The Horizon according to Jan Dibbets : an Endless Quest A childhood memory
Playing a special – indeed outstanding – part in the constellation of motifs characterizing Jan Dibbets’s photographic oeuvre, the horizon line first entered his repertoire in 1969, in a context of association with the history of conceptual art. Paradoxically, however, it was this context and his representation of the horizon line that would lead Dibbets to cut free of the dogmatic iconophobia of conceptualism in a return to a more ‘pictorial’ notion of the photographic object. That the line in question addresses itself to the eye more than any other motif is symptomatic here; and it is not at all surprising that it should go on to become emblematic of Dibbets’s overtly photographic goals. This essay sets out to analyse and put into perspective the horizon line works and series the artist produced during the 1970s and has been working on afresh since 2005.
As a rule artists involved in the history of conceptual art do not justify or legitimise their practice with autobiographical data. Jan Dibbets, whatever his (conflictual) relationship with this branch of art history, is no exception to the rule: in his case the art and the life are considered as two quite separate trajectories. And while sometimes, in the course of a discussion, he moves from one to the other, it is rare indeed that one and the other merge or match up. There is, however, a childhood memory the artist likes to recall, rightly seeing in it a portent, a clearly identifiable symptom of concerns to come. Aged eight or nine, Jan accompanied his teacher father on an outing to Scheveningen – a first for a child who had never seen the sea – and as he left the bus and climbed the dike he was overwhelmed by the sight that lay before him, one whose visibility he seems to have been unable to cope with: water extending as far as the eye could see, meeting the sky and perceived as an impassable wall. In its sheer singularity this experience went diametrically counter to the notion of a perceptual act intended to stabilise both the world and our position in relation to it. ‘Without a horizon,’ Céline Flécheux has written, ‘how can I have the feeling of being the starting point for the space spread out before me? How can I believe that the boundaries I experience are those that shape my activity as a sentient, speaking subject? And how am I to determine my position in a space that no longer provides any bearings? In its permanence the horizon reassures us of a certain stability in the world… As long as our consciousness discerns a horizon – a beyond-perception – it knows it will not be faced with arbitrary gaps: this coherence gives landscape substance, and preserves consciousness from leaps into the unknown, from distortions and from the upsurge of the void.
Whence the disturbing aspect of Dibbets’s recollection: neither the horizon nor the perception of it – they come to the same thing, given that the former depends on the latter for its existence – is associated with a potential for transcendence. ‘The horizon,’ Flécheux continues, ‘reveals not only that which ceases to exist, but also that which does not cease to exist, for it functions fugitively; as a boundary it is the locus of the appearance and disappearance of things in my visual field. Rather than being a line or a static apparition, it indicates the transitional point where bodies become visible and disappear. None of this was apprehended by the child at Scheveningen. Flattened into irreducible two-dimensionality, the horizon for the young Dibbets was the harbinger of the plane, linear conception of things he would make his own in works first embarked on in 1969.
Five Island Trip
1969: Invited to take part in conceptual art promoter Seth Siegelaub’s Summer Show, Dibbets devised and implemented his Five Island Trip project, a journey spread over four consecutive days. The point of both departure and ultimate arrival was Amsterdam and the stopping places were the Dutch islands of Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog. The work, of which two versions exist, takes the form of a montage including a map of the Netherlands, a handwritten description (set in type in the ‘catalogue’) of the trips between the stopping places, the departure and arrival times and the modes of transport used; together with six photographs taken at points mentioned in the description and showing the sea demarcated by the horizon line.
At first glance Five Island Trip bears the stamp of a state of mind and a syntax favoured by conceptual and land art practitioners, notably Richard Long, whose Ben Nevis Hitch Hike offers certain grounds for comparison. In the interests of this comparative reading, however, it should be pointed out that the trajectories of these two artists – who are also friends – are complementary. In Long’s case, photography is subordinate to landscape, while in the Dibbets work landscape in a sense anticipates its photographic transcription. To put it another way, the former stresses the photographed and the latter the photographic. The conceptual context being what it was, all the indications are that when he set out on his trip to the five islands Dibbets was not completely aware that the image/referent relationship within his agenda was about to be reversed. True, this reversal is palpable in the Perspective Corrections group produced at the same time by the artist in his studio. But the multigraphic work created for Siegelaub’s ‘exhibition’ is just as revelatory of a major break, the six photos used by Dibbets being far from anodyne: they are not simply a vehicle for information resulting from the artist’s dissection of a process; and while it is true that they constitute a significant information base – their mere presence, for example, provides the proof and the trace needed to situate the trip in the past – what they offer the eye does not belong solely to the realm of the pointer and the factual. Here the horizon line appears unambiguously as a ‘plastic’ element, a datum which demarcation by the photographic square and the chromatic split between sky and sea only underscore. In the light of the horizon-based works to follow, then, the photographs of the trip to the Dutch islands already represent a clear fit with a composition/dissection rationale further emphasised by a stripped-down layout limited to the simple parameters of photographic mechanics.
One may justifiably wonder if the motif as such played a part in this break foretold; all the more so in that, as I have just mentioned, the break took place in a ‘hyperconceptual’ context a priori, and according to legend, hardly conducive to the emergence of an ‘iconic’ dimension. Given this, how to explain that it was precisely at this time that Dibbets decided to return to a more ‘painterly’ image system?
A liquidation of reality
The horizon, then. But why? An intimate element of Dutch art, the horizon motif played an active part in the move towards the ‘abstract’ – a process that began in the seventeenth century, as Paul Claudel so judiciously noted: ‘In Holland the eye is not surrounded by one of those readymade settings within which each person organizes his memory and his musings. Nature has not provided the eye with a precise horizon, only with that elusive join between an ever-changing sky and land which, via the interplay of every kind of nuance, sets off in search of the void… Just as Holland, around us, is a kind of preparation for the sea, a flattening of all relief, a spreading of its surface as far as human vision allows, and anticipation of water via pastureland, it would take little forcing for me to suggest that the basic endeavour of Dutch art is a kind of liquidation of reality.
This liquidation of reality would reach its culmination in Piet Mondrian’s Composition 10 in Black and White (1915), also known as Pier and Ocean, which triggered a dialectic that in the short term would be synonymous with a definitive shift into abstraction. The work in question, however, is nothing other than the end-point of a series of depictions of the expanse of the sea in which the ‘question’ of the horizon looms very large. As Flécheux puts it, ‘When Mondrian brings the horizon into the picture plane, he does so as much to stress its structural force in the spatial organisation of landscape as to make it advance into the foreground. In his paintings the horizon no longer has anything to do with mimetic depth; it becomes both a meeting point for heights and widths and the vanishing point for spatial points of reference. This geometrisation of space leads Mondrian to push the horizon back so far that the spatial plane ultimately becomes upright and coincides entirely with the picture plane. Is it not astonishing, then, that one day Dibbets declared his urge to ‘dress what Mondrian undressed’? His reasons for this had been given in an earlier interview with Bruno Cora: ‘The high point of what Mondrian set out to do was the finding of a transposition through which figurative art could develop via lines and colours, etc. What I’m trying to do with photography is to start out from where Mondrian stopped with Broadway Boogie-Woogie and to go further; but at the same time I’m moving in reverse, from abstract art to a realist art that has broken through the abstract art barrier.
The different series of works the artist based on the horizon line starting in 1970 seem to illustrate this notion perfectly, as Dibbets backtracks up his elder’s trail: no longer striving to get rid of the line in a quest for ‘total’ abstraction, but on the contrary exploring the possibilities offered by the motif from an equally abstract point of view. In this sense abstraction as Dibbets understands it cannot be taken in the modernist sense of the word, for he systematically approaches it via procedures aimed at accentuating a process of ‘representation Never actually signalling a renunciation of the world, it runs counter to all those tautological conceptions of the work of art so dear to Minimalist artists by taking the opposite tack: a transformative, recreative approach to reality closer to the one implemented in the work of seventeenth-century Dutch painter Pieter Saenredam, to whom Dibbets has paid numerous tributes. The horizon line cherished by the painters of the seventeenth century is thoroughly emblematic of the dialectical tension that impels the Dibbets oeuvre. At once ‘abstract and ‘realist’, the motif is highly elusive, not to say nonexistent, in that it can only become manifest via the sense of sight. This double polarity has constantly succeeded in pressing the photographic image into service as a powerful ally – we need only think of the countless images created by Gustave Le Gray in the nineteenth century – with its inherent cut playing a significant part in the disembodying of the motif.
When Dibbets began his series of horizons in 1970 he did so in a climate of radical iconoclasm. Uncompromisingly opposed to the specifications laid down by some of his conceptual colleagues, his ‘return to’ and use of images endowed with compositional properties was not only frowned on; it was also a clear source of suspicion. In addition, given its Dutch roots at a time when conceptual art swore solely by globalised art practices transcending national borders, the horizon line could not be separated from a romantic heritage totally at odds with the conceptualism of the period. Undaunted by these pressures, Dibbets held to his chosen path, beginning with Study for film 3 x horizon 45°, a preliminary study for a series of cinematic polyptychs produced the following year. By its very nature bereft of all autonomy, this 1970 work was but a timid prefiguring of many others to come, yet in it a formal principle and the use of variations are already clearly stated – as was the idea of a transgression of the sole inviolable property of this line: the horizontality which, in two of the five photographs, was tilted at an angle of 45°.
After making only this single appearance in 1970, the horizon line was largely dominant in 1971. Two groups of works can be distinguished here: those which observe the line’s horizontality and those which do not. An additional, decisive step was taken with the deployment of panoramic systems the artist had briefly experimented with in earlier ‘indoor’ works. These reflect a balance between spatial and temporal considerations. Their appropriation by Dibbets in the early 1970s – at a time, that is, when some of his works were aimed at deconstructing photographic time – seemed in effect inevitable, adding to his approach a summing up, an appraisal and a starting point for fresh investigations. Most of Dibbets’s photographic panoramas take the form, to quote Tatiana Tolstoi’s simple definition, of ‘a strip of paper longer than it is broad and presented flat. This latter characteristic emancipated the photographic panorama from all ‘realistic’ intent. According to Tolstoi, ‘panoramics dreamt of competing with human vision, but failed to do so. They could have died in attempting to achieve this pointless aim, were it not that a few particularly ingenious men made good use of its very limits, which became means of going beyond human vision. Instead of flatly reproducing one reality, a panoramic photographer invents another, more surprising reality, richer in meaning. Inventing a new reality based on a pre-existing one was the main concern in Dibbets’s approach and the panorama thus became a new representation – a ‘revision as Alfred Pacquement has put it – of what is invisible to us. However, the astonishing thing about the panoramas, even though some of them rely on camera mobility possibilities that render all attempts at and comparison with human sight null and void, is that in certain cases they seem to us paradoxically ‘realistic’. This ‘realistic’ aspect, however, is lacking from one of the main and best-known groups of works: the Dutch Mountains. Marked by a more sophisticated use of the camera – and especially of the tripod, whose changes of level had unexpected repercussions for the increasingly unsteady horizontality of the landscapes depicted – the Dutch Mountains reflect a break with the simultaneously minimalist and conceptual doxa and syntax the artist had so far remained faithful to: here the formal and compositional liberties taken were in direct contradiction with the austerity and ‘factuality’ normally to be expected from a photoconceptualist. For the ‘problem’ here was not just the move from the factual to the factitious, but also the assertion of a thoroughgoing ‘opticality’. It was hardly surprising, then, that in 1971, at the time of the creation of Dutch Mountains, Dibbets should explain to art critic Lucy Lippard that ‘the dematerialization you are speaking about is going to be for me (in contrast to many other artists) more and more visual.
Thus emancipated from all alleged dematerialisation, Dibbets pursued his experiments with the horizon line through 1972 and 1973, the resulting accumulation of works in some cases hinging on relative formal and compositional ‘excess’ and in others indebted to an asceticism the artist has, so to speak, never abandoned. In this respect the Comets series represents a remarkable synthesis of the two tendencies and sensibilities tested out by Dibbets in his Horizons, in which structural rigour is set alongside a breakup – a near-scattering – of the photographic content and container. Based on mathematical formulae, these works at last mark a return to a ‘conceptual’ approach, the formulae in question having been ‘thought through’ prior to being given artistic expression. Most of the Dibbets commentators who have written about the Comets, and Fuchs and Vos in particular, rightly insist on the break they created in the artist’s output: a break in that they introduce the last works of the 1970s showing the horizon line and so represent a point of no return from which the oeuvre could only set off in a new direction. The Comets’ pushing of the notion of representation to its outer limits is symbolised by the seeming disappearance of the tail motif in the installations. And yet these large-format installations were part of a path timidly begun with the representation of the horizon line in Five Islands Trip and, as in the many series the artist had undertaken (and would undertake), are the outcome of a methodical, systematic approach. In these works centred on carefully pondered use of photography, Dibbets endlessly investigated the phenomenon of vision: the transformative vision of the artist and the receptive vision of the viewer. In the Comets series this investigation achieves a rare level of complexity, with the overlaying of individually disconcerting images – ‘diagonal’ horizon lines – only deepening the gulf between seeing and knowing. As a result the fit between image and field attained in these works triggers a transformation of the image container into a new content. As Marcel Vos has commented, the Comets seem to ‘provide a provisional summing up of Dibbets’s ideas on photography, nature and abstraction; the conflict between visual and conceptual aspects has here been brought to a beautiful solution. The notion of synthesis seems to sit well with this group of works, which rounds off several years of experiments and investigations bearing on the issues Vos lists. Nor is there any longer any doubt that the Dibbets oeuvre is part of an artistic tradition which I shall not attempt to restrict chronologically and which is called, for lack of a better term, abstract.
One last work from 1974, Blue Line, temporarily brought the Horizons venture to an end. In restoring a horizontality the artist had so often ‘mistreated’, this sober and readily legible composition heralded the many series undertaken by Dibbets from 2005 onwards. Yet however close they may be to the 1974 work, these later examples are first and foremost a continuation of the equally austere Sectio Aurea of 1972(fig. 1). In this latter work two photographs – in one the horizon line is clamped between sky and earth, in the other between sky and sea – provide the basic lexicon Dibbets would use for countless variations more than thirty years later. This manner of extracting an extensive range of variants from a deliberately restricted vocabulary reminds us of the work of American painter Robert Ryman, with whom Dibbets has long felt an affinity. Driven by the same kind of obstinacy, the Dutch artist has spent over forty years addressing the mystery of a line at once invisible and perceptible to the eye. And like his friend, he is well aware that such a quest can turn out to be endless.
English translation: John Tittensor
Fig. 1Jan Dibbets, Sectio Aurea. Serie A, 2007. Colour photos, 107 x 78.5 cm. [= bestand ‘illustratie 09’]
Erik Verhagen is assistant professor in Contemporary Art History at the University of Valenciennes, in France. He has published many articles and essays on art from the 1960s up to the present day and is the author of Jan Dibbets : The Photographic Work (Paris 2007). He curated the exhibition Jan Dibbets : Horizons at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2010. ↑
1. Flécheux 2007, p. 113. See also Flécheux (2009). Regarding the terminology of the horizon, see Collot 1988, chapter 1, in which the author outlines the evolution of the term since the thirteenth century. Particularly interesting are the limitative and delimitative functions, together with the visual character, attributed to the horizon from the seventeenth century onwards, before its opening-up to limitlessness in the eighteenth century. Collot quotes Richelet 1680: ‘The horizon is what ends our view and separates the part of the sky that we see from the part we do not see’; and the Dictionnaire de l’Académie (1694): ‘The place where our view ends, where the sky and the earth seem to meet.’↑
. The question of representation is crucial to my book Jan Dibbets: The Photographic Work, Paris 2007.↑
. The abstract dimension inherent in the horizon line is also highlighted by Marcel Vos in his first text on Jan Dibbets: ‘His partiality for the sea and the empty landscape is understandable because both, by their nature, appear frontally before the eye, and both intensify the contrast between flatness and depth, between seeing and knowing. The sea, which of all things best represents distance, is delineated by the camera lens as a two-dimensional form. That is why Dibbets can use the sea as an abstract constructive element of his work. Besides, he does not feel bound to the position of the horizon. The camera shows no preference whatsoever. In real life we always see the horizon in a horizontal position, however much we may turn and twist our heads. The camera viewfinder, however, totally disregards such constancy in perceiving the horizon. It has its own frame of reference which our eye obeys and within which the horizon has no fixed place or direction. The camera renders the horizon vacant, as it were, so that Dibbets, in accordance with his conception of form, can allow it to shift and turn along the axes of visual plane.’ (Vos 1972).↑
11. This was the Horizon-Sea series.↑
12. The first panoramic viewing system – ‘panorama’, an amalgam of two Greek words, means ‘to see everything’ – was patented by Robert Baker in London in 1787. It was thanks first to engravers, then to Daguerre, Martens and Damoizeau that the panorama moved into photography. Joachim Bonnemaison distinguishes four separate categories of panorama: ‘First of all there are the panorama-views: these are elongated views taken from a single lens and a single shot. Space is transcribed onto a plane surface and the format is larger than the golden rectangle. Then there are the panoramics, consisting of a certain number of (at least two) panorama-views juxtaposed. That is where we begin to see emerging what interests me most – that is, the movement of a look sweeping through space. Of course this movement does not go as far as investigating the limits of the sensitivity of the unmoving eye […] [The panoramics] are obtained by the process von Martens developed – the lens turns, as the human gaze can turn, to take in the whole of a landscape, but the panoramics obtained by this process only go up to 140 or 150 degrees. It is only much later that the panoptics arrive on the scene – with these the rotation goes up to or beyond 360° […] This is a relatively recent invention dating from 1891 …’ (Durand 1989, pp. 18-19).↑
13. For example, The Halifax Diary.↑
. ‘The vision of landscape offered by Dibbets includes in a single point of view – the overlaying of the photographs allowing the flattening of a circular prospect – a field of vision for the eye. In this sense it involves a distortion of one reality and the construction of another, the latter being just as subjective as the former. This is what is meant by ‘revision’ of the landscape’ (Pacquement 1972).↑
17. Jan Dibbets, quoted in Lippard 1997, p. 209. It should also be mentioned that the Dutch Mountains are revelatory and symptomatic of a cultural belonging. This ‘return to the fold’, which it would be mistaken to take as a manifestation of some excessive kind of particularism, doubtless signals Dibbets’ urge to cut free of a certain artistic ‘internationalization’. As Rudi Fuchs emphatically recalled, ‘Up till the Dutch Mountains, Jan Dibbets’ works were rather internationalist in character. They reflect issues in contemporary image making which were also pursued elsewhere in Europe and America. For a young artistic at that time, 1968-1969, this was a quite normal and logical attitude. Some of the best art was coming from across the Atlantic, and that art looked impressive precisely because it seemed to be free of cultural and nationalist conventions […] In 1971 Dibbets began the Dutch Mountains which, even if he did employ the same artistic principles as before, suddenly looked very Dutch’ (Fuchs 1979, p. 19).↑