Walking on Images

Michael Tymkiw, University of Essex

For millennia, floors have served as an important site for displaying imagery, as evidenced by mosaic pavements, tomb slabs, rugs, and, more recently, floor-based works of fine art. In many cases, human beings have been encouraged to walk on such imagery – a mode of viewing that not only results in direct physical contact with images but also means that a spectator cannot view ground-based images without simultaneously seeing parts of his or her own body. In this respect, a spectator’s body at once completes and interrupts the imagery being viewed.

This session seeks to explore a range of issues broadly related to the theme of walking on images, including the dialogue between a spectator’s moving body and images underfoot; the motivations for making and/or commissioning examples of ‘walkable’ imagery; the interrelationship between figuration and abstraction; and the conceptual and theoretical implications of floor-based imagery for how we write histories of art and visual culture.


Navigating the Image: Geometric decorative floors from an embodied perspective

Arthur Crucq (Leiden University)

This presentation considers geometric decorative floors through the lens of pattern recognition, geometry, and numbers. My goal is to outline a theoretical framework from which to understand such floors from the context of embodied cognition, thus offering art historians a global perspective on the significance of geometric decoration.

Geometric floors share resemblances with patterned surfaces such as gameboards, maps, and labyrinths. One key feature they have in common is that their patterned-ness incites a beholder to act in an orderly manner. For example, when walking the floor, a beholder not only walks on images but almost automatically follows a determinative pattern by moving the body from one motif to another. When reading a map, a beholder similarly imagines the movement from one instance of the map to another, but does so mentally. And when playing a game, the beholder moves with what could be regarded a bodily substitute—a pawn from one place on the gameboard to another.

Research from cognitive psychology shows that even members from cultures that do not use maps and make decorative floors have the cognitive competences available which allow them to understand the principle of translating an abstract image of a map to a concrete orderly arrangement of landmarks within a demarcated surface. Building on such research, this presentation makes clear how art historians can use these insights to understand the extent to which the making of floor-based images in different cultures has been founded on some shared innate cognitive competences.

Landscapes, Cities and the Viewer: Stepping on Stones in Late Antiquity

Irene Gilodi
(Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz)

Figurative mosaic floors were present in churches, synagogues and secular buildings in considerable numbers in Byzantine and Umayyad-era Jordan and Palestine. However, since most of these floors came to light again only through archeological excavations, their original context is difficult to reconstruct and an understanding of the relationship between the mosaic artworks and their viewers has proven quite elusive to scholars. Nonetheless, it is clear that these floors – like all floors – were laid to be walked on and a motion on the object itself was key to the perception of their decorations. Notions of the evocative (and indeed at times even symbolic) power of images on floors were certainly present around the time of their production. In a well-known ekphrasis, the marble slabs of the floor of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople are compared by Paul the Silentiary to a stormy sea. Is it possible to suppose the same evocative potential when it comes to figurative floors? Was a ‘bodily/physical reading’ of the picture necessary in order to fully comprehend its decoration? The writings of a later author like Konstantinos Manasses, who is happy to describe a mosaic as if it were a painting, seem to contradict this reading. However, given the visual organization of landscapes on Palestinian floors, I propose that a deep interaction between the viewer/walker and the image-space of the mosaics was at play.

‘Tread another Tomb’: Ruskin at Santa Croce

Jeremy Melius
(Tufts University)

This paper considers a set of claims about spatial experience and the viewing of art which stem from John Ruskin’s account of the tomb slabs at Santa Croce in Florence. In Mornings in Florence (1875-77), his curious guide to the city’s treasures, the critic reconfigured a well-worn genre. Emphasis fell on an ostentatiously limited itinerary staged as a series of vivid encounters unfolding in real time and space; theoretical considerations would continually be interrupted by the particular, sometimes inscrutable demands of the thing seen. On the book’s first ‘morning’, Ruskin leads his reader to traverse Santa Croce’s ‘sacred field of stones’ and to kneel before the ‘worn face’ of one tomb slab in particular. A transvaluation of values occurs. Attention is displaced from the famous monuments that line the basilica’s walls—Michelangelo’s, Galileo’s—to anonymous floor-work ‘of the fine time’, trod thoughtlessly underfoot. In that shift, a remarkable spatial and perceptual reorientation takes place, from high to low, vertical to horizontal, general impression to obdurate localized detail. The stance of the viewer is at once reaffirmed by this radical emplacement and undermined, as she is asked to stand atop a siteless site: a threshold between past and present, life and death, where the surface of sculpture slowly gives way to its virtualizing depths, a ‘labyrinth of ornamental lines’. The paper seeks to account for Ruskin’s unnerving conjunction of place and placelessness in his text, and to suggest something of its generative potential for the writing of embodied encounters with art.

Mirror Mirror on the Floor: Infinity Rooms and Gravity

Michael Tymkiw
(University of Essex)

From the mid- to late-1960s, numerous artists placed mirrors on the floors, walls, and/or ceilings of quasi-immersive environments in order to create the illusion of infinite space—initially Yayoi Kusama, but soon thereafter Lucas Samaras, Luc Peire, and Christian Megert, among others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the proliferation of mirrored “infinity rooms” within such a short period of time gave rise to claims of copying among artists. Yet one of the most striking features of these environments is the extent to which the particular surfaces covered by mirrors and their interaction with an installation’s other visual elements alter how a spectator experiences infinite space. To examine the stakes involved in fostering different experiences of infinite space, this paper focuses on Peire’s mirrored environments and their relationship to contemporary works by Kusama, Samaras, and Megert. Of particular concern are the diverse experiences that converge around the sensation of defying gravity, which to varying degrees often accompanies the act of stepping on a mirrored floor. 

Aerial Views vs. Floor-Based Work: Containment and Inaccessibility of 21st Century Horizontal Images in the Work of Sterling Ruby

Christian Mieves (Newcastle University)

This paper will explore the extent to which ‘walkable’, floor-based images not only question our understanding of the figure/ground relationship, but the notion of accessibility and the ‘field of vision’ of images in general. By focusing on American artist Sterling Ruby (born 1972), as one of the main case studies, the paper will critically test strategies to deflate traditionally categories of floor/ground and wall-based work.

While Ruby’s work is closely linked to the studio floor, through its materiality and as site of production, his images suggest simultaneously a sense of wide space of ‘indeterminate topographies’ or aerial shots of war zones (see e.g. DEEP FLAG (2015) or TCOM KUWEIT (2015)).  Therefore, by conflating floor and aerial views, vertical and horizontal images, Ruby’s work conveys a ‘transversal’ quality by transgressing the ‘agonistic cultural environment’, seeing floor and foot-orientated imagery usually as opposite to wall-based work. By abandoning the ‘fronto-parallel organisation’ of the image, this paper wishes to argue that Ruby’s aerial views and floor-based work likewise, deal with a kind of ‘neglect’ through its flattening and distancing that avoids the ‘three-dimensional politics of the worlds’. The strong emphasis in Ruby’s work on horizontal, literally ‘walkable’ images (such as EXHM (2012) or DEEP FLAG (2015), as well as inaccessible aerial views of prison centres (SUPERMAX, 2008) offers an opportunity to evaluate both the incommensurable quality of aerial surveillance vs. abstraction and the contingency of ‘walkable’ images and its base.  Furthermore, by ‘looking down’, Ruby’s work suggests a radical redefinition of the field of vision and highlights an embeddedness of the object that points finally towards a bodily experience of the viewer.

Creativity and Fantasy: walking on images in the world of video games

Yi Huang (Arizona State University)

This paper explores how floor-based images have been displayed in the world of video games, and how players’ interaction with images on the floor has become an element of game design. On the one hand, video games such as Minecraft offer players a world in which they can control their characters to design images on the floor. More generally, floor decoration has become a critical part of what is often called Minecraft pixel art. On the other hand, video game developers widely use images on the ground in video games to convey artistic ideas. This is suggested, for example, by the famous JRPG game Persona 5, who is well known for its stylishness, or by the dungeons of Persona 5, in which players step on images and interact with particular parts of such images to complete a dungeon puzzle. Taken together, these kinds of game design provide players a fantastical experience of walking on images in a virtual world.





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