Monday, February 20, 2012

They'll Take Passengers - Second Storey

Ideal Air, 2012
Mixed Media Installation
Dimensions Variable

Enacting Space

Shelley Jacobson


Let us consider a journey as travelling to a space beyond, whether a physical or an imagined act. In the view of Foucault, the most profound of Galileo’s discoveries was that of infinite, indefinitely open space.[i] Crucial to our understanding and beliefs regarding space is our faculty of imagination. An interesting exploration of this can be found in the writings of Gaston Bachelard, who explored phenomenology of the imagination in relation to intimate space. In his discussion of the dialectics of interior and exterior space, Bachelard finds that, “…everything takes form, even infinity.”[ii]

When standing on a shore looking out to sea, we are confronted with a horizon in the distance. The horizon line is our visible horizon. Due to atmospheric refraction, the curvature of the earth, the lens of our eye, the true horizon exists only as a series of mathematical equations. The horizons shift: as we move, it moves. In this our view of it changes. When Foucault coined the term heterotopia, he formalized the notion that certain spaces exist with an inherent duality, existing physically in reality and existing as a reference to the other space or artifice.[iii] Using the example of the mirror, he pointed to the space outside the mirror and the space within the reflection of the mirror.[iv] A horizon certainly possess this duality. It is a phenomenon, one visible line from a given vantage point. Yet different horizons exist too, from every other possible vantage point, simultaneously. Thus a horizon cannot be understood as a place or fixed location, but as a special kind of space.

Projected imaginings of a space beyond have provided rich material in literature and art throughout history. The New England Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau looked west, beyond the horizon, visualizing a future for the New World.[v] In recent years, imaginings of the Artic have held a great deal of anxiety environmentally, as seen in the project True North held at the Deutsche Guggenheim. Artists were said to display a yearning for a place of the imagination, of myth.[vi] In this they were aligned with the German Romantics who understood nature as, “…the eternal constant against which human folly and desire were measured.”[vii] Returning to the horizon, it can act as a referent to a last vestige of an immense nature. I would posit that desire and a fear of loss inform human relationships with nature and notions of the finite and infinite.


If Galileo heralded a scientific understanding of space, how have ideas of sacred space evolved since his time? Foucault claimed that the 19th Century saw time understood rationally, yet speaking in the 20th Century, space still held a level of sacredness.[viii] The Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson in his treatise, Nature, boldly proclaimed that, “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of nature and soul.”[ix] As such, nature was a divine creation, as was man. His belief in beauty resulting from universality or the whole,[x] exhibited a desire for meaningful connection with the natural world, with which humans were inherently linked yet separate.

Returning to Bachelard’s interior and exterior space and by extension closed and open space, we have the threshold. If we deem thresholds as sacred, as they have been historically,[xi] they can be conceived of as portals: a means to travel through or beyond. States of closed and open can connote hidden and visible, can represent space, the door or man.[xii] Foucault described heterotopias as having a system of opening and closing, making them isolated yet penetrable spaces.[xiii] If we consider the Transcendentalist division of social and natural space, arguably the act of walking in nature was a portal, a device to access their sacred space.

Today, when it is a struggle to disengage the social, cultural and political from any space, can we believe in and access a sacred nature? In Karen Armstrong’s A short history of myth, she notes that aspects of both myth and science stem from the human imagination, yet operate as different systems: mythos and logos.[xiv]
Armstrong highlights the role of myth in informing human ethics and despite the displacement of myth in modern society, she believes myths still offer the ability to explore human fears and desires.[xv]


Rebecca Solnit, writer, ecological activist and art theorist posited that, “Walking itself is the intentional act closet to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, doing and being.”[xvi] If we consider walking as a ritualistic act, the key elements become the mind, the body and the space through which one is moving. Time too plays a role, in the form of duration: an act with a beginning and an end. Thoreau, in his essay Walking, spoke of wilderness as being that which is most alive.[xvii] Thus in the yearning for wildness, humans seek this quality.

Let us now turn our attention to the ground we walk upon, to dirt, the earth. As a material, it has colour, odour, mass, weight. Within it, cycles of life and death are carried out. Solnit has spoken of dirt in the modern world as, “hidden…washed away…forgotten…”[xviii] Politically speaking, dirt as mass becomes terrain, a contestable space and place. As such it has ownership and identity imposed upon it. Historically, the earth and dirt were prominent in myth, one example being Neolithic sacred caves and associated ritual.[xix] Bachelard likened one’s self and being to a spiral, capable of inward and outward movement within, but never able to reach one’s centre.[xx] This implies faculties of perception and reflection yet an underlying futility of the human condition. With reference to desire, I believe we do still seek a sacred nature, yet never expect to reach it.

Written for the occasion of They’ll take passengers
Clare Hartley McLean and Laura Robertson at Second Storey, Auckland
21- 25 February 2012

Copyright Shelley Jacobson 2012

[i] Foucault, Michel. (1986). Of other spaces. Diacritics, Vol.16 No.1 pp. 22-27(p.23)
[ii] Bachelard, Gaston. (1994). The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press (p.212)
[iii] Foucault, 1986, p.24
[iv] Ibid
[v] Thoreau, Henry David. (2008). Walden, civil disobedience and other writings. London: W.W. Norton & Co. (pp.268-9)
[vi] Blessing, Jennifer. (2008). True North. Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim (p.14)
[vii] Solnit, Rebecca. (2008). The needle points, the ice melts: thoughts facing north. Pp 17-27. In Blessing, Jennifer. (ed). True North. Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim (p.23)
[viii] Foucault, 1986, p.23
[ix]  Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1996). Essays and Poems. New York: Libary of America (p.8)
[x] Emerson, 1996, p.18
[xi]  Porphyrus, 3rd Century, cited Bachelard, 1994, p.223
[xii] Bachelard, 1994, p.222
[xiii] Foucault, 1986, p.26
[xiv] Armstrong, Karen. (2005). A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books Ltd. (pp.2-3, 30-31)
[xv] Armstrong, 2005, p.11, pp.134-7
[xvi] Solnit, Rebecca. (2000).Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Viking (p.5)
[xvii] Thoreau, 2008, p.274
[xviii] Solnit, Rebecca. (2001). As eve said to the serpent: On nature, gender and art. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press (p.157)
[xix] Armstrong, 2005, pp.44-45
[xx] Bachelard, 1994, pp.213-4