Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An Aged Sense of Mystery and Distance

Kirk Varnedoe writes:
I have written elsewhere about the overhead view in modernity and what it means. In László Moholy-Nagy's 1928 photograph from a radio tower in Berlin, this earlier idea of the direct overhead view, which is very specific to the twentieth century, involves a kind of optimism, the shock of the new, nonhuman objectivity. Here was something that evaded the pathos of perspective, where things get smaller as they get farther from you, and laid out the world in front of you as if it were from a God's-eye viewpoint. The idea of the overhead view, of detachment from the earth, of impersonality and objectivity, became the emblem of the shock of fresh defamiliarization that would lead to a detached and superior knowledge of the world. Instead of the muddled near-view perspective, where things were blocked off from one another, from overhead one saw the schematic truth of the world exactly as it was.

Today, in an age when artists have been shaped by the first photographs from space of the earth as a lonely blue marble in the middle of a great black expanse, there is less of a shock in the loss of the human viewpoint. Objectivity at a distance and overhead becomes not about the new man but about things primordial, that is, lost civilizations like those who made the Nazca lines in Peru. It becomes not so much about schematic truth in its freshness as about an aged sense of mystery and distance. Whether it is the Nazca lines or the snake mounds of Ohio or Smithson's Spiral Jetty re-emerging from the Great Salt Lake, the overhead view of things unintelligible from the earth speaks to enigma and mystery.
From pages 159-160 in Varnedoe, Kirk. Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

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