Shortly after the proposition of bringing the royal collection into public view at the Grande Galerie, Hubert Robert was appointed Garde du Muséum in 1778 while a resident artist at the Louvre. The landscape and architectural painter assumed all the tasks classically associated with a curator’s function: inventory of the collection, acquisitions, supervision of restoration, and participation in the refurbishment of the building — which is reflected in his pictures of the exhibition spaces he lived in and worked on.
His two paintings from 1796, both exhibited at the Salon of the same year, can be seen as early formations of today’s ubiquitous installation shots, and what makes them even more interesting is how they reveal the temporalities that such images engender. Refurbishment Project of the Grande Galerie of the Louvre displays the gallery interiors in a resolutely sharp perspective, paintings hung frame to frame (“skied”) from floor to ceiling, statues on pedestals or in dedicated niches, the public dwarfed by the monumental scale of the space, walking around and pointing at art works, and a handful of copyists in front of masterpieces — among whom is pictured Robert himself, carefully studying Raphael’s Holy Family. This picture, although recalling the legacies of Renaissance illusionism and its representational precision, is not an actual view of what the painter could have really been looking at while making sketches. Carrying an evocative title borrowed from architectural language, the picture is Robert’s proposal for renovating the gallery that was at the time a long hallway with neither divisions nor decor, dimly lit by narrow windows. It was a call for the prospective division of the gallery into several bays by a system of niches surrounded by ionic pilasters, heavy architraves, and a coffered, vaulted skylight. A pendant to this painting was Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in Ruins, which depicts, from a slightly different point of view, the same hallway with the same propositional details in place but in a state of ruin — the sky and other natural forces having intruded and replaced the artworks. Here, again, Robert has pictured himself, but while making a drawing of the Apollo Belvedere.
Both of these pictures are stylistically realist, and are both real (art) historical materials through which one can track the life of an institution along hectic moments of social and political change. Their artist, on the other hand, is driven by forces of speculation, positing spaces of experience in relation to near and far futures. His picturesque style, pertaining to pseudo-antique scenes that brought him the nickname Robert of Ruins, simultaneously marks an end to centuries of institutional development and projects another beginning upon the ruins. It is in this nascent moment that Robert makes a typical Renaissance statement on art historical ancestrality and the formation of artist-subjects, by turning away from modern masterpieces toward ancient classics. He imagines himself outlining the future of his practice by resorting to the few remaining originary forms and figures, and not by attending to the reality of the future he has envisioned. The space opened up between these two picture planes addresses the future as if it is given, bound to eternal retrospection. An understanding of history and the conditions of progress are held up by the constant reincarnation of classical ideals.
Paintings, architectural renderings and installation shots each belong to different regimes of practice and perception. The concept and technique of perspective is key here. It rose from within the context of architectural thought, which is primarily concerned with conceiving projects: bridging ideas and built realities. Across a period spanning from fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, it was developed first “as a preferred vehicle for transforming the world into a meaningful human order” and then “became a simple re-presentation of the external world for human vision.” (Pérez-Gómez, 2005) A history of the perspective shows how visual coordinates, on the one hand, and reductionist mathematical construals, on the other, have shaped the very extents of reality itself. The perfection of applicable manuals encouraged the architect “to assume that the projection was capable of truly depicting a proposed architectural creation and, therefore, to design in perspective.” Architecture, as a practice devoted to the materialization of the future, could now be rendered as a picture.
Fast forward to the contemporary time and the standard computer-generated architectural rendering is itself a documentary photograph. Modeling softwares are used when planning exhibition spaces, and they come to serve as more than a tool in the hands of the curator trying to figure out where to put what. To write the customary exhibition essay, the writer is usually faced with a wide array of visuals that attempt to prefigure an exhibition: JPEGs of individual works, crude architectural plans and basic SketchUps with silhouette figures. But what if there were enough time and resources for the production of some super-realistic installation renderings so that there would be no requirement for subjective postulations in order to write a proactive essay? What if the installation shots that land on the screen of one’s cellphone or emerge, one after another, during a curator’s talk amounted to nothing more than speculation? Would be a lame joke to frame all this as a conspiracy that claims to unravel the truth about everything. All this thought experiment can reveal is an abstract machine that regulates the exchanges of actuality, making sure that nothing escapes the immanence of mediation. It doesn’t matter if there is any art beyond the frame of installation shots. The question of being in or out of reach is just irrelevant since installation shots, for the time being, simply can set the preferred mode of access.
Installation shots, whether captured or generated, are capable of mediating both past and future experiences. The phantasmagoric situation of the globalized contemporary art can be identified by a particular temporal tendency for constant transition from being retrospective to being prospective, from documentation to projection, and back again. The contemporary idea of originary forms is caught in the arrival of installation shots from the future and their ensuing perpetuation in the transit lounges of exhibitions: Spaces of experience, exemplifying a contemporary sense of transience, are required merely for ensuring an abundance of installation shots, and for facilitating the automatized reincarnation of what has just been projected into the fleeting specters of other upcoming projections. What happens between each departure and every landing is similar to the undergoing of a morphing technique, a recombinant pattern laid across the soupy shades of grey that open up, like decimal gates, deeper and deeper in between every white and every black and only find sharpness and contrast in the temporary teleology of an installation shot. The shape of contemporary art practice, the formation of its syntactic geometry, seems to be best traceable not in the general and wildly omnipresent use of the word project but in the exercise of specific variations of prōicere, its Latin root: to stretch out or extend, to throw away or give up, to defer or delay, all ever until further notice.
An earlier version of this text was published in PNYX, an autonomous imprint of Architectural Association, London.