Stefania Kenley : Staging Dialectics, “Section drawings and X-Ray photographs”

Text by Muriel Berthou Crestey

 „Die Kunst – „ach, die Kunst“: sie besitz, neben ihrer Verwandlungsfähigkeit, auch die Gabe der Ubiquität“

“The art – ‘ah, the art’ : with its ability to transfigure, it has also the gift of ubiquity …”[1]

During the trans-disciplinary conference “Reflecting the projection” (Réfléchir la projection) organised by Véronique Campan at University of Poitiers (France), held on 26th-28th May 2011, the architect Stefania Kenley presented a paper “Section drawings and X-Ray photographs” (“Dessins en coupe et photographies au rayon X”), ending with a series of original images – as a post-scriptum to or an echo of her argument. These images were intended to further the idea of a genealogy of projection, already present in the theories of Walter Benjamin. Jean-Louis Déotte has shown that, in his unfinished work Paris : Capitale du XIXème siècle, all Benjamin’s conceptual realities have “a doubling of… registers, of the aura, of the trajectory, of the Past, the Present, the Future…”[2]. Otherwise, we would have a singular point of view, “either the one of Technique (the architecture of metal and glass, electric lighting, etc.) or the one of Capitalism (the merchandise, the great exhibitions…)”[3].

Following this line of thought, the images of Stefania Kenley revealed the organic dimension of urban landscape through a shifting gaze. Her exploration of European cities covers several places organised according to their longitude : Athens, Stockholm, Venice, Essen, Rotterdam, Paris, London. Thus, she progressively gathered and interpreted a series of images on two registers, separated horizontally – above, an urban view and below, a vision of the same place, in a totally different configuration. This “underground” space – secret, hidden or imaginary – raises questions in relation to the upper level. It designates alternatively an underground, a section, or an impression, giving a different viewpoint. The two registers, which meet on an imaginary horizontal line, create a tension between interior and exterior, imaginary and real, memory and the present. Movement is perceived in relation to still images.

The confrontation between the scale of the urban network and one’s gaze gives a visible form to conceptual representations. Showing such spaces leads to a reversal of the world as experienced, questioning the first impressions of a place (for instance, the idyllic appearance of a Venetian architecture dissimulates what is in fact a tenous, even dangerous project). There is an intention to go beyond the surface and grasp the reality of a specific situation in depth, to go beyond the expected perception of a tourist site and see its lines of fracture. Stefania Kenley pursues a kind of dialectical thinking through images by constructing a duality of concepts. Vision is enriched by this panoptical assemblage, where ourperception overflows the picture framework. Viewpoints are multiplied. The gaze is unfolded. Thenceforth, there is a « doubling of the visible »[4] that appears to the traveller’s eyes.

During a trip, what matters is not only what we see. It is the way we apprehend a landscape that gives it its real density. A distracted tourist will remember only the slick surface of a monument, while the traveller interested in history will fashion his process of discovery into material to be worked and thus made visible. One can also remember a place due to a strong emotion. Another possibility would be to project oneself in the future, overlapping architectural drawings on the reality of an existing built environment. How do we position ourselves in relation to a place ? How do we occupy its space? The dissociation method proposed by Stefania Kenley allows the encounter of different perspectives of the same setting. This multiplication of registers of perception proceeds like an imaginary voyage. Indeed, the spectator is continuously divided between two images ; he tries to approach them mentally and relate them despite their formal differences. We thus come to define an active dissolution of time and space, which re-evaluates the importance of “here” and “now”, developed by Gilles Tiberghien in The principle of Axolotl : “now we travel in the same way as we dream, and the  unconscious, evermore strongly solicited, comes to constitute the place, or the non-place of the voyage – because neither space nor time ever exist in the unconscious”[5] Illusion or truth ? Reality or project ? One hesitates to trust one facet or another. The duality principle is realised by a vertical juxtaposition of registers. The vanishing points are united only in one’s imagination, while the captions are only technical description. One perceives facades, reflections, coloured photographs opposed to monochromes, or to abstract effects. But illusions are sometimes deceptive. The landscape that seems most real is the most detached from reality.

A project is on the way. Something is about to emerge slowly under the motionless appearance of what is below the ground. Stefania Kenley reveals a hidden face of the urban landscape. She repositions our attention to the unseen but real aspects of what is visible above the ground. She shows the things in depth to bring them up to our consciousness. She produces a cut between the image that we have of a place and its real configuration. Stefania Kenley makes visible the Meridian that separates the imaginary from reality.

Muriel Berthou Crestey, “Staging Dialectics”, Arhitectura, 3/2011


[1] Paul Célan, Le Méridien & autres proses, traduit de l’allemand et annoté par Jean Launay, Edition du Seuil, 2002, (Der Meridian S. FISCHER Verlag, 22 oct. 1960), p. 64
[2] Jean-Louis Déotte, L’Homme de verre. Esthétiques benjaminiennes, Paris, Coll. Esthétiques, 1998.
[3] Jean-Louis Déotte, Le Musée, l’origine de l’esthétique (Paris, coll. Philosophie en commun,1993.
[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’œil et l’esprit, Paris, Gallimard, 1985, p. 85
[5] Gilles A. Tiberghien, Le Principe de l’Axolotl, Paris, Au figuré, 1990, p. 26.
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