Looking into Space

This is the seventh and final meditation on the Elements of Art and their significance beyond the realm of the visual arts.

Seek a definition of the word space and you might find this: “the boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events have relative position and direction.” That’s pretty all-encompassing, suggesting an infinite cosmic ground where the table is set with goods and the party happens. How do we rodeo this down to an explanation useful in the world of The Arts?

Space is one of the seven elements of art.  In a picture, it is usually thought of as the suggestion of distance between or beyond things, and is depicted by artifices such as converging perspective lines, horizontal divisors, or the negative shape of sky at the top. These representational tricks usher the viewer into a hallucinatory experience of distance.

The significance of space changes when we move from two- to three-dimensional art. I spoke recently to students at da Vinci School in Portland, Oregon who were practicing a dance they had choreographed. I asked them the role of space in their piece. “It gives it depth,” they said. “It gives the eye more to see than just a straight line.” Their teacher added, “Space in dance is about relationship and levels.” (Her remarks were illuminated by the students, who used the words high, low, lift, turn, here, there, together, fill, between, over, and flow.) One dancer explained, “It’s what we share with each other. It’s the empty place where we make something for the audience.”

Sculpture, too, uses space to enrich the visual experience. The sculptor composes with forms, but also with chunks of empty space that fit the convexities and concavities of the work and extend outward. Like silence in music, the spaces and breaths between statements create rhythm and counterpoint. An expanse of unoccupied space surrounding a sculpture can give a contemplative context in which to consider the the piece.

Martin Eichinger builds his sculptures of dancers and gymnasts on a turntable, “because space has to wrap around, and I am taking a journey through that space.” He thinks of each piece “like a book, a narrative that has an implied history and an implied future, and you’re capturing it at this moment in its trajectory.”

Movement is one of the principles of art. If the piece itself does not move through space, it may still suggest movement, as Cezanne’s landscapes did, encompassing different times of day as the sun moved across the space of the sky. Picasso and Braque made similar suggestions by showing different views of the same body simultaneously. One da Vinci dancer described her group’s compositional efforts in terms of Cubism: “I am like one person split into three people- front, back, and side.” Eichinger, too, employs perspective shifts when he brings clay to what he calls “the narrative time lapse.” If the idea of movement is inherent in art, then the idea of time is inherent too, because the changes that movement brings about require the passage of time. Innovations by multi-media practitioners of performance art, time-based compositions, and video have made time itself a candidate for an eighth element of art. This makes sense, but time must be considered in tandem with space, since the two require each other, in art if not in physics.

Space seems to require distance, too, but “virtual space” ironically offers the experience of being able to go anywhere, even to “the clouds,” by using billions of pieces of information stored on servers in a single locale. My son Thane, a UX (user experience) designer, helps create apps and websites. He says, “You’re hinting at something great, but you really don’t have to show all that. You’re coming at it through the frame of a screen, but you’re building the illusion that the whole world is there.” In his work he thinks of space in terms of the x and y axis that picture-makers use, but he also uses the “z space,” which determines how things are stacked and shuffled layers deep on the screen. In this way he is also like the choreographers, considering relationship and layers. “Really it’s just interacting, so it includes the dimension of time. I like that you can use illusions to make things seem better than they are, to direct an experience in a positive way.”

To make things seem better than they are: isn’t that the consolation of the arts? The sculpture that is better than mere stone, the painting that is better than a patch of cloth on boards, the play that goes beyond common speech, the song that is noise transformed. And each of these needs a tiny piece of the universe’s “boundless three-dimensional extent,” a room, a screen, a field, or a minute in which the magic can occur.