Essay by Milena Hoegsberg, from Mute Science, Revolver Publishing, Berlin 2011
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How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering
mind can scarcely encompass?
In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful;
not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping and
transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now
write down will be successive, because language is successive.
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph” (1945)
Borges’ well-known short story “The Aleph” is narrated with the awareness
that language, like images themselves, falls short of experiences that lie on the
other side of conscious perception. Surrounded by utter darkness, the narrator
gazes into the Aleph, a small sphere in space that allows him to see all things
in the universe from all angles simultaneously.1 He describes his experience of
the Aleph in great detail, yet at the end of the story, he questions whether he
actually experienced it, whether he truly saw.
At the crux of Danish artist Emil Salto’s practice is the tension between a desire
for direct experience and a yearning to perceive what is beyond its grasp.
As such, stories like “The Aleph” that center on the myth of the portal are of
great interest to him. In his personal archive, he collects found images and
videos of mystical geometric forms, mirrors, and portals, as well as literature
on nineteenth-century spiritism and philosophy, space-time theories, and
occultism, which address the notion of “universes,” parallel to our own physical
world. His body of work from the last decade can be seen as an inquiry into
“hidden matter,” and the higher level of consciousness often perceived to give
access to it.2 But his investigation is first and foremost intuitive: anchored in and
guided by the physicality of his own body, at work in the artistic process.
The myth of the portal is linked, for Salto, with notions of time and space that
challenge our limited understanding of time and of ourselves as temporal
beings.3 He grounds his inquiry in the material and temporal properties
of his media of choice, photography and film. In Hands (2011), a short,
black-and-white 8mm film, two illuminated hands reach towards the center,
as if blindly trying to locate each other. In the logic of the film, they
occupy the same space, but as their overlapping transparent surfaces
reveal, they were recorded at different moments. One hand searches
for the afterimage of its counterpart, a trace of physical energy from its
past presence. In Doppel Acht (2010), Salto explores the space
between two recordings, in which the artist performs the same action at two
different moments in time, shot on the same 16mm filmstrip, and fed though
a 8mm camera twice. In the double projection—one normal, the other
played backwards and upside down—two mirrored figures perform a
shadow-play against a white backdrop, attempting to line up the shadows
of the square objects they hold. In the illusory space of film, we willingly
accept that the two images, separated by a clear line, occupy the same
time and space. The perceptual trick becomes a figure for the mental leap
necessary to accept the possibility of parallel space-time dimensions that
we cannot verify through sentient experience.
Salto is attracted to theories and scientific methods—some outdated and
obscure—that grapple with the relationship between the material and the
ethereal by insisting on direct experience and intuition. For this reason,
he is fascinated with the writings of Charles Howard Hinton and his claim
(later also made by Rudolf Steiner) that one could, by contemplation of a
geometric form, enter a higher dimension: expand consciousness and gain
access to a more complex space-time.
Charles Hinton (1853-1907), a British mathematician, spent his life trying to
support his claim that our three-dimensional minds can be trained to visualize
the fourth dimension—a concept embraced at the time by occultists and
scientists alike.4 The hypercube, or tesseract, an octagonal cube that can be
unfolded into eight cubes, provided Hinton with a way to access the fourth
dimension. Hinton constructed a set of twelve hypercubes and assigned a
different color to each of their eighty-one parts to keep them distinct in his
mind. The hypercube model-set was intended as an instructional tool to give
people a mental image of the tesseract, by enabling them to contemplate its
various cross-sections and rotation through the fourth dimension.5
Hinton’s studies both anticipated and were refuted by the theory of relativity and
later quantum physics. He was, however, one of the very few scientists whose
work was rooted in the conviction that direct and intuitive knowledge of fourth-
dimensional space was possible.6 While Hinton does not discuss the fourth
dimension in spiritual terms, his method is very similar to present day spiritual
exercises with “sacred geometry” (used in, for example, meditation), intended to
give access to states of consciousness that transcend our physical reality.
Salto began working with the hypercube with Hinton’s and Steiner’s claims
in mind. Curious to test their methods of accessing higher dimensions, he
created a new variation of the geometrical shapes possible in the hypercube
each day over the course of twenty days. Grounding his exercises in his work
with the photogram, he used filters cut in the different shapes in the octagonal
cube to make two-dimensional geometrical representations on photo paper.
As the days passed, it seemed less and less likely that he would gain access to
the fourth dimension, harder in practice than in theory, as Hinton too eventually
concluded.7 Salto instead found working with the tesseract unpleasantly
fatiguing, bringing to mind accounts by Hinton’s followers of the autohypnotic
effects of repeatedly attempting to reach higher-dimensional space.8
The nineteen black-and-white photograms that resulted from the experiment
are each a variation on a two-dimensional rendering of the hypercube. In them,
the artist explores different spatial possibilities in the simple form, rendered in
tones of black, gray, and white. Contemplating any one of the prints, our eyes
move on its surface, never finding rest for long, as three-dimensional shapes
advance and recede. Through prolonged looking, each shape continuously
reveals new geometrical spaces. Presented without contextualizing explanation
of his inspiration or process, the works themselves leave us little option
but to engage directly: as in his process, Salto insists on direct experience in
his work’s deciphering. The title Hypercubes (the 4th dimension) only hints at
Hinton, and the gateway to a direct experience of higher dimensional space
remains just an idea. We are, as the hybercubes remind us, limited to the
three-dimensional world. But in the mind, images and experiences of parallel
dimensions are limitlessly possible.
The hypercubes are characterized by the same contemplative silence as
Mute Science (2009-10), and much of Salto’s earlier work. Mute Science
consists of black-and-white photograms, images produced without camera,
solely by the imprint of light on photo paper. As such, they are their materials.
While making the series, the artist turned, as he describes it, a “deaf ear to the
exacting science of photography.”9 Taking the camera out of the equation,
he relied on intuition and feel, rather than mechanical tools and automated
timing. Enveloped in complete darkness—without the aid of red safe light—
he repeatedly moved four individual cardboard pieces, together forming
a square, inviting the possibility of “mistakes” as he exposed the photo
paper to light. Deliberately cutting himself off from the faculty of sight, the
artist was guided only by a mental image of space. The works are thus both
straight records of their making—the most basic photographic process—and
images of worlds beyond, conjured in the mind.
The result is a series of forty prints, all variationson the same basic
compositional scheme. Square and rectangular rims indifferent gradations,
between the poles of black and white, repeat themselves concentrically
to form narrowing vantage points. Each image is unique, the result of a delicate
interplay between intention, evolving technique, and chance. Several photograms
reveal flawed rims, resulting from the rough edges on the cardboard used to control
light exposure. The crooked slants of multiple images bear witness to the manual
process and, moreover, the imperfect communication between the provisional
partitur (intention) and the movement of the artist’s hands.
Like Joseph Albers’ series of paintings
Homage to the Square (1950-76), a clear historical precedent, Mute Science
explores the formal and perceptual possibilities in variations of form and
tonality. For Albers, the study of perception and color was linked to the
spatial relations to which color combination gave rise. Colors, he argued,
“are read as here and there … and therefore in space.”10 In the Homages,
a series of differently sized and colored squares are set inside each other,
arranged to allow colors to migrate across their borders and perceptually
overlap. Albers also observed the ability of colors to optically advance
and recede and alter spatial relationships in the scale between dark and
light present in black-and-white photography. A trained eye, he argued,
would be able to discern the “finer gradations between black and white,”
which “penetrate each other to varying degree.”11 Thus, in his methodical
color study Interaction of Color (1963), he insists on the merit of repeatedly
exploring the optical potential in the same basic formula.12 For Albers, formal
reductionism (the material flatness of paint) offered a way to expand perception,
while negating any representational associations or pictorial illusion.13 As
Hal Foster writes, describing Homage to the Square, “they appear both materially
flat, and optically expansive.”14
Mute Science, too, oscillates between material fact and optical effect. Salto
creates spaces through tonalities, but without the use of primary colors. As
in his previous work, the artist draws on a visual vocabulary restricted to different
shades of black, grey and white, exploring the possibilities of variations
within this limited palate. Through the interplay between form and refined gradations,
on the spectrum between light and dark, he creates a distinct sense of spatial depth.
The earlier photograms in the series resemble, with their demarcated rims, the accordion
-shaped bellow of an early analog camera. Ranging from small to large, these works
explore the range of perceptual experiences of space, as the works increase in size
and thus in corporeal presence.
Like Albers’ Homage to the Square, the Untitled photograms in the Mute
Science series require prolonged contemplation. They seem enveloped in
silence, evoking a sense of timelessness, or perhaps the eternal. Stripped of
narrative and representation, the works refer to nothing beyond themselves.
Yet in the play between tones on the abstract surfaces, spaces appear: rooms
and corridors recede into space, ending in narrow entrances, which again
point to other spaces beyond. In the later works in the series, these spaces
become more elusive, almost science fiction-esque, defined by refined tonalities
and less contrast, achieved by the continuous movement of two filters during
a single exposure.
Salto insists on the materiality of his process as a way to escape the indexical
relationship of the photograph to the visible world. His adherence to a reductive
language offers the possibility of images that give shape to the immaterial
and intangible. The expansion of perception by refining vision, at the core of
Albers’ project, is in Salto’s practice tied to the human quest to look beyond
this world. The photograms do not slip into fiction: they rest at the border between
physical fact and perceptual leap. Like Caspar David Friedrich’s small
figure gazing into the vast abstract sublime in Monk by the Sea, we remain
on the cusp of the gateway to the other side. We look into the portal.
1 Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph” (1945). Available
aleph.html. Accessed December 11, 2010.
2 See, for example, the artist book 8 and Other
(Space Poetry, 2008), an exploration of mystical
interpretations of the numbers one through eight.
3 Here I borrow Daniel Birnbaum’s words.
Daniel Birnbaum, Chronology (Berlin: Sternberg
Press 2007), 179.
4 The fourth dimension was popularly associated
with the spirit world (an association supported by
the active spiritist movement of the time).
5 In his excellent introduction to Hinton’s writing,
Rudy Rucker describes Hinton’s project as follows:
“By working with these [hypercube] cross-sections
he was able to visualize the reality of the fact that if
a tesseract is pushed through our space, turned over,
and pushed back through, then the last cubical cross
section seen will be the mirror image of the last seen
the first time through.” Rudy Rucker, “Introduction,”
in Speculations on the Fourth Dimension: Selected
Writings of Charles H. Hinton (New York: Dover
Publications, 2009), 7. The fascinating 3-D animations
that a Google search on the tesseract yields
may offer better comprehension.
6 Ibid., 10.
7 As Rucker writes, “Hinton had to eventually face
that any experience of the fourth dimension was
difficult to achieve in practice: in the end it seems
that the best place to look for higher-dimensional
space is, as Hinton so often said, in the mind. We
still have no idea of how to axiomatize the logical
space in which our mind moves about, but there
is every reason to believe that this space is higher
dimensional.” Ibid., 7.
8 Rucker writes, “it has been my personal experience
that Hinton’s claim that the mind can move in
the 4-D space is true, although I cannot say that I
find the experience of turning the world into its own
mirror image is a pleasant one.” Ibid., 18. Martin
Gardner cites a letter from Hiram Barton, a British
engineer, who claims to have worked with Hinton’s
cubes in the 1920s: “Please believe me when I say
that they [hypercubes] are completely minddestroying
… the process is one of auto-hypnosis and, after
a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves
through one’s mind of their own accord. This is
pleasurable in a way, but it was not till I went to see
Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting
up an autonomous process in one’s own brain … ”
Martin Gardner, Mathematical Carnival 
(Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of
America, 1989), 52.
9 Conversation with the artist (December 1, 2010).
10 Josef Albers, Interaction of Color, small ed.
(New Haven and London: Yale University Press,
1971, rev. 1975), 31. Emphasis added.
11 Ibid., 12.
12 Variants, Albers suggests, “demonstrate...that
there is no final solution in form,” and form thus “demands
unending performance and invites constant
reconsideration—visually and verbally.” Ibid., 74.
13 Achim Borchardt-Hume, “Two Bauhaus Histories,”
in Albers and Moholy Nagy: From the Bauhaus
to the New World (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), 78.
14 Hal Foster, “The Bauhaus Idea in America,”
in Albers and Moholy Nagy: From the Bauhaus
to the New World (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), 94.