Notions 0f Space in Contemporary art

Taken from my Fine art studies in 2013. Before re-entering into the world of art, education and comprehensive, critical thinking I thought it best to revisit some of my past opinions (ones that may not be current, or may have evolved as I have seen and encountered more).


The subject of space within contemporary art is one that can be addressed in many ways. With more and more artists choosing to use space not only as a part of their work but as the very foundation of their ideas, I aim to explore this subject and make sense of how and why we need to view the spaces around us the way we do, and in turn investigate how we interpret artworks that deal with this subject matter.

Rachel Whiteread is an English artist whose work primarily consists of casts. Her sculptures ‘give materiality to the sometimes unfamiliar spaces of familiar life’ (Nicholson, 2001). She chooses the objects she casts carefully, as the spaces she creates often reflect an absence of function and human usage. The way Whiteread uses the spaces we are all familiar with, but never actually see, could be seen as a commentary of the fact that we see the object but we don’t always appreciate the space. ‘a house that has been experienced is not an inert box’(Bachelard, 1958)  Bachelard ‘poetics of space’  explores the suggestion that a space is not just made up of the 3d area it inhabits, but the memories and experiences that have occurred in, around and with that space. Therefore space is a personal experience.

 In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul, it is the human beings first world. (Bachelard 1958, 7)

Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993) gave me a vacant feeling; it reminded me of something that was never there, but should have been.  Bachelard engages with the idea that every human has a connection with the house, as an object, because it symbolises safety, continuity and family. This feeling that I, and many others get from Whiteread’s work, ‘House’ in particular is one that she has created, she has managed to fossilise something that is in the forefront of our lives, something that everyone could relate to. By using the negative space, Whiteread could be playing with creating a negative memory. She creates an object, which is both there, and not there, blurring the divide between inside and outside ‘Outside and inside form a dialect of division, the obvious geometry of which blinds us as soon we bring it into play in metaphorical domains. It has the sharpness of the dialects of yes and no, which decides everything.’ (Bachelard, 1958, 211) Whiteread creates these objects, in the very image of what is no longer there, distorting our very understanding of reality.

This act of immortalising something that isn’t there can be seen more provocatively in her work ‘Holocaust Monument’. Instead of choosing something we are all familiar with, and have memories about, she worked with something that not all of us personally experienced, yet we all have thoughts about, she picked a fixed point in time, rather than a fixed point in each of our lives. This enabled her to remove the sense of intimacy, with ‘house’ the feeling of loss is only there because we knew what once was, if we look at something with a historical importance, the emphasis changes, it feels more public, it feels like a monument, by which to remember.

Every corner in a house, every angle in a room, every inch of secluded space in which we like to hide, or withdraw into ourselves is a symbol of solitude for the imagination; that is to say, it is the germ of a room, or of a house. (Bachelard 1958, 136)

Bachelard describes corners as lonely places, ones of silence and solitude but also as a haven, the point being that if you are cornered you have retreated into yourself, into your soul, however if you manage to find peace and immobility, you will feel a sense of tranquillity, and protection.

Consciousness of being at peace in ones corner produces a sense of immobility, and this, in turn, radiates immobility. An imaginary room rises up around our bodies, which think that they are well hidden when we take refuge in a corner. (Bachelard 1958, 137)

You could argue that Whiteread’s casts are made up of only corners, just the negative, so only giving you an idea of that safe place, or that complete solitude. She could be playing with the duality of meanings that these spaces have, forcing people to think one way or the other. A corner can be both someone’s darkest place, and someone’s refuge, a space can have multiple implications, meanings and feelings, the way Whiteread creates her work, she uses a blank canvas, but a common memory, one we all project our own sentiments onto.

Bachelard talks about the significance of the poetic image, an image created by words, completely imaginary ‘the poet does not convey the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me. The communicability of an unusual image is a fact of great ontological significance.’(Bachelard 1958 xvii) he explores the idea that images and imagined space are at the root of our very being.

The image, in its simplicity, has no need of scholarship. It is the property of a naive consciousness; in its expression, it is youthful language. The poet, in the novelty of his images, is always the origin of language. To specify what a phenomenology of the image can be, to specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry, rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, is a phenomenology of the soul. (Bachelard, 1958 xx)

We can see this in Edgar Allen Poes’ ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, it tells a story of a lavish masquerade, whilst outside a horrible plague has devastated the country, the story doesn’t focus on the characters, or what’s happening to the rest of the country,  or even the masquerade, but it seems to have a fascination with the detail of the seven rooms in which it was held .The words really do paint a picture, and you can’t help but imagine the scenes that is described.

…windows were of stained glass whose colour varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue –and vividly blue was its windows, the second chamber was purple in ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange, the fifth with white, the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the colour of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet- a deep blood colour. (Poe, 1842)

From the whole text, the part fascinates more than any other, is the way Poe uses colours and words to construct an image in minds of his readers, showing that space as a subject matter is timeless and reaches far beyond the words that are used to describe it. In relation to Bachelard’s theory of space being something of the soul rather than the mind, this text wouldn’t interest me as much if it were a purely factual description,  the way Poe uses words, is much like that of a poet, with rhythm and feeling. Imagination spurred on by words, lets you feel innocent, and naive, it gives you a freedom. We interpret spaces and implied spaces depending on our experiences and memories, artists that use space as a subject matter play on the fact that people will take different things from it, creating a dialogue between artist and viewer, this, for me, creates an interesting push and pull between what the artist intends and what we as an outside party understands.

Space can be created and utilised in an unconventional way. Richard longs ‘A line made by walking’ creates a tension between spaces, he stresses that the act holds more importance than the representation of the environment, and with that fact,  when you look at his work, you imagine the journey he took to create it, ‘an intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly though the streets. With each step, the walk takes on greater momentum…’ (Benjamin 1927, 417) Benjamin talks about the Flaneur, which Buadelaire described as a gentleman stroller of the streets, with this image, of a man strolling the streets of Paris, you can find similarities in Longs work. He aims to portray his exploration, his journey, and rather than exploring the already shaped streets of a city, long is exploring something new and isolated.

Space is interpreted in different ways, depending on our past experiences, our memories, our emotions. As Bachelard writes about corners being lonely, isolated but also places of refuge and safety, it depends on how we interact with a space, on a subconscious level. Just as when you find yourself in a crowd, if you take the time to stop and think, you can be hit with the feeling of complete solitude, but then you remember that you are in fact surrounded by people, space can be misleading and ambiguous, because we all respond to it in a distinctly different way.

This point leads me back to the work of Rachel Whiteread, but more importantly the way she works with casts. She wasn’t the first to use casts in this way; exploring the unseen dimensions of a space. Bruce Naumans ‘A Cast of the Space Under My Chair’ ( 1965-68) used the casting process as an answer to a question. Rather than using this practice as his entire body of work, he approached it with playfulness; he was exploring the space, without limiting his process, using it as a stepping stone to his next idea.

He now had in mind images of electric chairs or chairs in which suspects are seated while being interrogated. ‘I thought of using a chair that would somehow become the figure: torturing a chair and hanging it up or strapping it down.’’ (Morgan 2002, 133)

Naumans thought process was a fluid thing, he let one thing lead onto another, he didn’t tie himself to one particular way of producing work, he was open to new techniques and was more involved in the evolution of his ideas, rather than expressing a particular subject or emotion. Rachel Whitereads cast, on the other hand are what grounds her work, the weight behind her casts is more substantial, the message she is conveying seems to be tied to the process. So here we witness two very different approaches to the same idea, two different interpretations, of what can be argued, the same spaces. Just as how the same space can evoke different responses, the same practice can have two parallel implications.

Did Rachel Whiteread know about Bruce Nauman’s A cast of the space under my chair (1966-68) when she began to cast negative space in the late 80s? Nauman’s version (we are told) was anyway an enactment of a bit of advice from Willem de Kooning, transposed to a different medium (cement): ‘If you want to paint a chair, don’t paint the thing, but paint the spaces between the rungs of the chair’. As usual, Nauman’s literal-mindedness took on unwieldy metaphysical dimensions once enacted, as well as becoming funny – he ended up, after all, with a chair, or at least, something to sit on. Whiteread’s work is not so funny – the absence/presence issue is thicker and heavier (Nauman’s for all its material weight is very light). Whether or not Whiteread knew of Nauman’s piece also seems irrelevant to me – not because it is a few pages back in the books, but because what we do with her other work is clearly something different. Actually, I hope she did know, and persisted. The proliferation of information and access routes to it generates an equal share of blindspots, or gaps; when there is so much, there is that much more to miss; who is to know who saw what or when? (Laurie Palmer, 1997)

This article explores the suggestion that Whiteread took Naumans idea, which was at the time, just another part of his thought process, and enhanced it, added her own weight and meaning behind it. This shows that that two very similar pieces of art, in terms of production, can have completely opposite meanings, depending on how the artist conveys their message, but also how we read the piece. Our imaginations can play huge roles on how we really see a piece of art, and by that I mean not only see with our eyes, but the feelings that accompany that image.

In analysing images of immensity, we should realise within ourselves the pure being of pure imagination. It then becomes clear that works of art are the by-products of this existentialism of immensity being. (Bachelard, 1958, 184)

Bachelard states that the pieces of art themselves hold less importance than the role the imagination plays in creating them, in a sense, would the piece of art still be what it is today, if we viewed it with no imagination?

Rather than looking at how artists use space on a canvas I chose to explore the more emotional and physical responses to this subject. Bachelard’s theories of poetic space make sense of the pieces I have discussed; they bring forward the importance of sentiment and imagination. Whitereads casts are colossal in size, but also in feeling, this means the weight of the pieces as we view them are more than we can imagine. The act of fossilising an object that we all hold in such high importance, something that we are all terribly familiar with ensures that the feeling that we get from it is not a fleeting one, it is one of great magnitude.  The artists I’ve discussed, even though they use very different practices, all play on the same common technique, rather than imposing an idea, they delicately engage our imaginations, our familiar memories, and use them to construct a narrative around their piece. Space is a personal phenomenon, we can experience the four walls of a room, but the experiences we have within those walls, will always hold more significance.

‘A house that has been experienced is not an inert box…..Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.’ Bachelard 1958, foreword)

As humans we can’t help but project our memories, things that spark our past experiences will always have more personal worth. The notion of space within contemporary art is one that draws not only on the physical dimensions, but engages the emotional viewer.

Expecting to find some direction from past works was definitely a foolish venture. Though what I have found is an underlying sense of one of the themes I want to expand upon when studying my Masters – The relationship between the piece of art (be it performance or piece) and the audience, the emotional investment from both the artist and viewer, and how each of these influence each other. That push and pull between them, and what truly makes a piece. A space is only a space unless its filled with experience, unless someone makes it more. 

More on this later. 



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