The metamorphosis of the anamorphosis
The anamorphosis is a visual design that plays with ideas of space, concepts of reality and the relationship between what is and what is perceived. It is often impossible to tell where an anamorphic image starts, where it ends, and where it is in the space. Anamorphoses found their way from 16th century painting into landscaped gardens and on to the stage. Though, in François Abélet’s view, the differences between the variants are minimal. Abélet is an architect and France’s ‘Mister Anamorphosis’.
His (mostly) botanical installations show abstract sculptures or geometric motifs that change according to where the viewer is standing.
Abélanet is something of an expert on the anamorphosis. In his work, he fuses neurological and psychological findings with Baroque aesthetics – his initial inspiration was the tradition of 17th century French castle gardens and their focus on perspective, such as designed by André Le Nôtre. “Le Nôtre, who by the way was also a trained painter, applied the visual effects used at the time in art and theatre to the landscape garden. Everything is conceived and designed in terms of perspective. Every path, every hedge, every ornament contributes to a unified picture of architecture and nature. It is a visual effect similar as that created on stage,” enthuses Abélanet, who admits to being a huge fan of Le Nôtre: “Even the forms of the bushes and the shadows they cast are precisely calculated.” In this sense, these gardens were already a kind of stage, just waiting to be prepared and used for performances.
The circle game
Abélanet’s passion is playing with optical illusions and dimensionality. “I start with a two-dimensional image that I project into the space. Walking around the form, you get to the point where you see a three-dimensional image.” He often plays with circular forms that seem to stand vertically in the landscape. Most of his works are openly accessible so that viewers can walk around them and try out the illusion themselves. In this way, they can experience first-hand how the brain suggests an image that does not materially exist. The three-dimensionality and the verticality are sheer illusions. And anyone who stands within the image seems to lean horizontally. This is nicely illustrated in videos accessible on Abélanet’s website (francois-abelanet.com), which also documents the making-of works including, for example, his celebrated 2011 installation outside the Paris City Hall, featuring a turf globe implanted with numerous trees stretching up into the sky. The trees were real but anyone who touched them, though standing firmly on the ground, appeared to be on the verge of collapse. It is astounding how the brain works: Having learned to see things in a certain way, it won’t be tricked. And that is exactly why it can be tricked.
Anamorphoses are not always circular. They can also be cuboid, such as in Où sommes nous? which Abélanet created for the Jardin de Bagatelle in Paris. In 2016 he came up with his most elaborate work to date for the Paris Institut du Monde Arabe: an ensemble resembling a rosette of 33 elements of varying shapes and sizes, made of 6000 seedlings of 120 different kinds of plant. Le Nôtre himself would have taken his hat off to this 2000m²-wide starshaped polygon carpet, which was later also installed in Sicily.
Anamorphosis and democracy
The analogy between gardens and carpets has also preoccupied scenographer Nadia Lauro. “Persian rugs are always based on the design of a garden,” she says. Her anamorphoses for the stage, then, recreate textile patterns. Though she rarely works with anamorphoses, she is one of the very few to use them for the stage at all.
There is a reason for the rarity. The effect relies on being seen from a particular perspective, where the illusion takes shape. But theatre audiences cannot always choose where they sit. And the auditorium offers a range of perspectives. Yet what applies to the anamorphosis also applies to many other stage designs. There are better and less effective perspectives and sightlines. Nonetheless, theatre today with its seating is more ‘democratic’ than the gardens at Versailles in the Baroque era.
The first choregrapher for whom Lauro rolled out the carpet was Emanuelle Huynh in 2012. Her piece Augures for seven dancers was inspired by the hotel in the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining and the iconic hexagonally patterned carpet it features. Lauro took the carpet’s pattern and printed it as a hilly landscape – a kind of spatial organism reflecting the hotel in the film.
But the contrast between the two-dimensional reality of the flat ground and the hilly relief perceived by the audience was only part of the illusion. It was reinforced by the dancers, who now and again seemed to jump over a hill or lie in a valley – though as the choreography and scenography were developed separately, this was mere coincidence.
Later Lauro visited the harpist Zeena Parkins in New York, who was engaged in transposing lacemaking motifs of the Shetland Islands to music. Lauro decided to take this one step further and turn the music into scenography. For the piece which Parkins eventually called Stitchomythia – stitches and myths – Lauro created an anamorphosis in black and white, to evoke engravings, in which the performers literally seemed to float. The computer-generated motifs were inkjet printed in white on a 1 cm-thick carpet. The result created the impression of a white veil hovering over the dark floor. Short videos of these pieces can be viewed on Lauro’s website (nadialauro.com).
Stage technicians, for their part, appreciate the easy installation. An additional layer of non-slip rubber is laid under the printed flying carpet, and no further fixing is required. But if it is all so simple yet effective, why don’t we see more trompe l’oeil floors on stage? In fact, a new generation of theatre-makers is currently using projections to create floors with even more confounding, shifting effects and trickery – more on which in a coming issue.
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