Perspective as colonial tool (Part One)

How we see seems so natural that most of us find no need to wonder or question it.  Representation of the real and even hyper-real requires replication of the way we see – otherwise it is fake, backward, or even a lie.  Linear perspective has been dominant since Brunelleschi discovered the rules for creating a convincing, perfect illusion of space on a flat or two-dimensional surface.  Perhaps more importantly was how Brunelleschi’s innovation supported the Humanist focus on the individual (the illusion of space was created from a single, fixed viewpoint) that persists in European-dominant cultures today.  Gone were the multiple viewpoints that used to appear in pre-Renaissance times (and continued in non-Renaissance cultures).  Man was not supposed to be in all places at once – that is the domain of God and God alone.

Mechanics of creating perspectiveMany scholars have examined how this perspectival dominance has narrowed our understanding of representation.  Erwin Panofsky notes how perspective is mathematical space, removing any differences between front and back, right and left, between bodies and ‘empty’ space, reducing it all to a calculable relationships between the parts in order to form the whole.  Such rationality removed the more nuanced and broader approach of ‘psychophysiological space’, meaning reality is a simple formula.  Scolari argues that perspective distorts truth, hiding behind the subjectivity of the author while proclaiming itself to be objective.  Foreshortening is one of its many illusions, one of its many lies.

Peter Eisenman challenges the dominance of ‘the mechanics of vision’ in architecture.  Brunelleschi’s perspective, “with its ability to define and reproduce the perception of depth on a two-dimensional surface” found architecture “a waiting and wanting vehicle.”  In architecture both the eye and the body are lured by the rational ordering that perspective offers, giving us an understandable translation of three-dimensions into two via axes, places, symmetries, and the grid.  While art played with disrupting the mechanics of vision (take Cubism’s flattening and upturning of objects, removing the viewer’s ability to construct a meaningful space), Eisenman finds no similar disruption in architecture.  There has been no shift in the relationship between subject and object, even axonometric or isometric projection only managed to slide the relationship to one side rather than totally displace it.

Reading Roger Neich suggests that Maori architecture may well have achieved the displacing of the relationship between subject and object.  In Carved Histories he points to aspective – as opposed to perspective – as being able to depict things ‘objectively and ideally as they really are’.  Could this be the truth in architecture that Eisenman was searching for?  To Neich aspective representation shows the object with all essential features revealed, ignoring the supposed rationality required to recreate mechanical vision.  The crucial difference between what Eisenman sought and what Neich points to is that Neich’s arguments are related to time rather than primarily space.  He says that “Aspective representation of ancestors in Maori carving continually recreated the timeless, ever-present world of the ancestors.  The Maori carver set out not so much to deny time as rather to create time as a continuous duration.”

The frontality of whakairo pushes this further, as does the separation of figure from ground in any carving that forms part of a whare.  These approaches were purposefully adopted in order to depict things ‘objectively’, as they are at all times.  Foreshortening and shadows are removed, no illusions or disturbing elements introduced.  This allows time in aspective art to have a constancy (as opposed to a single point in time in perspective) that excludes transformation and change.  Neich quotes Brunner-Taut: “Aspective time has no absolute fixed point.  It is differentiated from empirical time as another sort of time, which has the appearance of a perceptual present, and yet can be transposed into any form of temporality.”


From Neich, Carved Histories, Plate 3. Despite being created to be viewed frontally, the camera very rarely affords us this possibility, with even slight angles forcing us to contemplate a depth that was never intended.

Whare whakairo themselves are not designed or built to be viewed ‘in the round’.  The rituals of approaching a whare whakairo emphasises the frontality of view, and even once past the pae and inside the house the subject is meant to address the object frontally.  The figures on pou are to be greeted standing right in front, to the point of sharing the breath of life (which you can’t do side on).  This all heightens the aspectivity of the architectural experience – we are placed in a timeless space, at one moment we are part of a span of time that reaches through ancestors back to the cosmological genesis of us all.  This is no mechanical or mathematical construction of time and space.  It is an idealised time, one where the future lies behind us and which captures us in its flow.

We can add perspective to the coloniser’s toolkit.  In New Zealand’s case this has been heightened by the timing of colonisation with the introduction of photography which seemingly automatically captured reality in its mathematical state.  This continues today with computers dominating the technical visual communication of architecture (what can be more mathematical than a computer-drawn and rendered representation of space?).  Is Maori architecture supposed to be represented this way?  If Neich is right, how should we expand this into the drawn representation of whare whakairo or other built forms?  Just how much is our view of Maori architecture distorted because we only view it through perspectival eyes of the architectural professions (including the glossy magazine’s love of dramatically lit photographs and the educational institute’s awarding of prizes to the most successfully computer rendered design)?

From Brown, Maori Response to Gothic Architecture. We are trained to view the top image as naive and backward, while the bottom image shows mastery and skill (realism).



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