Essay by D.Sevasti

Regarding the Black Box - by Despina Sevasti

In the exhibition titled Regarding the Black Box, Eleni Panouklia attempts to decode the operating mechanism of visual perception and image recollection.

She constructs a double-shelled space by placing an oversized black cube inside the white cube of the gallery, so that the viewer is called upon to circulate in the hallway formed by these two boundaries, running the perimeter of the former. The black cube that occupies the space of the gallery in turn contains twenty-seven smaller ones, one of which hovers and shifts, projecting from above twenty-one images of the same landscape: views of the mountain that the artist daily gazes upon from her studio. These images of the mountain at different moments in time are successively projected upon a trilateral, translucent surface that has been placed in cross-section in the hollow of an erect wooden duct/stretcher.

This installation is determined by an act of mapping the space of the gallery itself and it is the result of this act. In attempting to transfer the visual experience of a landscape that is most familiar to her to the space inside the shell of the gallery, Panouklia is forced to map this space, leaving traces of graphite along the walls, roof and floor, which connect the axes of the black box to the points of three loudspeakers periodically emitting the sound of a metronome.

The practice of objectifying the natural landscape in modern painting, already evident in the work of Cézanne, inevitably coincided with a consolidation of the character of its urban counterpart. Cézanne himself would create thirteen different renditions of the Mont Saint Victoire in an effort to combine, upon the surface of the canvas, the object’s rationalized structure and the elemental, eternal force by which it impresses itself upon our sense of vision. Cézanne’s quest to grasp the inner geometry of natural forms and their concurrent consolidation into ‘unfathomable and colossal events’(1)began at precisely the time when his visual perception became increasingly subject to the rationalized visual makeup of the city. More to the point, when moving across the urban fabric of a city such as Athens one often witnesses a curious phenomenon: if they raise their eyes along the city’s arterial roads, they see the Mountain, filling the gaps left open by the urban grid. Faded, almost virtual, it attaches itself to the ridgeline of apartment buildings; paradoxical and nostalgic, like a pastoral poster in an old coffee shop.

Engaging in dialogue with the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eleni Panouklia seems to struggle obsessively with the construct of the grid, of geometrical perspective; with ‘the method each culture chooses, by which to project an image of the world […] so that this representation of the world may be consolidated along the lines of an organized horizon’.(2)It is a process that seems to be revisiting the very source of modernism, bringing the artist face to face with the construction of landscape, while at the same time it attempts to delve anew into the primal condition of the object’s consolidation, into the realm of the pre-retrospective.

During the day, the black box appears hermetic; its overwhelming presence fills up the space of the gallery, seemingly leaving no room for the viewer; its geometry is silhouetted against the natural light seeping through, but its identity is in no way illuminated by it. Conversely, the projected image is a bizarre, spectral manifestation of the mountain itself, hardly visible by day, becoming denser as darkness descends and the mass of the black box lurks in the shadows, no longer dominating the surrounding space. According to Bergson, the construction and appropriation of this image, the formulation of associations on the nature of the real, hinders apperception of the radical and uninterrupted process by which the object consolidates; even more so when the object is a natural landscape. What we may preserve, what we record, is nothing more than snapshots in this interminable process of formulation, as the act of perception presupposes the act of outlining, of mapping, of composing a space that is continuous and readily graspable. And yet, in the end, the very geometry of the black box is hopelessly closed and finite. We know by now that a sketch of the mountain is not the product of a closed feedback circuit, in which, according to the behaviourist model, the mind operates as a black box.

The act of revisiting the landscape in vitro inside the space of the gallery constitutes a metaphor for visual experience (a representation), at once an act of transferring the experience across space and a device for deciphering its impasses. Mapmaking is de facto a gesture of power: it allots the world, but also creates imaginary lands, casting the artist as eclectic pirate and bureaucrat in one. It is a controlling activity that inevitably ends by compromising the illusory objectivist perception of the spaces/countries itself creates. The rupture occurs when these two contradictory conditions, the pre-retrospective and the cartographic both surface at the same time. The metronome measures the pace, the modus operandi, of this impossible contemporaneity; the obsessive fascination with the line and the grid in the face of the blow dealt to the retina by the image of the world.

The viewer is at once detached observer and part of the installation: involved in a phenomenological debate, the fruit of minimalist and conceptual concerns of the 70s (when investigations regarding the systems by which both the object and exhibition space are determined implicated his own presence and participation in the process), and observing the afterimage of a landscape with which he too is familiar, through the process by which Panouklia evokes it. The projection of the mountain’s image is accompanied by the sound and trace of the perennial act of constructing that particular representation: a digital image that is transferred onto an obviously handmade device.

Cézanne’s mountain returns as pure projection. It is a spectre, a return to a lost time that cannot be archived, a re-birth that speaks of its coming into being. It is a narrative about going back to the familiar, undeciphered volume of the mountain, that cures our nostalgia for the ‘natural horizon’ as it takes shape again and again on the margins of the urban landscape in whose reality we are engulfed. At the intersection of vision and the visible, the black box becomes fossilized and what vibrates is the image’s recurring spectre, projected inside and beyond its manually delineated frame and its rhythmic recall. Despina Sevasti

(1)Quotes in the Greek text come from the Greek edition of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Cezanne’s Doubt and Eye and the Mind: I Amfivolia tou Sezan – To Mati kai to Pnevma, Nefeli, Athens 1991 (p. 22)

(2)Ibid, p. 19