the continuity of the image often noticeable. Figures are static and miniature, their faces blurred out and often stare blankly towards the camera. The street itself is of course always visible, and figures are most frequently depicted in the bottom 3rd ofthe image at the intersection between the edge of the road and the adjacent infrastructure.
The idea of representing images of prostitution on Google Street View would sound to be something potentially revelatory, casting a new light on the voyeur and his relationship with the unknowing subject. However, the project feels also rather distant and dislocated from the highly charged theme it sets out to address. His comments in interview that GSV is arguably the most pure form of photography, it being far more objective at a local level than any targeted camera could possibly be, is valid. Yet, his choosing of these subjects in particular, exceptional and hyperbolic in themselves, reverses and re-conditions these images to be far more subjective, and voyeuristic, than had one encountered them by chance.
Representational images, especially as photographs, are undoubtedly voyeuristic in their asymmetric gaze. The power, as Henner agrees, is held by the photographer at the expense of the subject. In the case of GSV the line of power has been broken to incorporate and empower the user, or in this case artist. In the history of image-making power has traditionally been assigned to the photographer, and significantly, if less so, to the audience. Google of course retains some significant involvement in this chain of distributed power, however theirs is at a more distant and meta level, and therefore less applicable to this argument.
The uncomfortable feeling here is that Mishka Henner’s appropriation of images of bare life/prostitution from Google Street View, and claims of an intelligent critique because of this appropriation, are in effect a smokescreen for his representations of powerless women for his and an audience’s enjoyment through the novelty of their representation. There is a sense of the artist glorifying the subject matter because it supposedly fits into two historically charged themes: voyeurism and modernism. The end result is instead a naïve ‘look at this’ moment, to which power relations remain firmly grounded in historic, if slightly warped, discriminations.
Henner is not alone in this though. John Rafman, perhaps the most renown artist to work with GSV has struggled to find an intelligent framework upon which to use the software for artistic purposes, each image somehow connected but utterly distinct and conceptually distant from the next. Doug Rickard’s depictions of poverty in the United States achieves a similar effect to Henner’s, in its aesthetification of poverty at a distant and unchallenging level. Perhaps Michael Wolf’s sometimes humourous, at others disturbing, images offer something more powerful and emotive, their emphasis on pixilation and fragmented bodies seeming to embrace the technology without glorifying it, and thus proves far more critically interesting.
Henner describes No Man’s Land as a study of the female form as the promise of life in an otherwise desolate landscape. Yet this notion of women as the fertile ground upon which humanity builds its future is a patronising objectification of the subject as vehicle for men’s utopic visions. How is the artist countering the obvious - that these women are objects not only of their clients and profession, but now also of the Google empire - if not perpetuating their objectification now also as Art?
A final note and summary, Mishka Henner has perhaps naively or unconsciously attempted to critique GSV’s objectification of the world using the framework of historic debates on voyeurism and pornography. However, as a male artist, and with the women depicted passively accepting their unconsented representation on GSV, Henner perpetuates their stereotype and objective place and function in society, something not atypical in the history of Art. Were he to depict figures who actively perform or object to the their incarceration on Street View, the artist could make a constructive and intelligent critique of the software. No Man’s Land, however, is a study in voyeurism, ..for the voyeur.
The idea of a successful art exhibition hosted online can seem both optimistic and rather pointless. Where to start, when paintings and sculpture become photographs, photographs immaterial copies, performance video - as seen on Vimeo and YouTube -, and where the artwork displayed becomes subject to the varying interfaces upon which it is viewed. The INMG (International New Media Gallery), however, are pioneering a format that, although still tentative, is hopeful of extending the possible spaces in which viewers can access the artworld, and perhaps may even change the way we think about art.
Set up by MA Students at UCL in the autumn of last year, the INMG has played host to two highly impressive online exhibitions, accompanied by catalogues that include particularly insightful essays by the curators and invited academics, and by several page interviews with the artists.
It’s first exhibition, of the video artist Corinne Silva, showcased a 13 minute film that reflected on an elderly man’s memories of his struggle to adapt to the UK in the 1940’s, after having travelled here from his native Nigeria as a young man. The video, shot much like a documentary, while also critical of the traditional documentary narrative format, was a beautiful and immersive artwork, where the passage of a boat airing past abandoned industrial spaces was reflected in the narrator’s dreamy contemplation of his journey.
Video is the natural fit for an online gallery such as the INMG. Easy to host and suitably challenging as an artwork format in whichever space it is displayed. However, its adaptability is also something the curators at the INMG are keen to move away from, instead pushing towards a format that is idiosyncratic and reflective of the ways in which we experience the internet, while borrowing the air of today’s real-space contemporary art galleries.
Their current exhibition, A Short Film about War, by the artist-activists Thomson and Craighead, is a step in the right direction for the gallery. The piece works from images on Flickr, released through a creative commons license, and from blog entries across the globe illustrating life in areas of conflict. Displayed as a two part screen, depicting on the left a slideshow of images and on the right a feed of the indexed URL addresses for each, the work critiques the ways in which mass media outlets disseminate and present information, packaging them as ‘stories’ that are often a veil for the inner complexity of real events and issues.
Like Silva’s before, the work is still a film, as the title suggests, but it is a film that reveals the inner workings of itself, thus grounding its content in an idea of truth that is often found missing amidst the sensationalism of finely packaged mass media news stories. Thomson and Craighead’s piece aims to break the monopoly of the mass media and emphasise the wealth of views and opinions sounded by those directly involved in conflict. Theirs is a dilution of an idea of a fixed ‘truth’ to war, offering a figurative understanding to issues that are often presented in a far more abstract manner.
For the INMG, Thomson and Craighead’s piece reflects the medium upon which it is best viewed. Citing itself as a product of a new way in which people reflect upon their personal existence, A Short Film about War opens up a new language from which we can think about art as a dynamic, critical and aesthetic force. The artists use information and online imagery as effectively their palette upon which to design their composition, and with information, personal information, being the product that drives new age multi-national companies like Facebook and Google, the artwork can claim to be a real idiosyncratic product of its times, while fitting neatly into a general history of art (note: appropriation art, Warhol’s ready-mades, dada, site-specific/land art).
The next few months are an exciting time for the gallery, with new exhibitions already planned, and a list of renowned academics already agreeing to contribute to the catalogue (available as PDF.). With luck, we’ll see the INMG successfully continue to aid the development of new age art, pushing the boundaries from which art can be both an effective and affective player in how we contemplate existence today.
The INMG can be found at:
Their current exhibition is:
Thomson and Craighead: A Short Film about War. 20th May – 25th October 2013
With thanks to Jonathan Jones’ article in the Guardian newspaper, I’ve now discovered that the great Rembrandt van Rijn was born on the same day as me; that being the 15th July. Unfortunately, the title is accompanied by a rather calamitous and unconvincing article, attacking Google’s use of the artist’s self-portrait as an embellishment to their logo that day.
Jones’ argument goes that the pixelated online world is no place for an artist as perfect and cutting edge as the great 17th Century Dutch painter, and that his paintings “need to be looked at in the flesh, as physical realities, to exert their power. A quick snack of information online has no purchase on the authority of his art. It has to be experienced in real time, in a real place”.
The argument against Jones’ is fairly straightforward; that Google’s use of the artist’s image on their logo is not intended as a substitute for the painterly ‘flesh’ of his portraits, just as an accompanying print-out with an inclusive example image in a gallery is not intended to replace the viewing of the original work. Rembrandt’s image is merely an illustrative index to further information on a popular artist about whom most of us know very little. To argue against such is both immature, counter-intuitive, and somehow elitist. I suspect the journalist has run out of creative or intelligent ideas.
Perhaps what Jones is indirectly pointing at is his belief in the superficiality of online space, that it is no substitute for the emotional and haptic powers offered by the plastic arts; painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, film, performance art. Rembrandt is apparently so great an artist that his work should never be associated with the trivial and frivolous web of images on a computer interface, and anyone who foolishly does so is metaphorically putting a knife to the worn and pixelated face of the painter.
I would expect more from a journalist of Jonathan Jones’ position, given his reputation and background. As mentioned earlier, Google uses the image of Rembrandt as an index for a wider understanding of the artist. Therefore, it must be assumed that the company are not intending for the image to be referred to as the original. When we consider the history of art over the past 60 or so years (certainly there are references even further back also!) the art of appropriation as an idiosyncratic art form became a popular and effective way of expanding the palette of possible relationships a viewer could have with a work of art. Certainly after the Second World War indexical and appropriation artworks became a popular and effective reaction against the perceived elitist trends in Modern Art. Notable examples in Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince used copies of already existent artworks as a basis upon which to critique a wider issue surrounding that image.
Google’s use of Rembrandt is in no way a critique of the painter, but its use is a constructive one for the benefit of those who may wish to know more about him.
But aside from Jones’ neglect of a whole wave of history in his argument, does his effective dismissal of the art of the pixel really hold sway? The idea that online art is both boring and removed, and can only be appreciated by geeks and those believing in a progressional history of art, is a poplar opinion that is rarely tackled by academics or the Giorgio Vasari’s of today. Art itself is a far reaching term, and the rise of online activists-as-artists is certainly a recognised art form today. However, here the argument asks whether a computer interface can offer the emotive power and complexity that painting has so effectively patented.
The argument for computer art in this light is diluted further as computers become ever more personalised and different from one another. How can an artwork that is perhaps engineered to wield the emotive power as prescribed in painting be effective if it can be viewed as an original with a million and one different interfaces? Our eyes and minds have been moulded to consider the Personal Computer (which now stretches to phones and tablets) as a vehicle for work and play, where the private and the public space lose their boundaries, and where we only encounter artworks as photographs, or as film; copies.
Film is most likely the bridge many would point to in its ability to cross the online-real space dichotomy. Film’s capacity to immerse the viewer in a state of almost total absorption has much in common with our relationship with some paintings (dependent on the viewer). Only, in order to achieve this state of absorption, images must be placed sequentially and viewing time must be controlled and directed by the artist. Singular images rarely, if ever, retain the gravitas and emotive weight of an image found in real space. It is also often said that viewing films on a PC is an inferior experience to that of watching via a television, projector or cinema screen; which are inherently more of a public vehicle for viewing moving images.
On a more tenuous point, and in response to the last, I would say that viewing painting is inherently a social and public affair, that we are often more inspired by the images we view in a public gallery than the ones in the privacy of ours and others’ homes. The point, as said, would need to be proved, but if somewhere near the truth then this may go a long way towards explaining the relative lack of success in online art in its most pure form. Whereas the very term online implies an alternative ‘public’ space, it tends to be experienced at a very much private and person-by-person level, dissolving our sense of real time and place, and therefore leaving us a little immobile and distant.
Perhaps it’s a little early for online artists to strike the right chords that, according to Jones, made Belshazzar’s Feast “one of the most seductive, yet slightly disgusting, passages of painting on Earth”. With every year that passes we relate to new developments in technology in a different way, and to expect art to transcend such relationships at that pace is perhaps rather naïve. It took many decades, and the likes of Titian and Giorgione, before the Venetians could convince the world that painting on canvas was as effective as frescoing or painting on wood. It may therefore take some time for us to really come to terms with a way of manipulating a computer interface for real emotive effect; in spite of self-indulgent and poor attempts by such supposedly distinguished artists as David Hockney. For now, we must be content with the important rise of online activism-as-art, and contextual references to online space via the plastic/traditional mediums.
On looking back at Jonathan Jones’ article, I’m struggling to work out what point the art critic was actually trying to address, other than an indulgent foray into almost edible language layered upon a centuries old Dutch painter (407 years old, in fact).
And did I mention I share a birthday with Rembrandt?
- Jonathan Jones’ article, published 15.07.2013
Western photographers in the early 1980’s effectively pioneered the ‘wall photograph’, the photographic image that could be witnessed at the level of a painting. This tradition grew out of the practices of such artists as Jeff Wall and Sherrie Levine, and became adopted by later artists such as Gregory Crewdson and Candida Hofer. The photographs were to be considered as just that, images on paper, and were to be critiqued at the level of their material and spatial properties, much like a painting.
This tradition has now been further adopted by many contemporary eastern artists, the example here being that of Chinese artist Chen Wei.
Chen’s images have the feel of theater spaces, often boxed in with a figure enacting some kind of domestic performance inside. He allows very little space for the viewer, pushing objects forward and therefore energising their relative position to the onlooker.
Much like Hofer’s work, Chen’s images are taken from a fairly logical and formulaic position. Perspective is marked out by lines that correspond symmetrically, effectively dividing space into rigid areas of happening and non-happening.
However, what really defines Chen’s images are his play on the fantastical. Pictures like ‘A Foggy Afternoon’, 2011, (above) demonstrate his fascination with Chinese folk tales, literature and memories of childhood. The absurdity of these events reminds me of Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk. Wall’s image depicts an absurd, comical and vaguely sinister spectacle involving various mutilated soldiers raised from the dead and conscious of their predicament. As much as the drama and interplay amongst characters draws in the gaze of the viewer, it is the composition of the space itself that makes the picture so fascinating. Depicted in a crater in what appears to be First World War France, the space is cut off from any extensive sense of depth. Thus, we read the image at its surface, much as we now read pantings, such that characters are revealed as forms on a flat panel. This flattening of space is evocative of the Cezannian project 100 years ago, and therefore injects the photograph with an engaged critique traditionally reserved for painting.
Chen Wei’s photographs do not engage with western traditions of pictorial critique in painting to the extent that Wall does, but this is only expected of any emerging artists from areas, like China, removed from such art historical narratives (albeit with their own narratives to engage with).
Of course, to fully understand how Chen’s images are uniquely applicable to a Chinese/East Asian context would be to understand the cultures and historical narratives in question. But what can we gather from looking at his images while divorced from any real sense of wider cultural awareness?
Recurring themes tend be dark, dingy spaces, inhabited by either a single figure or nobody at all. A sense of confinement and personification of objects brings the viewer into a partial fantasy world. Chen doesn’t give too much away, they are certainly more poetic than dogmatic. But there is certainly a feeling of something having been lost, or an element of transition occuring. Reflections on a changing China? Where is the natural light and open spaces? It’s as if these are the spaces where people both live and dream, the dreams emerging and held captive within these tiny boxes. I can only make assumptions, but it is as if Chen is depicting the true face of contemporary China, a nation of dreamers, locked into frustrated spaces of capativity and tradition.
The problem with looking at a photograph of a painting and, even more so, a backlit online image of a painting is that the aesthetics and way we read the paintings are fundamentally changed. This may seem an obvious statement, but it’s only when you try and recall certain nuances of an experience had with a painting that this idea really comes into effect.
Rest on the Flight from Egypt, 1570-3
Federico Barocci’s ‘Madonna of the Cat’ and ‘Rest on the Flight from Egypt’ have a highly photographic feel about them. The soft lighting and interesting spatial play between characters makes them highly beautiful and complex paintings. Looking at them at the National Gallery’s current eponymous exhibition, it felt as if I were looking through a sort of photographic web, whereby objects would fall in and out of focus without real spatial structure. Whereas the lighting and form of the early Baroque artist’s faces would remain constant and blurred, other objects, such as a bird in the former, appear more rigid, and somehow slightly out of place.
Online, the compositions becomes more total, and spatial depth becomes somehow more formulaic and perhaps, ironically, more real. I want to get lost in the paintwork, the obscure proportions and depths that make me admire the artist’s work and feel inspired. Unfortunately, this is lost when seen out of context.
But the exhibition proved insightful and surprising. Barocci of Urbino was clearly an admirer of predecessors Da Vinci, Perugino, Raphael and the Venetians Giorgione and Veronese, each of whose depictions of gentle figures, naturalism, radiant light and grounded compositions are evident also in his early works. But perhaps also of Caravaggio, his contemporary, whose emphasis on strong contrasting levels of light, chiaroscuro, is very much apparent in Barocci’s later works.
I would note, however, that as the artist aged, and the commissions became grander and more complex, Barocci struggles to convince that he is up there with the great Renaissance masters of composition in Leonardo and Raphael. Figures sometimes appear unnecessary or out of place, and the scenery becomes a little too formulaic, exceptions of this being his great ‘Last Supper’ and smaller ‘Saint Francis’.
Barocci excels instead in his wealth of preparatory sketches and smaller paintings. Much like Rembrandt a few decades later, the Italian preferred to capture the more intimate and delicate moments, giving them a sense of life and empathy perhaps lost in the larger commissions. Sketches of hands and feet are done with a highly gentle slide of the pencil and brush and dab of the thumb, and the paintings are seemingly looser and more expressive.
I first came across the Bangladeshi photographer after an article was recently published about him in the BJP. His latest series, Desperate Urbanisation, is a beautifully composed visual analysis of the decaying state of the Buriganga River, with the development of nearby Dhaka City.
The images are essentially landscape focused, depicting smokey, polluted river scenes, and the bare life that clings to them. The clouded aesthetic helps the images to paradoxically look both beautiful and dirty, but the overwhelming feeling I get is one of calm, and muteness. Sand whips in from the riverbanks, blurring further the landscape, while desaturating the colours. People are reduced to mere specks and become their own architecture, losing their identity and falling away in, and with, the land they inhabit.
There’s a quiet desperation about the images. Chowdhury clearly cares for this landscape, and there is certainly an element of nostalgia and longing present. As the photographs fade, perhaps so does his, and others’, memories of the glorious past of the Buriganga, a river that the photographer claims would once ‘give us hopes and dreams to make a new City’.
It is therefore no surprise that he recently won the Ian Parry scholarship that has significantly raised the photographer’s international profile.
But nevertheless, Desperate Urbanisation is a highly melancholic series, full of nostalgia and potential, unfulfilled, hope, but also, as the name suggests, resigned and utterly desperate. Perhaps even, as a documentary photographer, there is the sense that just by capturing these images he is able to somehow intervene. Yet it is a futile act, and Chowdhury’s clouded images emphasise the distance between reality and dream.
As an intern at an art gallery in Central London, I am continually required to sift through hundreds of seemingly identical printed images, looking for a singular artwork entitled Concetto Spaziole, Attesa (1960-65), amidst 40 to ….4,000 gridded pages of other Fontana works that appear and are entitled almost exactly the same. Aside from lethargic intentions of self-mutilation, most likely inspired by the butchered portfolio of canvases before my sterilized and lifeless eyes, I began to wonder why the ‘great’ Italian painter-sculptor-artist of the post-war era would spend in the region of twenty years slashing canvases, achieving little to no formal progression in his practice, and to what extent this emphasis on repetition and serialisation of production is reflective of a wider historical disposition amongst cultural producers.
Fontana was, of course, working at a time when artists’ negotiations with mass production and serialisation were at their most visible; with Warhol’s Marilyns exemplifying such. New innovations in technologies such as television, and the explosion of media output in the form of large-scale coloured bill-board posters would inspire a generation of artists including Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Stella to parody the mass media and critique the autonomous and unique object, accusing it of illusionism and intellectual deception. Minimalism’s austere response to these parodies a decade later would use repetition as a means to further critique the mass media and the art-establishment through a reductive serialisation of art making that, by removing the spectacle of the media image, could supposedly expose its vacuous and deceptive skeleton.
Iconoclasm of this sort seems to have become rather tired and perhaps redundant in the 21st Century. Lichtenstein’s comic book parodies now sell for £25 as prints on t-shirts at the Tate’s current Retrospective; while Warhol’s whole output is now non-negotiable as a pertinent cultural critique as it sells for nothing less than multiple digit prices at global auction houses (making each work somehow unique at the level of economic and conceptual value). However, repetition has proved an effective and malleable means of expression amongst cultural producers throughout the ages, and today the repeated image or object can be used as a weapon or political statement to reveal and address certain modalities of contemporary existence; from Jamie McCartney’s repeated Vagina series of plaster-casts, exposing and potentially pacifying women’s’ insecurities about their bodies, to Trevor Paglen’s Black Sites, that uses photographic serialisation of subject matter, as opposed to form, as a way of exposure beyond the singular image, in this case revealing the CIA’s secret prison camps in Afghanistan.
Repetition is a way of ritual that gives order and purpose to the chaos and incomprehensibility of existence, and which finds its most pertinent form in religious practice and doctrine. There is thus something of the metaphysical about the act of repetition, something almost divinely inspired about it that transcends all concepts of space and time. Rothko’s whole output seems to have been effective repetitions, or translations, of previous works, and subsequently he seems to have been projected with this almost prophetic grace; the Rothko Chapel, Houston, seems to have been foundered on this idea of the painter’s celestial stimulations.
Changes in European and Middle Eastern visual culture have noticeably reflected changing attitudes to Religious doctrine since the fall of the Roman Empire (and of course before). The 8th Century AD saw a great iconoclastic period in which the Church’s misgivings towards depictions of important religious figures meant for a suppression of all forms of idolatry, seeing them as a corruption of, and human interference with, the ‘true’ image and message of Christ. Worshippers were instead presented with relics and non-idolatrous objects that could be used as empowering agents for direct communication with the heavens. Church rules did, however, begin to relax, and soon relics were accompanied by images of the worshipped, such to be used as an index in the comprehension of Christ in ritual prayer. These images could be paintings that adorn the boxes housing sacred objects, or as altarpieces. The Church imposed strict controls on exactly who could be painted, and how they should be depicted. Thus, repetition played an immensely important role in the developments of Western painting for roughly 500 years, making very few formal altercations until the mid-late 13th Century. The repeated images were a sort of reflection of the unwavering and perpetual presence that the Church wished to think of and portray itself. Limiting self-expression through absolute control was an effective way of maintaining power, and it is interesting to note that at the moment of art’s most emphatic deviation from repetition in visual culture, the Renaissance, we also, and not by chance, witness the most definite fragmentation of the Church’s authority, the Reformation.
Repetition therefore has a long and diverse history in visual culture. Looking at Lucio Fontana’s endless series of Concetto Spaziole, Attesa, I wonder whether what I see is something divinely inspired, a parody of visual culture, or something far more politically and morally engaged. Perhaps, even, Fontana merely found a market for his butchery and, like Hirst, has been able to exploit it for all its worth. If it is the latter, then self-mutilation doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all!
I am continuing to read Alexander Nagel’s recently published ‘Medieval Modern’, a book that offers an exciting and intuitive attempt to form bonds and relationships between artworks and architecture from a range of historical ‘periods’.
The book makes an interesting connection between Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, Florence, and Dan Flavin’s Light Installations at the Green Gallery in the 1970’s. Nagel’s argument was that, although superficially the two spaces could hardly be further apart, they both adhere towards a similar aesthetic purpose.
Dan Flavin’s light sculptures are an attempt to break the modernist tradition of the autonomous work of art, casting away all notions of ‘otherness’ and the artist-genius’s hand. Flavin could see the hypocrisy and elitism in certain works of abstract expressionism. Instead, his light sculptures are both the artwork at hand, but also the environment within which the viewer experiences the work. Thus, when one enters the exhibition space, it is not merely the fluorescent tubes that one must attempt to appreciate and experience, but the environment from which the tubes are subject to being witnessed. Flavin’s insight was to develop the actual space for the ritual of art viewing as the artwork itself, thus opening-out the exhibition space and objectifying the viewer him/herself as a part of, or player within, the art experience.
In 1519, Michelangelo was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici and Pope Leo X to begin work on a new sacristy for the burial of the ruling Medici family of Florence. The sacristy was to be an extension of the ancient church of San Lorenzo, within which the family’s founder, Giovanni di Bicci Medici and the sculptor Donatello are both housed. Michelangelo, a dozen years after the completion of his David, a great symbol of the Florentine Republic before the reinstatement of the house of Medici, was the only real candidate for the commission given his overwhelming reputation and popularity across central Italy. What he designed was a space that broke away from all contemporary forms of architectural design. Michelangelo’s was a capsule that would transport both the minds and the visceral bodies of worshippers up into the circular heaven’s overhead. The altar no longer points towards a two-dimensional image of Christ or the Madonna against the wall. Instead, from behind the cross, as if operating a control panel, the priest would direct the service towards the congregation, thus involving the worshipper to an extent not attainable in the traditional, wall-facing, service.
The New Sacristy was attended only by the elite of Florence and, more importantly, the Medici Family themselves. Thus, this subtle, but highly significant, development in Michelangelo’s design plan was perhaps so appraised by the family for the way it would seem to offer a more direct line to God, and thus was an act of seemingly divine empowerment. Michelangelo’s plan was, although, ever more ambitious, and aimed to develop a space such that every object and every architectural schema would serve as a device that would help propel the very soul of the worshipper upwards through a complex, and almost maze-like, set of structural stages.
Juxtaposing larger-than-life sized sculptural ‘portraits’ of Giuliano and Lorenzo de Medici as archetypal Greco-Roman heroes was the sculptor’s attempt to further this feeling of divine empowerment amongst the Medici. The two figures not only propose, or perhaps remind, the Medici as to their divine right to rule in the manner of Roman emperors, but also help to visualise a grid-like form to embellish the square-based plan of the chapel. Line, therefore, is an important element in Michelangelo’s structural plan, and we can see how this emphasis on line helps to energise and ‘activate’ the space, perhaps in correlation with the energy of contemporary trends in many late Renaissance-early Mannerist artworks.
Across the crowded floor plan the worshipper becomes a sculptural site at the intersection between a range of literal and metaphorical lines. These lines we can see crafted on the floor, in the direction of the priest’s service, in the crossing gazes of the four allegories of the day (Dawn, Day, Dusk and Evening) and in the Corinthian columns that crowd the lower walls. The columns house a collection of seemingly empty Tabernacles, spaces that are traditionally embellished with figural sculptures. This emphasis on a sense of absence is perhaps a device that alludes to the immaterial soul of the worshipper, yet somehow re-embodied by the abstract sculpture of the Tabernacle.
The curved, upwards-pointing shape of the Tabernacle canopy projects the soul upwards, away from the earthy chaos into a second, lighter, and more minimal level. It is as if the soul is being somehow squeezed upwards, or perhaps evokes a sort of convection current that purifies the soul as it reaches ever higher and further from the dark pietra serena encrusted earth.
Light, another device used intuitively by the sculptor. One notices that towards the dome-shaped roof, Michelangelo uses light as a way of illustrating not just the purity of the heavens but the darkness of earthy existence. Somehow the shadowy chaos of the square-based ground level feels much more like a cage when compared with the enlightened dome of the roof, and the worshipper is therefore far more aware of his need to purify both mind and body when presented with such a space. Like a sculptural metaphoric paradigm, the New Sacristy operates as to visualise the body and square earth like a cage, contrasted with that of the soul, the mind and rounded heavens above.
Although much more could be said about Michelangelo’s plan, it is worth noting how both the sculptor and Flavin, over 400 years later, emphasised the need for an artwork that could activate the body of the viewer/worshipper as a device through which to render them no longer passive observer, but engaged participant within diverse rituals, and to which we can also associate ever more contemporary examples and movements such as relational art, performance, sound sculptures and politico-artistic activism.