Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
LeoTolstoy, Anna Karenina[i]
Ontology is the study of being. It is the study of what it means to exist, and how being is experienced, or known. It is the study of how objects relate to other objects. A museum is a place where objects and ontologies meet. Objects are classified, organized, measured, graded, stored and sometimes displayed. The museological being no different from any other system of taxonomy however, means that collected or displayed objects cannot be experienced, classified, organized, measured or displayed only in relation themselves. Logic and linguistics dictate that they must be ordered and assessed in relation to other objects. A Ming vase will be displayed and described as either an exemplar of or an exception to some degree or kind of Ming vase-ness. A painting in a retrospective or survey will be presented as being a part of some larger serial thing of which it is an important, though always relative part. One’s usual experience in a museum is an experience of marching past object after object, seeing each in relation to what it is near. Each object becomes part of a larger narrative, and connections between and among objects are not just assumed, but are in fact insisted upon in gallery labels and brochures. We often comment on how well we think an exhibition or gallery has been installed.
In other words, the formal qualities of the presentation of objects is an integral part of how we are directed to think about what those objects actually are, what they mean. We look to the frame to tell us what the meaning or significance of the content is. The problem with this is that an individual object’s essential being, its ontology, is impossible to experience when it can not have the physical and discursive space to be itself. Presented in a museum, and object looses its autonomy. It loses its freedom to simply be what it is. It must mean something – but its meaning is presented in relative terms. Its inherent meaning, its inherent presence, lies buried under accretions of history, theory and discourse.
Wheat grows now along the roadsides and railways of Tuscany as a weed. There was a time when it built empires. Its image adorned temples. As bread, it still becomes the flesh of a god. It is made of human bone
The artist tells us that there is no such thing as an ordinary, everyday object. Tolstoy tells us that it is in sameness that we find blithe contentment while it is in the unique, the different and the special, that we will find pain and darkness.
In an unlit store window, we wait while we let our eyes adjust. Eventually we can see forms floating up out of a velvety darkness, forms that in daylight would be dripping with jewels. Velvet necks, napes elegantly defined against sister forms and the ambient glow of frosted panes backlit from some interior, fictive, retail savannah. Velvet trees from which we would see earrings hang. Soft, purring columns that bracelets would girdle. But they are all empty, the jewels now in the vault, taken in each day at closing. The window is a stage. The drama that unfolds here can only be inferred.
Left with an empty stage, we project the dramas of engagement, marriage and desire onto forms that, empty, at night, betray another more quiet beauty. Time in front of the window reveals that there are worlds within worlds here, with scales shifting and sliding back and forth and forms that resist their references. An abyss, the window first moans its gothic beauty before whispering to us that the jewels we can’t see are hidden somewhere in our longing.
In Dublin, in Merrion Square, a house built in early Georgian style, stone, like the others in the row it inhabits. Number 29 Fitzwilliam Street. The house of a wine merchant, his wife and four children. Aspirations of a place in society, the house is a beginning. Wallpaper from England in the rooms of the first and second floors, but too expensive for the third floor where the childrens’ rooms are. Paintings from Ireland's best imitators of Canneletto in the sitting room. Porcelains from Asia, not Wexford. Wexford, after all, is but a day's ride from here.
A young woman - just a girl, really - cleans the house. A cook comes in during the days. A nanny lives on the third floor with the children. The nanny will leave for a new post when the youngest boy departs for boarding school. A young man manages the horses, the gardens, and fetches for the cook. Like the others, he too comes only during the day or when there is entertaining at night. The boy and the cleaning girl work, then leave for the southwest part of the city where they sleep with their families in a meager but happy squalor.
The housekeeper oversees it all. She alone has the keys to the cabinets of silver, the wine store, the pantry. They are large iron keys, and she wears them on her belt. They announce both her movement through the house, and her status. She will give her life to her employers, forgoing marriage, as is the custom. She will be ‘in service’ for her entire life, caring for another’s family and forsaking one of her own. She may die childless and without a mate, but she will have escaped the poverty that was her only other option. She will be lonely, but never hungry.
Her loyalty and competence is rewarded with her own room in the basement next to the kitchen. Her bed is covered with a quilt, made during the long nights she sits by the fire. On the bed, a dress, handed down by the mistress of the house, awaiting alterations to fit it to her much smaller frame. A desk, a lamp, some books. On the mantelpiece, her only companion, a cricket in a bamboo cage.
The cricket a captive of the housekeeper, the housekeeper a captive of the house. We are all in service.
The Irish wine merchant is in service to the English, a captive in his own land, slavishly aping the English whose colonial genius was to instill in their conquered a desperate longing to become English too. This house, a hopeless affectation, is a cage - protecting a family not just from the elements, but from knowing whom they truly are. The house, the cricket cage, are both like the rib cage - preserving the life imprisoned within.
But the merchant, the housekeeper and the cricket are all dead now. A hundred years later, Joyce ends The Dubliners with ‘The Dead’ and these words:
It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.[ii]
Yet here in a museum, a cage still breathes.
Some time around 300 BCE, Euclid wrote a text called Optica, the first instance of a geometrical description and system of illustration for linear perspective that would come to form the basis of how three dimensional space could be visualized on the two dimensional space of a painted or drawn image. This text passes to us first through its Arabic translation[iii], and then is reconstructed from Greek sources beginning in the high middle ages. About 250 years after Euclid, Vitruvius’ work Ten Books on Architecture [iv] draws on Euclid, and will eventually become enormously important for Renaissance artists and architects, influencing even Alberti[v] who’s description of perspective will come to be an essential manual for the painters of the 15th century. Remarkably, Vitruvius describes perspective in 25 BCE much as we understand it today.
In turn, Ptolemy applies the concepts of both Euclid and Vitruvius to the making of maps , in his Geographica (c.140 AD), and these ideas are then merged with Euclid (and others) in Alhazen’s Arabic compendium on optics[vi] which appears some time between 965 and 1039 AD. Further developments on perspective are then found in Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus in 1260, Pecham’s perspective Communis in 1270 and Blasius’ Quaestiones perspectivae in 1390. Taken together, then, the history of linear perspective is one of long and repeated iterations of relatively simple concepts.
Which is precisely what makes for an annoying problem for art historians.
The problem is that given the fact that the geometry, mathematics, and technique for rendering linear perspective were known since the time of Euclid, why is it that perspective doesn’t appear in western art until Filippo Brunelleschi (1404 – 1472) employs it for the first time in the 15th century? The art historical problem is a profound one because it demonstrates that artistic development is not simply (or even mainly) a question of evolving technical knowledge. It is a question that vexed even the great Panofsky[vii] - the technique of perspective is available and understood for centuries before it is employed. Why?
Panofsky notwithstanding, the answer is simple: because the reception of a work of art is not a function of optics. It is a function of the intellect. Perspective is not perceived by the eye – it forms in the mind. The history of perspective is not a story of a perceptualexperience in search of technique since the technique had been available for more than 1,600 years.
As any student of Dürer can attest, the ability to render three dimensional space depends on one’s relation to the space being painted or drawn. It is only when the eye of the seeing subject (which is either painting or viewing the pictorial space) is imagined to be located outside of that pictorial space that it is possible to execute Euclid’s simple formulae. As long as artists continued to imagine themselves as existing within the physical world they were trying to render, perspective would elude them, as it does most schoolchildren still. It is in the 15th century that we begin to imagine ourselves as individual, autonomous seeing subjects, external to the world within which we experience and see. The artist and therefore the viewer no longer experience the two dimensional image as if they were present within the frame. It is the opposite – we are now author-gods, looking into a pictorial world as autonomous, liberated beings, regarding our creations from another world, a cosmos beyond the painted figures of creation.
It is a renaissance, and Plato collapses under Aristotle. Dogma shudders with each scratch of a Humanist’s pen. Florence, a republic without nobility, becomes the center of culture as Rome and Milan sag under the mass of Ducal and Papal privlege. The figures of Brunelleschi are not objects. They are subjects, as will be the figures within every painting that will follow. But perspective in western art did not cause a revolution in the way we see – it is the evidence of a revolution in the way we think.
Like Brunelleschi, MENS SUITSis not the cause of a breathtaking optical experience – it the visual expression of a breathtaking recalibration of the mind.
We peer into the fictive world of a used clothing store from above, as the gods that we now are. It is a perfect world, unto itself, first defining and then obeying its own logic. It lures us with this perfection, its totality overwhelming enough that at first sight it is able to claim an impressive authority. And the more time one spends in its presence, the more oblique, even menacing the source of this authority begins to feel. Like a symphony, it fills an enormous space not with its physicality, but with the mass of a million details. The placement of a shirt, the angle of a hanger, the textural conversations within a Baroque court of jackets, ties, carpets.
I imagine the artist might take pride in these details, might hope that our awareness of these formal conversations could soothe his anxieties that this world makes sense. That it holds. Do we see the geometry of circles, and lines? Do we see the echoes of a clothing rack in the shape of the buttons? Do we see each of the three parts of the installation as sculptural blocks? Do we see the through line of the place of the block in the mimesis of Michelangelo and the minimalism of Judd? We do. We see all of these things. But none of these details alone explains the whole, or even suggests it. These details are each just quarter notes in the symphony, interesting as musicology perhaps, but not at the expense of the chord, the phrase, the movement.
And though this world adheres to its own physical scale, it does not do so perfectly. Where the scale of a detail is wrong, it is not obviously wrong. In fact, it is not likely to be noticed. But neither is the error in scale unintentional. It unnerves, as it is meant to.
Like any Brunelleschi, MENS SUITS is technically brilliant. But it is also like Brunelleschi in that the technical virtuosity is simply evidence of something else we can’t quite grasp. The pathos of a shabby clothing store is a subject that does not warrant such perfection, so we try to reject on an intellectual basis what we feel in our gut. It can’t be just a display of technical skill. But why is such technical wealth spent on such a pathetic subject? And so, very still, we hover above, as if high above the altar of the Duomo, slowly floating in circles, in awe of its completeness. It is a perfection within a narrative that we cannot know, but somehow are the final subjects of.
[i] Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Anthony Thorbly, trans. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1987.
[ii] Joyce, James. “The Dead”, in The Dubliners. Andrew Thacker, ed. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
[iii] Kheirandish, Elaheh ed. Kitab Uqlidis Fi Ikhtilaf Al-Manazir. New York : Springer, 1999.
[iv] Vitruvius Pollio. Ten Books on Architecture. Morris Hickey Morgan, trans. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1914.
[v]Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435-36] edited and translated by Rocco Sinisgalli. New York : Cambridge University Press, 2011.