This essay was published in the catalogue for the exhibition On the Y-Axis: Considering Vertical Perspective at First Draft gallery.
ON THE Y-AXIS: CONSIDERING VERTICAL PERSPECTIVE
There has been a dramatic shift in awareness. Climate change bears down on us with its message of dire consequences for all life forms and its pressing reminder when landmasses completely submerge in vast oceans, communities are displaced and landscapes disappear from view. There have been radical readjustments of our access to information, revolutions occurring in numerous countries, world-wide protests over the unfair division of wealth and political control, economic market crashes and general civil unrest at the current state of socio-political conditions. By people and by nature, the geo-political divisions as we knew them are altering. Concurrently, so too, is the way in which we physically see the world, as a prevalence of viewing the world from above becomes more common. A vertical perspective, if you will. Google Maps, Google Earth, Global Positioning Systems and surveillance technology all give us a “God’s eye” view of the earth revealing photographic detail, while military air space and territory are divided vertically. Once, we were land bound and oriented ourselves spatially and temporally in relation to the horizon, but now this balance and the traditional mode of seeing and placing ourselves has been disrupted.
In Hito Steyerl’s essay, In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective, Steyerl considers this new paradigm of visuality and the resonating affects this has on the way we now position ourselves within the world both physically and psychologically. She reiterates that the linear horizon was once the reference point that we utilised to understand ourselves within the world, for instance seafarers circumnavigating the globe, and goes on to remind us that, “modern concepts of time and space... are based on a stable line: the horizon line”. She continues that the dominance of another way of seeing the world and dividing space perpendicular to the horizon has placed us in a type of vertical freefall, with multiple channels of verticality: “for many people today, the simulated grounds of aerial imagery provide an illusionary tool of orientation in a condition in which the horizons have, in fact, been shattered.” Considering this further in relation to art production, the adjustment and absence of a horizon has been used to challenge the way we regard what is in the frame and to establish different relations between subjects and objects and the viewer themselves. On the Y-Axis: Considering Vertical Perspective aims to encapsulate the notions put forward in Steyerl’s essay and communicate them to its audience through visual experience.
Sannè Mestrom’s watercolour series, A History of Space is the History of Wars depicts a geometric world in which vertical shapes sharply occupy to create multiple points of focus and thus, splinter any notion of a stable horizon. When looking deeply into these monochromatic constructions, the viewer vigorously seeks to optically settle within this space that only offers a type of lingering suspension. Mestrom explores space “as a battleground... an active, political and contested realm” and she conveys this agitation with a lack of a single horizon. Similarly, Steyerl paraphrases from Eyal Weizman, “[v]ertical sovereignty splits space into stacked horizontal layers, separating not only airspace from ground, but also splitting ground from underground, and airspace into various layers.”
Twana Sivan’s imposing sculptures, Response to a Damaged Life, are a reaction to an actual battleground. They are Sivan’s memories of the architectural ruins in the war torn landscapes in which he grew up. Once recognisable buildings now form disconcerting shapes, yet hauntingly they still contain fragments of familiarity. Positioned as a maze, through which one enters the exhibition, their oppressive force bears down. They are disorienting and offer no single point of view or symmetry that the eye can rest upon. They offer no consistency in form and their thrusting angles evoke an instability; a modification in what was once familiar.
Similarly but much more subtly, Alex Clapham’s Untitled (Space), is the simple readjustment of a gallery wall. Expecting a flat surface, it is only upon closer inspection that we see the wall now bulges to an apex. The wall plays with our vision in a disconcerting way, while challenging us not to take our accepted way of seeing as a concrete given; subtle shifts have occurred.
Creating an anonymous landscape in reverse order, first as a contour line map in Topography and then from this map crafting the sculpture Terrain, Laura McLean makes an artificial micro-landscape. Placed on wheels, the landscape is migratory and suggests its anonymity in location. Steyerl writes, “we may realize that the place we are falling toward is no longer grounded, it is not stable. It promises no community, but a shifting formation.” Looking down upon the undulating land, McLean attempts to view the landscape the way in which the Western and Central Aboriginal people of Australia tend to depict it, from a vertical perspective.
Also toying with this notion is the tongue-in-cheek painting by Fergus Binns, Untitled (Gang Sharing a Sambo). This is a humorously observant and intelligent depiction of a contemporary scenario, borrowing from the traditional Aboriginal point of view. Binns has employed the vantage point that many Aboriginal painters utilise to depict traditional gatherings or ceremonies, to recreate the modern day urban "ceremony" of the Australian picnic, in a clever look at our cultural landscape.
Paintings by Kathleen Petyarre and Walangkura Napanangka are laid flat on plinths only slightly raised from the ground. Both senior Aboriginal artists map their landscape and its sites of significance as their ancestors have traditionally done for tens of thousands of years. Their paintings indicate this vertical perspective has long been the norm in understanding their physical and spiritual home. Interestingly, the Judeo-Christian concept of time as a linear construct (past-present-future) does not apply in Aboriginal culture. It can often be explained as ‘meta-temporal’ with past, present and future “as a complete and present reality” where the Dreamtime exists as “a continuous entity, from which people come, which people renew and which people go back to”. Interestingly, Steyerl makes apparent that our linear and “modern concept of time” will also be unhinged with this significant change in perspective.
Steyerl also suggests the erasing of a linear perspective simultaneously de-constructs how one deciphers object from subject. As we are in a vertical freefall, “people may sense themselves as being things, while things may sense that they are people... Time is out of joint and we no longer know whether we are objects or subjects...” Kit Webster’s digital projection, Quantum Gaga, immerses the audience in a dark room of floating and glowing objects. As if suspended amongst space junk, the viewer is submerged into a zone of things that are never static but move and change colour at varying speeds; all horizons are erased and disorientation occurs between subject and object.
Although the notion of a vertical perspective on the world and the resulting resonance of this on our understanding of our existence and spatio-temporal awareness may not be a new concept, as shown by the two Western Desert Aboriginal painters, its escalating dominance within Western society’s mainstream media certainly is. Just as Ferdinand Magellan would have relied heavily upon the horizon to physically place himself and ultimately circumnavigate the globe, on a day-to-day basis we locate ourselves using the vertical positioning technology to which we so readily have access. This repetition and now familiar way we see ourselves and the world surely has a ripple effect on our physical and psychological understandings. It is this disorienting transition, the tilted view from the x-axis to the y-axis and the resulting ramifications that this exhibition navigates.
Note: Selected by First Draft Gallery as their 2012 Emerging Curator, I curated On the Y-Axis: Considering Vertical Perspective.
The exhibition was a response to the essay "In Freefall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective" written by Hito Steyerl.
Artists exhibited were: Sanne Mestrom, Laura McLean, Fergus Binns, Twana Sivan, Kit Webster, Alex Clapham, Kathleen Petyarre & Walangkura Napanangka.