VERTIGO : LIFTING THE HORIZON
Aslı Seven is an
independent writer and
curator based between
Istanbul and Paris.
At the origins of geographical maps lies the ambition to create a one-to-one representation of the world. The desire for objective scale and scientificity is inseparable from a narrative about the subjective position and movements of a human figure in space and time, from the idea of a “traveller in the map” as described by Italo Calvino.1 In his exhibition “Vertigo”, Murat Akagündüz brings together global positioning technologies and a mythological mountain. While the series, named after the Kaf Mountain, emphasises a mythological narrative, each painting in the “Kaf” series takes its title from the latitude and longitude coordinates defining the position of the image on Google Earth. Akagündüz offers us views over the peaks of the Alpide Belt, spreading across three continents, and provides us with the coordinates of the Kaf Mountains at the same time. In juxtaposing mathematical exactitude with the perceptually challenging monochromatic use of the colour white, Akagündüz’s intention is to explore minimal conditions of visual representation. The “Kaf” series, in its search for a language using different shades of white, winnows down the minimal conditions of pictorial representation to a bare-bones relationship between light and
shade and approaches the threshold of visual perception. This choice does not arise from the fact that mountain summits are covered with snow and look white on Google Earth. It is detached from mimeticist representation and targets a frontier concerning the conditions of possibility of painting itself, a liminal space between visibility and invisibility.
Two series of drawings, “Trace” and the “Google Earth Mountain Drawings” produced at the same period as the “Kaf” paintings were excluded from the exhibition but reproduced in the accompanying publication, since they elaborate on this approach. In “Trace”, Akagündüz experiments with two methods of drawing: tracing a line on a surface, or making the texture of a surface visible,
by producing a “rubbing” through pressure. This is a pre-figurative gesture that gives visibility to the texture of the paper and also produces a trace. In these drawings, the artist connects with a late-discovered feature of Palaeolithic cave drawings: these forms were created by using the textures and gradients of wall surfaces and completing them. The artist’s gesture does not aim to smooth over this texture, in other words to make the material conditions of the drawing invisibleand thus create an elsewhere”, but to make the material support visible in the drawing.2 In the “Google Earth Mountain drawings” series, studies on patterns are included, making the alphabet of the image visible. Drawings of patterns are presented alongside the drawings in which these same patterns compose recognisable shapes and become mountains. Just like the potential of a word to dissolve into phonemes and disappear into sound, these drawings allow images to appear only at the cost of showing their potential to dissolve into patterns and gestures and disappear. The choice of white in the “Kaf” paintings tries to recapture a similar ‘primitive’ stage that precedes figuration. By maintaining the figures on the verge of invisibility, they shed light on something else: a resistance that comes to counter the dizzying conditions of the intensely big data-backed visual representation of our times.
Google Earth, which seems like a monolithic visual copy of the Earth, is technically a database of satellite and aerial photographs taken in different points in time and stitched together. It is never complete – always in becoming. This collage of perspectives reduces the difference and repetitions in the movement of time and space onto a single plane. At the same time, it is part of a new regime of visuality, where everything and everyone is made equally visible through the invasion of the air by drones and satellites, constantly turning the world into images. By adapting this mobile view from above allowed by digital visualisation technologies, our partners in co-constructing reality in the 21st Century, the “Kaf” series reveals the contemporary conditions of visual representation and points to an ongoing transformation of our perception of time and space.
Google Earth is part of a new regime of visuality that turns the Earth into images and provides a fresh update of Bentham’s Panopticon, yet, as a power device it does not contain the conditions of landscape in itself. What defines landscape is an act of incision, creating distance by cutting out a sector from an endless and indifferent expanse, separating a corner from the Earth. By cutting out sectors from the digital map, and by transferring them onto canvas, Akagündüz first of all captures a sense of distance. In this distance, he creates and articulates layers of representational fold between the Earth and the map, the computer screen and the canvas, the digital image and painting. A representational abyss opens up, with intensifying mirror effects reflecting our position on the Earth and our relationship to space, while examining contemporary conditions of visual representation. What is the connection between a human figure standing in natural surroundings and staring curiously at the sky – for example, at the Moon3 – in 19th century Romantic landscape paintings and a human figure positioned in outer space and observing the Globe through a digital interface in the 21st century?
What kind of subject/object relationships between human figures and their surroundings are implied by the spatial construction of landscape painting and the gaze that it calls for? Are human beings disembodied gazes residing in abstract networks of information and communication, surrounded by images, seeing everything from nowhere? Or are they the objects of such a gaze?
The most primal perception of humankind sees the mountain peaks not as parts of the Earth but rather as belonging to the sky and the air. Mountain peaks do not belong to a corner of Earth that is inhabitable by humans. In both Western and Eastern landscape traditions, we are accustomed to seeing mountains from a distance, rising up from below and into the skies; always in a configuration between the sea level and the line of the horizon, as much as in relation to the respective positions of humankind, nature and the gods. Horror on one side, and admiration on the other. In both these senses, mountains are a privileged site of the sublime, of the sense of infinity that human beings experience through elevation and of their despair when confronted with their own finitude. The mountain, which rises up in front of humans as a physical and psychological border, is at the same time a site of immense possibility once conquered: commanding all its surrounding space, both near and far, it is the site of an omniscient view.
Murat Akagündüz’s “Kaf” paintings work against this understanding of mountains and their stabilising effect on the space surrounding them. Viewers who contemplate these paintings do not see the mountains from below, nor do they observe the environment from its peaks. They are on the cliffs or facing the summits, their feet are off the ground, they float in the air. Mountain ranges become uncanny under this elevated and close-up view proposed by the paintings. Akagündüz observes the mountains through a digital interface that monitors the Earth with a satellite view. The line of the horizon is either invisible or it escapes the eye by merging with the upper corner of the canvas. This escape of the horizon points to the loss of a spatial reference point that allows subjects to perceive themselves in space. “Kaf” paintings leave viewers alone with the anxiety of a loss of balance, by positioning them as an eye floating in the air and looking at the Earth from above. They turn viewers into the falling object of a vertical perspective. By disrupting their ability to locate themselves or the surrounding objects in space, the paintings create a vertigo effect.4 “Kaf” paintings convey a distortion of gravity; the viewer is pulled towards the paintings. This impression of falling is intensified by the size of the canvases, which are slightly taller than the average human height, and this points to a new fluidity, an interchangeability in the relationships between subjects and objects: while falling, “people may sense themselves as being things while things may sense that they are people.”5
This free fall does not merely arise from the impact created by a vertical perspective. The “Kaf”
series places the viewer into what Bachelard calls “aerial imagination”, the realm where “a poetic
form of meditation that replaces the Cartesian method of doubt with a method of erasure” is born.6
The paintings bring the process of emergence of form to the eye and to memory, between
appearance and disappearance, through reverberations in time. At first sight, these appear to be
abstract fragments that are difficult to read in terms of their relationships of scale to the reality
they were cut off from. The even distribution of light on the entire surface and its movements
through various shades of white, by evading the eye, catch and hold the gaze. The stains, which
slip away and alter the moment we think we have caught an image, are contiguous with the void
and create a silent space of tension. As the gaze is “stretched”, just like in Mallarm.’s poem, the
white attention of the canvas combines with the white care of our mind and the lines and stains
on the surface of the paintings start to resemble the layers of the Earth’s crust, slowly, the images
of mountain peaks appear.7 The intangible movement of light between the shades of white never
relinquishes the possibility that this meaning reached by a gaze “stretched” in time, might, at any
moment, slip away and disappear into the void of an endless abyss. The pictorial language that
Akagündüz creates with light, through its oscillation between emergence and disappearance, points
to the materialisation of an unexpected void. In this sense, the “Kaf” paintings are located on a
In the “Kaf” series, Murat Akagündüz approaches the Earth’s topography as a hybrid artefact, a
particular composition of nature, technology and culture, and not as a neutral and indifferent
object. It is possible to trace this approach in the artist’s previous works. His 2012 solo exhibition
“Hell-Heaven” juxtaposes digital videos with landscape oil paintings, creating an interplay
of multi-directional gazes across the exhibition space. The viewer-subject who contemplates the
landscapes in the “Homeland-Anatolia” series (2010–2012) is at the same time the object of the
uncanny gazes of the moving bird eyes looking up from the monitors on the floor. The deconstruction
of subject/object relationships staged in this way coincides with a reversal of the relations between
human and non-human beings. The muddy flow of the river Euphrates projected on a large
screen completes this installation, not as an indifferent, passive background, but as a figure, an
external eye that brings into the exhibition space the larger perspective of flowing historical time
and geography. The landscapes depicted in the “Danak” (2010) and “Turabdin” (2010–11) paintings
represent on one hand nature as an artefact, on the other, the reintegration of cultural monuments
covered by growing soil and plants back into topography. The paintings define a situation in which
the natural and the social are undivided. In this sense, this is a reevaluation of topography as
an artefact, a cultural product, and it carries the clues to the symbiosis between humankind and
Akagündüz’s interest in topographic formations and the symbiosis between humankind and geological sediments is further emphasised in the paintings “Island-Continent I” and “Island-Continent II” (2011). These two paintings border on abstraction, coming closest to the “Kaf” series in terms of pictorial language. The monochromatic resin-on-canvas paintings closely scrutinize a topographical section. They withhold all information concerning the expanse from which the sections were cut off; their outlines dissolve into the white of the canvas near the edges. They are thus decontextualized and turned into abstract forms. Floating in a vacuum, they look like topographical portraits: they relate the traces time has left on the Earth’s crust with the lines and wrinkles of a face. These two paintings herald a transformation in Akagündüz’ contemplation of the Earth and his pictorial language, which maintains its relationship to landscape but gradually moves towards conceptualism. The line of the horizon has abandoned the picture plane and transitioned into the conceptual plane. In turn, landscape no longer describes an abstract spatial distribution between the sky and the Earth; it becomes a line depicting a fluid relationship between layers of human activity and topography.
A relationship between surfaces is also at work in the drawing series “Trace” produced simultaneously with the “Kaf” paintings. Just like in the “Kaf” paintings, these drawings on paper describe a process of emergence rather than the certainty of a form. They appear as a trace spreading through time in the mind, memory and eye of the viewer. What comes to the fore in these drawings is the trace of a touch, of a relationship the artist constructs between his bodily gesture and the materiality of the surfaces. These drawings are the image of the relationship between the front and back of the paper that constitutes their material support, the image of the relationship between the paper’s surface and the support it lies on. They show an embrace between the material conditions of drawing and the artist’s gesture. In this sense, the drawings can be read as a metaphor for the process that has been unfolding in Akagündüz’s paintings for some time now. This is the process I refer to as the retreat of the line of the horizon from the picture plane and its transition into the conceptual plane: what lies behind the vertical gaze of the “Kaf” series is the image of a relationship between surfaces. It is a suggestion regarding the way in which a gaze might be brought into form that brings into contact Google Earth, the topography of the Earth and the surface of the canvas as representational surfaces. What the artist is presenting is more than just the image of a mountain, it is an expression of the material and ideological conditions of visual representation.
This reflexive space opened up by Akagündüz also brings into focus the condition of vertigo on the ontological level: confronted with the finitude of the Earth as a consequence of the effects of its own activities spreading in the atmosphere and penetrating the geological layers, humankind is now forced to redefine its relationship with non-human things and beings. This space reflects all the difficulties humanity is experiencing in positioning itself today. The vertigo effect points to this moment where, having sealed its fate with advanced capitalism, with all its representational levels, the late modernist project has reached multiple material limits, most important of which are global ecological limits; a moment in which we are aware of the dissolution of our paradigms but have no idea as to what will replace them. No longer the centre, nor the unique scale of the universe, humankind faces multiple challenges announced by the crises of the modernist paradigm. This is the space of an ontological transformation brought about by the recognition of humankind as a geological factor, by the late acknowledgment of its activities according to timescales that surpass human life.8 It disrupts a fundamental cornerstone of modernity, the great divide between nature and culture as autonomous realms.9 The objectification of landscape that began with the invention of linear perspective and its centuries-long dominion, now affects the whole Earth, as the idea of unspoiled wilderness becomes obsolete.10 This new position of humankind functions like a M.bius strip: We can’t decide whether it is humankind that, through its newfound status as a threat, encompasses the Earth, or whether it is the Earth to which we owe our existence and our only shelter that encompasses humankind.11 The globe is no longer an indifferent nature or the “other” of human civilization. Faced with its own impact on the Earth’s systems, a sense of the sublime returns, freezing humankind between horror and admiration.
The vertigo effect felt under the loss of visual, physical and psychological reference points, in fact, expresses a crisis of meaning. It imposes that the person suffering from it find a new way of seeing the world, of creating a new perception and knowledge of the world that is not desensitized by habit. In this sense, it ushers in new possibilities. At this very point, instead of drifting along in a state of emergency, in a present constantly escaping from itself towards the future or sweeping the viewer off to an “elsewhere”, Akagündüz’s “Kaf” series invites us to stand still in the face of this “catastrophe of meaning”, to remain exposed to it, to perceive the possibilities it holds and to try to give them form.12
1 Italo Calvino, “The Traveller in the Map”, in Collection of Sand (London: Penguin Classics, 2013), pp.
2 Here, I am referring to the cave drawings in the Chauvet Cave, France, which, through their discovery
in 1994, triggered a revision of theories of visual anthropology that had prevailed up to that point.
3 What comes to mind here is Caspar David Friedrich’s painting "Two Men Contemplating the Moon"
(ca. 1825–1830). When we consider that the famous photograph "Earthrise" (see this book, p. 105) was
taken from the Moon, the distance between these two images seems to describe the ontological and
epistemological movement achieved during the last century from the Earth to the outer space.
4 Vertigo, in common use, denotes the dizziness and loss of balance felt when a subject or the objects
surrounding them appear to be moving in space. The former is defined as ‘subjective’ vertigo, whereas the
latter is described as ‘objective’ vertigo. Vertigo, which causes a spatial disorientation, can be caused by
a temporary external situation like fear of heights or it can be caused by an internal physical condition.
It is a complex psychiatric category. It can be an additional symptom in psychological conditions like
anxiety or depression. Because it can be diagnosed in psychotic conditions along with hallucinations, it
is a borderline condition in clinical psychiatry. Within the limits of this essay, vertigo is approached as
a relational phenomenon, it points both to a spatial disorientation on psychological and physiological
levels, and to an uncertainty regarding subject-object relationships as perceived within space.
5 Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective”, in The Wretched of the
Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), pp. 12–30.
6 Gaston Bachelard, L’Air et les songes: essai sur l’imagination du mouvement (Paris: Jose Corti,
7 St.phane Mallarm., “Salut” [Toast] in Po.sies (Paris: Bookking International, 1993).
8 The term ‘Anthropocene’ suggested by Paul J. Crutzen in 2000 announces that the world has
entered a new geological epoch. The starting date of this new epoch, which geologists currently agree
upon, it still debated. The debate that started out as a geological one, has spread to natural and social
sciences alike and is currently challenging all scientific disciplines to a paradigm shift. The inflation of
alternative terms recently put forward like ‘Capitalocene’, ‘Plantationocene’ or ‘Gynocene’, reveals the loss
of ground as much as the crisis of meaning that this very notion describes.
9 Bruno Latour, Face à Gaia [Facing Gaia] (Paris: La D.couverte, 2005); for a good compilation of
readings on the encounters between the Anthropocene and contemporary art, see Heather Davis, Etienne
Turpin (Eds.), Art in the Anthropocene. Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and
Epistemologies (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015).
10 For the great divide between nature and culture in naturalistic cosmology and the status of
landscape painting within this paradigm as a technology of objectification of nature, see Philippe
Descola, Par-del. nature et culture [Beyond Nature and Culture] (Paris: Gallimard, 2005), especially pp.
11 Bruno Latour, Ibid. p. 159.
12 Jean-Luc Nancy, After Fukushima. The Equivalence of Catastrophes (New York: Fordham University