2022 Stefan Vanthuyne
Stefan Vanthuyne, independent writer, researcher and photographer.
Excerpt from the book 'Moving through the space of the picture and the page':
STILL AND STILL MOVING
Tine Guns makes both still and moving images. Very often, the book is the playground where she allows the two to meet and rub against each other. Contrary to film, the book allows you to pay attention to each image separately, to isolate it within its sequence, in the same meticulous way as it was placed in it. At the same time, the serial and sequential potential of the book offers the possibility to set the image in motion.
Amoureux Solitaires, from 2014, is essentially a flipbook—a book in which a series of still images, when being quickly flipped through and following each other at high speed, create an animation of the subject. Usually it is a simple, linear movement, since the focus of these books is on the speed at which the progression of images approaches the cinematic. In Amoureux Solitaires, however, Guns draws upon more advanced cinematographic techniques, such as cross-cut editing and split screen. Through this we are confronted with two events that seem to take place simultaneously within the created animation. We see a woman walking onto the scene, striding towards a man until they meet and kiss; we see a dog drinking from a puddle behind a white wall. In addition, she makes use of typical book aspects: the dog ultimately disappears in the gutter of the book, while the white wall is close to dissolving into the white of the page.
Guns experimented only once with the flipbook, probably because, as Johanna Drucker writes, such a book aims above all to draw the attention away from what is actually happening inside the book. The flipbook emphasizes the book as a flowing whole and ignores the impact of turning the page as “a slow unfolding of one space after another.” In her subsequent books, the measured progression through these spaces, and the way that movement and stillness can coexist within the sequence, is exactly what Guns wants us to become aware of, what she wants us to experience. To do so, she turns to Japanese manga, and the way it uses panels.
Panels or frames in comic books fracture both time and space, says the American cartoonist Scott McCloud. The white space between the panels is called the gutter, and it is in this gutter that the reader, based on his or her experience, expectation or imagination, connects the images and transforms them into one idea. This phenomenon, the mental filling in of the voids, is called closure. For McCloud, closure is crucial when reading comics. He calls it “the agent of change, time and motion”.
In comics there are different ways to make the transition between panels happen. Each panel deals with aspects of time and space in its own way, and each poses a different challenge in terms of closure. One way that is seldom used in Western comics, but often in Japanese manga, is the so-called ‘aspect-to-aspect’ transition, in which multiple panels allow us to absorb one scene and one moment, because time in the panels seems to stand still for that moment. “Rather than acting as a bridge between separate moments”, McCloud writes in regards to the closure, “the reader here must assemble a single moment using scattered fragments.” It mainly serves to create a certain quiet mood, or to represent a sense of place. In contrast to Western art, which is strongly focused on purpose, Japanese art is more cyclical and labyrinthine, McCloud explains. This is also reflected in Japanese comics, which focus not so much on getting somewhere as on being somewhere.
Inspired by manga artist Osamu Tezuka—specifically his masterful use of the frame or the panel, and its possible application within the photobook—Guns started to experiment with these panel transitions in The Diver (2017), a small and enigmatic book that takes place alternately in a hotel room along the Belgian coast and on the beach outside of it. It deals with restrained drama and its recollection, and the way that memory is constructed as a puzzle of emotional fragments.
The sea functions as an essential element in the story, but also as a metaphor: the calm, sometimes turbulent water depicts the emotional state of an anonymous protagonist. Its waves are reflected in the curtains; its restlessness is reflected in the tossed up sheets of the bed in the room.
The Diver originated within the context of a unique installation project. It was part of an exhibition with the sea as its central theme, spread out along the city of Ostend and the coastline, in which each artist was given a room in a hotel. Guns used the room assigned to her not only to show in, but also to work in. The window in the book is the window in the hotel room. Anyone who stayed in the room during the exhibition therefore stayed inside the work—or at least inside the space of the work. On the television in the room there was a video of a man who keeps trying to get out of the sea. On the bedside table laid the book. Those who read the book experienced the story on different spatial levels. He or she could look through the window and try to reconstruct the dream or the memory that is situated, trapped even, within the book.
Throughout the sequence, Guns is particularly thoughtful in the way she works with fractured time and space, giving it a tangible intensity. A sensitive use of image size and page layout support this. When two small images are placed in a top-to-bottom succession, they often appear to be separated within just a few seconds, as if they are short flashes. Elsewhere, images are larger, as is the distance between them, sometimes even skipping a page. As a result, the time between the images feels longer, depicting a “slow cinematic movement”, as McCloud aptly describes the effect of this use of multiple panels in Japanese manga.
Guns freezes time completely by cutting a horizontal picture into two vertical images, each of which she places on one side of a spread, each in its own panel or frame and with a gutter in between. It is her (photographic) take on the aspect-to-aspect transition; she sees them as two images deriving from one. Now, the speed at which we move through the book is not the same as the speed at which we move through the image. One image takes up not one, but two frames; we move forward in the book, but we linger in one and the same image. As mentioned, it is a technique that stimulates immersion and contemplation, and as such very much determines the atmosphere.
“The frames in ‘The Diver’ are to be read as the frames of the window between the inside of a hotel room and the seaside outdoors.”, Guns writes on her website. The way she employs this idea in the book is as subtle as it is important spreads demonstrate this in a most fascinating way. The first spread contains two vertical images of a fragment of the window in the hotel room. They are the largest size in the book, edged on the page by a white border that resembles the frame of a window. Cutting through the images horizontally is the edge of a balcony, and above that, the sea and the horizon. There are chairs on the balcony. The two image frames form an aspect-to-aspect transition.
The curtain is slid halfway open. Curtains symbolize both concealment and revelation. At the same time, they have a spatial quality, due to their visible texture and undulating relief. In the image on the right there is no curtain to be seen. The fact that we nevertheless look outside through a closed window is shown by the ever so light rectangle plastered across the horizon like a transparent patch. Glass does not let all the light through, it also reflects some of it; and despite the visual confusion it sometimes creates, it also emphasizes which side of the window we are on. Here, the glass also forms a physical screen that not only formally separates the outside from the inside, but also prevents us from simply stepping from one space into another. The spread and the panels, and more importantly the aspect-to-aspect transition, then, is being clearly used to draw our attention to the physicality and the restrictions that come with the window of the hotel room, presenting us with an outside view that is at once inaccessible.
In the following spread, which shows a similar aspect-to-aspect transition, the glass and the window that earlier emphasized our position on the inside looking out, are gone. Now we get a clear and open view of the sea and the beach at the bottom of the frames, where a tiny couple is walking. The view is now open and unobstructed; our view has moved beyond the window of the room, yet it seems evident that we are not on the beach, but still inside the room—or perhaps on its balcony. Here the frames in the book take on the function of frames of a window; they suggest that though we have a clearer view outward, we are still inside the space of the hotel room.
In this multi-layered book Guns creates a narrative that can be read in two directions—from front to back and from back to front. Around a third of the way through the book (starting from the left), we come across two images of an empty staircase—one on the right page of an otherwise empty spread, one on the left page of the next spread, with no image on the right. It evokes a turning movement, and as such is a pivotal point in the book in terms of structure—another (a single) image of a staircase, empty as well, can be found about two-thirds of the way through the book, serving as another pivotal point. In neither one of these staircase moments it is possible to see what direction we should be thinking of going, up or down, to the room upstairs or to the sea below—here too it can be read in two directions. It elicits an indecisiveness that is integral to the book’s narrative, in that it suggests a reading in two directions that is not open-ended or voluntary, but in fact refers to an anxious going back and forth in one’s mind, a constant reliving and mulling over of a dramatic event.
The book, then, albeit its small size (the size of a regular manga), becomes an intermediary space—a carefully constructed one—between the inside of the room and the sea outside of the hotel, but also between reality and memory, like an unfathomable passageway. The book becomes the space of the restless dream that shapes the narrative, the mental space in which the protagonist finds himself trapped and unresolved.
Voyeurism is the central theme in The Collector, a book from 2018. Photography and the urge to spy have always had a problematic relation to each other. Guns, however, wanted to add an extra element to the book, an element of suspense, something that is usually very specific to cinema. Suspense thrives on the expectations created by the viewer as a result of the tension in the plot. While the characters in the film are still in limbo, the viewer already senses what might happen. The advantage the viewer has over the character, who lives in ignorance, and that ensures that the viewer continues to watch, makes him or her in a sense a voyeur.
Suspense was the trademark of director Alfred Hitchcock. He used it to generate involvement and participation on the part of the viewer, who above all wants to warn the innocent characters of what is going to happen to them at any moment. In an essay on Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which James Stewart plays a photojournalist confined to a wheelchair who witnesses a possible murder via his camera lens, David Campany notices that hardly any photographs are made in the film. “For Hitchcock’s purposes, a photographer is above all someone who looks”, says Campany, who also points out that the photographer here is someone who is engaged in a socially accepted form of voyeurism. The camera is an instrument to hide behind, both literally and figuratively; an excuse and an exception, which puts the photographer in a unique position with an always dubious connection to power and responsibility.
In The Collector, Guns brings together a number of different gazes—the male gaze and the female gaze, as well as the gaze of the photographer and the one of the viewer—and plays them off against each other, creating a tense atmosphere. “Voyeurism requires a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer beyond the reach of the observed”, Campany writes. Both that distance—with which the camera lens is synonymous in a certain sense—and that point of view are played out remarkably by Guns in The Collector. This has everything to do with the special setting in which everything takes place, namely the Wassenhove House, a fine example of brutalist architecture from the seventies, designed by Juliaan Lampens. The house is known for its open structure, in which all living areas and functions are connected by geometric figures. Nowhere are there any closed rooms, so nowhere can one really escape the other’s attention.
In the opening sequence of the book we approach the house by means of a highly cinematic tracking shot. It moves both forwards, up to the outer wall of the building, and sideways, guided by the shadows of the trees, up to a small, circular opening through which—as Guns in her sequence suggests—our eyes secretly enter the house. Circles are a recurring element. In the house they mainly serve as an opening to let light in, as if through a lens, and thus also to distinguish the inside from the outside. Both the light and the gaze pass through it; the light moves from outside to inside and the gaze of the woman, who seems to be trapped inside the house, from inside to outside. In the images they form a motif throughout the book. The bed too, in the centre of the space and in the narrative, is in a round, open construction. As in The Diver, Guns occasionally focuses on corners and stairs.
It seems evident that at least a day and a night pass by, but it is not clear how real time passes in the book. Now and then Guns uses the same aspect-to-aspect transition technique as in The Diver, resulting in a palpable intensity and tension. Nevertheless, the atmosphere she creates here is above all a spatial one. The goal Guns has set herself, within the framework of invisible ideas such as voyeurism and suspense, is to make the open structure of the house feel very private and even oppressive.
The book offers no plan of the house at all, hardly any footing even—it doesn’t help us navigate this place, open as it nonetheless may be. On the contrary, while we move from one page to the next, the spaces inside of the house are partial and obscure (this in contradiction to the clear and elegant run-up to the house from the outside, in low winter sunlight), providing us with a fragmented and dark experience, reflecting the somewhat puzzled experience of the female protagonist trapped inside the house.
Of all the books discussed here, then, The Collector is perhaps the closest of all to the concept of the book as an architectural volume. However, given the themes she works with, such as memories, which are usually built on loose mental structures, Guns offers little to hold onto within that volume. Ultimately, the book relates to the house as a sort of mirror palace, a construction that not only reflects the space of the house in a disorienting way, but also encapsulates it.
In Rocambolesco (2019) Guns uses “sequential photography to capture a memory, a moment in time”. Throughout the progress of the book, which has eighty pages, she does everything she can to remain in that short, isolated period of time. To do this, she experiments not just with the aspect-to-aspect transitions of the panels in Japanese manga, but also with pretty much any other type of panel-to-panel transition available, which she then cleverly combines with a series of editing and cutting techniques that find their origin in cinema. Guns has used these techniques before, but the way she blends them here feels more complex and refined than in her previous publications. Although the focus of the book is on slowing down time, it is now also linked to a constantly shifting spatial dynamic, both at the level of the image and at the level of the page, creating a most intriguing interplay between image and page.
What is new in Rocambolesco is the way that Guns uses a grid to cut images into fragments and to then arrange them. The grid can be traced back to the manga comics, but also to graphic design. In both cases it forms a kind of ground plan of the page, a way of creating order. In her classic essay Grids from 1979, Rosalind Krauss discusses the history and function of the grid in art. Krauss searches for the first traces of the grid in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in the first treatises on perspective, but argues that perspective studies are not early cases of grids after all. Perspective has a direct relation with the real—Krauss calls it the science of the real—whereas according to her, the grid is a withdrawal from it.
Perspective was the demonstration of the way reality and its representation could be mapped onto one another, the way the painted image and its real-world referent did in fact relate to one another—the first being a form of knowledge about the second. Everything about the grid opposes that relationship, cuts it off from the very beginning. Unlike perspective, the grid does not map the space of a room or a landscape or a group of figures onto the surface of a painting. Indeed, if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself. It is a transfer in which nothing changes place.
In this way, the grid in Rocambolesco reminds us that the page of the book is a surface we are looking at. The page is where the image is printed; it is the carrier of the photograph, and therefore has no direct connection with the reality shown in the photograph. In other words, what we see when we look at the page is not the same as what we see when we look at the photograph.
The function of the grid here is to provide structure; it organizes the images on the page in a spatial, but also in a sequential way. It is a system that indicates in which direction and in which order we should navigate through the panels. The chequered way in which Guns fills in the grid (or leaves it empty) and places the panels in a gently progressing connection with each other, determines how we experience the passage of time as we move through the book; how the displayed time in the image sequence relates to the actual time of the book.
At the same time, the grid also allows her to emphasize spatial aspects such as high and low, far and close, in order to accentuate the depth and the perspective that may not exist on the page, but that does exist in the image. What is high on the page, on the top half, is also far or high in her field of vision; what is at the bottom is close or low. Guns uses the grid on the page, then, to support the perspective—or the idea of perspective—that is present in (the fragment of) the photograph; the grid subtly amplifies it.
On the cover of Rocambolesco is an image made through a window; the photographer is inside, the window and the curtains are visible; outside is the sea, and further on we see a man near a railing, and a car. Although the figure quickly attracts attention, outlined against the surface of water in the background, the focus is on the window, which again forms a visible transparent screen between inside and outside, between dark and light. The window is tall and can be opened in the middle. The two window frames form a border that divides the view of the outside into two parts. Both the thicker railing of the terrace in front and the thin railing across the street, on which the man is leaning, evoke a horizontal separation (albeit not perfectly in the middle). The grid that will be used throughout the book is thus already hinted at in the first image.
In symbolist art, the grid often appears in the form of a window, writes Krauss, with panes—or panels—that become visible through the window’s geometrical mullions. The window is experienced as something simultaneously transparent and opaque; it admits light, but it also reflects (see also The Diver). The window is both polyvalent and ambivalent, and it is the bars of the windows that make us see this, make us focus on it, says Krauss. In this way, the windows themselves become the symbol of the work of art. They function as a multi-layered representation through which the work of art—and here the work of art is the book—can allude to a reality, and even reconstruct it.
Open the book—a gesture you could compare to opening the window, with the expectation of stepping out—and you immediately hit upon exactly the same image as on the cover. The next image, again on the right page, offers a zoomed-in section of that image: the window is now narrowed down to the long, narrow left rectangle of the window, which is demarcated by the intermediate strut on the right and the thick terrace rail at the bottom of the picture. The left half of the image is occupied by the curtain, which obstructs a wider outside view. Both in terms of time and space—but also on a conceptual level—a lot has happened on barely three pages (including the cover), yet nothing really seems to have happened. In the time of the book we have turned two pages, but in the time of the images we have apparently made no progress. However, the image perspective has narrowed, which within the narrative of the book increases the intensity of the gaze.
Something similar happens towards the end of the book, when we arrive at the climax of the story. The redeeming image of a girl jumping off a cliff is repeated three times, each time on the right page, without grid, with white border. This time no zoom or cut-out; this time no suspense, but suspension. Holding on to the moment in all its glory.