Exhibition: Interview

Nike Bätzner: Mr. Nekes, you collect objects with such wonderful names as wheel of life, turning wonder or deceptive viewer – how did the filmmaker Nekes develop this passion for old optical devices?

Werner Nekes: During the 70s I was teaching in Hamburg when I was asked to write an essay for the “Hamburger Filmgespräche”. It was the first time that I had made an intense study of the origins of my medium. While considering the developmental possibilities of the cinematic language, it became clear to me that the differences between images had increased steadily in the history of film. And I also noticed that viewers had developed the capacity for more rapid viewing, meaning that they could deal with wider skips between images. During my research for the essay I came across the thaumatrope (the turning wonder), an optical toy that had been invented by the English doctor John Ayrton Paris in 1825. On the front of a small circle of cardboard there is a bird on its perch, and on the back there is a picture of its cage, and when the disk is turned rapidly, the bird is seen perched in its cage. This merging of forms corresponds to the greatest possible transmission of information in film. And so I began to let all these strange optical toys that were also known as “philosophical toys” inspire me, to see the extent to which principles from the pre-film era could be used for the cinema or whether they are even in use already.

N.B.: Were these “philosophical toys” only intended for adults – educationally profitable, certainly, but something for clubs of specialists rather than for children?

W.N.: Adults investigate the world through play as well. These toys take advantage of the sluggishness of perception and lead to the awareness and popularity of visual effects.

N.B.: Did you always focus on the line of development towards film?

W.N.: Yes, that was the case at the time. In those days I made experimental films; I attempted to use the possibilities of montage immanent in the film medium and to grasp film as a medium that can convey content, certainly, but like a poem – in other words, not in a linear narrative form. I wanted to investigate its structural conditions, which also convey content, and to use film as an instrument with which to visualise things that were invisible before.

N.B.: I think it is remarkable that these old-fashioned optical devices can still fascinate us today, although we have long become accustomed to quite different technologies and speeds. What is the reason why these apparatuses are still so exciting?

W.N.: The devices are operated by hand, manipulated mechanically, and this makes them immediately understandable – there is nothing here that is soldered onto platinum so that you lose track of it. Every one of us could construct his own copy of each apparatus.

N.B.: Yes, that is almost certainly a point – the fact that there is no complicated technology between us and the apparatus and its functioning method. On the other hand, we are able to contribute directly to the process of image creation: we see how the images develop and have immediate access to the mechanism of illusion. Although we also see through the illusion, we enjoy the ensnaring of our perception and continue to believe in the magical quality of the images. They lose none of their poetic potential.

Beehive image, England 1840

W.N.: Nonetheless, many of the principles of transformation, animation and montage have been forgotten today. One example of this is the beehive-valentines oder cobweb, whereby a web-like structure is cut into a piece of paper. This perforated sheet is then stuck over the top of a different image. Using a small piece of thread that is pulled upwards, the beehive is lifted to reveal the picture beneath.

N.B.: Some objects consist of different layers: something that is obvious conceals a secret, which is already suggested as a question in the image above. Suddenly, something becomes clear to us. It is reminiscent of the intimate encounter with objects in old cabinets of curiosities where mysteries and strange marvels were kept. Some objects consist of different layers: something that is obvious conceals a secret, which is already suggested as a question in the image above. Suddenly, something becomes clear to us. It is reminiscent of the intimate encounter with objects in old cabinets of curiosities where mysteries and strange marvels were kept.

W.N.: The curiosity cabinets contained all the strange objects that were found in the world, although at that time “curiosité” had a different meaning. The “cabinets de curiosités” were cabinets of curiosity, of the scientists’ thirst for knowledge. Everything that was strange or unfamiliar was subsumed and classified in that kind of “cabinet”. To that extent, certainly, my collection is similar to those cabinets of curiosities, because apparatuses, illustrations and works of media literature are gathered together in it. It was only later – through the foundation of the museums that evolved from those cabinets of curiosities – that all those worlds were separated and libraries, technical museums or art galleries were created.

N.B.: In your collection there are also objects that make use of natural materials. And there are works that reinterpret natural phenomena artificially, like the optical illusions. For example, landscapes are interpreted in an anthropomorphic way, i.e. nature functions as the trigger behind an image that deludes human perception: only gradually do we recognise the contours of a face, say, in the landscape depicted. In this way, we are shown that it is possible to see things in different ways.

W.N.: Human knowledge is oriented on what it can discover and how, and we are fascinated and irritated by the discovery of ambiguities. In the case of the anamorphoses, the distorted drawings, it is certainly a matter of philosophical objects that help us to become aware of the relativity of perception. The concealed image is only revealed to those who know how to look: either by means of a distorted angle of vision or in a mirror.

N.B.: Anamorphoses have been used in very different thematic or ideological contexts. One could cite the famous painting The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein, where a skull is depicted with anamorphotic distortion in the foreground to the painting, reminding us that we are all mortal. This skull can only be discerned from a specific viewing position.

W.N.: The memento mori has a great tradition. The distortion aims to teach us that we should adopt the correct point of view in order to recognise the grim reaper. Anamorphoses emerged with the development of the camera obscura. Here there is a small hole in the wall of a darkened chamber, through which concentrated daylight floods in, projecting an inverted and laterally reversed image of the outside world onto the opposite wall. If you hold a blank canvas blank paper into this light, it is possible to turn it around in different ways including with a diagonal motion crossways, and this creates distorted images – the anamorphoses. Leonardo da Vinci, who investigated and worked with the camera obscura, was one of the first to draw a cloud-like, elongated form that turns out to be a baby’s head.

N.B.: I believe there were two parallel tendencies in the Renaissance: on the one hand, there were efforts to capture the external world more and more realistically on a two-dimensional surface and to create the illusion by means of central perspective that the real world in front of the painting continues in the painting, so that it seems possible to step into it. But on the other hand, people were always aware that it was a matter of illusion, and that is why those other distorted pictures were produced, like the anamorphoses. Perhaps to show that the central perspective is not something “natural”, but a construction, and that our perception is active and multifaceted.

FThe earliest known watercolour depicting a laterna magica, Holland, ca. 1690

W.N.: It has just occurred to me that Leonardo was the one to compare the camera obscura to the biological conditions of the eye. It was at that time that people began to reflect on how we actually see, on the mystery that allows us to perceive the world with these two eyes above our noses. It is certainly surprising that Chérubin d’Orléans was one of the first people, in Antwerp in the 17th century, to ask himself why we have two eyes at all and, most of all, how these two eyes process images of the world into one congruent picture. René Descartes also concerned himself with the problems of sensual perception and in monasteries everywhere the question was raised – what can I identify, as a human being, and what is the true reality? In cultural history, Plato’s allegory of the cave represents the first reflection on that question.

N.B.: Plato’s allegory of the cave expresses doubt as to whether what we perceive is the reality, or whether these things are only shadows of ideas, so to speak, only shadows of the actually existing truth. This tremendous scepticism towards sensory phenomena is followed by the question of possible insights that can be based on them. But in the exhibition “Blickmaschinen”, we wish to get to the bottom of those mechanisms of illusion and so pursue the conditions for perceiving things and fine art’s games with perception.

W.N.: The decisive point is that you can take any arbitrary material as a source of inspiration; whether it’s spewed or splashed. Friedrich Kaulbach adopted this idea in his coffee stain pictures, for example, or Victor Hugo when he folded sprays of ink.

N.B.: Leonardo said that it is possible to make a picture from marks on any wall and that this is a necessary game, to escape from artistic routine.

W.N.: Artworks that employ contingent forms of nature also investigate the socialisation of perception, because we always attempt to find something representative or familiar in them. This is an endless game that has continued throughout the centuries, whereby some of the pictorial information is distorted. The aim is to show that different viewers see different things, as was the case in the two-way and three-way pictures pictures that were developed as early as the 16th century, for example. Their principle is still employed today in advertising boards with prism rotators.

Edition with 12 cylinder and 24 cone-shaped anamorphoses, with mirrors and wooden case, attributed to the physics workshop of Musschenbroek, sign. AvM, Leyden, ca. 1720

N.B.: In the case of lamellar pictures, there are two or three fixed images that become visible according to our angle of vision. picture puzzles , on the other hand, offer various possible simultaneous interpretations of the picture on one image level.

W.N.: Important examples of this were Arcimboldo and Dalí, who both investigated the ambiguity of images with enthusiasm. As a result, not only the dimension of time is used to penetrate the image when viewing, but also the dimension of depth; the image is stored several times within space and it can be recognised in different ways according to the viewer’s individual psychological disposition.

N.B.: The varying disposition of viewers leads us to the question of cultural imprinting. Up until now we have talked about lines of tradition rooted in Europe. But there are also objects from Asia in your collection, such as shadow theatres. What is the general position regarding optical devices – is there a specifically European tradition or have there always been diverse exchanges across the world?

W.N.: On the basis of my sources, I would assume that the catoptrical anamorphoses, for example – which were first revealed by means of reflection in cylindrical, pyramid or cone-shaped mirrors – were not developed in Italy, but came from Asia. The first graphic representation of a cylindrical anamorphotic device in Rome shows fauns gathered around a table, looking into a cylindrical mirror in which an elephant that is painted on its side in a distorted fashion is released from its distortion and becomes recognisable as a standing elephant. As a motif, the elephant probably indicates that the Jesuits brought back the principle of anamorphosis from Asia. We can assume that there was influence in both directions. Originally, shadow theatre probably came from China. As legend has it, it evolved as a kind of surrogate for an emperor who had lost his concubine. A magician is said to have given her back to him as a coloured, transparent figure in a shadow theatre. The historical, coloured shadow theatre then spread via India to Turkey and finally arrived in Greece. Our western European shadow theatre is rather paltry by comparison, since it only uses black silhouettes.

N.B.: Are there definite points of crystallisation with respect to specific phenomena? Are some ideas or forms found more characteristically in some regions rather than in others?

W.N.: My collection is divided according to centuries and regions. Objects and books concerned with the development of central perspective could be found in Italy as from the 15th century. In the 16th century, the German Jesuits in particular were very active in Rome, the most remarkable of them being Athanasius Kircher. The Flemish-Dutch region was very productive in the 17th century, particularly with respect to scientific products like books about anatomy or astronomy. As from the 17th century, French intellectual life slowly became more dynamic. Around 1800, many optical devices were developed in France and England. As from 1830, this trend was supplemented by German physiologists, whose analyses of movement represented decisive preparation for the development of film. The Weber brothers, for instance, were probably the first to use mathematical differential equations to analyse the mechanics of the human walk, a process that is similar to the one that occurs today when algorithms produce images on the computer. The phenakistiscope (deceptive viewer) developed by Belgian inventor Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau and the stroboscope (short time viewer) invented at the same time by the Austrian Simon Stampfer led directly to film, along with series photography by Eadweard Muybridge in the USA and Etienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography in France.

N.B.: After this outline of western culture, the question arises how people thought about optical phenomena in the Islamic cultural sphere and what effect those considerations had on fine art. Are there any differences between Islamic and Christian tradition with respect to optical research?

W.N.: I think the cultures developed independent of each other to some extent. From my point of view, it is interesting that in the Islamic tradition too, calligraphic writings emerge as images–related to the European grotesque during the Baroque, in which a wide spectrum of figures evolved and became visible in the ornamentation. The influence of optical teachings from the Arabian countries should not be underestimated; they gave essential impulses to the thinking of European monks. One need only recall the marvellous way in which Ibn Al-Haitham (Lat. Alhazen, ca. 965–1039) explained the principles of the camera obscura in his key work of “Great Optics”. His texts, even though they only circulated as manuscripts, had a strong influence on Roger Bacon (1214–1294). Vitello, a Polish mathematician in Erfurt, translated Alhazen’s writings into Latin in the mid 13th century. Western European monks took up his ideas and produced the first plano-convex lenses as reading aids. Then book printing enabled an elite but larger group of scientists to learn about those investigations.

Hand shadow cards, producer: Morris’s Cigarettes, London, ca. 1930

N.B.: I would like to return again to the current relevance of your collection. Today, the computer-generated visual media provide many technically advanced possibilities to create images and film. On the other hand, there is – and it is the aim of our exhibition to show this – a large number of artists who deliberately concern themselves with the “old” optical traditions and incorporate various optical devices and phenomena in their works, as Eulália Valldosera employs shadow theatre, Sebastián Díaz Morales the kaleidoscope, or Pipilotti Rist the raree show. In this way, they again clarify the emergence of the image, of vision and the associated process of recognition. My interest in bringing together your collection and works of contemporary art lies in such experimental activity. Do you see any exciting aspects in this encounter between new formulations and traditional techniques?

W.N.: How does the horse encounter the car? We even still use the term horse power. The old media are still alive, transformed into the new media. Some of the visual structures of thought and expression are retained. Transformed, they can become completely new units that create meaning. I believe there is a universal visual understanding that has developed over the centuries and that survives in a modified form, in whatever seems to be new at a specific time, like the theatre did in film or film in computer animation. All the optical rarities of my collection are possibilities that are included in the menu bar of image processing and can be translated into the algorithms of computer language. The link between what is apparently “only” entertaining and the “purely” scientific principles of insight makes quite clear that we are part of a universal, encyclopaedic grammar. There are artists who modify the old techniques so that it leads to new insights, as in the case of William Kentridge with his anamorphotic film projections, Ludwig Wilding with his grid pictures, or Alfons Schilling with his inverse glasses that transform positive into negative spaces. These are continued, exciting developments of old optical solutions and scientific-artistic research.

This conversation was first published in Magazin no. 12 of the Kulturstiftung des Bundes in October 2008; re-publication here with kind permission from the Kulturstiftung des Bundes.


Museum für Gegenwartskunst Siegen
23. November 2008 - 10. Mai 2009
Blickmaschinen / Visual Tactics

Mücsarnok / Kunsthalle, Budapest
19. Juni - 23. August 2009

Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla
17. September 2009 - 10. Januar 2010
Máquinas de mirar

Visual Tactics is generously supported by the Federal Art Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes) and the North Rhein-Westphalian state government.

Supported by the

The Governor of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia

This presentation is an exhibition that is part of the project Visuelle Taktiken / Visual Tactics and is promoted by the EU-Culture Programme.

EU Kultur

A further sponsor is Pro Helvetia:

pro helvetia