PRINT September 1986

It leads—but “leads” is too narrow a way . . .

OWING TO AN ACCIDENTAL AND temporary impediment to my vision, I could see with only one eye when I visited the Biennale, and in the section titled “Spazio . . . verso l'undicesima dimensione” (Space . . . toward the 11th dimension) I was afraid that, with my lost sense of depth, I would miss a lot. Instead, this section of the show seemed made for me. Why? Because, despite its promise of a multidimensional display, its true subject was the sense of perspective rooted in the Renaissance—a three-dimensional space, in other words, oriented by a single vanishing point and uninformed by the element of time.

Both the informing mathematics and the proportions of the section's various reconstructions of the architecture of different periods were initially reassuring to me. I felt as if I were in the serene position of a Ptolemaic observer—motionless, at the center of an immobile world, in a geocentric universe. Not everything was so static: the show moved on to an analysis of the evolutions of perspectival representation realized at times didactically, at times too spectacularly, and at times obscurely or incongruously The work of three architects and artists provided the perspectival models that served as historical points of reference: Filippo Brunelleschi (one-point perspective), Francesco Borromini (multiple perspective; one can count fifteen possible points of view in his trompe 1'061 colonnade in Rome's Palazzo Spada, reconstructed here at a scale of 1:1), and Giorgio de Chirico (the overturned perspective of the metaphysical space). These disparate ways of seeing might seem contradictory, but each man in fact trusted to a traditional sense of vision. From small to large, from mathematical rule to artifact, it was easy to resolve the puzzle if one knew the rules of the game.

If the two conceptual poles of this section of the show—the certainty of the old vision and the insecurity of today's—orbit around a center, that center is Copernican thought. Before Copernicus, space focuses on a single center; after, it is multi-centric. In the Venice show, however, everything stays in its place. There is no sense of breakthrough, no trauma, no space conceived outside the parameters of representability. Especially in the 20th-century section, I had expected pitfalls for my impaired sight, but, believe it or not, the whole thorny issue of the Cubist decomposition of space was covered by a single Picasso painting, and the introduction of chance to the consideration of space was represented with two works by Marcel Duchamp (and not even particularly relevant ones at that). Suddenly I was struck by doubt: where was Paul Cézanne? Had I been distracted, perhaps, or had his work disappeared through some fault of my impaired vision? No, he really isn't there—an astonishing lapse, making for a colossal void in “Spazio.” For Cézanne's absence means that the show gives short shrift to the space beyond the third dimension, in other words to the factor of time, which entered painting precisely with Cézanne. Spanning the gap between world and canvas, Cézanne inserted the flow of life into the modern esthetic experience.

It was at this point that I understood why everything here seemed too “normal” to me. After all, the title of the section promised eleven dimensions, but the curator, Giulio Macchi, hadn't even counted up to four! Basing his work on the odd assumption that “our intelligence would allow us to theorize but not to represent that four-dimensional space in which life runs its course,” Macchi seemed never to have heard of, say, the Happenings of the early '60s, or even of Dada, not to mention body art and performance. That mention would have expanded his concept of space, and of the space of art, to include contemporary approaches that have broken the boundaries of two- and three-dimensionality and are confined only by life itself. The presence of the artist as subject, more than that of the artist as scientist (Cézanne), was necessary in order to break down the old unilateral approach.

The idea of exhibiting the visio mundi of different epochs must have been a tempting one for Macchi, but if he at least partly succeeded in it for past centuries, he did not for our own. The 20th-century world view or visio mundi is inadequately represented by, among others, Charles Ross' projections of stellar space, Wen-Ying Tsai's too facile “cybernetic” fountain, and Thomas Shannon's static, magnetically suspended compass sculpture. Is it possible today to hypothesize a reality whether scientific, artistic, or other, cut off from a relationship with the flow of the historical present? Had Macchi truly attended to the contemporary consciousness of space, whether in physics or art—to the concept of space as continuous, in motion, a site of distances collapsed (Benoit Mandelbrot's fractal geometry), not always perceptible—he could have avoided a reductive error. He could have referred, at least symbolically, to space as a mobile system of relations, radiating in an infinity of directions, interacting with time, both external and internal, made up of multiple awarenesses both conscious and not. Had he brought all this together, only one eye would not have been enough to see the show—nor, perhaps, even two.

Ida Panicelli contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.