Seeing Through

Our modern word ‘perspective’ has two roots: prospicere, to look ahead, and perspicere, to see through. For Renaissance theorists these terms were, if not synonymous, then at least fundamentally connected: the forward-directed visual ray, which meets the picture plane at a right angle, also penetrates through it, entering into an imaginary space in which the painting’s “(h)istoria” is located, as the first perspective theorist, Alberti, says in his On Painting. The gaze seems to dominate the space, to take possession of it, and thus to anticipate modern thinking on the subject,*1 but, precisely because of the possibilities inherent in the new perspective techniques, it would soon also be subjected to a variety of artistic attacks that led it to becoming lost in the visual space, as in the skewed planes of anamorphosis and the vertigo of the Baroque infinity, where we find a staging of a “Madness of Vision”.*2

Around this model one can spin countless tales about the power and impotence of seeing. The gradual discovery that paintings are by no means transparent, but first and foremost have a texture and an opaque physical dimension, is one of many possible narratives, and this has been seen as the basis for what was to become modernist painting. Set against this ‘story’ is equally often the later story of the photographic – and subsequently filmic, and finally the virtual – image, in which perspective now seems to be built into the apparatus itself, and the position of the subject is once again affirmed, this time in consonance with a technology that gives it a previously unseen power and universality.

Anna Nordquist Andersson’s I see through you takes a tour around the ‘trope’ of transparency – trope being a word that comes from a Greek verb meaning to turn or to return, which is not unimportant here – in a way that restores its purely physical meaning. To begin with, she seems to approach her pictorial material with the attitude of a surgeon: cutting through, uncovering the subcutaneous level, and revealing an underlying structure. Behind the picture that we see there is another picture, and when the pages have been cut through, we are confronted with a gaze that, at the same time, seems to observe the picture that faces us and to meet our own gaze, so that in this inversion we have become observed observers.

This comparison to surgery has been around since Walter Benjamin, who juxtaposes the relationship between film and surgery with the relationship between painting and magic: the filmmaker penetrates, dismantles things, and shows the constituent parts, while the painter works with a magical distance and enchantment that allow the object to appear in an altered state on the canvas. In this sense the film can be seen as an analogy for the way that psychoanalysis makes visible things that pass unnoticed in what we say; it shows us the “optical unconscious”,*3 in the way that a movement begins, but also in the way that the visual field is a construction in progress, and by no means something that is quite simply a given.

But even if the cuttings through in I see through you open up the pictures to an underlying plane, they do not seem to be very much about revealing anything repressed and symptomatically invisible, as about creating a new visual object, whose two pages only come into contact with each other through the purely physical structure of the shape of the magazine. Anna Nordquist Andersson is hunting for the eye, for a gaze that meets our own, but in a project that adheres to strict rules: it involves uncovering a pair of eyes located somewhere else, so that they gaze at us, a “seeing through” that is not so much our own as that it meets our gaze, throws it back.

The pictures that she re-works, thus, do not become primarily a representation or an entity that hovers somewhere in the imaginary, but a physical surface inserted into a publication that in turn is seen as a physical object. The fact that there is a relationship, either conscious or unconscious, between the uncovered pair of eyes and the picture that they appear in, is what makes this encounter into an unplanned event, and is a chance occurrence produced by the positioning of the picture on the page of the magazine.

Another equally clear rule that defines the project is that all the pictures are taken from Life magazine, between 1960 and 1979. But if the juxtapositions between the cut-out pairs of eyes and the initial picture are accidental and cannot be said to show anything that in a real sense is repressed as the term is used in psychoanalysis or critiques of ideology, then the choice of pictures is, on the contrary, massively overdetermined by history and gives us an insight into one of the formative phases of modern visual culture. What we see are almost generic images from a time that has come to define what we spontaneously understand as photojournalism. The historical period that provides the backdrop here is a dramatic ones, and signals a new phase, not just in the self-image of the United States, but in the global media system as a whole (and perhaps it is first here that we can speak of such a system), to which the visual arts, in turn, also reacted, ranging from pop art’s incorporation of mass-culture iconography to conceptual art’s understanding of art as information, and its attack, equally paradoxical and systematic, on the exclusive definition of visual art as image. The generalisation of the image produced an equally intense suspicion of it; every image was pregnant with its own counter-image.

Explosive youth culture, the Vietnam movement, the women’s movement, the civil-rights movement, the contraceptive pill, the New Left in its diverse variants, they all promulgated an escalating critique of the paternalistic state that was inherited from the first phase of the Cold War, and this led to the formation of various countercultures, which would come to define the political scene right up to the end of the 1970s. If this was a period when photojournalism was developing rapidly (so that, already by the mid-1960s, it could be appropriated as an aesthetic form by artists such as Dan Graham and Robert Smithson),*4 then this stems above all from the way that it became the locus for a narrative about our contemporary world that meant bringing to light previously hidden aspects of U.S. post-war, expansive, self-confident modernity. Seeing through things became to a great extent seeing through the official image, so as to uncover other pictures, other narratives.
The image material from Life thus takes on an epic dimension, in which “life” is to be understood in the broadest possible sense, as a grand narrative about time. In a way, what we see is Walker Evans’ famous set of photos from the U.S.A. during the Depression refashioned in a new phase of history: a society that, in all its success and power, has begun to mistrust itself, and no longer directs its gaze at an external enemy, but at its own failings.

The new Hollywood film also played an important role in this – the theme of conspiracy, perhaps even a certain paranoia, is typical of the time: the surveilling gaze that everywhere has to be identified and rejected can, ultimately, be duplicated and directed at the critique itself, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s debut film The Conversation (1974), in which, in the final scene, the surveillance expert Gene Hackman ransacks his entire apartment to find the hidden surveillance camera, but without discovering it – with the ultimate implication that it is the film itself that is surveilling him, or on the role figure’s subjective level: that the entire visual field has become a single gaze that threatens him, a Gaze from nowhere that is no longer human, but which belongs to the system’s elusive order.*5

If I see through you alludes to all these historical references, then the working process also sets their foundations rocking. It is a seeing through, a perspicere, that is turned against itself: a seeing through of the picture surface, both in our, that is, the viewer’s, perspective, and in that of the uncovered pair of eyes. But it is also about seeing through in the sense of “with the aid of”, that is, of borrowing a readymade image, so as to see according to, via, it. In this sense there is a relationship here with the “re-photographic” strategies of an artist such as Sherrie Levine, whose appropriation of Walker Evans’ already existing photographs gives them a minimal, but substantial shift, in that what we see is her gaze that is now seeing, or rather reproducing, what he once saw (and in this context it is not irrelevant that, in principle, all the photographs that Anna Nordqvist employs have been taken by male photographers). I see through you accomplishes something similar, even if the recycled  photographers here are not “artists” in the modernist sense, but artisans in the new media industry. This both iconic and anonymous element also comes out in the way that her originals are reproduced with a feeling of having a historical patina, in which the wear and tear of the physical material is allowed to appear, as if to show that they have been thumbed, handled, and been part of the everyday circulation of journalistic products. They are iconic images of our recent history, but in being so are also worn-out artefacts, objects of nostalgia and fantasy, and hence material for all conceivable seeings through.


1) For a discussion of the new position of the subject in perspective geometry, see Hubert Damisch, L’origine de la perspective (Paris: Flammarion, revised ed. 1993).

2)This is the theme of a study by Christine Buci-Glucksmann, La Folie du voir: De l'esthétique baroque (Paris: Galilée, 1986). The classic study of anamorphosis is Jurgis Baltrusaiti’s, Anamorphoses ou perspectives curieuses (1955), expanded edition Anamorphoses ou Thaumaturgus Opticus – Les perspectives dépravées (Paris: Flammarion, 1984).

3) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, translated by Harry Zohn, in Illuminations (London: Pimlico Press, 1999), page 227; the term was first introduced in Walter Benjamin, "A Small History of Photography" (1911) in One Way Street, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, (London: New Left Books, 1979) pages 240-257. Rosalind Krauss productively links the term with surrealism in The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993; also see Sara Danius, Proust-Benjamin: Om fotografin (Stockholm: Axl Books, 2011).

4) See Jeff Wall, “Tecken på likgiltighet: Aspekter av fotografi i, eller som, konceptuell konst”, trans. Sven-Olov Wallenstein, in Wallenstein (ed.): Konceptkonst (Stockholm: Raster, Kairos vol. 11, 2006).  In English: Jeff Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art.” in Janus, E. (ed.): Veronica’s Revenge: Contemporary Perspectives on Photography (Zurich, Berlin, New York:  Scalo, 1998).

5) Thomas Y. Levin reads this inversion as an extension of Guy Debord’s theory of society of the spectacle, and as a desire for the reality of the image as index; see “Retorik för temporala index: om övervakningens berättelse och  filmens ‘realtid’”, trans. Astrid Trotzig, in Peter Hagdahl and Anne Joki-Jakobsson (ed.): Konst och Nya Media (Stockholm: Kungl. Konsthögskolan, 2005). In English: Thomas Y. Levin, “Rhetoric of the Temporal Index: Surveillant Narration and the Cinema of ‘Real Time’,” in Thomas Y. Levin, Peter Weibel, and Ursula Frohne (ed.) CTRL-[SPACE] (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002). We could also approach this paranoid gaze in Lacan’s model of “the gaze as objet a”, which was developed in his seminar of 1964. For Lacan the gaze (le regard) comes primarily from and belongs to the visible as such, which means that it threatens the subject, which in turn uses the image as a “screen” (écran) to protect itself, which is the function of art as “gaze tamer” (dompe-regard). He develops this with reference to Baltrusaiti’s analysis of Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, in which the anamorphous pictorial structure plays a central role. See Lacan, Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse (Paris: Seuil, 1973). The paranoid dimension in Lacan’s theory is foregrounded in Norman Bryson, “The Gaze in the Expanded Field,” in Hal Foster (ed.): Vision and Visuality (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988).

Sven-Olov Wallenstein