Marta Penner’s Pinhole Photographs of Brasilia

‘Marta Penner’s Pinhole Photographs of Brasilia’, Canberra/Brasilia, Shane Breynard and Marta Penner exhibition catalogue, edited by Jane Barney, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, pp23-26. ISBN 1875526 70, 2001

Marta Penner takes her pinhole camera, made out of an old coffee tin, off to the sides of the monumental boulevards and precincts of Brasília. She nestles it behind a foreground of rocky outcrops, shaggy trees and scrappy grass to take picturesque views of Brasília’s grand architecture in the background. These awry looks at Brasília’s symbolic public spaces form an affectionate critique of the place. Her quirky activities become a series of almost performative gestures, provocative towards utopian Modernism and the political hubris of nation states, but conciliatory to the possibility of a sort of ironic habitation of this living ruin.

First, the pinhole camera: cheap, portable — available. But certainly not chosen out of any artisanal nostalgia, since the resulting paper negatives are scanned, reversed and printed out to any required size by a computer. Penner’s use of the pinhole camera (the only kind of camera there is which to use is to each time rediscover afresh the wonder of nature picturing itself), in the context of the ‘Ideal City’ of Brasília, evokes for me the mythic origins perspective (and photography) in Fifteenth Century Italy. In Florence, for instance, the architect Bruneleschi (sic) famously performed an ad hoc but elegant experiment which provided a natural proof of the laws of perspective. He painted, probably with the aid of a camera obscura, a reversed view across a city square. He then punctured a eye-hole in the vanishing point of the image, turned it over and held the back of the painting to his eye to view the scene he had just painted. With his other hand he then brought up a mirror which reflected and re-reversed the painted image, and replaced, in perfect register, the real city with its manufactured image. The natural laws of perspective drawing thereby established had to be codified, geometrised and re-tooled for the functional purpose of projecting planned spaces and buildings across the tabula of the page. Perspective allowed planning not only spatially, but also temporally. Right from the start it seemed to produce automatically from itself the possibility of, and the plans for, an Ideal City of the future. Some drawings of a Fifteenth Century Italian Ideal City exist, perhaps by Piero Della Francesca, which feature classical colonnades and vast civic spaces all in an airless, isomorphic geometric space.

Penner’s wilful use of the pinhole camera’s ‘natural’ optic, which grants a universal depth of field and dilates as it grows out from the centre towards its cradling penumbra — is crucial. On one level the non-rectilinear ‘organic’ perspective of her pinhole images humorously chides at the isomorphic single-point perspective of the modernist architectural plan. And, on another level, it also allows us to return to the historical vanishing point of perspective itself, an originary time before perspective and the Ideal City had acquired any of the ‘fascistic’ ‘anti-human’ baggage which was destined to weigh on the Modernist Ideal City

Something about Marta Penner’s anachronistic activities with her coffee tin also reminds me of a later moment in perspective’s history, whenn Eighteenth Century travellers took their Claude Glasses and their portable camera obscuras on the Grand Tour, seeking an interesting angle or unusual vantage point — preferably featuring a gnarled knoll, blasted trunk, or craggy gap — with which to frame some Ozymandian ruin or other. In Penner’s perspective the trees and rocks and grass, initially carefully planned by the landscape designer Burle Marx, seem to be running wild and caught in the act of reclaiming for nature the serried public buildings along either side of The Esplanada dos Ministérios. Her pinhole pictures, again humorously and with wry affection, reverse the temporal projection of the Ideal City, not forward towards the social Utopia of a future Brazil, but back to the ancient ruins of the Twentieth Century

Brasília’s plan was initially drawn out freehand by its designer, Lucio Costa, on five small sheets of paper. The blank sheet of paper is the starting point for every Ideal City — on these particular sheets were inscribed the straight lines of the symbolic axis, the curved wings of the residential axis, and the loops of the artificial lake. This plan was then transcribed from the five sheets of paper onto the hot, high, savanna plateau of Brazil, a site chosen precisely because it was a tabula rasa, a potentially dangerous void in the centre of Brazil. By contrast, in our imaginings of the origins of the great historical cities (London, Paris and so on) they have grown organically. Initially jagged on, and then accreted around, some convenient natural feature, they lapped over and folded in on themselves, layering themselves up and compacting themselves down so that they eventually seemed to have emerged chthonically from the ground. This imagining may or may not be true, but it does mean that the remnant spaces of the historical city have a different valency, they may threaten the body of the city, but they share in the city’s history and its future.

By definition there is no remnant space in the planned city, only negative space to separate out its various sectors, or to be a ground against which the figures of its buildings will be contrasted. The swards and swathes of the Ideal City were drawn into its plans to add graphic structure to the vistas, dimensional amplitude to the scopic vectors, and symbolic scale to the public spaces But in practice, from an oblique anamorphic perspective on the ground, when the aerial plan loses its grip on the civic experience, the planned city’s negative spaces can become activated as loci for historical and social conflict. They can become positive spaces, adumbrating the city’s ideality with history and habitation.

In fact, I was told, the picturesque pictures of these negative grounds are specifically about habitation. From its inception Brasília has been surrounded and serviced by xmillionsx of poor itinerant rural workers. who live in satellite cities, There is great pressure on space within city of Brasília. These spaces need to be protected and policed, or else people will move into them, light cooking fires, dry their washing, and build shanties.

When I was told this I was somewhat shocked, this acute high-stakes politics of population and space seemed so foreign to the Australian experience. Then, on my way home I drove home past Old Parliament House and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.Here there were at least two kinds of spatial politics going on. Along the most symbolically charged scopic vector in the country, along Canberra’s land axis from Parliament House to the Australian War Memorial, there was a geometric jousting with the symbolism of the plan, running interference through strategically placed ceremonial fires, spear emplacements, murals and humpy like structures. But there was also the use of habitation itself as a politics: the embassy shed is an up front parody of the suburban house complete with letterbox and strangled shrub; and there is also a supporting encampment ensconced neatly within a snug crease on Canberra’s plan formed by two lines of bordering trees, it looks like a section of an outer suburban caravan park complete with council wheelie bin.

Marta Penner is bringing her coffee tin to Canberra. I wonder what pictures she will take.

The monumental axis/precinct/bouvelard

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