February 26: The panorama is the format for modern vision, the way we see, sideways, through the window of the train, or straight ahead through the windscreen of the car. But it has a long pedigree, manifested in the ancient art of the mural and later, in the aerial vision of ceiling painting.
Closing today at SFMoMA, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, California, is their show New Work: Sohei Nishino. On the other side of the Atlantic is a show Bewitch, Bewilder by Margriet Smulders opening today from 3-5pm at Zero Galerie, Van Oldenbarneveltstraat 120, Rotterdam in The Netherlands, which will continue until March 26.
Relevant to an understanding of the panorama is Bernard Plossu, born in Vietnam on this date in 1945, a French, photographic, equivalent of America’s Jack Kerouac, who represents the romance and spiritualism of the road.
He began photography very early, traveling with his father in 1958 to the Sahara with a Kodak Brownie Flash. In 1965 went to Mexico as part of a British expedition to photograph the jungle of Chiapas followed by trips to California and Nevada, then further travel including India in 1970, a first trip to Niger (1975), the Aeolian Islands (1987), and Portugal (1987-1999). Now 72, his essay of 2012 is also on Mexico. He uses a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera body almost exclusively, for simplicity and consistency of vision;
One day, I made the decision to only use the standard 50mm lens—closest to the vision of the human eye. No more wide angle or telephoto. Since then, I have stood strongly by it. Now, once in a while, I’ll enjoy playing with plastic toy cameras for their fast shooting. But the 50mm is all I really need.
To say that Plossu’s vision is panoramic despite being shot with a normal field of view and not with a wide angle lens may be explained with reference to this very early ode to train travel written in Paul de Kock in 1842, during the early expansion of the French railway network and just after the birth of photography;
Voyager en chemin de fer ne fatigue pas ; c’est un plaisir, un agrément… on se sent rouler avec une douceur inconcevable, ou plutôt on ne se sent pas rouler. On voit fuir devant soi les arbres, les maisons, les villages… tout cela passe ! passe… bien plus vite que dans une lanterne magique… et tout cela est véritable, vous n’êtes point le jouet de l’optique !… Le chemin de fer est la véritable lanterne magique de la nature
From my limited French, here is my rough translation of this passage; traveling by train does not tire the traveller; it is an agreeable pleasure…you are conveyed with an inconceivable gentleness, in fact you cannot feel yourself move. You see flying by in front of you trees, houses, villages…all passing by! passing as quickly as if in a magic lantern…and all of it is real, not the mere figment of an optical toy!..The railway is a veritable magic lantern of nature. [I wonder if the reference to the old fashioned projector, the ‘magic lantern’, is to the speed at which the image flicks across the screen as each slide is changed?]
Daguerre, the eventual inventor of the French version of photography, began his career in 1821 with the diorama; a spectacle which itself emphasised the horizontal, and by various tricks presented a vision of near and far, of endless travel, as it was housed in a special cylindrical room which itself rotated from scene to scene.
Take just a few examples of Plossu’s work; significantly, he began shooting in a sooty black and white, but for colour he employs the antique carbon Fresson process because “It makes my pictures somehow peaceful and not at all tape-à-l’œil. There is nothing glossy here, nothing spectacular, just the opposite, which is what I am looking for;” so his images are dreamy, just like the comfortable lassitude that some (not I) enjoy in travel, and there is his consistent horizontal, advancing vision, whether ‘letterbox’ or full frame format, often made more fleeting with the use of a slow shutter speed.
Bernard Plossu’s passionate love for photography is manifested in a collection of 1200 prints by colleagues and friends whom he met in his travels, which he donated in its entirety to the European House of Photography in February 2016. A current exhibition presents a selection of 160 of these prints, which include work by Australian Max Pam, curated by Pascal Hoël and Frédérique Dolivet, at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, 5/7 Rue de Fourcy, Paris.
I first saw works by Sohei Nishino at Out Of Focus: Photography, Saatchi Gallery, London in 2012. They were astounding; huge, assemblages of hundreds, no, thousands, of 35mm contact printed frames;
This work required a great deal of my passion and energy and entailed a great deal of financial, physical, and spiritual hardship. After completing it I realised that it grew out of my experiences during a Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage that I went on alone as my high school graduation trip. The pilgrimage for me meant simply walking the route – I had no particular underlying motivation or goal for doing it. I think the spiritual core of my work came from this experience, and I continuously take pictures to emphasise the spirit of going ever forward.
Japanese born Sohei Nishino began his series of Diorama Maps as a university student at Osaka University of Arts. After researching his chosen city, Nishino spends up to two months walking and photographing the urban environment on film, capturing thousands of images of streets, alleys, corners, and vistas from every angle, usually starting from a high viewpoint to get an overview. He began with Tokyo in 2003 and rephotographed it, or should one say, remapped it, in 2013/14 (below).
He makes contact sheets, cuts out the individual frames, and affixes them by hand onto board, in the process creating a large-scale, collaged map that represents an individual and unique topography. He calls them ‘diorama maps’ in reference to the fact that since much of the imagery is shot at ground level (trains for example are often represented side-on), the effect is to place the viewer in the city as much as above it, with near and far being presented simultaneously. Once the collages are complete, Nishino digitally photographs and presents them in high resolution, large-scale prints.
Process is most important for Nishino, hence his use of film, and of walking. He regards his work as an homage to the great 18th-century Japanese cartographer, Ino Tadataka, who spent 17 years surveying and mapping the coastline of Japan, a gigantic undertaking completed by his surveying team after his death. However these are not reliable, surveyed maps; this is the work of a flaneur who builds the map of his wanderings in his head, a web of knowledge that starts, like the spider’s, concentrated at a centre, and that then works outwards, weaving an idea of the city from fragments.
They are cities in which to lose oneself.
The process is the same for each city, but it is the details that tell of a development toward a more personal, human-centred approach;
Over time, I grew more comfortable getting close to people, mixing in portraits and snapshots and street photographs into the more architectural shots. Now, I feel a strong desire to implicate myself with the life on the ground and understand all the different parts that make up cities.
That is evident in detail from his Havanna and Johannesburg, shot over the last few years, in which the individual frames are individual portraits or images of people in action. In the case of Havanna we see men and women repairing the worn infrastructure and buildings of the island.
In Johannesburg, against new public buildings, he sets strata of forest and shanty towns, and below includes street portraits of the striking number of pedestrians that one encounters in the city, and the activity of barber shops, kindergartens, schools, parks and businesses.
In Nishino’s recent I-Land project, the map is even bigger and in colour, an imaginary Japanese city that is a mix of Thomas More’s Utopia and the set of a science fiction film, using old and new photographs.
Margriet Smulders (*Bussum, The Netherlands, 1955) is inspired by Dutch still lifes of the seventeenth century; flowers in bloom, full to the verge of dropping all their petals. Earlier work reveals a visible backdrop of mirrors for this cornucopia and the inclusion of hand-cast, moulded and slumped glass works (which I assume are not made by Smulders herself) with glass beads amongst the blooms and leaves.
The work is certainly sensual and builds on the gastronomic, sexual, olfactory, and tactile symbolism of flora and botanica, while the inclusion of a knife and the mirror hint at still other appetites, including narcissism. Brightly and broadly lit, their passionate moods are represented in hue rather than tone. Mijn Droom of 2001 makes that explicit.
These ingredients continue to be employed in work that Smulders has refined over the last decade and a half. Unlike Nishino for whom film photography is an integral part of his product and who eschews digital imaging for all but the copying and multiplication of his prints, Smulders embraces its possibilities.
Now we are presented with something that could be mistaken for a very wild Helen Frankenthaler painting; a saturated colour field of prismatic hues that plumb shimmering liquid depths, amplifying the more modest scattering of blooms; we cannot help but respond “…she’s like a rainbow…” to the Rolling Stones’ half-mocking lyric in the title of the work. Smulders defies the reactions of those who might accuse her of frivolity and gaudiness by piling on more colour, but emphasising its painterliness through the use of more complex reflective surfaces enhanced with digital manipulation.
Drifts of smoke amongst the garlands and the appearance of insects and amphibians make it clear there are other passions behind the dazzling surface. This work, the title of which translates as ‘When there’s a buzzing in head and heart’ is modulated so that once the eye is accustomed to the overwhelming fireworks of colour, still points are found. The surface ripples around a single bursting bubble, white light penetrates and illuminates petals at the lower left division of thirds, and a chasm of muddy darkness opens up in response, amidst grey swirls as of the smoke from the muzzle of a gun as surrounding blooms recoil.
All smoke and mirrors this is, but the enveloping illusion, the all-over design of Abstract Expressionism or of the Baroque, evoke an array of emotional and spiritual states.
Singing Rose once again invokes Narcissus, harking back to the use of the names of ancient gods in her works from ten of more years ago, but here more sophisticated lighting makes the reference more poignant.
The title of this show, Bewitch, Bewilder summons up feminine mysteries which are the real power behind this work. Dutch flower paintings were a display of wealth. They represented impossible combinations of flowers that bloomed at quite different times of the year and therefore could only be the possession of those rich enough to afford greenhouses or to pay the price of imports, or to own such a painting. The painters themselves got around this issue by creating a library of a full range of flowers that could be copied into and combined in new works. But while Smulders clearly refers to such excess, her intentions attach to that other meaning of the seventeenth century paintings; the memento mori, reminders of mortality; and also to the true identity of flowers as sex organs of plants providing nectar, the food of the gods, to the insects, and the lotus eaters.
In her work the feminine sacred is matched with the equally female glories of the profane, themes which in various forms adorn the ceilings of Baroque European palaces and (less overtly) of its churches.
Ins Blaue hinein träumen is a trilogy of ceilings called Quelle (‘Source’), Strömung (‘Flow’) and Mündung (‘Mouth’) planned by Smulders for the Emsgalerie in Rheine, Germany; her biggest productions to date. It is a new shopping centre, the 21st century palace or place of worship, but it will conceal the river Ems, represented in these works, from view.
In ascribing influences on her work Smulders invokes Cindy Sherman, Bettina Rheims and Pipilotti Rist. Where does this commission place Smulders’ art in relation to that of Judith Jans Leyster (1609 – 1660), Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693), and Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)?
The dimensions of the panorama are deep as well as broad, in terms of its application and implications.