S t e i n . R ø n n i n g



Stein Rønning’s art, his minimalist sculptures and object-photos operate in a visual culture of superabundant, ubiquitous flows of ephemeral digital images, all struggling for a moment of attention, and thus produce assertions of something nearly lost: the significance of perceptual concentration. There is, however, no obvious ideological agency here, only a risky business: Rønning’s artworks simply take for granted, rather than claim the beholder’s attention.

This article engages questions of how Rønning’s artworks, his photos in particular, address the cultural conditions for and effects of, re-enactment and reproduction of images behind the retina that govern what they configure into: whether and how we perceive the reflections of light as recognisable objects in space. Yet, this is not an article on the physiological processes, the chemical, perceptual, or kinetic preconditions for how the images are transferred by light in pyramidal structures from objects to the eye. Nor do I intend to analyse developments in the artist’s oeuvre. My aim is to discuss some recurrent optical matters embodied in Rønning’s artistic production across time that confront us with our own preconditions of perception. From insights into the physiological mechanism of the eye first developed in the 16th century optics, we now know that the process from transmission to recognition of images are not merely physiologically determined, but depends on cultural and social experience and knowledge shaping our perceptual attention.

The article consists of three parts. From different points of view, both the first and second part discuss how repetition and distancing means, as characteristic optical features of Rønning’s works direct our perceptual preconditions and thereby contest some general ideas about the particular as a specific property of a work of art. The last part discusses how Rønning’s photos approach his physical sculptures by engaging in a visual theorisation on established ways of seeing and discriminating determined by conceptual distinctions between real images and virtual images. In order to illuminate these aspects of Rønning’s art I will conduct the analysis through the two concepts essential to the early modern optics - Imago and Pictura - that relate to, yet also involve other aspects than our modern concepts of real images and virtual ones, currently most often associated with digital visual imagery.

What at first glance seems to be drawn from Rønning’s abstract minimalist sculptures is our own baffling experience of inaccessibility, even a sense of alienation. If lack of textual/figural referentiality, the objects’ reflexivity, as they present themselves as nothing else than concrete objectivity, adds to this experience, it also concerns the inherent ambivalence of an apparent, yet never graspable order of arrangements of the objects constituting each artwork in distinct series of sculptures as well as photos (compare for instance the photos in the series Leggere 2011 (pp. 61-71). To theorise how Rønning´s photos in a specific series construct relations to his sculptures is also intriguingly elusive. To a certain extent, they have interesting affinities to at least implicit theoretical issues concerning representation/presentation in the works of artists active in the early 20th century; for instance Brancusi’s many photos, Le Corbusier’s photos of his sculptural chapel Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, and perhaps also Duchamp’s Precision Optics.1 Yet, Rønning’s meticulously arranged compositions – the significantly complex use of lightning, the choice of position regarding distance and angle in relation to the objects – tend at the same time to undermine the photos’ documentary value. If they do not document material sculptures, as exhibited at a particular time and place, the presumed reference to an “original” object then turns back upon itself as the object only exist within the illusionary space. Now the signifier completely encapsulates the signified, and the photos become as self-reflexive as the supposed external “real” models of abstract physical sculptures. Since the depicted sculptures do now only exist as perceptual images questions of materiality and tactility simply become wrong questions as the “sculptures”, turned into “images within an image” gain independent lives.

Displayed in the gallery, the photos and sculptures form carefully arranged series, apparent doublings that become modules of potentially unlimited numbers of reorganisations. On one level, these curatorial strategies epitomise by way of structural similarities the internal arrangements and rearrangements of the very boxes within each work (see for instance: Sett, Galleri Riis 2009, (pp. 6 - 7). As we lose details in overwhelming complex repetitions the apparent parallelism of formal structures substantially counteracts the significance of the individual work. The very arrangements of the various boxes within each work thus play out and against a set of cultural and perceptual preconditions of determining significance, especially concerning expectations of difference and authenticity - mostly working outside our conscious awareness. Yet, there are no repetitions; on the contrary, each composition of boxes deviates from any fixed pattern. Once isolated, the individual work, sculpture or object-photo, thus re-empowers its significance through our recognition of difference in apparent likeness, regarding shape, texture, size, orientation, colour (Sett-M I and II, p. 37, 43).
The consequences are crucial in at least three aspects. First, now perceptual attention becomes a precondition to recognise that what constructs and reveals the difference and uniqueness of each work of art is indeed the totality of what seems to be repetitions. Secondly, as a function of the mutual dependence of the particular and the series that it partly constitutes, each work of art continuously reinvents itself as a unique work in relation to the other works and their potential rearrangements. Finally, this continuous oscillation of focus engendered by the mutual dependence of the particular and the series effectively places our own perceptual operations as forcefully ante oculos as the images of the material objects we see.


The invention of photography, the true successor of the camera obscura, revitalised and redirected the historically complementary relationship between the visual arts and the science of optics that can be traced back at least to the 14th century.2 Immediately artists such as August Rodin, Constantin Brancusi and David Smith began to reproduce their own works photographically, particularly sculpture, partly as documentation and partly as an artistic medium in its own right.3 Interestingly, more recent artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Jeff Wall, Helen Chadwick, David Finn, and Stein Rønning, have increasingly probed into the question of what happens with the artefact in the process of translation from one medium to another, “real” three-dimensional sculptures transformed into transparent images on two-dimensional surfaces; questions that basically concern vision. Regarding vision the introduction of photography merits to a significant “event” in Rønning’s artistic production. Overall, it particularly regards three closely related formal aspects: the orientation of the boxes, their apparent scale, and the distances between the boxes within the illusionary space and in relation to the beholder.

Faced with a framed object of any kind and size, say a picture on a wall, a fresco covering the dome inside of a church, or buildings defining a public square, we tend to search for what Gombrich termed a centerfield of force.4 Interestingly, Rønning’s object-photos generally evade emphasising the center within the frame: The boxes can occupy the extreme edges, pointing to the absence of a center (Rügen 2009, pp. 111 -115) or they can be arranged in such a way as if moving towards the center, only failing to reach it (Sett- M IX 2009, p. 41). In other cases, they completely cover it, yet their unequal distances to the edges of the frame or base on which the boxes rest effectively serve to obscure rather than to reveal its exact location (Leggere I 2011, p. 65).

The photographic reproduction of a perspectival space adds to these ambiguities of Rønning’s photos as we are inclined to see the increasing distance within the illusionary space as a parameter of the degrees of diminishing objects within it. In 1911, the Italian psychologist Mario Ponzo demonstrated how the background indeed manipulates the human brain in determining scales and distances of objects.5 By drawing two equally long horisontal lines, one above the other, both superimposed on a rudimentary railway pattern, viz. two parallel converging lines, he showed how the upper horisontal line appears longer than the lower (see ill. I and II). Our Western perspectival way of seeing makes the two lines leaning toward each other at the top of the flat surface appears as receding into space, effectively “regulating” the scales of all objects within it. Since what appears as the farthest horisontal line would have to be longer than the nearer one, the horizontal line closest to the bottom edge appears shorter, even though they are of exactly the same length.

In Rønning’s works, similar ambiguities are often at play in measuring distances and scales. Tdhe 2011 (p. 73) displays two boxes frontally, against an abstract background, a wall or perhaps an open space. There are no references to familiar objects required to measure the sizes of the boxes, and only a dim horisontal line indicates a division between background and ground. What seems to be a ground, suggested by the horisontal line in the foreground, is again broken up. It certainly indicates an edge, but is cut off by the edges of the photograph and might therefore only be a result of a differentiation in light exposure. Contrary to the grey coloured ground, this bottom field of the printed paper appears indeed exposed by a direct frontal light source that undermines our initial assumption that the ground is really a base placed against a wall on which the boxes rest. In consequence, the bottom edges of the two boxes now perceptually suggest that they are placed at slightly different distances from the beholder, causing an optical effect of variations in scale, the nearest naturally appearing larger than the one farthest away. In light of Ponzo’s demonstration, we become aware that the variations in scale are not a sufficient clue to determine distances within the pictorial space, or between the perceptual image and our viewing position in front of the photo.
Entailed in the series titled Front row (pp. 53 -59) are related optical problems of determining distance and scale; all display four identical or similar boxes, but in each photo, these cuboids are rearranged and the distances are different from the beholder to the pedestal. In one of the photos titled Front row V 2017 (p. 59) the diminishing sizes of the similarly shaped boxes adhere to their increasing distance from the beholder. Based on experience, we thus see them as exactly the same size, and on this basis project into the picture our ideas about size and distance. In effect, the cuboid in the foreground at the extreme left then naturally appears larger than the two progressively smaller cuboids placed in unequal distances from the beholder, the smallest occupying the far right corner. However, in the other photos the re-arrangements of the boxes reveal that they are of unequal sizes, now causing new perceptual image-productions in order to correct our initial assumptions of the sizes of the boxes in first photo.

Ponzo’s demonstration anticipated Erwin Panofsky’s claim that once linear perspective replaced the abstract spiritual horizon of medieval imagination as a general principle of visual representation in Western society, there was no way back. According to him, somewhat disparagingly, even the expressionists’ attempt to deconstruct perspectival space by focusing on two-dimensional planes, presupposes, ironically, our dispositions of organising sense data in perspective.6 Once made a general cognitive principle of organising objects in space, what Panofsky called a symbolic form of Western rationalisation, emulating all areas of visual representation, we see the world perspectival.7 In this respect, the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty rightly criticised André Malraux’s concept (himself a considerable sculpture-photographer) of a Universal Art by arguing that perspective as a mere product of Western culture is only one of unlimited numbers of possible ways of seeing.8
To define the illusionary space of Rønning’s photos in relation to our physical space is undeniably ambiguous: whether the minor differences in sizes and angles of the boxes depicted are caused by changing viewing positions, or rather objective properties of the objects themselves being, for instance, parallelepipeds, or quadrilateral faced hexahedrons. The photos construct complex relations to the artist’s sculptures in which the particularity of the two media are exposed: whereas his non-figurative sculptural objects can be examined from all possible positions, facilitating the beholder’s bodily movement, the decision-making involved in photographing objects radically takes control of our percepts as the space escapes definition. Our field of vision, furthermore, is cut-off by the frame and there are no sufficiently clear edges to comprehend depth, size and recession.

Already in his 1912 Still Life with Chair-Caning Picasso problematised how the frame, a general convention from the renaissance on, culturally conditions our perception as we instantly concentrate on what it frames (Ill III.).9 The tondo-shaped collage shows writings, scratches, paint and an imitated everyday object, a basketwork of ropes. This painted basketwork mirrors a real three-dimensional rope that concomitantly functions both as a frame and an integrated element of the image that sui generis obscures the conventional role of the frame as a sign of distinction between reality and fiction.

Our perceptual as well as tactile experiences of physical sculpture turn self-contained patterns into illusions of spatial distance. What, then, is it that challenges our ability to measure sizes and boundaries between construction and perception? It is the frame. Remove it and the boxes would entirely exist in a vacuum, having no other reference to the outer world. In this respect, Rønning’s photos evoke clear associations to early modernists’ programmatic endeavours of deconstructing the hegemony of perspectival space. Accessing the rectangular or quadrilateral forms both of the passe-partout and the frame, the cuboids in Rønning’s photos reinforce the perceptual distortions between depth and surface, and to the extent of a possible collapse of illusion, pushing the status of the photographic images towards something in between image and sculptural tableaux.


To access Rønning’s theorisation of the media specificity of photography in terms of established dichotomies and binary concepts such as subject/object, tactile/optical, spatial/temporal, flatness/depth, etc., can easily lead astray to acclaimed views first proposed by Greenberg that opticality is a feature distinguishing modern art from the art of all other periods. Two concepts can offer an alternative approach: Imago and Pictura. The concepts central to the understanding of vision in the early modern optics were intimately related to the discourse on pictorial art in the Renaissance, a period that closely resembles the dramatic rupture and transition in modern art, only from abstraction to figuration and illusion and not the other way around.
The distinction between real images, when the light rays from a point converge at a real location to form an image, and virtual, when light appears to converge as an image seen in a mirror at a fictive place behind the plane, are indeed deduced from Kepler’s Imago and Pictura, concepts he in turn adapted from contemporary artistic discourse.10 Photographic reproductions are of course real images, as virtual ones cannot be projected on a screen. To Kepler and the early modern science of optics, the imago was intrinsically connected to the concept of the perceptual image in medieval and contemporary optics (related to, but not to be confused with imago as Icon). Whereas the Imago only exists in the imagination, a Pictura signifies a direct imprint of an image, in Kepler’s view, even the image that appears at a distance inside a mirror where the light physically does not exist. The concept, I think, is relevant here, precisely because we imagine that the images within the frames of Rønning’s photos are precise imprints of real objects, models existing outside the frame, whereas the process of the direct imprint of the image in the camera in fact possesses the potentiality to illustrate the function of the eye, in Kepler’s term, as an instrumentum visorium. Like the lens of the camera, as in the camera obscura, the retina perceives the images through a small hole. The direction of the light rays that hit the cornea, inverts the images in the retina, and only by the mere operations of the brain, they are re-inverted in order to adjust the sense impressions in accordance with tactile experiences of physical reality. In our first days of existence, therefore, we most probably see the world upside-down. When a real image, a Pictura, transfers from the photo’s illusionary space into the eye it inverts and reconfigures into an ima
go as it only exists in our inner unconscious activities of correcting and adapting the primary sense impressions of the Pictura.

The analogy between the operations of vision and the camera is in our context more complicated than first expected. In conversation with the author, the artist explains how he uses digital computing to manipulate the photos. The complexities of image-productions involved in these artistic as well as perceptual undercover-operations therefore also regard distancing means in the very process of visual reproduction. Once again we are faced with an apparent ambiguity. As a vehicle of presenting (pre-existing) sculptural objects, the photos on the one hand doubles the distance by the illusion of a space as a boundary we cannot transcend. On the other hand, as seen in many extreme close-up views, there are photos that confine and even suspend spatial illusions, as in Renient I-X (pp. 83 -93) and Schwrtz (pp. 104 - 109).

The optical fluctuations not only confront us with the operations and boundaries of our own image-productions in terms of causing constant re-considerations of primary sense impressions, they also contest common views of photos as snapshots of a given moment in time. The photos seem indeed to bid such an interpretation as they generally reproduce not only the sculptural objects, but also the physical pedestals on which they rest as objects of examination. This certainly adds to the experience of the photos as correct reproductions of real sense impressions captured at a particular time and place. Concomitantly, as will be clear, they reveal traces of the different stages of the artistic process that undermine this initial impression. Compared to current digital cameras containing arrays of electronic photodetectors to capture images that need approximately 1/1600 seconds, Rønning uses a camera from the 70s with significant longer exposure time:
During the process of shooting the photos, Rønning also takes advantage of the change of light and hues to shape the images of the objects. The shooting, reworking and manipulating of raw material, as well as the long exposure-time thus saturate the images with condensed temporalities that reshape and continuously make us reconsider our own perceptual preconditions. Instead of the direct imprint of an object caught in an instant on the detector at the rear of the camera, the photos transform into mirroring prolongations of the artist’s own vision. Though we experience vision as instantaneous it’s an ongoing temporal process of filtering and transforming sense data that is far more complex than the mechanisms involved in a camera. The analogy between the camera and the eye, first suggested by Kepler, here takes on an extended significance in that the artist’s diverse gazes in the photo re-positions the beholder from scrutinizing the images at a safe distance to somewhere “inside” the time-consuming process of image-production.

The layers of temporality become even more complex when recognising that in many cases the artist recycles the same boxes. Not only can the same box exist in different artworks simultaneously, pointing to the reproducibility of photography, but also as reproduced in the same artwork, that is, shot in a series of distinct moments to be merged into one image. Take for instance Verdent IV 2014, (pp. 98 -99). The arrangement of a series of seemingly individual green-coloured boxes is basically a trompe-l’oeil: On the base-register from the left, the significant feature of the texture on the fourth box is indeed identical with the features of the seventh box. The boxes are thus both simultaneous as elements that constitute the particular object-photo, and non-simultaneous as they belong to different moments in the process of shooting. This transposition of different moments in time of the process of shooting, together with the recycling of some of the boxes into a single work of art that only exist together in the present image, reveals the artist’s way of thinking about process and result as inseparable from each other. Not being restricted by physical time and space it therefore appears more like a claim and a precondition than a mere artistic idea or inclination. The simultaneity of non-simultaneous boxes can thus be seen as transformations into palimpsests of multiple temporalities existing in the present.

On one level, then, the technical and digital manipulations of the raw material, the photos of the boxes, imply a further distancing to the physical object depicted. On another level, the nature of Rønning’s photos and physical sculptures is that they approach each other as autonomous self-reflexive objects as opposed to the reproducibility and substitution of illusionistic images that by nature can’t escape being a suspension of a realm it itself does not take part in. In this sense, having no references to an outer world, the photos unexpectedly recover some essential performative features of the Imago as icon that the inception of illusionistic representation in the early modern era overcame by substitution in the first place. Since the photos simply transmit their own Imago as present objectivity they engage in an interesting theoretical reflection on art, to quote Duchamp, as mere “apparition of appearance.”