Jul 19, 2019

Inside Out – essays by an art journalist. Essay 7: space.

Have you noticed how modern art galleries are architecturally predisposed to host bigger, more voluminous art? That is no coincidence. Similar to the march art has made economically – from something priceless to something pricey, art has also conquered space – all the way from dark and narrow temple buildings, to Zaha Hadid’s temples of creativity. This essay from the Inside Out series traces this amusing evolution back to its roots.

All talk about space in art used to deal with the imaginary space inside a picture. Classical painting gave art critics and philosophers much food for this discourse. Modern art seems poorer in such meanings. But now physical space belongs to it.

Until recently no one supposed that visual art also needs space – while being neither monumental sculpture nor architecture. The whole sense of visual art is that space is depicted. And the work of art itself – a painting or drawing – is quite well off on the plain surface it occupies, under the light falling on it. Even a painted mural or plafond were discussed in terms of their viewing distance, perspective, and lighting only.

Working with space was delegated to the architect. And not only in the form of volume – or simply ‘room’. Architecture is not only utilitarian. It has long since composed poems inspired by space. All the great architectural ensembles were built with the viewers’ movement in mind – especially when the movement was organised as religious processions or ceremonies, e.g. the ascent to the Acropolis with a woven mantle of Athena or the worship of gods at Egyptian temples. Of course, architecture would serve the simple human needs – food, keeping warm, protection, prayer, – but any architecture was also an intricate musical score of spaces. Sometimes that score took centuries to compose, and sometimes one master to conduct. A mediaeval European fortress, like Carcassonne in France, or a Moresque palace like the gardens of Alhambra exemplify spaces that were created by different cultures and in different conditions but operated largely in the same way. Just pass through them, and you will see a scenic film traced in stone; photographers are even spared the effort of selecting their postcard views that can be filmed in succession.

These days sophisticated and well-developed space is a means of retaining the viewer’s attention and intriguing him.

The sequence of impressions and the volume and colour relations finally converged into a script that prompted how exactly one should cross the sacred space and which impressions to get. But in classical architecture, that space was well-calculated and easy to understand. It was real, first of all, in whatever units – steps, fathoms, or stadia – it could be measured. The long took longer to traverse, the short would take less time; the ascent took more effort and downhill walk was easier; sometimes rhythm would be set by the steps’ length or the size of doorways that could also slow down or redirect one’s movement. Whatever the space might be like, it is always perceived as equal to itself.

How baroque architecture changed perception of space

St. Peter’s Square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.

The idea of major architecture always telling the truth about space was discarded in the Baroque era when actual architectural space would be constructed in such a way that impression changed reality. Narrowing walls would make the room look longer, while widening colonnades would conceal the distance.

The best-known examples are the square planned by Bernini in front of St. Peter’ Cathedral in Rome, where colonnades are trapeziform in plane but stand for straight ones, and an oval seems a regular circle. Or his famous papal stairway that gets narrower as it ascends, to produce an impression of incredible length.

Importantly, in their tricks with real space architects exploited the laws of perspective initially discovered by pictorial art as a means of forcing space into a plane. When that planar technique was re-applied to space, it literally imparted a third dimension to the graphic arts, too.

Sculptors approximated the same effect. In their bas-reliefs, they compressed space to depict whole sculpted scenes and spatial plans in frisoes and sculpted panels of minimal height. Finally, there was theatrical scenery that began depicting real space in the Renaissance theatre. It might be temporary, like in modern theatre, or monumental, built into the stage portal once and for all, like the divergent ‘streets’ at the Teatro Olimpico built by Palladio – that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, despite the actual stage depth, the scenery was similar in its effect to bas-reliefs – featuring the same conventionally compressed space and, more importantly, offering a view to be watched from one viewpoint. The spectator was expected to stay at one place throughout the play; the seats near the stage’s axis, where the imperial box was also located, were considered the best ones. The pre-condition of the spectator’s immobility made even spatial works of art similar to easel works.

To be ‘in front of the picture’ was the only position possible. Easel canvases were to be perceived quite in the same way, beheld from one viewpoint as determined by the artist. Of course, one could draw closer or get away, assess the combination of colours or stroke accuracy, but the idea of the picture being able to move while the viewer walked in some direction seemed a sheer absurdity.

Changes in gallery space distribution

Jay Jopling’s White Cube concept

That began changing at the turn of the 20th century, as big art shows appeared. There, the viewers would move from one picture to another in a sequence generally determined by their hanging order. But that order usually followed a simple ranking of sense. More important artists – or themes – were put before ordinary ones.

This is how big Soviet art exhibitions were assembled, with Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev followed by landscapes, or civic topics followed by lyrical works. And although the space was common and often very large, containing works of different genres, neither their sequence nor the exhibition itself was then considered a work of a separate spatial art, the curator’s one.

Yet, starting from the early 20th century, space burst into easel painting. In the form of suprematic compositions that were something like a bas relief, but an abstract, geometric one, rather than a narrative. Or as collages that included real objects, pieces of fabric, and book pages. One had to walk around such a picture like a cat around sour cream and watch if it would turn into a full-fledged sculpture. But instead of turning into a sculpture, in the second half of the century it turned into an installation. One that had and could have no principal viewing direction but was to be viewed from all sides.

Further progress is quite clear. As soon as two adjacent installations appeared at a show, the space came into art. Literally one step was left now: to let the viewer get inside and start travelling through the installation. Classical architecture was remembered at once, and its well-practised spatial script re-appeared to provide us with portions of impressions, one by one, as we move. As a result, the whole exhibition merges into one super-installation that unites different works by different authors who never intended to be perceived in conjunction and in the order determined by still another artist. We understand that other artist to mean both the architect who builds new museums (like Frank Gehry with his Guggenheim’s of Spain or Piano and Rogers with their Centre Pompidou) and the curator who links the authors into a spatial and conceptual chain that he finds convenient. This is how the main show of the Venetian Biennale is always planned in the Arsenal. Its suite of halls enables the curator to arrange the visitors’ emotions into a rigid sequence. A forward or reverse one, like a film that can be run back. For nothing can prevent the viewer from turning found and walking through the same halls in the opposite direction – to compare the two spaces and three perspectives of the works displayed: front, rear, and side-on.

A promenade through art

A woman stands in Eliasson’s fog-filled installation, where the visibility is only 1.5 meters. Titled Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger), 2010.

And, finally, in large installations the viewer’s perception undergoes still another change. He or she becomes part of the installation. The actor used to be present in the scenery just the same way – with the only difference that the actor was playing for the spectators, not for another actor. On the contrary, one of the most striking installations that I saw, by the Icelandic and Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, was based on the viewers looking at one another. The big room was lit in such a way that their faces and bodies lost colour. The show’s main amusement was to see other people turn into living corpses.

We were gradually accustomed to the fact that modern art needs huge spaces, far beyond the sizes of classical museums. We should remember works by land artists that already resemble town planning rather than architecture and sometimes occupy kilometres of space. They can be appreciated either from on board an aircraft, like the Nazca Desert drawings, or as one travels through them. And, incidentally, this has not been a Western art feature only.

Physical space instead of imaginary or depicted one. This new dimension of art is now being successfully mastered by artists who are also contending for how much space their installation or show will occupy. Sophisticated and well-developed space is a means of retaining the viewer’s attention and intriguing him. The contemporary man is not prepared to stand in front of a painting for an hour; you should make him stroll and entertain him, and artists and curators who understand it sometimes take him on a promenade through their art.


Also published on Medium.

.ART Team
.ART Team
members are global citizens with interests ranging from art history to social justice. If we had an office cat we would have called it Basquiat.