Enter the third dimension

USF’s Contemporary Art Museum has done it again – their current exhibition, StereoVision, is another engaging show in a long list of successes. The name is inspired by the Victorian invention of stereographs and stereoscopes, a comprehensive collection of which are on display.

Although Victorians are often remembered for their strange clothing and uptight behavior, they can also be credited with several inventions still popular today. For instance, flushing toilets, light bulbs and comic books were invented during the Victorian era, which spanned from the 1830s to 1900. However, some inventions have become mere novelties – such as the stereograph.

Based on knowledge of how the human eye perceives visual images, the stereograph turns regular photographs, which are two-dimensional, into 3-D images. Roughly 7 inches wide by 3 inches tall, stereographs contain two photographs that appear identical when arranged side by side. Although the two images appear to be duplicates, they are actually pictures of the same subject(s) taken a slight distance apart. When the stereograph is inserted into a stereoscope – a Victorian contraption invented to make the viewing of stereographs possible – the two photographs overlap, thus creating a three-dimensional view of the image.

Existing before cinema and television, stereographs served as a form of entertainment for Victorians. While sitting in their armchairs, Victorians embarked on adventures to the moon, African villages, the pyramids of Egypt, battlefields and even the inside of prisons. Although a wide variety of subjects were photographed, StereoVision contains stereographs that can be arranged into three categories: portraiture, cityscapes and industrial marvels and journalistic subject matter.

However, contrary to popular beliefs about the modesty of Victorians, the technology of stereographs was also used to create three-dimensional Victorian pornography. Although these types of images are not included in the exhibit, a stereo daguerreotype of a nude woman from the 1840’s is on display, hinting to the “naughtier” side of stereography.

Although StereoVision is inspired by stereographs, the exhibit is not limited to only these types of artwork. Instead, the exhibit builds on the concept of stereographs, which were early experimentations with perception.

“As StereoVision proposes a discursive platform to question perceptive notions of space, the contemporary works selected for the exhibition are considered less as literal extensions of the vintage stereograph and more as visual and conceptual investigations into the nature of spatial perception,” said curator Izabel Galliera.

One such artist who plays with perception is German artist Barbara Probst. “Exposure #1,” produced between 2000-2002, consists of two color photographs mounted on Dibond aluminum composite panels. The photographs were taken with two cameras arranged at different viewpoints, resulting in varying vantage points of the same subject. The first photograph is a cityscape taken from high above that focuses on the rooftop of a building, where a person in a white top and dark pants appears to be running. Although in motion, the quick exposure time prevents the subject from being blurred. However, the subject remains small and indistinguishable because of the far distance of the camera.

The second photograph is a close-up of the same subject. Contrary to the first photograph, the camera is arranged at ground level and a slow exposure time is used, resulting in a blurred yet detailed view of the same runner. The runner is a young woman glancing to her left so that she can look into the camera as she runs past. Interestingly, the camera that the runner is glancing into can be seen within the picture. This technique reflects Probst’s fascination not only with perception, but also with the technology that produces it.Just as stereographs contain two photographs with slightly different viewpoints, so too does Probst’s work. However, instead of being taken in the same plane, Probst’s photographs are taken from very different vantage points. Regardless, the effect is the same, and a sense of three-dimensionality is produced. Abandoning literal interpretations, the conceptual parallels become obvious.

“Stereoscope,” an animated video projection by South African artist William Kentridge, is also conceptually similar to the stereograph through its use of the split screen. Instead of presenting similar images on the two sides of the screen, however, Kentridge employs the technique to show different realities, which represents the contradiction in human nature and desire.

Kentridge’s animations are based on his charcoal drawings, which are sometimes interspersed with the colors of red and blue – a possible reference to the colors of the South African flag. In “Stereoscope,” only blue – traditionally employed to represent sorrow – is used.

The work of Kentridge focuses on the aftereffects of apartheid, the system of ethnic segregation in South Africa from the 1940’s to the 1990’s. This separation of white citizens from black has created a cultural duality that is represented well through the split-screen technique. The “complementary yet unsynchronized projections” effectively symbolize the paradoxical nature of human beings.

Other pieces in StereoVision include the hologram self-portraits of Chuck Close (“4 Holographic Self-Portraits”), the visual and auditory three-dimensionality of Janet Cardiff’s House Burning” and Brian Meola’s “Untitled Ponderings of Identity.” Also, “Parallel Cityscapes” by Janis Garancs and James Tunick is a standout interactive piece that presents a futuristic probability for memory spaces and information gathering and sharing.StereoVision runs until Aug. 4 at the USF Contemporary Art Museum.