Whether it is a shape, a pattern, or as Emily Dickinson expressed, "a certain slant of light", we are influenced by our external environments. Just as we shape them, they in turn shape us, and it is constant cyclical dance between this inner and outer space that shapes, defines, reinforces, and expresses WHO we are as people. When I was a little girl I was drawn to rooms, drawing rooms, designing rooms, and changing these small spaces in which I lived, to be more mine. I was attempting, I think, to communicate with my environment, reinterpret it so that I could identify and visualize myself in it and then feel, somehow, alive. This change, manipulation, and invasion of space come across in long term and short term projects, in daily informal experiences, and in formal works of “art” that are shared and internalized by everyone.
Space, it is important to note, does not exist merely in our external world, in which we live, breath, and move, but also in the 2D environments, and small 3D installations artists create to mirror and reinterpret their internal and external lives. It is universal to shape, create, and share space, and yet it is so often taken for granted, this great influence that space has on our experience. When space is empty and sterile, it reflects this in our society. When it is cluttered, it reflects our clutter. However, space is also alive in its influence on our psyches. Just as we enter a cathedral and feel grand and graceful, we can enter a closet and feel somehow little and inconsequential.
Like everyone else I know, I find that I am intrigued by outer space. Perhaps that’s why, like Mungo Thomson, I have been working with these images from the Hubble space telescope (while his our giant and inverted mine are composited with my arm). However, let’s go beyond simply “outer space”, and further into how it is theoretically and symbolically being thrust into our practical spaces and intimate corners here on earth. Mungo made large murals of these inverted images. One critic might appraise them as bringing us into an alter reality. But look a step further at the less blatant forms of influence in physical space and how do they psychologically shape us? The height, the whimsical, almost spiritual grace of new spaces makes even the greatest cynic stand back and gape, and yet, there are flaws in our “flowers” of perfection. The shorter the time between our ideas and fruition and the greater not only a disengagement from understanding of our process in creating spaces (how many of us know how to build and repair our own homes for instance?) but also a detachment from the spiritual process of not only constructing but living fully within our spaces. Just as we walked in and out temporary structures, taking in quickly what it expressed and then leaving to carry on with our lives, our new homes, cities, and work places are often just temporary structures and movie sets in their lack of physical, spiritual, or psychological stratum or profundity.
Mungo Thomson explores space in his work that reminds me of my own bumbling attempts to confront, dissect and describe the world like a poet, like a Shakespearean fool or perhaps a misplaced artist. I see his art, as cerebral, conceptual pieces exploring space and its influence, as a physical character, on the visceral experiences of the people that inhabit it. There was his cricket piece, where an orchestral cricket piece was conducted probably to the great misfortune of its audience to listen, for several disturbing minutes, to its crescendos and decrescendos. There was the zen-like secluded western expanse of the roadrunner cartoons’ desert scenes, presented mute, and without the presence of either the roadrunner or the coyote and all of their manic noises. These reshapings of forms and sensory experiences place emphasis on the emerging dialectic between perceptual experience and cultural transformations. These characters, whether experienced temporarily or for eternity, our the exhibits, the spaces, and the aural/visual experiences that exist in the psychological development of us as individuals and in turn as a culture, merging together, moving as Mungo describes, “down the cultural [path]” but past the cultural and into the perceptual, and “sculptural gestalt thought”.
When I was a little girl I had a big canopy bed with Rainbow Brite draped all over it, and stuffed animals all across my room, that I would gather and place around my body when I went to bed. Often my dad would come in and tell me to put them back and I would put them back, and he would turn of the light and in the dark I would find them and return them to the bed to create a little nest of warm comfort around my head and feet. Recently while reading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetic of Space I was reminded of this ritualistic act with my stuffed animals. In the book Bachelard cites a practice by the scholar and theologian Erasmus, who was long “in finding a nook in his fine house in which he could put his little body with safety”. He ended up by confining himself to one room until he could breathe the parched air that was necessary to him.
Intimacy needs the heart of a nest. We want a nest, a dove-cote, a chrysalis. Currently, I live in a little Oakland cottage, with a garden. I commute, but at least I have a little comfy space not unlike my bed stuffed with stuffed animals around my head. What is it I am creating in this nest? How does this relate to the spaces I have been describing in their sterility, their sculptural gestalt, their impartiality or immensity or utopian faultlessness? I suppose I am seeing a gap between what breeds imagination (rather a sense of comfort like a nest) and what modern imagination breeds (these temporary, grand structures). But the nest and the outcome are both temporary. The “nest, chrysalis and garment only constitute one moment of a dwelling place”. If you are living within a nest, that nest is a temporary structure, a place for breath or for comfort, but temporary nonetheless. If you are walking in an airline terminal, living in a grand sterile space, that barely inhabited space also will exist in that form temporarily either to break like a glass house, or to become sturdier, lived in, and transformed by that living. The nest, like the creation of an exhibition space, is temporary and represents the ideal or the impression of a reality.
Bachelard said “The more concentrated the repose, the more hermetic the chrysalis, the more the being that emerges from it is a being from elsewhere, the greater is his expansion”. So we see a reflection of a person, of a daydream or body, in each work of art as we see a reflection of a person or an identity in each created architectural space. As a space is consumed, internalized, and enforced by unconscious, the identity that we are fostering in that space grows the greater in the great concentration with which we embody these small spaces. When the small inner space or microcosm is subsequently introduced to greater outer space, or macrocosm, and touches upon the entire universe, it has that much more vitality in the glimmer of a consciousness. The microcosm and macrocosm are correlated, and between them we inhabit the vivid portrait of the magically familiar self.
My friend, actually a photographer, said “I want to paint a portrait by creating this lush, rich, poetic landscape”. He wants to detail to death everything, from the intricacies of his sight. By adding up the small parts of recognition that sum up his experiences and memories, he can create a café void of features but still with character: a space in which to visualize something inexpressible in words. There is a disconnect in thought and speech, and word and image, and perhaps with these architectural spaces we can fill the void of our communication and show in the spaces that we inhabit a bit of ourselves, and show in the art that we create a bit of ourselves. This is perhaps a journey between becoming and knowing; to find our selves by spreading ourselves throughout the macrocosms and microcosms of our temporary structures.
Light is central to photography, as to the sensory and emotional experiences a person has in any given space. So, I'm going to end this whole long bumbling word-flood about space with a favorite poem by Emily Dickinson, one of the few poets who could possibly communicate in words, what so many of us fumble awkwardly to express:
There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
'Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, 't is like the distance
On the look of death.
This has been an excerpt for an essay that I wrote for Dialogues on Contemporary Art. These are my photographs, with the help of the ocean, personal anatomy and Hubble telescope images from Space. I strongly recommend reading more Dickenson or Bachelard, and to see work by Mungo Thomson, check out his website at mungothomson.com or check out some of the films that inspired me in understanding and writing down my ideas about space: North by Northwest by Hitchcock, Playtime by Jacques Tati, and 2001 Space Odyssey by Kubrick, to name a few.