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In the 1960s and 1970s, the invention of holograms seemed to represent huge potential for the art world. ...
2021-10-18 09:00:00

A Three-Dimensional Nothing
Holograms and Art

Photo by Richard Horvath/Unsplash
A Three-Dimensional Nothing
A Three-Dimensional Nothing

In the art world anything can happen, and at the same time nothing must happen. Holography is a technique that artists have slightly forgotten. What a pity.

Read in 6 minutes

Holography fulfils the dreams that artists dreamt for centuries. When at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, technological advancement enabled the creation of three-dimensional holographic images, there was a whiff of an artistic revolution, the greatest one since the invention of photography in the 19th century. But the revolution never happened. Why?

We all carry holograms with us every day. Or at least those of us who use debit cards – a small holographic image is a basic security feature. Holographic technology is also used for reading barcodes in shops. There is even a holographic theory of the universe, according to which our cosmos is… one huge hologram. Physics isn’t my forte, so don’t ask what the concept specifically entails. The gist is that apparently holographic theory allows us to overcome the contradictions between our scientific notions about the nature of the universe on the micro and macro scale. In other words, it lets us reconcile the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics – and that’s nothing to be sneezed at!

If the universe is one huge hologram, why do we encounter holograms in galleries so rarely, and instead of admiring these unique images in museums, we see them on debit cards?

An object in amber

The classic hologram resembles an object submerged in amber – only in this case there’s no amber and no object. There is only its three-dimensional phantom: the perfect reproduction of a spatial thing onto a flat surface. Out of all the mechanical techniques of image creation, holography is the most magical; the one closest to the idea of raising ghosts.

Holography implies the notion of an image that is total, devoid of compromise. The name speaks for itself: holos is Greek for ‘whole’, grapho references writing and drawing. Draw everything! is what this technique promises. What does ‘drawing everything’ involve? The scientific explanation of how holography works requires knowledge of wave physics, which is beyond me, so I will let Wikipedia take over for a moment:

“Holography involves the three-dimensional recording of an object’s image. As a technique it exceeds photography: while traditional photography only records amplitude modulation, holography also registers the phase changes of the light wave. This allows us to obtain much more information about the photographed object. […] A hologram is created by recording (for example, on a photographic plate) the interference of a wave scattered by the object with an undisturbed wave (so-called reference beam). […] To record a hologram, one needs to split a laser beam into two, using a glass beam splitter. The first part (the illumination beam) lights up the object, is reflected from it and then falls onto the plate, while the other part (the reference beam) falls on the plate directly, or after being reflected from a flat mirror that directs it towards the plate.”

The nature of holography can also be described in other, slightly more approachable words. Creating representations of reality is one of the foundations of culture. Prehistoric caves provide incontrovertible evidence for this – since the dawn of time, making images of reality has been one of the most fundamental processes used by humans to conceptualize, understand and dominate the world. To fulfil this need, a basic contradiction needs to be overcome: the world is three-dimensional, while images have two dimensions. If we did not confront this issue, we would have to make sculptures of everything, and this, naturally, presents problems. Sculptures are heavy, they take up space, and matter puts up physical resistance to imagination. Above all, we want to create an image of reality, not build it anew as its representation in clay, stone or wood, right?

From science to art

For thousands of years, artists have assisted us in crossing the gap between three-dimensional reality and two-dimensional image. We remember the story of Zeuxis the Greek – perspective, chiaroscuro, trompe l’oeil, one-point and aerial perspectives are only some ways of telling the story of three dimensions on a flat surface.

All painting techniques for working with three-dimensionality have a common denominator: they’re based on optical illusions. The revelation of holography is that strictly speaking, it is not an illusion. Yes, the represented object naturally doesn’t exist within the hologram, but in this technique, light really is recorded in three dimensions. In other words, when we look at a hologram, it doesn’t just seem to us that we’re seeing a dimensional image – they really are 3D.

Someone will say: but we have photography. However, the seemingly subtle way it differs from holography turns out to be fundamental. A camera is basically nothing more than a mechanical duplicate of the human eye. The light that enters through the lens draws the shadows of reality on film according to the same principle that it does the same thing on our retina. In holography no lenses are used. This technique also doesn’t deal with shadows, but with freezing light waves onto a flat surface.

Taming light waves and harnessing them to create three-dimensional imagery on a flat surface – this is one of humanity’s greatest achievements in the field of representation. To a considerable extent, we owe it to the Polish physicist Mieczysław Wolfke. He was part of the generation of geniuses who – in the first half of the 20th century – revolutionized science and laid the foundations of the futuristic world we live in today. Wolfke, born in Łask in 1883, was 12 when he wrote a treatise about interplanetary travels done via jet propulsion (which, obviously, did not yet exist at the time). At 17, he invented the telectroscope – a device for transmitting images remotely, a prototype of the television. His habilitation thesis was reviewed by none other than Albert Einstein. Before 1920, Wolfke worked out the fundamentals of creating holograms. The state of technology at the time did not allow him to transform theory into practice, so he turned his attention to other problems. Creating holograms only became possible in the 1960s, thanks to the development of laser technology. One of Wolfke’s intellectual descendants was the Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his achievements in the field of holography in 1971.

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, holography also entered the art world. The first creative giant to take up the challenge of the new medium was the elderly Salvador Dalí. Already in 1972, this legend of surrealism presented a show of holograms in New York; it featured a three-dimensional portrait of the controversial rock musician Alice Cooper. Others to experiment with holography included such luminaries as the viceroy of pop art Roy Lichtenstein, the conceptual artist John Baldessari, the master of light art James Turrell and the charismatic sculptor Louise Bourgeois. None of them, however, engaged with the technique more extensively.

Holograms have a more substantial career in the commercial gadget market than in galleries. They are even more successful in science fiction movies – we all remember how R2-D2 projected the animated hologram of Princess Leia calling for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s help in A New Hope. Still, they are most highly valued by science – they have applications in medicine, particle physics, microscopy and, last but not least, in data storage: it’s hard to beat the amount of information that can be encoded in a hologram. Interestingly, although there are niche galleries specializing in holography, its largest and best collection belongs currently to Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the global temple of science.

Creating truth

Why are artists so reluctant to make use of the miracle that scientists have given them? I had the opportunity to see the holography atelier at the University of Fine Arts in Poznań. The machinery looked a bit like a small hadron collider. Creating holograms is a technical challenge, but these difficulties do not account for everything. Artists are willing to undertake more laborious and complex projects – one need only mention Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who would wrap fabric around whole islands and kilometres of coast. Another solution to the riddle can be the development of other technologies. Before artists could delve into the possibilities of holography, they got other new, exciting, and often more easily handled ‘toys’ offering access to the three-dimensional world, such as 3D digital animation, virtual reality and augmented reality (accessible via any mid-range smartphone).

But there is also another hypothesis. Holograms look like spectres, but paradoxically they carry real and indisputable data about the light limning an object at a particular moment of space-time – without illusions, without lenses and with no margin for manipulation. There is truth locked within holograms. This is why science is so enthusiastic about them – and possibly the very reason why the art world treats them with reserve. After all, it is the domain of art to create truth, rather than discover it.


Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz

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