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On the verge of visibility
Philippe-Alain Michaud

Why not reconstruct one’s inability to see?
Robert Smithson, Incident of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan

‘I will never see my own retinas, but if one thing is certain for me it is that one would find at the bottom of my eyeballs those dull and secret membranes’, Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Visible and the Invisible. (1) Sight is intrinsically linked to the fact that we take no notice of the equipment it requires or the operations that bring it into being: the external aperture is simultaneously and inseparably the closing of reflexivity. In that it makes itself visible, the world appears obvious to us, despite the way the subject removes itself and becomes transparent to itself. Our relationship to the visible is thus standardised by two criteria: the criterion of immediacy that presents the thing for what it is, liberated from the presence of the subject it presents, and the criterion of reciprocity, between the subject and the world, which change their respective positions when executing this vision.’ We see the things themselves, the world is what we see’: the first words of The Visible and the Invisible propose this simple grammatical permutation, an ontological reversal thanks to the fact that, in the act of vision, the object becomes the subject. (2) Yet, Merleau-Ponty continues by stating that as soon as we try to understand what there is to see and to understand vision, everything becomes an enigma: ‘It is at the same time true that the world is what we see and that, nonetheless, we must learn to see it.’ (3)

Consequently, how do we describe the territory that opens up between objective vision and the sphere of reflexivity? How do we describe the distance that separates the stabilisation of a shape in the external space and the way the subject intuitively reclaims it? The last chapter of The Visible and the Invisible has a hint of an answer to the question: ‘… [a naked color, and in general (let us provisionally put the question of colour to one side)] a visible, is not a chunk of absolutely hard, indivisible being, offered all naked to a vision which could be only total or null, but is rather a sort of strait between exterior horizons and interior horizons ever gaping open, something that comes to touch lightly and makes diverse regions of the [colored or] visible world resound at the distances, a certain differentiation, an ephemeral modulation of this world – less [a color or] a thing, therefore, than a difference between things [and colors], a momentary crystallization [of colored being or] of visibility.’ The visible is thus: ‘a sort of strait between exterior horizons and interior horizons’, ‘an ephemeral modulation of this world’, ‘a momentary crystallization of […] visibility’, (4) a transitory and almost imperceptible event; thus its representation it becomes the role of the philosopher or the artist. The final part of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, his indefatigable attempt to delineate and elucidate this encounter, which, in the case of vision, determines the stabilisation of the shape in the exterior and its intuitive capture by a subject, illuminates the work of Susanna Fritscher; since the beginning of the 1990s, monochrome canvases have been the foundation of her art practice of the dematerialision of painting; she always returns to the institution of the visible, holding onto the crest of the line of that separates the subject from the object by structuring the act of vision, by drawing up the topography, and through a succession of gestures that make use of the basic instrument of light.

The banner: opacity

Since 2004 Susanna Fritscher has been developing a series of works created with panels of extremely fine and extremely strong Etfe fluoropoly­mer film (often used for membranes and roofs). These are painted with a spray gun; and then are pulled tight by cables anchored in the substance of the wall and so appear to emanate from this surface. Varied in length, these achromatic banderols have been installed in both interior and exter­ior spaces; they are more opaque in the middle than at the edges and fan out like flat beams of light, appearing static and tangible in the ambient light, creating the effect of a flat plane in the atmospheric depth of the real. These banners of rectilinear light, emerging from no obvious source, appropriate and relocate the parameters of the filmic experience, trans­forming these into sculptural propositions. In the same way as the Laocoon group within which Goethe saw ‘a flash of lightening fixed, a wave petri­fied at the instant when it is approaching the shore’, (5) these are unfolding phenomena frozen in time. It is not that there is no movement but that it has been externalised; it is no longer a narrow film strip unwinding but instead the viewer-cum-passerby moving along the length of the sur­face or standing facing it. These banners extended in space are beams of light, are supports; equally they are hiding-places or masks, screens that, by blurring visibility, conceal instead of revealing: they prevent us from seeing; indeed, they efface, dividing the field of vision like the path of a horizontal eraser that transforms the depth of the real into an inscripted plane, whereas the light, via an oxymoron of the senses, becomes a vector, not of clarity, but of opacity. The film strip renders the world unreal, a world that appears transparent at the edges and then disappears in the middle, while simultaneously incorporating the line of the light. This light flows through the film but is not concentrated there: it constitutes the environment within which the film unfolds.

In conventional cinematography, the screen functions like an interior frame that is the site of a reconstituted fictive depth. This is the concept of the image as window-tableau, as expounded by Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th century, at that moment in time when the principles of modern visual perspective were being established: ‘I will thus speak of, and omit all other things, of which I do when I paint. First I trace a quadrangle as I wish, with right angles, on the surface to be painted; in this place, it cer­tainly functions for me as an open window through which the historia is observed,’ (6) The films that Susanna Fritscher stretches tight in space re­place perspectival space as well as the conventional illusion borrowed from painting by cinema with an unfinished projective structure. Henceforth, the film is not just a projected image that blends into the plane of a wall of fictive depth, but is instead a field of concrete space that merges with the projection event frozen in space and time.

This defocusing of the projection and its identification with its environment is consistent with the post-minimalist cinema of the 1970s. In 1973, Anthony McCall created a film with the laconic title of Line Describing a Cone, whose textural appearance foreshadowed the banners stretched across space of Susanna Fritscher. Line Describing a Cone – produced without a camera – is a simple playback, image by image, of a circle being drawn in gouache on a sheet of paper. Projected into a space within which a fog machine thickens the air, over a period of twenty minutes, Line Describing a Cone delineates the formation of a cone of light that takes on a kind of semi-materiality in the diffused fog. In 1974, McCall wrote: ‘Line Describing a Cone is what I term a solid light film. It is dealing with the projected light-beam itself, rather than treating the light beam as a mere carrier of coded information, which is decoded when it strikes a flat surface (the screen).’ (7) Thus – beyond any frontiers that separate filmic practice and artistic practice – the foggy beams carved in light of Susanna Fritscher meet up with the foggy beams carved in smoke of Anthony McCall.

In traditional film projection, the photographic print creates a network of contrasting motifs on the film, which are accentuated by the division of the film into photograms. The banners of Susanna Fritscher, for their part, covered in layers by a thin coat of opaque paint, remain uniform and continuous. There is also a second foreshadowing – in a work created by Michael Asher in the summer of 1973 when McCall was inventing his first Solid Light Films. The division of the film strip into photograms is called into question, while the filmic experience is reduced to a phenomenon of alternating light. Created without a camera on 16-mm film, and literally entitled Film, Asher’s work was composed of a grey monochrome strip covered with a very small amount of emulsion of a very thin and uniform texture. The first presentation of the film was in a hall of student residence, not a cinema; the projection was conceived as an activation or modification of the environment and not as the creation of a separate space of representation: ‘Viewers withdrew attention from the projected frame, while the light which was cast back onto them, increased their awareness of themselves as viewers. Without a camera directed point of view located within the film, viewers recorded their own point of view, external to the picture plane. The light from the cinematic frame was reflected back, as well, to its source of generation – the projector – and onto the material and the room itself.’ (8) In the opaque banderols of Susanna Fritscher, as in Film by Michael Asher, that which appears is no longer inscribed on the film strip but is instead consigned to a register of dimin­ished visibility: the subjectile no longer accommodates the image; it transforms it into grisaille.

Susanna Fritscher’s Etfe films appear as residue from a binding process of transformation from fluidity to solidity; the traces of the freezing process describe the movement captured in film, alienated from its normal usage. The neutralisation of the plane moves them towards inexpressiveness; solidity is lost and they are detached from the real so that depth can be shifted back to the frontality of the plane. The materiality of the film is deployed by affixing this to the unrolling of the film, as in a frieze. It is a running continuous plane, a film used at eye-level that aims to modify the space within which it is inscribed and which can only be deciphered through linearity. Taken from the scenographic perspective, the frieze represents every type of ornamentation, unrolling along a continuous regular banner, be it of paint, paper, or in this case, film. When the entire height of the wall is decorated with sculptured or painted films, the frieze attains a simple decorative function; yet when the banderol is positioned as a long, narrow piece ofmaterial extended on the plane of the wall, it takes on an architectural function: it divides the space, breaking it up, while simul­taneously objectifying it. In the central section, at the eye-level of a viewer walking alongside, there seems to be a narrow slit in the wall, an imaginary window where the real has been frozen in the transparency of a visual sequence organised by a lateral dynamic that is narrowed to an effect of gradual layering. Irrespective of the degree of stylisation, these friezes adopt the manner of a cortège or a procession and appropriate a super­natural or magical dimension. The bas-relief friezes that adorned the walls of Egyptian tombs had this function; they constituted a metaphor of transition: the desire to maintain what has been lived and seen in life, even after death, underscores the visual decorative banderols. Ludwig Binswanger proposed the concept that world revealed at the interstice of the frieze suturing the empty plane of the wall is not a world of action or of knowledge, but rather one of recognition: (9) the thread of the film traverses the space, making tangible the diminution of experience and the loss of connection to the world, becoming a metaphor of distance from existence.

The panel: transparency and refraction

The verticality of the acrylic glass panels the artist has deployed since 2001 are a response to the horizontality of the banners of Etfe film. Thanks to the acrylic glass, the extremely large supports are also extremely thin; the artist employs rectangular panels that measure 145 x 350 cm, at a thickness of 2 mm. These do not lean against a wall in the style of John McCracken’s Slab Paintings; they are suspended twenty centimetres out from the wall, creating a slight projection. They have been spray painted with a thin layer of uniform white paint that gradually thickens towards the top, displaying a vertical glide from transparency to opacity. At the bottom of the panel, apparently of the same colour, transparent through the plate, we perceive the distance that separates the plate from the wall. The passage of internal perception of difference (between the white plane of the wall and the transparent plane of the plate) towards external perception of identity (between the white plane of the wall and the white plane of the plate) forms an aura that has no object.

The phenomenological experience of the plane is constituted beyond any tangible determination: it is maintained within the transcendental sphere of the visible that precedes the revelation of what is seen. Susanna Fritscher’s sculptures thus portray the condition – or the location – of vision: visible in the sense of water, air and a series of phosphorescent bodies that Alexander of Aphrodisias called diopta (glasses, crystals and translucent stones) in his commentary about On Sense Perception, (10) or in the style of Rotating Glass Walls by Bruce Nauman, an installation from 1970. Here four picture rails are arranged in a square upon which four identical films are projected in a feedback loop. The film is the recording of the rotation of a plate of glass on a central horizontal axis: it is framed in such a way that the vertical glass plate corresponds exactly to the plane of the projection. The viewer has no spatial frame of reference at all other than the position of the glass plate oscillating between transparency and nothingness. As in Nauman’s Rotating Glass Walls, Susanna Fritscher’s acrylic glass plates are located on this ridge separating transparency from the non-existent plane: they present the most imperceptible difference possible; this imperceptible gliding from that which is seen and that which retreats, or even between the visible liberated from that which is seen, perhaps even liberated from vision itself, underneath a trans­parent surface laid out against the nothingness. 

Susanna Fritscher has been moving away from the pictorial since 2005, painting acrylic glass plates using digital printing. In 2006, she created a series of painted white panels, positioned 1.8 metres from each other, in a relationship of inverse opacity and transparency, moving from left and right; thus each panel functions as the negative of the other. (11) Viewed from the exterior, the plates present a uniform density: in an inversion of the usual function of painting, based on the dualism of the support and that which covers it, that which is seen is not inscribed on the plane of the panel, but rather is situated behind it; not a subjectile but a screen behind which shapes are diffused into a coloured halo.

Moving between two plates, the gaze of the subject deconstructs the uniform density of the plane, activating the difference at the heart of this imprecise environment. The movement of the body of the visitor between the acrylic glass plates activates the properties of the walls; they respond to each other like inverted mirrors, creating a saturated system closed in upon itself, constituted upon the unique principle of the variation of intensity where the optical spectrum is deployed that leads from incidence to refraction. 

This research into the materialisation of the plane has a precedent in a work by Dan Graham from 1966, Project for Slide Projector; a physical construction of the concept of density. In this work, Graham draws the spectrum moving from transparency to opacity, a spectrum that produced the matrix of the architectural constructions upon which he based his work after l976. (12) Project for Slide Projector consists of eighty colour slides in 24 x 36 format and a carousel projector. The slides, projected onto a screen at five-second intervals, present on a glass surface the progressive passage from transparency to refraction – the phenomenon of opaci­fication. (13) This is a pure optical device: the staging of an environment within which the visible recreates itself. The structure of the system is a rectan­gular box of four glass panels, open at the top, with a mirror on the floor. (14) A 35-mm camera takes a shot of the exterior of the box, then of one of longitudinal sides, focusing on the panel, filling the entire frame. The box is slightly tipped over and turned in a clockwise direction; the second shot is taken from one of the long sides. The focal point, further away, is located in the interior of the box, at the same distance as that separating the camera from the glass plate. The third shot focuses on a distance twice as far away, and in the fourth shot, the focal point corresponds to the centre of the glass cube. A second glass box is placed in the interior of the first; the operation is then repeated five times. The five boxes are always photographed in the same order. Thus Dan Graham obtains twenty images that are duplicated four times. The first series follows the order of the shots. The second series is in reverse order. The third and fourth series resume the operation of the first and second series respectively. The lighting changes during the course of the operation: initially the transparent space allows light to penetrate, then the illusion of perspective created by the interplay of reflections between the interior and exterior is amplified as the boxes are put into the boxes until the surface is transformed into a mirror and the light becomes opaque. The depth is cancelled out: now there is only a mobile zone of clarity in the interior from which nothing results other than the experience of the space as a space.

Projections: halos and dissolution

Susanna Fritscher has been working since 2010 on a series of projections called Spektrum, a term that refers simultaneously to the decomposition of the visible and to the practicalities of making the invisible tangible, which re-occur in the work of the artist like a kind of self-commentary. Photo­shopped images, created from the contrast between black and white, play on the passage of light through the lens of the projector or on that which obstructs the light, fading in and out according to a procedure that controls to the thousandth of a second the length of the fade as well as the pauses between the various black and white values by controlling the intensity and the variation from blurred to sharp images. The Spektrum series, seen in continuity, delineates, in the form of an open combination and obeying logical determinations, the movements of apparition and dissolving of a field composed of pure light, preceding the construction of the object.

Spektrum 1–4: concentric movement from clarity to obscurity.

Spektrum 5: eccentric movement from obscurity to clarity and concentric movement from clarity to obscurity.

Spektrum 6: concentric movement from clarity to obscurity and eccentric movement from obscurity to clarity.

Spektrum 7: eccentric movement from clarity to obscurity.

Spektrum 8: eccentric movement from clarity to obscurity

Spektrum 9: progressive alternation from clarity to obscurity and obscurity to clarity.

Spektrum 10: inversion of the values of light and dark, from eccentration and from concentration.

In 2002, Ceal Floyer installed a projector with no slides, its diaphragm searching for an image never stops opening and closing, producing a frame of light that oscillates between blurring and sharpness. This work by Ceal Floyer, Autofocus, is an unquiet system based upon mechanics: there is no plane, no image, only a machine that keeps on looking for it. Spektrum is a systematic version, a series with all existential connotations removed from the single machine as invented by Ceal Floyer, calling into question the notion of the presumed frame as an a priori condition of the image. The frame self-generates via the impervious passage from one opposite to another, obeying a series of systematically composed variations: when the intensity of the light increases, the frame is delineated; when the inten­sity is reduced the frame becomes blurred. By creating halos with no lines, nor polarisations, creating the phenomena of pure light resolution, the Spektrum series draws up the – possibly never-ending – lexis of apparition.

‘The object of sight is the visible’, wrote Aristotle in the chapter of On the Soul dealing with vision. The visible, is beyond colour, and what is visible is colour and a certain kind of object which can be described in words but which has no single name (diaphane).’ (15) According to Aristotle, the diaphane (translucence) is a blend of the elements of air and water. It functions as a middle ground between the object and the eye, yet equally as an active principle, penetrating all bodies constituted, to different degrees, of air and water. The nature of the diaphane thus extends across all bodies. Light is an act of indeterminate diaphane, and colours are determinate diaphanes that reside in the body. The colour of a solid body is its border, its surface, not of the body itself but of the diaphane within it. This element ‘itself invisible and colourless’ is pure dynamis, and its realisation is that of non-coloured light. Light is diaphane in action and the luminous diaphane is the condition of visibility. The imperceptible materi­alisation of transparency is the realisation of non-colour, which is the receptacle of colour, just as silence is the receptacle of sound. The obscure (which is barely visible, almost invisible) is the quality of the potential diaphane; the quality of the diaphane in action is light. And if there is only potential diaphane, here too it is obscurity that prevails. It is always the diaphane, sometimes obscurity and sometimes light.

The optical systems imagined by Susanna Fritscher continue the transcendental current that runs through contemporary art practice, from Dan Graham to Bruce Nauman, Anthony McCall, Michael Asher and Ceal Floyer. This is the staging of a vision with no object, or of spatiality without depth; all the works portray the interaction of vision and light and the application of light in its element: investigating the scope of apparition; they aim to return, in the words of Merleau-Ponty, to ‘the mixture of the world and ourselves that precedes reflection.’ Light, beyond any determi­nation of point of view, is that which makes the gaze function by trans­ferring it from potentiality to action: rising up beyond the modelling of vision from the ‘lens’ to the visible in of itself. Banners, panels, projections, these all contribute to the abolition of perception of common sensibles (size, existence, shape, movement), the spatial elements that the senses other than sight can, to the benefit of their own sensibles, accede to light and colour – the substance of the diaphane. Light demarcates the limits of visibility; it isolates the minimum sensible behind which there is no size to quantify – what remains is the simple topological support. Susanna Fritscher thus makes a hypothesis of a vision with no object or subject: in order to experience this, the gaze identifies itself with vision, become sight itself, capable of capturing the visible. ‘Thus from the outset, one accepts that which is most difficult, most mysterious, sight perceiving the visible, the visible perceiving sight.’ (16)


1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, translation by Alphonso Lingis, Evanston, IL; Northwestern University Press, 1968, p. 146.
2 M. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, op. cit., p. 3.
3 M. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, op. cit., p. 4.
4 M. Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Intertwining, The Chiasm’, The Visible and the Invisible, op. cit., p. 132.
5 Johannes Wolfgang Goethe, Über Laookon [1798]; Goethe on Art, translation by John Gage, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980, p. 81.
6 Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting. A New Translation and Critical Edition, edited and translated by Rocco Sinisgalli, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
7 In a note written by McCall for the Knokke-le-Zoute Festival.
8 Michael Asher, Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979, edited by Benjamin Buchloh, Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983, pp. 72-75
9 Ludwig Binswanger, ‘Das Raumproblem in der Pyschopathologie’, Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie, Volume 145, No. 1, 1933, pp. 598-647.
10 Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Aristotle’s ‘On Sense Perception’, translated by Alan Towey, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.
11 The artist went on to use other tones, particularly in her proposal for the arrangement of access ramps for the new Vienna airport: these spaces of transit, which she treated as pure spaces of movement, layered in colours, constitute, for their part, a return from the investigation of the banner to that of film, the corridors as banners of crystallised light that, thanks to the perspective, look like beams of light.
12 Dan Graham and Anne Rorimer, Buildings and Signs, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1981.
13 See the description of the work by Dan Graham, ‘Photographs of Motion’, End Moments, New York, Specific Objects, 1969, pp. 34-36.
14 In the work of Susanna Fritscher we discover the same questioning of the plane of inscription, which she achieves by covering the ground with a layer of extremely reflective silicon, as in 2011 on the ground of the inner courtyard of the Fonds régional d’art contemporain de Metz.
15 Aristotle, On the Soul and On Memory and Recollection, translation by Joel Sachs, Santa Fe: Green Lion Press, 2001, II, 7. For more on the question of diaphane, see: Emmanuel Alloa, Das durchscheinende Bild. Konturen einer medialen Pheneomenologie, Zurich: Diaphanes, 2011, p. 9.
16 Gérard Simon, Archéologie de la vision. L’optique, le corps, la peinture, Paris: Seuil, 2003 (Des travaux), p. 188.