Museum of Optography

May- June 2007




On the Museum of Optography, by Susana Medina

(First shown at Brigitte Schenk Gallery, Cologne, April-June 07)

Derek Ogbourne’s eye is as sharp as a surgeon intent on transmitting the interiority within the physical world, so that its intrinsic poetry is not lost. The persistence of the physical recurs in his work like a chorus, as if he was convinced that art should derive from knowledge of the physical world and create in turn a new world where stripped down layers of reality remove us from the perpetual visual muzak of daily life and take us onto a more intimate dimension. At times Kafkaesque in its claustrophobia, at times Borgesian in its devotion to miniature and the endless, Ogbourne’s work often invites us into a parallel metaphysical world, where the physical deftly echoes our inner texture. If some of his video pieces are psychic landscapes that can be seen as metaphysical thrillers with tense but minimal plots, his latest work clusters around some of his recurrent obsessions: the organic, death, the sublime, the eye as a recording device. As usual, a back to basics poetics is employed. In this case, drawing as a bare medium naturally co-exists with organic traces and the first attempts to mechanically reproduce motion, while the video pieces, with their rough-and-ready aesthetics, confirm a raw vision of reality where technology is seen as an extension of what it is to be human. All this, however, has now been re-rendered to form part of a fictional museum where a ghost science is resuscitated as both myth and intriguing fact.

A hundred and forty delicate retinal drawings arranged as a disk that echoes the retina, video, photography, archival material, a documentary and yet more drawings, one of which is accompanied by a zoetrope, conspire to create a tantalising world of pseudo-imaginary science in his latest venture, an installation where art is entangled in a time-warp that is also part detective story, part history lesson, part archive, part psychogeography.

A negative silhouette of an immense optogram welcomes the visitor to the Museum of Optography, a white, mammoth, abstract geometrical shape that emerges from one of the black walls as if insistently asking to be deciphered. It resembles one of those arbitrary shapes that appear in psychology tests. Except that it is gigantic. And haunting. It actually is a glyph from the past that has just emerged into the present. It is the only human optogram in existence. And it has been excavated from an experiment in 1880. Blown up, it gives the gallery space an air reminiscent to one of those Gestalt rooms from the 1950s where perception tests were carried out.

It is followed by a piece of white wall which leaves a gap for the gaze to rest, perhaps to perceive an afterimage. The wall becomes black again and a powerful drawing of an ocular globe affected by some sort of fleshy monstrous growth makes us muse on the fact that disease might take on lush forms. In ‘Explorers of Darkness’, the carnality of a scientific drawing is displayed for us to gorge upon. Two tiny explorers trek over the disease, trying to conquer it. A historical drawing of eye disease, with a nineteenth century feel about it, it introduces the theme of vision from the point of view of going inside, as well as the artist’s interest in growth and movement as characteristics of all living things, which here takes on a different hue: archival material offers him an opportunity for classicism, of the wayward kind.

With ‘145 Retinal Drawings’, we are before a majestic piece. A luminous disk that is monumental and yet precarious looking, it presides over another of the main black walls as if it was a subliminal façade of our last instants of consciousness. Made out of a hundred and forty-five miniature worlds, which are a hundred and forty simultaneous worlds, each drawing is the size of the human retina and takes the viewer into an imagined death scene. Each scene thus entails an observer just before the moment of death. Abstract and figurative, conceptual and sublime, they are coded moments of intimacy that take the viewer inside the last instant of life. Intimately focused, they are delicate statements not only about the vagaries of the field of vision, but also about drawing and touch. Ecstasy is placed along the mundane. Upside-down, side-ways or slightly topsy-turvy romanticised landscapes of otherworldly grace and gentleness, give us a glimpse of death as a peaceful end where wonder at the physical world is the last impression we take with us. Other retinal drawings insist on shanty towns or electricity poles or on fleeting images and impressions, while in others, the mysterious geometry of commonplace sights, the hallucinatory hiper-reality of fragments of buildings, rooms, stairways and ceilings, generate private worlds that set us apart from the everyday.

A serial draughtsman, Ogbourne confesses his fascination with what exists within the very fine line between being and not being. Compulsively imagining the last scene before death, armed with pencil and paper, he gives us in this piece an intimate complimentary world suffused with the psychological dimensions of nostalgia, memory and the emotions. These retinal drawings enter the senses slowly and effectively. They are microcosms that resonate within the macrocosm of our psyches. The vulnerability that they convey aptly embodies the fine line between life and death as a subject matter. It is as if we were addressed by the interior landscapes of our minds. Immersing ourselves in the detail, the closeness is translated into a sudden intensification of vision, as the miniature drawings cast a spell and a symbolic hold on the psyche and trigger the landscapes sealed within.

Some clues about Museum of Optography are supplied by an old recording coming from a 70s tape-recorder, which blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction and back again, as a telephone rings with an outdated tone of urgency and a man with a German accent, Dr. Alexandridis, possibly the only person to have successfully produced optograms in the twentieth century, asks to speak to Salvador Dalí. The recording brings a touch of humour into the installation. We are told what optograms are. And true to form, Dalí provides an end to the conversation that is as humorous as it is egocentric.

But what is ‘optography’? Did you just say we are told what ‘optograms’ are? An obsolete science of sorts that deals with the fleeting record of what the eye has been fixed on at the moment of death, that is to say, the fixing on the retina of the last image seen before death, optography was believed to be a new criminologist tool that would help to solve murders, akin to early DNA testing, although so far, it has been of no forensic use. In the nineteenth century, a flurry of articles debated around the subject. Some considered it to be grandiose humbug. While the process of obtaining an optogram is akin to photography, instead of negatives, we get positives made out of light. Instead of paper, we get the flesh of the retina acting both as a camera and a recording surface. Instead of the customary chemical developing, potassic alum solution is used. And instead of a straightforward process, death and the immediate removal of the retina under laboratory conditions are amongst a number of prerequisites for the optogram to appear.

This is part of what we are told by a chilling documentary about the history of optography, which provides further answers to the questions that hover around some of the pieces. The history discontinuously unrolls in Gothic English typeface, as if it was a silent film. The silence is appropriate. As is the drumming that punctuates it, which foretells an execution. Partly a detective story, the documentary covers the quest to uncover the truth and constant fascination behind the myth of optography, beginning with the seventeenth century, when a Jesuit astronomer called Christopher Schiener observed an image laid bare on the retina of a frog. It then travels to the town of Heidelberg (a recurrent topos for optography) where Wilhelm Kühne made the first and most successful visually identifiable optograms recorded as drawings in the late 1870’s and also obtained the only known human optogram from a condemned young man who had killed his two children, Edhard Reif. We learn that the arbitrary shape that looms large at the entrance of Museum of Optography is presumably the last thing Edhard Reif saw as he was beheaded. In the documentary, this human optogram spins, pulsates and flashes on the screen creating afterimages and reminding us that the last thing we might see could be a meaningless abstraction that leaves us in suspense for eternity. An interview with Dr. Alexandridis, who made a series of optograms in 1975 for the German police, tells us about the process of obtaining retinal images. The documentary ends with a life-affirming sequence, as a couple of rabbits hop around a landscape covered in snow.

The narrative tone of the documentary is both offset and complemented by a relentless video-piece which shows us a busy hand probing inside some unidentifiable organic matter. Shown on a small monitor on a plinth, the black and white screen is split into four. An exploratory action seen from different angles is taking place. Extreme close-ups of eyes, organic matter, movement and poking take us on a fast journey where the physical world at is most basic is explored through violence. The chaotic humour of this piece is in turn set off against the coolness of the actual optograms we see next.

Vision as a photochemical process reminds us that what we see is enshrined in our central nervous system, not just as memory, but as physical trace, even if fleetingly. Flesh has memory. Tactile memory. As well as memory for illness. Less explored is the visual memory of flesh. This is what the optograms on display eloquently speak of. Back-lit and encased in new hand-made boxes that look as if they had just materialised from the nineteenth century, these visual documents also give us what definitely should be termed ‘retinal art’. There is no irony in them, though. They are the optograms made by Dr. Alexandridis in 1975. They are presented as scientific facts. Yet one cannot help but see that the rejection of ‘retinal’ sensations as the basis for art has been turned inside out upon itself. Clinical, beautiful and unsettling, they are now artefacts where images have been preserved post-mortem on the flesh of the retina. They are quietly anxious objects, reminders of the bodily macabre. The number ‘75’ imprinted in red, a drawing of Dalí’s face and a checkerboard pattern, are presented as evidence of the retina as camera. They are accompanied by a vitrine lined in black felt, which displays the tools necessary for the optographic process to take place: potassium hydroxide, a scalpel, pins, a magnifying eyeglass, tweezers, a glass ball and a red photographic safe light.

Poetic as the idea of preserving the last image before death in the retina might be, the optograms are a crude reminder that scientific knowledge, whether successful or not, is sometimes dependent on cruelty to animals. And that no satisfactory alternative has been found as yet to this unsavoury fact. Death and violence, even if it is painless, are at the basis of much of medical research. So far, our physical survival might depend on factories of death. And thus the optograms oscillate between a metaphysical shudder and a sublime poetics of the trace.

The act of seeing is also explored in ‘Homage to Eadweard Muybridge’, in which a zoetrope is placed next to a surrealist drawing of archive feel, where an endless row of rabbits held in guillotines look at a set of lined up balls. A ludic piece, it is both humorous and troubling: the beautiful wide-eyed innocence of the rabbits, the man-made guillotines, the classical façades and the bare outline of mountains in the background configure a perfectly ambivalent landscape. The drawing captures the illusion of a rapid succession of images about to be set in motion, which is emphasized by placing the zoetrope next to it. A device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures, the zoetrope belongs to the class of ‘philosophical toys’ which provide entertainment while also illustrating scientific principles. Consisting of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides, it is a precursor of cinema, as were Muybridge’s pictures of horses airborne during gallop, which through his invention of the zoopraxiscope, a machine similar to the zoetrope, are also part of the history of the motion picture. This is cultured black humour of an interactive kind: if you spin the zoetrope after seeing the drawing, you have just playfully set the guillotines off and you can observe a ball bouncing, which is the set of optograms that the rabbits’ retinas would have produced. However, if you spin it and then see the drawing, the suspended moment portrayed in the drawing prevails and the rabbits remain forever intact, albeit under guillotines.

The artist’s preoccupation with ghostly traces also appears in a small piece that provides a passage to the next floor. A delicate trace on paper, fossil-like and framed by a Venetian mirror frame, it could have been purloined from a cabinet of curiosities. It could be an optogram. It is certainly a modern fossil, an unusual coffee stain on an envelope that has crystallized into an amber outline providing an organic resin-like trace that looks as if it could be millions of years old. While in this piece coffee time becomes geophysical time, in the next set of drawings, a different strand of time is introduced, one where computer diagrams of contraptions to hold rabbits prefigure their future obsolescence.

Over the last fifteen years Ogbourne has developed a remarkably coherent body of work. Museum of Optography offers us another coherent turn of the screw. One where science, optics and an erratic taxonomy of visual organic traces in different media conjure up a humanised world which speaks in a babble of languages and temporalities. Life and death, permanence and transience, mourning, melancholia and a playful tragicomic tone permeate the space. There is no referencing to the vanitas still life tradition. And yet it is implicitly there. But there is no moralistic message, just a stating that ‘death’ is a fact of life. Best known as a video artist, his video ‘Hymn’ is, however, a rescued home video that provides a poignant conclusion to Museum of Optography. Preserving a real life moment in real time, the subject might be an intimation of death, but there is no death of affect. In ‘Hymn’, an emaciated and frail old woman, who is probably in her late nineties, looks at the camera with sunken eyes while slowly singing a hymn as if postponing her fate through song. The poor quality of the recording aptly lends the old woman an appropriate spectral patina. TV background noise interlaces her song and mumbled, forgotten lyrics:

… If he be my guide

In his hands and feet are imprints

And his side …

…Finding, following, …ing

He’s sure to bless

Life is martyred in …

As she sings, a much louder TV voice intrudes into her song providing an aside comment, which is at once counterpoint and truism:


It is indeed. We leave Museum of Optography, transformed by Ogbourne’s meditation on the utterly time-tangled, tragic and sublime nature of human life, taking with us powerful symbols of beauty and dismay, ready to embrace life’s music, with its dreams and nightmares.

Also see this article below at Susana Medina’s website :