Peep Show

Collaboration with Factum Foundation

In 2016, Factum Foundation was invited by Masterpiece Fair to show some of their extraordinary work. The very small site they were given, only 4 x 5 metres, led to playing games with scale and to the creation of an inhabitable ‘peep show’ box or perspective theatre, using the optical devices of early dioramas.

In 1437, Leon Battista Alberti (author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher and cryptographer) created what are thought to be the earliest peep show boxes with painted pictures to be viewed through a small hole. Perspective boxes were originally used by artists and scientists to experiment with the manipulation of space and perspective. They were most popular in 17th century Holland when painters of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten or Pieter Jannssens Elinga, who created ‘optica’ where exaggerated perspectives resulted in strong illusions of depth, usually of room interiors. Bi-convex lenses made the effects more extreme. Peepshows later became a form of home entertainment for an upper-class elite, but by the mid 19th century they were being produced in paper as architectural souvenirs for places such as the Thames Tunnel and the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition.

Here, the backdrop to the entire scene was formed by the landscape depicted in the background of Piranesi’s 1769 Egyptian-style decoration of the Café des Anglais in Rome. For the purpose of the peepshow, the landscape was made complete and his three openings, crowned by the figures of a jackal, a crocodile, an apis, a beetle and a hawk, were no longer illusory but were cut out to form actual window openings. In front of this, a number of theatrical flats added perspectival layers to make the view complete. Overlapping prints, scaled to create an exaggerated perspective, gave a sense of depth and produced a window into a miniature, three-dimensional realm. There were five perspectival layers in total, made up of three Piranesi designs, an organic ‘portal’ of crystalised salt and, framing the entrance, panels from Factum’s work recording the tomb of Seti I.

The peep show device enabled two very different curated views of the space; frontally as a formally framed composition with the illusion of accelerated perspective, or from within, where the cut-out layers concealed the display of a vast number of objects that focus on the relationship between authenticity and originality. The facsimiles of the Cluny Christ (made for the Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi), the Eccardt painting, in a frame attributed to Grinling Gibbons (made for Strawberry Hill House) and the table of Teschen (made for the Marquis de Breteuil, its original is now in the Louvre) provoked amazement, and peep show theatres continue their power to surprise and entertain.