The images in Ana Maria Nicholson's recent show, "Into the Night", seemed like ghosts frozen in time and seen through a window. The life-sized holograms of a woman appeared spectral, glowing sunset red, emerald green, abyssal blue. The effect was rare, unmatched in any other medium. A photograph could not render the woman's face from every angle; a sculpture could not depict each of her long, black hairs suspended in space in such extraordinary detail.
Nicholson is the director of the Centre for the Holographic Arts, the only group in New York dedicated exclusively to exploring holograms as fine art. Although the centre lost its own space earlier this year, the organisation continues to bring holographic art to the city; it partnered with the Flux Factory, a non-profit arts group, to present Nicholson's exhibition, which closed last week.
To make a holographic image, Nicholson scans her subject with a laser, like a photographer with a flash. A normal photograph can blur if the subject fidgets; in holography even the blood surging beneath a person's skin is enough to distort the final image. To prevent blurring, the laser must fire pulses billionths of a second long.
In Nicholson's work "Rebirth", the model emerges from a sun-bright veil or birth caul; in "Illuminata" she moves from a cage of red beams of light; in "Cocoon" (pictured) she is double-exposed, "looking almost like she is beginning to give birth to herself", says Nicholson, who likens the series to a spiritual journey. "Holograms are like images from dreams, from the astral plane, that come into our world, share our space."
Other artists at the centre explore different themes. Martina Mrongovius creates holograms of urban landscapes. Because holograms force viewers to move around, in order to get the full effect, "They're interesting ways to experience spaces," Mrongovius says, "like adventures where you have to be curious, follow little clues to piece together a narrative."
For her latest project Mrongovius worked with Nick Normal, a fellow artist, in collecting pictures of New York from strangers, which they wove them into a paper diorama of the city. In November she will unveil a three-dimensional holographic work of this model. "I want to make a map of people's experience, a memory that becomes a hologram," she explains.
The limitations of holography are severe. The film used to capture and store holograms is very expensive, and a holographer typically has just a few chances to capture what is required. Also no aspect of a hologram can be changed after it is developed. Still, "they look like nothing else out there," Nicholson says.
~ CHARLES CHOI
Every historical period in our Western civilization has developed a series of techniques and conventions to represent and organize space pictorially. According to Edward Panovsky these conventions both represent and influence the underlying concepts and values of each era. The emergence of holography in the last twenty years as a potential art medium, with its ambiguous three-dimensional space, corresponds perhaps to the expanding paradigm of our age.
When looking at a hologram for the first time, the untutored viewer has a sense of wonder and yet familiarity with the three-dimensional world that lies beyond the holographic plate. The disembodied images seen in all their true dimensionality and spatial relationships share something of the quality of mental images and dreams. What we see are objects that have shed their dense materiality and what remains are their shells of light existing in a real-unreal holographic space beyond the plate. These objects, shimmering in their ghostly space, seem of a high order of reality, and yet we know that if we were to reach behind the plate to grasp them, we would clasp emptiness.
Beyond this magic window a parallel world exits, de-materialized, weightless and subject to its own optical laws. The space that circumscribes this world is experienced both as real and at the same time as unreal, an illusion that superimposes itself on the real, three-dimensional space of the room we are in. The volume of the holographic space has the three dimensions of breath, depth and height and full parallax. It can be measured and filled with images of real objects, whole scenes can be re-constructed in it, it can be the setting for portraits of incredible fidelity and detail.
A hologram, in fact, can be seen as a window looking into a scene where any change in our position, as we move our heads, produces a change of view of the objects and a change in the relationships between them, which is in fact what happens if they were truly”out there”. And yet, the accurate reproduction of reality in three dimensions is only one aspect of the potential of holography. Holographic space, with its mysterious presence, its ambiguities, and its real-unreal depth, offers the possibility of going through the picture plane into a virgin territory to be colonized and populated by the creative minds of visual artists.
Holographic space is the first major breakthrough in the experience and expansion of pictorial space since the penetration of the picture plane by Renaissance artists following Brunelleschi’s discovery of linear perspective in 1425. Linear perceptive was the peculiar and necessary answer of the Renaissance period to the problem of representing space in a changing world. Panovsky, as Professor Edgerton points our in his book on perspective, showed that in antiquity space was not understood by artists as something that transcends and unites objects, and that by the Romanesque era, space and object had become compressed into patterns hard to distinguish from each other in their uniform flatness.
In the Renaissance, perspective and its implications of ordering space within the painting into a harmony and proportion that corresponded to Natural Law, while at the same time reproducing as accurately as possible what man’s eye sees from a central position, was an ideal answer which corresponded perfectly to the artistic and philosophical climate of the time.
Brunelleschi’s technological feat of the discovery of the optical laws of perspective passed unnoticed until Alberti’s enthusiastic spreading of the work and creation of a system of perspective rules particularly designed for painters some ten years later. From that point on, the mastery of this difficult new science became a necessity for any serious artist and indeed continued to be so until the end of the 19th century.
Perspective became the visual equivalent to the new movements in art that were changing man’s conception of himself and his relationship to his world. Linear perspective encouraged man to perceive and analyze accurately his external environment from his unique single point of view. He could look to the heavens with his telescope and begin to examine the microcosm with his new instrumentations that in themselves suggest the principle of the vanishing point. Implicit in the process of perspective is the choice by the artist of a discrete and exclusive point of view and the placing of information within a gridwork of organization that dominated the reality perceived, and thus creating a synthetic reality that became accepted as an accurate picture. We can trace logic and linear and sequential thinking that has so dominated our Western culture to these beginnings.
Until the Cubists, easel painting had been a window opening inward into a scene. Through the use of perspective, chiaroscuro and other illusionistic techniques the painter, in effect, denied the two-dimensional character of the canvas and created the fiction of the picture presenting a world within a world. The Old Masters then, as Clement Greenberg has pointed out, treated pictorial space as theater. The painting was representational not because it presented recognizable objects in nature, but because it attempted to reproduce things in a spatial relationship to each other such as they might have in the three-dimensional world.
Cubism brought into the painting the illusion of multiple viewpoints and rescued the integrity of the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. Space became shallow, and painting now took place on the flat surface of the canvas. It was the final elimination of the illusion of the picture as window. The painting became an object in a world of objects and the picture plane now was the arena and theater of operations. The revolution of the cubists and succeeding avant-garde movements resides in the destruction of Renaissance pictorial space. After five centuries the window of Western art was closed and shuttered. And yet, almost unnoticed by the art establishment, in the last two decades a new magical window with real three-dimensional space behind it has appeared as a potential answer to the problem of how to artistically experience and express space in our contemporary times.
With the discovery of holography by Professor Dennis Gabor in 1948 and the subsequent development of laser and side-referenced holography by Leith and Upatniek in 1963, a revolutionary new spatial medium came into being. Holography offers an entirely new organization of space. Each point in the holographic plate is a separate, complete viewpoint of the object or scene being re-created. These many different points of view coalesce into an experience of the whole. A hologram, then, is basically a conglomeration of millions of different viewpoints, recorded all at the same time on a holographic film and coming together to form the three-dimensional picture or scene that the viewer experiences.
If a fragment of a hologram is broken off, therefore, it will contain the whole message from a particular angle of view. Each
This totally accurate re-creation of reality is, however, only one aspect of the new medium. Holography is the closest thing we have to a window into inner space. It can make illusions real and carve imagined volumes with laser light. It makes possible for the artist the creation of there-dimensional realities that transcend the limitations of the sculptural manipulations of physical matter. It can become a truly sculpting of pure light.
We are at this point in the development of the art of holography at a similar moment in time when Alberti sought to popularize and make accessible to artists the practice of the complicated new way of perceiving the world from the viewpoint of linear perspective.
Our present culture, with its Einsteinian time-space perception of reality is no longer properly served by the stringencies of the single point of view confirmed by the monocular camera lens that influences so totally our media. Holography, with its multiple points of view, all different but all equally valid, demands of the viewer a creative act of integration. The beholder perceives relationships no longer fixed as in a two-dimensional plane, but changing according to his participation. At its best, the medium of holography discourages rigid, linear perception and encourages a gestalt organization of object and space.
With holography it is no longer possible to think of one correct point of view, with all others invalid. As its name indicates, it presents the whole message thereby enriching our perception and encouraging a more holistic philosophy.