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Premieres March 29 at Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany.

Book by Kehrer Verlag, ISBN 978-3-86828-793-6

From the Introduction

“If one considers the millennia of the history of art, it becomes clear that the division in methods of representation between perspective and aspective occurs at a level whose significance is not equaled by that of any distinction of any other order between works of art.”

Emma Brunner-Traut[1]

On New Year’s Day 2016, I was visiting the temple of Seti I at Abydos in Upper Egypt. For a week, I had toured the usual sites — Giza, Saqqara, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Karnak and Luxor temples — with a good deal of interest, but little in the way of inspiration. At the time, I was as much of a blank slate regarding ancient Egypt as any other visitor, and my reactions to two-dimensional Egyptian art were nothing out of the ordinary: “fascinating,“ “exotic” and “confounding“ would have summed it up.

That day at Abydos, the figures and text seemed as inscrutable to me as in the days before. But when I looked at one particular relief, I was struck by how the image and text elements were distinct, and at the same time related: figures weren’t isolated, but interacted with other figures; symbols were associated with these figures; both symbols and figures appeared in text elements as hieroglyphs; text elements interacted with figures and symbols; lines separated not images from text, but scenes.

At that moment, I began to see Egyptian art in a new light. I had taken in this relief not as a collection of elements, but as a comprehensive whole. In it, I recognized an information-rich narrative system that employs images, symbols, text, even functional equivalents of, which are capable of:

  • detailing the roles, functions and hierarchies of typological figures
  • describing interactions and relationships between these figures
  • placing each figure into a broader social and cultural context
  • examining causes and effects of these interactions and relationships in relation to abstract concepts

The notion of connectedness relates not only to the interaction of classes of signs (images, symbols and text), but also to the fluid boundaries between them: a pictorial-symbolic-textual system so integrated that text was rooted in images and the pictorial elements could be read as text. The resulting ImageSymbolText fused the immediacy of images, the condensed meaning resident in symbols, and the precision and nuance of text into a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

I believe that to discover something means to have looked for it, even if “only” subconsciously. This case was no exception: I had been searching for a more complete way to create works about historical, social and political themes and concepts. Specifically, for a form of visual expression which does not separate images and text as sharply as the Greco-Roman model, in which images and text can, at best, be complementary, but not synergistic.

The Egyptian narrative system is evidently geared toward broad themes which we would now describe as historical, social, political and philosophical: patterns of interactions of types and groups, placed in categories and hierarchies, with concepts functioning as organizing principles. It also became clear that the Egyptian narrative system had been devised and adapted with exploration of such themes in mind:

  • Its symbols function as containers for abstract concepts
  • The integration of symbols with pictorial and textual elements allows for conceptual expression, even absent a narrative
  • In pictorial elements, typological categorization takes precedence over the representation of individuality
  • Text elements are used freely, for elaboration, specification and identification

Using this system would enable a great leap in expression. But could it be done? My attention turned to what would surely be the pictorial center of gravity: the figures — yes, the same figures that are famous for their tenuous relationship with human anatomy. A contortionist might be able to twist into a position with head in profile, shoulders frontal and hips again in profile. But even a contortionist can’t shift an eye from the front of the head to the temple.

How to photograph the un-photographable?

The first step is to understand the implications of the Egyptian way of representing two-dimensional figures. Egyptian figures were designed with fundamentally different priorities and purposes in mind from the perspective figures we know. These differences amount to a different way of looking at the world.

Figures in perspective (our “normal”) approximate the way things appear in three dimensions, from a single point of view, in a frozen moment. This combination of single point of view and frozen moment can have a powerful visceral impact on the viewer: to see what the artist sees, maybe even to have a sense of being there. However, perspective depiction comes at a price: it omits information about anything that can’t be seen from that single perspective in that single moment. By definition, it doesn’t accommodate other perspectives — both literally (things that can’t be seen from that one perspective) and figuratively (what led up to that moment, what might happen next and what larger forces are at play).

Two-dimensional Egyptian figures aren’t naturalistic representations from a single perspective, but aspective. They present a composite view of the most characteristic aspect of each component part of a figure — in two dimensions. Rather than approximating what the eye sees, aspective representation emphasizes the way the mind takes in information. This approach lacks some of the visceral impact of a snapshot. But by integrating multiple perspectives in the literal sense, it can accommodate more information — and thereby gains the ability to present multiple perspectives in the figurative sense. As a result, an aspective image can present information and thematic context beyond a frozen moment from a single point of view — about chronology, causality, relationships and hierarchies.

In painting and sculpture, aspective representation has been an option since the days of ancient Egypt; Cubism, for example, leans toward aspective representation. But photographic technology is naturalistic by design; after all, it was developed to replicate the perspective view. A camera lens is a mechanical cornea, and the film or a sensor a chemical or digital retina. The technical differences between the perspective and aspective views are hardwired in photography: a photographic exposure is a frozen moment from a single point of view. Little wonder, then, that photorealistic media and aspective depiction were thought to be incompatible, even mutually exclusive.

“Thought to be,” because this view rested on a hidden assumption: that a photorealistic figure is necessarily the product of a single exposure. When I recognized this assumption, the floodgates opened.

The camera sees as the human eye does — and the eyes of Egyptian artists perceived just as ours do. The difference lies in how they conceived of what they saw. If I photographed individual aspects as an Egyptian artist perceived them, and then composed these views as he conceived of them (in other words, according to the formal language of Egyptian art), it should be possible to create aspective figures in a photorealistic medium.[2]

After six weeks of experimentation (and much trial and error) Agnes Artych, one of the four principals of our Mercury Theatre, became the first-ever aspective figure in a photorealistic medium. For simplicity’s sake, we named it Aspective Realism.

Going back to that day in Abydos: My goal had not been to recreate Egyptian art, as a formal exercise, or to create a work with an Egyptian theme. Rather, I set out to revive the Egyptian pictorial-symbolic-textual system in contemporary media — to gain access to the capabilities of this system, which vastly enriches expression about historical, political and philosophical themes (see the following essay, Egyptian Art as Visual Literature). Though this system was very much of Egypt, it is applicable beyond, even irrespective of, the Egyptian context. Its concepts and methods of conveying information, describing meaning and exploring concepts hold universal promise for artistic expression.

Yesterday -Tomorrow applies the Egyptian pictorial-symbolic-textual system to the human condition, across time and cultures, to issues that were defining in ancient Egypt and have remained so today. As inscribed on the tomb of Tutankhamen: “I have seen the yesterday; I know the tomorrow.”

 

[1] Schäfer, Principles of Egyptian Art (2002), p. 423.

[2] Aspective Realism calls for a distinction that is usually unnecessary in photography, where the figure is typically the result of one exposure, and the term “image” applies both to the figure and the exposure. But in aspective representation, this could lead to confusion, since the image (a figure) is a composite of multiple images (exposures). Thus, we use the terms more narrowly: “exposure” for the component parts and “figure” for the composed total.

  • Photographic relief: Soft Power
    Photographic relief: Soft Power
  • Jubilant masses.
    Detail from the photographic relief Soft Power
    Jubilant masses.
  • Photographic relief: Law and Order
    Photographic relief: Law and Order
  • Family idyll.
    Scene from Law and Order
    Family idyll.
  • The king and his vizier
    Scene from Horus is Watching You
    The king and his vizier
  • Smiting the enemy.
    Scene from Hard Power
    Smiting the enemy.
  • Trampling
    Scene from Hard Power
    Trampling
  • Figure: Wounded Enemy
    Figure: Wounded Enemy
  • Couple with child.
    Scene from Together Forever
    Couple with child.
  • Figure: Hathor
    Figure: Hathor
  • Figure: Amun
    Figure: Amun
  • Internal security forces.
    Scene from Law and Order
    Internal security forces.
  • Offering bearers and subjects.
    Scene from Dear Pharaoh
    Offering bearers and subjects.
  • Aristocratic Couple
    Scene from Topsy-Turvy
    Aristocratic Couple
  • Mummy with canopic jars.
    Scene from Into the Forever
    Mummy with canopic jars.
  • Figure: Scribe
    Figure: Scribe
  • Book Cover
    Book Cover

Premieres March 29 at Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany.

Book by Kehrer Verlag, ISBN 978-3-86828-793-6

From the Introduction

“If one considers the millennia of the history of art, it becomes clear that the division in methods of representation between perspective and aspective occurs at a level whose significance is not equaled by that of any distinction of any other order between works of art.”

Emma Brunner-Traut[1]

On New Year’s Day 2016, I was visiting the temple of Seti I at Abydos in Upper Egypt. For a week, I had toured the usual sites — Giza, Saqqara, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Karnak and Luxor temples — with a good deal of interest, but little in the way of inspiration. At the time, I was as much of a blank slate regarding ancient Egypt as any other visitor, and my reactions to two-dimensional Egyptian art were nothing out of the ordinary: “fascinating,“ “exotic” and “confounding“ would have summed it up.

That day at Abydos, the figures and text seemed as inscrutable to me as in the days before. But when I looked at one particular relief, I was struck by how the image and text elements were distinct, and at the same time related: figures weren’t isolated, but interacted with other figures; symbols were associated with these figures; both symbols and figures appeared in text elements as hieroglyphs; text elements interacted with figures and symbols; lines separated not images from text, but scenes.

At that moment, I began to see Egyptian art in a new light. I had taken in this relief not as a collection of elements, but as a comprehensive whole. In it, I recognized an information-rich narrative system that employs images, symbols, text, even functional equivalents of, which are capable of:

  • detailing the roles, functions and hierarchies of typological figures
  • describing interactions and relationships between these figures
  • placing each figure into a broader social and cultural context
  • examining causes and effects of these interactions and relationships in relation to abstract concepts

The notion of connectedness relates not only to the interaction of classes of signs (images, symbols and text), but also to the fluid boundaries between them: a pictorial-symbolic-textual system so integrated that text was rooted in images and the pictorial elements could be read as text. The resulting ImageSymbolText fused the immediacy of images, the condensed meaning resident in symbols, and the precision and nuance of text into a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

I believe that to discover something means to have looked for it, even if “only” subconsciously. This case was no exception: I had been searching for a more complete way to create works about historical, social and political themes and concepts. Specifically, for a form of visual expression which does not separate images and text as sharply as the Greco-Roman model, in which images and text can, at best, be complementary, but not synergistic.

The Egyptian narrative system is evidently geared toward broad themes which we would now describe as historical, social, political and philosophical: patterns of interactions of types and groups, placed in categories and hierarchies, with concepts functioning as organizing principles. It also became clear that the Egyptian narrative system had been devised and adapted with exploration of such themes in mind:

  • Its symbols function as containers for abstract concepts
  • The integration of symbols with pictorial and textual elements allows for conceptual expression, even absent a narrative
  • In pictorial elements, typological categorization takes precedence over the representation of individuality
  • Text elements are used freely, for elaboration, specification and identification

Using this system would enable a great leap in expression. But could it be done? My attention turned to what would surely be the pictorial center of gravity: the figures — yes, the same figures that are famous for their tenuous relationship with human anatomy. A contortionist might be able to twist into a position with head in profile, shoulders frontal and hips again in profile. But even a contortionist can’t shift an eye from the front of the head to the temple.

How to photograph the un-photographable?

The first step is to understand the implications of the Egyptian way of representing two-dimensional figures. Egyptian figures were designed with fundamentally different priorities and purposes in mind from the perspective figures we know. These differences amount to a different way of looking at the world.

Figures in perspective (our “normal”) approximate the way things appear in three dimensions, from a single point of view, in a frozen moment. This combination of single point of view and frozen moment can have a powerful visceral impact on the viewer: to see what the artist sees, maybe even to have a sense of being there. However, perspective depiction comes at a price: it omits information about anything that can’t be seen from that single perspective in that single moment. By definition, it doesn’t accommodate other perspectives — both literally (things that can’t be seen from that one perspective) and figuratively (what led up to that moment, what might happen next and what larger forces are at play).

Two-dimensional Egyptian figures aren’t naturalistic representations from a single perspective, but aspective. They present a composite view of the most characteristic aspect of each component part of a figure — in two dimensions. Rather than approximating what the eye sees, aspective representation emphasizes the way the mind takes in information. This approach lacks some of the visceral impact of a snapshot. But by integrating multiple perspectives in the literal sense, it can accommodate more information — and thereby gains the ability to present multiple perspectives in the figurative sense. As a result, an aspective image can present information and thematic context beyond a frozen moment from a single point of view — about chronology, causality, relationships and hierarchies.

In painting and sculpture, aspective representation has been an option since the days of ancient Egypt; Cubism, for example, leans toward aspective representation. But photographic technology is naturalistic by design; after all, it was developed to replicate the perspective view. A camera lens is a mechanical cornea, and the film or a sensor a chemical or digital retina. The technical differences between the perspective and aspective views are hardwired in photography: a photographic exposure is a frozen moment from a single point of view. Little wonder, then, that photorealistic media and aspective depiction were thought to be incompatible, even mutually exclusive.

“Thought to be,” because this view rested on a hidden assumption: that a photorealistic figure is necessarily the product of a single exposure. When I recognized this assumption, the floodgates opened.

The camera sees as the human eye does — and the eyes of Egyptian artists perceived just as ours do. The difference lies in how they conceived of what they saw. If I photographed individual aspects as an Egyptian artist perceived them, and then composed these views as he conceived of them (in other words, according to the formal language of Egyptian art), it should be possible to create aspective figures in a photorealistic medium.[2]

After six weeks of experimentation (and much trial and error) Agnes Artych, one of the four principals of our Mercury Theatre, became the first-ever aspective figure in a photorealistic medium. For simplicity’s sake, we named it Aspective Realism.

Going back to that day in Abydos: My goal had not been to recreate Egyptian art, as a formal exercise, or to create a work with an Egyptian theme. Rather, I set out to revive the Egyptian pictorial-symbolic-textual system in contemporary media — to gain access to the capabilities of this system, which vastly enriches expression about historical, political and philosophical themes (see the following essay, Egyptian Art as Visual Literature). Though this system was very much of Egypt, it is applicable beyond, even irrespective of, the Egyptian context. Its concepts and methods of conveying information, describing meaning and exploring concepts hold universal promise for artistic expression.

Yesterday -Tomorrow applies the Egyptian pictorial-symbolic-textual system to the human condition, across time and cultures, to issues that were defining in ancient Egypt and have remained so today. As inscribed on the tomb of Tutankhamen: “I have seen the yesterday; I know the tomorrow.”

 

[1] Schäfer, Principles of Egyptian Art (2002), p. 423.

[2] Aspective Realism calls for a distinction that is usually unnecessary in photography, where the figure is typically the result of one exposure, and the term “image” applies both to the figure and the exposure. But in aspective representation, this could lead to confusion, since the image (a figure) is a composite of multiple images (exposures). Thus, we use the terms more narrowly: “exposure” for the component parts and “figure” for the composed total.