Henrik Oxvig – Københavns Universitet

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Henrik Oxvig, Copenhagen:
WHAT IMAGES DO

University Copenhagen, The Department of Art and Cultural Studies 
(IKK)
 / HUM Campus, Copenhagen
10. September 2014, Wednesday, 10.15-11.15, ROOM 27.0.09 

In Plato’s dialogue, The Sophist, Socrates discusses what an image is with ‘The Stranger’, who at one point asks: ’Then what we call a likeness [eikona], though not really existing, really does exist?’ Socrates and ‘The stranger’ discusses what the image is if it’s not – and should not be confused with – what it looks like. The question is, in other words, why are we doing images, what do we use them for?
In his Theorie des Bildakts (2010) Horst Bredekamp considers, how we use images and what we do with them. The inspiration is – among others – that paradox ‘The Stranger’ puts forward in The Sophist and which suggests that what images are is different from what they look like. According to Bredekamp ’the truth in this paradox is the logic of the image’ – and Bredekamp is thus in line with Gottfried Boehm, to whom ’The Stranger’s’ question articulates the central issue of contemporary image theory; it is with attention to this issue, Boehm has identified the particular being of images as a difference, an iconic difference.
       The American theoretician of images and spaces, David Summers, has also been inspired to sharpen the question of what images are – and what they do – by The Sophist: ’To my mind Socrates had long ago already raised two fundamentally important and finally incompatible questions. The first is this: Why is there a desire to create doubles, to match appearances to the point of reanimation. (…) The second question is this: If Socrates is right, and we do not really want images to be doubles, because then they could not serve their purposes as images, what are the purposes that only images can serve?’
       If we – on the basis both of Bredekamp, Boehm and Summers – turn our attention to architecture and thus to what Robin Evans has called ’the translation from drawing to building’, we get one, possible answer to the first of the two questions, Summers asks with reference to Socrates. Evans notes that architects gain from imagining that there actually is identity between drawing and building, between the line and the wall. With reference to architectural drawings from the Renaissance, Evans writes: ’Only with this reassurance of sufficient affinity between paper and wall could the drawing have become the locus of the architect’s activity, capable of absorbing all his attentions and then transporting his ideas into building without undue disfiguration.’ The architect needs to neglect the difference between on the one hand the image (the drawing) and on the other the building, which the drawing looks like, but is not. Architects gain from working with what Evans refers to as an ’imaginary condition’: That the translation from drawing to building takes place in a uniform space, that does not require – and does not cause – distortions and changes. According to Mario Carpo, Alberti’s architectural theory actually is based on the idea that there is identity between the image and what it looks like: ’What matters is the relation of identicality between the original and its reproduction. Alberti’s entire architectural theory is predicated on the notational sameness between design and building, implying that drawings can, and must, be translated into three-dimensional objects.’ 
       In other words, only after the Platonist Alberti architectural theory – like image theory – has begun to take interest in issues that emerges if we do not neglect that the image is not what it looks like. Perhaps this non-identity opens unique opportunities for our ambition to create rich architecture? According to Mario Carpo it’s even a problem if we still insist on the idea that it is possible to translate from (computer) drawings to building without deliberately changing and developing various aspects during the process of translation. And for Evans it’s an articulated ambition ’to produce precise knowledge of the patterns of deviation’s from the imaginary condition’ that there is a uniform space for translation that does not require – and does not cause – distortions and changes.
       Both Carpo and Evans are aware that images or drawings (computer drawings, for example) still are prerequisites for creating architecture. But they insist at the same time that the work of creation must take place with the understanding that there are differences between drawing and building. Perhaps one can explain the textural poverty we are experiencing with many computer-generated and – realized buildings by the forgetting of this difference? For it is essay to forget the iconic difference as it remains a fact – even in our computer age – that the building can not be realized without images, without drawings: The building is a representation of the drawings, not vice versa.

The question is if we by attention to the fact that it is a process of change to translate from drawing to building gain answers to the second question, Summers asks interested in understanding what only images can do. Maybe architects – and thus architecture – can benefit from insights gained on the basis of both Bredekamp’s and Boehm’s attention to the paradoxical logic of the image: the iconic difference? And perhaps the inspiration can be mutual? Perhaps attention to architects work with drawings in the process of developing a building can enrich our understanding of the iconic difference? When Robin Evans decided to articulate architects often tacit knowledge, related the active experience that there is no identity between drawing and building, he was – as he states – of the opinion that ’architecture and the visual arts were closely allied.’ But soon he was ’struck by what seemed at the time the peculiar disadvantage under which architects labour, never working directly with the object of their thought, always working at it through some intervening medium, almost always the drawing.’

Henrik Oxvig is head of research at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation. Until 2005 he was associate professor and director of studies at the Department of Art History, University of Copenhagen. From 2005 to 2011 he was director of the doctoral program at The School of Architecture, and in 2012-14 he has participated in the international research network, What Images Do, which organized a conference with the same title in Copenhagen, March 2014.