What is space? With this question can start almost any consideration of space in art. The definition of space gives us little to hold onto apropos its characteristics besides that it exists only in relation to something, or someone. Encyclopedia Britannica defines space as “a boundless, three-dimensional extent in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction.” Position and even direction in art may have some currency in previous ages when art had its strictly defined purpose of representing the living or metaphysical world. However, even the metaphysical one relied heavily on our perception and imagination, and was made similar to the palpable reality. As artistic styles developed and avant-garde movements took over the art world by storm, space in art started to dissolve and forms that filled artworks were defined along a much simpler differentiation between positive and negative space. While talking about the definition of space in art, positive stands in this equation for the place occupied by form, while negative is what remains between and around the form’s shapes. Such distinction is not something typical for this period in art history, but is nonetheless taken to the fore, as other spatial differentiation achieved through perspective and depth were not applicable anymore.
Examining space in art must always take into account the complex social and cultural standings of a given time. Space is not something that was always represented with the pure artistic ideas behind it. Sometimes, the needs coming from the outside of the artistic world influenced the way space was understood and depicted. In what follows, we track some of the changes in its depiction, and give a few examples to stimulate further thinking about spatial relations in art.
Negative, positive, implied or real, all these attributes apply to space and its representation and use in arts. Negative or positive space, as mentioned above, is not something that is only applied and used in certain artworks but is a more general differentiation that is applicable to painting, sculpture, installation and other art forms. Perhaps the most notable example of the use of negative and positive space is Henry Moore’s sculpture that relies on the interplay between negative and positive areas; between full forms and their absence. In installations real space is of the utmost importance as it often becomes actively engaged in the work, as in the example from the 2015 Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Chiharu Shiota’s The Key in the Hand installation was meticulously crafted in the pavilion, and its spatial structures influenced the final outlook of the whole piece. The dream-like effect Shiota achieved through the use of red yarn, keys and boats, engulfs the gallery in the melancholic atmosphere of loss, but also of opportunity and hope. Implied space in paintings is sometimes depicted following the rules of depth and perspective, and sometimes we can refer to it just in relation to abstract shapes and their compositional arrangement on the canvas. Paul Klee’s abstraction, for example, does not possess the spatial orderings as figurative art, but nonetheless his whimsical shapes and objects are spatially arranged as to create an engaging and dynamic effect.
Do you remember Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa? A religious ecstasy visualized in the figure of an angel, the arrow that is about to pierce the nun’s heart, and the golden shower of God’s love. All nicely situated in an elevated aedicule. Space in this Baroque masterpiece is not just relative to the surroundings where the sculptural figures are situated, but also transcends the immediacy of the palpable area to include the metaphysical one, materialized in concrete and recognizable forms. Two spaces and realities merge, but relations that guide our sense of space are preserved here. Even the aedicule is engaged in the final effect of the piece where a small window in the upper part of the architectural element allows light to fall down onto Bernini’s composition.
Engaging space to create a metaphysical experience is not unknown to contemporary artists as well. Examples abound form painting, sculpture and installation art. In painting, one of the best-known examples is Rothko’s work. On his canvases space is flatten-out in splashes of color that should provoke contemplation and induce metaphysical peace. Similarly interested in metaphysical effects of space in art is the London-based artist trio Troika - Eva Rucki, Conny Freyer and Sebastien Noel. In 2012 they made a site-specific architectural installation named Arcades, comprised of light pillars which rays refracted by a fresnel lens created the illusion of gothic arches. As the artists stated: “creating a spatial suspension of disbelief, Arcades encourages an analysis of our relationship with the metaphysical in a world increasingly governed by practical, rational and scientific principles.”
An important aspect that should not be neglected when space in art or other artistic elements are examined, is its role in the so-called cultural clashes, especially during the imperial dominance of the Western Europe over different world regions and cultures. The way space was represented in arts served as one of the aspects of how artworks were valued, and this was purposefully used in problematic hierarchical orderings. It was one of the markers that differentiated high art from the so-called crafts of “tribal cultures”. Not acceptant of the dissimilar modes of representing reality, Imperialists arrogantly assumed that if space is not nicely rendered in perspective as in their art since the Renaissance, if figures or perspective are not presented in a realistic mode - this testifies to a somewhat lower cultural level of the population that created them. Drawing from their own past of the middle ages and its arts where space was defined along the different lines excluding those of perspective and depth, they linked other forms with similar neglect of spatial orderings as backward and intelligible to a rational mind.
In the video sample below, from the Kubrick’s famous film 2001: Space Odyssey, the space is problematized on several levels, starting from the viewer’s perspective, to the perspective of actual performers in the film. The stability of their position is masterfully put out of balance and gravitational order, but they seem to continue their work unencumbered by this. On the other hand, the viewers are shifted out of their comfort zone and are unable to grasp the spatial relations and orderings presented to them. The chamber of the spaceship in which the action takes place in not defined in usual terms that help us make sense of the place we are in, or of the place we are observing. What is up, and what is down? Left and right also seem to lose meaning. We are presented with a visual piece which expressiveness relies on the loss of spatial orientation in its observers.
Other examples of space in art that poke at our sense similarly to Kubrick’s cult film come from the world of installation and light art. James Turrell, a well-known and established author focuses on the color and light effects that in interplay with the area in which they are produced create a transcendental effect. His take on space may be closely linked with those of abstract artists who shunned the importance of spatial differentiations for the effects pure color may produce in the observer. Turrell uses places as canvases on which he reproduces colors of such intensity that visually dissolve physical boundaries. The achieved effect can be compared with the physical entering into an abstract painting. While Turrell consumes space with color, Anish Kapoor’s Leviathan devours it with its gigantic scale. Situated in the Grand Palais in 2011, this inflatable monumental piece stirs thinking on relations between contemporary art and artistic traditions, but also on our bodies, origins and experiences. For Kapoor Leviathan is “a single object, a single form, a single color” that creates a space within a space, and which hopefully manages “through strictly physical means, to offer a completely new emotional and philosophical experience.”
Our short travel through art history shows how space was differently used in artistic practices and how important it was and still is to any creative process. Rarely considered just a passive element of an artwork, space is more often an active participant in its development, as seen from Shiota’s and Turrell’s works. Sometimes social and artistic conventions influence how it is used and represented, but more commonly creatives use it in order to probe some sedimented artistic and cultural mores, such is the case with Kapoor’s and Kubrick’s art. Perception plays an important role in deciding on how space will be utilized. From the Middle Ages when religious themes were done in a relatively flat spatial orderings, as the importance of the motifs surpassed the need for visual veracity, to a Renaissance awakening to the importance of humanity in the general schemes of the universe, in which axis of our reality became the guiding principle in art, to modern and contemporary rejections of hierarchical dominance of any worldview, representations of space followed this trajectory in art and remained an important factor in its aesthetics.
Featured images: Chiharu Shiota - The Key in the Hand, 2015. Image via dreamofitaly.com; Sesshū Tōyō - Haboku-Sansui, 1495; Mark Rothko - No.61, Image via Widewalls archive. All images used for illustrative purposes only.