The representation system that Lissitsky envisioned

02Mar14

Perspective had its critics, two of whom Panofsky refers to toward the end of his essay: Plato, who condemned perspective as it was born because “it distorted the ‘true proportions’ of things, and replaced reality and the nomos [law] with subjective appearance and arbitrariness”; and El Lissitsky, who attacked perspective because it “limited space, made it finite, closed it off.” In order to overcome perspective’s “closed” character, Lissitsky proposed a solution which Panofsky recounts: “The conquest of an ‘imaginary space’ by means of mechanically motivated bodies, which by this very movement, by the rotation or oscillation, produce precise figures (for example, a rotating stick produces an apparent circle, or in another position, an apparent cylinder, and so forth).” Panofsky looked down on Lissitsky’s proposal because, despite its aspirations to go beyond the “Euclidean” prison-house, it led to “Euclidean” space pictures itself. Lissitsky’s vision, on the other hand, implied something more: it presaged in a fascinating way the kind of work students would be turning out as standard practice on computers half a century later. In other words, it appears that the new system of generating descriptions of space, offered today by the computer, was in direct response to Lissitsky’s critique of perspective.

One of the most fascinating capabilities that the computer offers is that, once it has helped us build perspective images on the basis of planar data, such as plans and sections, it then allows us to control them. Pictures are stored and recalled, cut and pasted, squeezed and expanded, and finally, if not restored, erased. In other words, computers instantiate the program Lissitsky envisaged, a new kind of painting beyond the confines of perspective. Lissitsky’ s dream was, in fact, misunderstood by Panofsky who concentrated only on the end- product of a process that Lissitsky was discussing. The artist was referring to a dynamic process that departed from an initial perspective description of an object, what he called the “rotating stick,” to arrive through an intermediate series of steps at a second transformed description, an “apparent circle” or “apparent cylinder.” Thus, the representation system that Lissitsky envisioned was an open system, a dynamic system within which objects could be “parametrized,” to used CAD terminology, a system which computers contain today.

A.Tzonis & Liane Lefaivre

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