Over the last few years, the question What is space? has been increasingly replaced by the question How is it that different human practices create and make use of different conceptualizations of space?
Inspired by new approaches that let the “spatial turn” contaminate the discourse on the “pictorial turn” and the centrality of the visual, the TOPOI Research Area C II “Images” has recently organized an international conference about visual conceptualizations of space. Twenty scientists from twelve different European and American research centers came to discuss specific questions: What do ancient images tell us about space? and How can we approach this issue by means of contemporary art historical and art anthropological studies?
The conference was organized in three sessions. The first session was “On Perspectives”. Space is evoked and constructed within pictures. The focus here was set on the multiplicity and aesthetic complexity of visual techniques, which past societies deployed to signify depth on flat surfaces. What kind of relationship is there between human perception of the environment and visual conventions used in the past to encode space into pictures? Are we able to formulate hypothesis concerning the cultural cognition of space through images? Johannes Grave (DFK Paris) and Karin Gludovatz (FU Berlin) opened the session with two papers on problems of perspective in the Early Modern Age. Rachel Milstein (The Hebrew University, Jerusalem) and Helga Vogel (FU Berlin) discussed the role of the frame in constructing the meaning of a picture in Persian miniatures and in Mesopotamian sculpture. Katharina Aldenhoven (FU Berlin) and Diana Liesegang (Universität Heidelberg) focused on how space was conceptualized in Egyptian Art. Elena Rova (Cà Foscary University of Venice) and Angela Berthold (FU Berlin) presented the case-study of Ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals and early coins as examples of problems posited by spatial representations on small-scale media. Eftychia Rompoti (FU Berlin) and Johanna Fabricius (FU Berlin) discussed how contemporary theoretical advances in the field of perspectival studies can be applied to the analysis of ancient Greek Art.
The second session of the conference, “On Signscapes”, has been dedicated to the exploration of the space around the image. We may tentatively call it the image’s “signscape”. Here, the focus has been on how images are used to mark and structure their surroundings – either by their placement or, particularly in the challenging case of small-scale images, by their movement. How can we define and study the interactions between signscape shaped by images and the space of human action and behavior? Is it possible to use images to explicitly construct and structure specific political or sacred places, and, if we can, how exactly? Is it possible to isolate specific iconographic or media-related qualities that are required to root images in certain places rather than others? If we study ancient images that were used in rituals, are we allowed to separate matters of intervisuality and image reception or shall we rather give priority to the analysis of the ritual? Stephan Seildmayer (DAI Cairo), Ömür Harmanshah (Brown University, USA) and Stephen Lumsden (The National Museum, Copenhagen) discussed the case of rock reliefs in Egypt and Turkey and showed how the rock reliefs were inextricably interlaced with specific ritual landscapes. Seidlmayer set the accent on the correlation between space, image content, and social status of the addressee; Harmanshah discussed the longue durée of the auratic quality of a monumental image and Lumsden showed how animistic cognitive structures can be used to explain reliefs produced during the Hittite Empire. Nikolaus Dietrich (HU Berlin) contrasted the way landscape is depicted on Attic vases with the depiction of landscape in Romano-Campanian wall-paintings, relating the striking difference to the difference in media rather than in space and time. Alessandra Gilibert (FU Berlin) used a case-study from Iron Age Syria to discuss how the compositional rhythms of a monumental frieze can be used to create a multi-level communicative strategy attuned to the spatial setting of the images and its changing visibility degrees. Finally, Marian Feldman (UC Berkeley) discussed how modern scholars used their contemporary signscapes to construct the fiction of a “Phoenician style” in Iron Age ivories and proposed a radical turn into our understanding of the Iron Age Eastern Mediterranean as a single complex signscape community.
The third and last section of the conference, “On Immersion and Contaminations”, has been devoted to case studies of “immersive images”. This means images that – by deploying ad hoc visual techniques – invite the beholder to enter into their virtual space and act within it. A mirror type of immersive images are images that step beyond their being mere representations and enters the world of agency as acting subjects. Both kind of immersive images blur the boundary between subject and object. They contaminate the common sense ontology that distinguishes the “real world” from the world of representations. Contemporary art theory has been much intrigued by the analysis of mixed realities, complex interfaces and the cyberspace. What happens if we transfer this body of thoughts at past or non-western visual cultures? The session was opened by Annette Jael Lehmann (FU Berlin), who presented the case of contemporary “black box” art practices as a metadevice to test our understanding of the status of image and vision. Dominik Bonatz (FU Berlin) discussed the way members of the ancient Near Eastern elite used the space of a seal to represent themselves as immersed into a mythical reality. Clairy Palyvou (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki) spoke about the interactions between architecture and wall-paintings at ancient Thera and showed how the houses in Thera reproduced inside the feeling of a specific outdoor ritual space and the ritual narratives connected to it. Clemente Marconi (New York University) closed the panel with a paper on the images of rituals on Greek temples and on the interactions between these images, the built environment, and rituals actually taking place on site, arguing that the images mirrored the rituals and at the same time commemorated them.
The conference casted a space for an engaging discussion of meaning and possibilities of an “anthropology of the image” applied to Antiquity. It opened new vistas on how the sciences of the past can actively contribute to understand modern and contemporary visual phenomena. The organizers of the conference strive to publish the proceedings in the TOPOI Series published in Berlin by De Gruyter Verlag.