Disappear Here: On perspective and other kinds of space
2 May - 7 October, 2018
Review by Henry Broome
“Disappear Here is not a history of perspective”, immediately declares the introductory wall text. Instead, RIBA’s exhibition offers a selection of curiously, sometimes bewilderingly, diverse, subversive readings of the system of spatial representation.
Borrowing extensively from RIBA Collections and the Drawing Matter archive, Disappear Here brings together a variety of drawings and architectural treatises, accompanied by a three-channel video and installation by the Sam Jacob Studio, and graphic design by the Fraser Muggeridge studio.
The display spans several-hundred-years and a broad range of architects, styles, subject matter, and a number of systems of spatial representation not limited to perspective; it’s drawn together by a general, though intentional, sense of incoherence; but, attempts to establish perspective’s origins and fundaments potentially offer visitors some useful footing.
A catalogue with a mirror-like cover and a small eye-sized cut out in the centre forms an oblique reference to an experiment by the early Renaissance architect, engineer and artist Filippo Brunelleschi, who is credited with devising the first accurate system of single point perspective. Around 1420, Brunelleschi made a now lost panel painting of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence. He pierced a hole through the panel; faced it towards the building; then placed a mirror in front; and looked through the hole so he could see the painting’s reflection. By moving the mirror away then back again, Brunelleschi could compare how well the painting resembled the real Baptistery, and thereby test the system’s precision.
Elsewhere, among the disorienting maze of MC Esher-like pillars and arches painted blue on the gallery walls by the Fraser Muggeridge studio, an open window offers a tribute to Leon Battista Alberti, the architect and scholar who formally codified perspective in the seminal treatise ‘De Pictura’ (1435): “First of all, […] I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen.” Positioned between rows of drawings, the Albertian-window shows the tension, which exists with every perspective, between material surface and representational space, but like the Brunelleschi reference, fails to meaningfully ground perspective’s history or show the system’s mechanics.
There’s a lot of pleasure to be had though from the way Disappear Here flips conventions on their head. Perspective is typically thought of as a geometric system; it produces the illusion of 3D objects on a 2D surface through the convergence of diagonal lines towards one or more vanishing points; you see this very clearly looking closely at the sketch of a section of entablature (1700), where an unknown English architect has used a tight-knit grid to precisely regulate the diagonal lines.
But John Smythson’s Design for a house with a castellated wing (1600 - 1610), employs perspective, so it would seem, not to create a mathematically coherent illusion of space, but to subjugate various architectural forms to a diverse range of spatial geometry. The building’s been stretched in all directions: the drawing combines perspective and simple elevation; it has multiple vanishing points; and the diagonals rarely align. The porch and castellated wing look like separate structures seen from completely different angles. As the catalogue tells visitors, English architects were not widely exposed to books on perspective at the time, so perhaps you might say Smythson’s odd construction betrays a lack of technical understanding. But the design reveals more of the building’s exterior surface area than single point perspective or the human eye could ever. Maybe Smythson sacrificed pictorial realism to articulate a more rounded view. Despite what conclusions we might draw from Brunelleschi’s seminal experiment, perhaps this drawing demonstrates perspective doesn’t always mirror the real world.
Disappear Here shows perspective isn’t necessarily a system of order, realism and rationalism; it can be surreal and nonsensical. As visitors enter the first room, they’re met with a series of parallel partition walls with incrementally smaller square openings at the base. The spaces between look inviting - like the sun-lit arches in Étienne-Louis Boullée’s 1782 unexecuted design for a grand cathedral in Paris, which hangs in the main gallery. You clamber through the gaps, until you can’t squeeze any further. Weirdly, it feels not that the holes are getting smaller, but that you’re growing, like in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865), when Alice eats a strange piece of cake and begins to open up like a telescope. Curiouser and curiouser!
Among a series perspective and architecture treatises in a side room, there’s a sixteenth century edition of Sebastiano Serlio’s ‘Il Secondo Libra di Perspettiva: Di Architettura’ (1551). It’s open to a perspective of an octagonal prism, a shape which reappears in various forms in Sam Jacob Studio’s installation. In the main gallery, there is a yellow frame formed of two uprights connected by three beams; it abuts a corner in the room lined with mirrors, creating the illusion of a complete octagonal frame. When you step inside the structure, you see yourself three times in the mirror, producing a strange sense of bodily detachment. Elsewhere, there is a hollow, knee-high octagonal prism with a mirror at the base. As you peer slowly over the edge, you suddenly see the reflection of the ceiling, and you feel a sickening weightlessness, as if you were falling down a bottomless pit.
Installed in the final room is Sam Jacobs Studio’s continuous, three-channel video which produces a similar sense of dissociation. Made in collaboration with videogame developer Shedworks and Panasonic, the work, with no beginning or end, features 50 deconstructed architectural forms taken from various treatises. Controlled by an algorithm, single and triple arches, staircases, ramps, trusses and Doric pillars drift ceaselessly through a white expanse, gradually shifting through the colour spectrum. Standing in the doorway, the image projected on the front wall shows objects slowly growing in size, as if gradually floating towards you from a distant vanishing point; on the left side, forms whizz from right to left; and, like a mirror-image, on the right-hand wall, they race in the opposite direction. It’s like stepping into the middle of a busy crossroad. Like the rest of the exhibition, the work’s overwhelming frenetic, hypnotic too, and dispels perspective’s supposed order and fixity.