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David Bate

Baroque Space

Joe Coleman



André Bazin argues in 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image' that 'In achieving the aims of baroque art, photography has freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness.'1 Photography and the cinema, he says, have satisfied our 'appetite for illusion'. The invention of myriad computer imagery shows this to be otherwise. The appetite for illusion shows no bounds, just as the psychoanalytic proposition of Jacques Lacan the 'metonymy of desire' reminds us that desire itself is never satisfied.

In this context, new computer-based practices of representation are, without knowing it, precipitating a mutation in representational space. Is there an uncanny 'return of the repressed' that moves us out of twentieth-century photographic realism and into a Baroque space?

The attitude of Baroque art, according to Erwin Panofsky, can be defined as 'based on an objective conflict between antagonistic forces, which, however, merge into a subjective feeling of freedom and even pleasure...'2 The paradigmatic example of this for Panofsky is a sculpture, the Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1644-47) by Bernini. (The proper title is Mystical Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila.) This famous altar piece in Rome dedicated to Saint Theresa depicts the moment in her story when an angel of the Lord has pierced her heart with a golden flaming arrow. She is shown swooning, filled with pain and sexual ecstasy. Religious and ecstatic, her facial expression is intended to show this emotional intensity, while streams of light in the form of golden rays suggest the movement of her rising to heaven. The sculpture itself floats in space between the ground and the heavens. The drapes around her body also suggest movement with their crisp representation of dishevelled and whirling forms. The three - dimensional statue combines picture, relief and plastic grouping. Thus for Panofsky:
'Baroque art came to abolish the borderline between the "three arts," and even art and nature, and also brought forth the modern landscape in the full sense of the word, meaning a visualization of unlimited space captured in, and represented by, a section of it, so that human figures became debased to a mere "staffage" and finally could be dispensed with altogether.'3

With the speed of new technologies, the distance between things is collapsed. Simultaneously different spaces are collapsed into the same time. This is also the condition of Baroque representation.
For Michel Foucault 'the Baroque' period is 4 'the privileged age of trompe-l'oeil painting, of the cosmic illusion, of the play that duplicates itself by representing another play, of the quid pro quo, of dreams and visions; it is the age of the deceiving senses. 5 Celestial frescos, anamorphic distortions, the illusion of doors, windows and other images where they do not exist, all move the spatial representation of the world away from one of resemblance. For Foucault, this is the 'essential rupture of knowledge in the Western world, what has become important is no longer resemblances but identities and differences'. If somewhere like Versailles is 'baroque', it is its grand plan, its 'grotesque', 'excessive ornamentation', the 'decorative' components that spiral off into an infinity of minute differences. Decoration is not extra or unnecessary in the baroque, but constitutive of differing identities, of infinite difference. Where representation had been based in resemblance and similitude in the sixteenth century, the seventeenth century world was represented in signs without guaranteed meaning. While comparison and similitude had revealed the ordering of the world, baroque rhetoric made representation (of the world) a question of analysis; the rule of likeness, resemblance, the ‘chimera of similitude’ was represented as chimera. It is no coincidence that the Baroque was also the age of allegory where a sign is always already a collection of other signs. Laid bare, the illusion of space where there is none, (i.e. the trompe-l'oeil,) may be read allegorically as a critique of the structure of social space and social relations within them. Whether viewed as ugly or beautiful, the common sense of baroque as 'excessive decoration', of an exaggerated, unnecessary artfulness, only shows our distance from an understanding of the Baroque rhetoric of visual splendour.

A common-sense view of baroque is associated with decadence and a grotesque, as things that grew out of an 'ennui', the result of a boredom with the existing spatial and representational conventions. In courtly life of the period where speech was the equivalent of thinking, a bored response signified a refusal or rejection of the speaker's thought. Pleasure in rhetoric is the measure of intelligence and boredom is the signified of a lack of eloquence. A boring speech was one composed of boring thoughts, or rather for the listener no libidinal investment or stimulus in the speaker's words. 'Plato is boring because he is not eloquent.'6

As Umberto Eco has noted, this shift 'from the essence to the appearance of architectural and pictorial products' is symptomatic 'of a new scientific awareness', a mirroring of the Copernican vision of the Universe.7Copernicus 'de-centred' the universe. No longer a fixed theo-centric order or geo-centric cosmos, the world emerges as an object of the human subject; no longer the object of an all seeing God. That world appeared in a state of flux, loosened from its tethering to a governing theological doctrine, now an enigmatic mystery to be solved through impression and sensation. A trend of spatial illusions, theatrical imagination and intense feelings, where an image is a representation of the thing it represents through a different relation of meaning, a kind of 'psychological realism' rather than through mimetic likeness or literal resemblance marks the period.

The term Baroque initially begins as an insult, as a criticism, a term of abuse and derision to describe the bold, 'over-ornate' or 'whimsical' style. The use of the word boredom similarly describes a negative state, of being bored by something. But boredom is a question of what one does with space. In the nothing to do, or 'nothing to see', it is not that there is nothing to see, rather that the subject cannot see it or the point of it. Vision is colonized, inhibited, by boredom. The bored person is the one for whom seeing is blasé, the sense of sight is supposedly, as it is commonly said 'dulled through over-stimulation'8 As Otto Fenichel argues in his essay 'On the Psychology of Boredom', what such situations really describe is the damming up of a libido. Repressed, the libidinal energy turns around on the subject and disperses through it as a kind of paralysis of any aim. Boredom in fact is the manifestation or symptom of that aim. This boredom petrifies the subject into non-action. This can be seen as the ‘passive’ aim in boredom. The 'active' aim in boredom is exemplified in the idea of the 'Sunday neurotic': the person who cannot abide the idea of a vacation, they are bored by them. When there is no duty to fulfil the libidinal energy comes rushing out, only to be inhibited and dammed up as 'I’m bored'. At work such a person strives to disperse their desire for intense excitement in the demands of work duties. Once these duties are removed, the anxiety of how to disperse the libidinal energy emerges again in boredom. The activity of work thus offers an escape from the pain of boredom. For example, it would be interesting to consider the psychology of computer image designers, whose work is often characterized as ‘obsessive’ and examine it in relation to the types of image spaces that are generally produced using those machines. The infinite space of the virtual computer image is constantly filled in with familiar places. Medieval castles, modern 'down town' street scenes, etc. typify the sort of spaces offered by computer games. Rarely is the construction of space innovative in breaching the rules of photographic perspectival pictorial space.
The sort of busy 'clutter' associated with Baroque architecture, sculpture, painting and rhetoric is not merely ornamental, but a constitutive component of the style. If this style is 'irritating' to someone it is because it invokes anxiety and boredom. There is too much 'emotion' in it, too many signifying components, it is 'over-stated'. Baroque work itself seems to characterize the active aim of boredom. The 'eclectic' sticking together of 'disconnected styles', ceilings filled with imaginary spaces, portraits that are crowded allegorical personifications, everything is doubly filled with meanings and details. It is as though the whole age of Baroque recognised the illusion of the Renaissance representational space. Perspective, where a horizon is the vanishing-point of the lines that meet in the infinite distance, hides the anxiety that there is nothing beyond the perspectival horizon. The anxiety of cosmic space is 'filled in' in Renaissance representation by the horizons of Quattrocento perspective. The infinity of distance is filled in with the vanishing point 9. Revealed in the Baroque as a chimera, this perspectival logic is obsessively covered over and simultaneously revealed at the same time. The anxiety of the nothing beyond is actually represented, embodied in the signifying forms of the Baroque. This is the symptom of the Baroque age.

The painting by Velasquez of the maids of honour called Las Meninas (1656) holds for Michel Foucault the representation 'of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us.' 10Much earlier Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533) had combined two points of view, literally 'perspectives', (one anamorphic) into the same picture plane. The two perspectives which cannot be both seen simultaneously because they demand different viewing positions. The anamorphic shape reveals the flip side of the accumulation of worldly goods in successful mercantile capitalism: the skull of death. The two ambassadors are merely agents within this social order, unable to convince Henry VIII not to divorce Catherine of Aragon and establish a separate Church of England. Beneath the surface appearance of riches a crisis looms (the broken string on the lute) and Henry VIII's famous sexual appetite precipitates a political and religious crisis. The spatial 'distortion' of the anamorphic skull or flying pancake (I am reminded, distractedly, of Lacan’s 'hommlette' joke, the 'little man' infant spattered in its helpless state) as it appears from the 'normal' point of view. This image interferes and cuts across the normal perspectival logic of the picture, undermining the pictorial logic of its own illusion. Jacques Lacan:

'And I believe that the Baroque return to the play of forms, to all manner of devices, including anamorphosis, is an effort to restore the true meaning of artistic inquiry; artists use the discovery of the property of lines to make something emerge that is precisely there where one has lost one's bearings or, strictly speaking, nowhere.'11

He continues:
'At issue, in an analogical or anamorphic form, is the effort to point once again to the fact that what we seek in the illusion is something in which the illusion as such in some way transcends itself, destroys itself, by demonstrating that it is only there as a signifier.'12

It is such anamorphic 'distortions' and illusions that the computer enables to be produced relatively easily, such that these images can become absorbed into the dominant signifying practices of our visual culture now. We are perhaps again in a period of chimerical representation, of eclectic styles, an obsessive covering over of the holes in existence, which both reveals and denies them. As Baroque art 'upped the stakes' in the demand for the ever new with a spiral of invention - new combinations of contradictions - so its use of the devices and ornaments inevitably multiplied. On the one hand, Baroque invention appears as a kind of 'Sunday neurosis', the crowding of signifiers, a constant work of signification, to avoid the anxiety and boredom of 'nothing to see'. On the other hand, these eclectic signifiers fill a space which offers no comfort for the subject of a passive boredom. A bored subject is one who craves stimulation. But boredom is not a property of the object, it is a problem of the subject. Thus, whatever the signifier, the signified is always 'boring'. Stimulation is repressed, such that it manifests as a bored response, a constant deferral of dealing with the passing of time.

Our modern culture of the 'visual', the society of the spectacle based in a logic of the photographic image, is potentially thrown into a baroque 'deception' when the indexical-iconic field of resemblance is constantly disturbed by the new capacities for illusion. But this is not a revolution, either in the political sense or as in the turning of a wheel. No completion of an imaginary circle 'back to the Baroque' - where the modern period is supposed to have started. (It is more likely to be a spiral.) If the computer can enable a movement towards uncertainty in pictorial representation or an openness of the work, there are certainly no guarantees that this will be advanced in the name of any specific social, political, or cultural interest. What service would such a cultural condition render? We may find ourselves in the space of a baroque dream, but whether it is in the service of any particular product, art work or new communicative situations, still makes a difference.
The old questions of who, what, where and why still pertain.

© David Bate 1997

1. Andre Bazin, The Ontology of the Photographic Image, reprinted in Classic esseys on Photography, ed A Tachtenberg (New Haven: Leet’s Island, 1980) p.240 2.& 3.Erwin Panofsky, What is Baroque?, Three Essays on Style, MIT,1997,p.38.
4. & 5 Michel Poucault, The Order of Things, London:Tavistock,1985
6. Jacqueline Lichenstein, The Eloquence of Colour, University of Calafornia Press 1993,p.29.
7.Umberto Eco, the Poetics of the Open Work, Twentieth Century Studies, No 12, December 1974, p.17
8. Otto Fenchel, The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, vol 1, eds. H. Fenichel & D Rapaport, (London: Routledge&Kegen Paul,1954),P.32
9. The 70s Amarican road movie Vanishing Point ends when the turbocharged car is accelerated into the road block of bulldozer tractors. The infinity of space which the road movie has to negotiate cannot be exhausted, it is the human who must, tragiucally, face this infinity with finite existance.
10.M. Foucault, The Order of Things, London: Tavistock 1985 p.16
11&12 J. Lacan, The Ethics of Psycoanalysis, Routledge 1992 .P.136
© David Bate 1997 elogo

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