The concept of space in contemporary art is infinitely varied, with artists exploring aspects of public and personal space through all manner of mediums. From Hockney’s exploration of the spaces that he had experienced in his own life, to Serra’s installations that illustrate the way in which space affects public spaces, how we perceive our surroundings in public and in private are endless. In terms of contemporary art, it is almost impossible to detach from spaces and settings when walking into an exhibition. The way we feel about art is often dictated by the environment and not only the sculpture, painting or installation set before us.
Since the Renaissance, artists have spent their lives deciphering the spaces that they inhabit. A modern example of this is seen in the work of David Hockney, whose landscape paintings utilize an innovative mix of mediums to represent the seasonal transformation of Yorkshire and Los Angeles, both locations in which he has resided for the past 50 years. However, an increasing politicisation and pushing the extremities of the boundaries of what can be termed ‘space’, and even ‘art’ itself, is being challenged today.
Having been exhibited in the Gagosian Gallery in London earlier this year, American artist Richard Serra had put up three pieces of his large-scale steel sculptures. In one room, two waterproof steel pieces formed a labyrinth that almost entirely filled the gallery space. Visitors were lured into the complex by openings situated at the two ends and were immediately soaked in the reddish shadow cast by the steel walls. In this space-within-space setting, one's attention was drawn into the possibility and the limit aroused from the white cube. Was it empowering the piece, or was it restraining it?
One of the most renowned pieces from Serra was his installation, ‘Tilted Arc’ (1981), placed in front of the Federal buildings in New York City that year. The massive steel sculpture confronted passers-by in the most abrupt and upfront way. As Serra put it: "art should be a gesture, or physical insertion into everyday life, not something confined to a cloistered museum space." His practice has helped to enrich dialogues on related topics including public and site-specific art.
Gallery spaces as well as art pieces themselves have undergone extensive production processes. M+, the upcoming museum of visual art in Hong Kong, is a clear case of this. The curating teams have been working for five years without a physical museum entity, since the complex is still under construction and is not scheduled to open until 2019. "Museums can exist without a building, but are about building relationship with the audience", stated Pauline Yao, the leading curator of M+, when she shared her experience in Oxford last week. In an effort to push the boundaries of what is typically seen as an ‘exhibition space’, the museum has engaged with the public of Hong Kong through a series of "nomadic" events. In particular, a roaming mobile creative studio has travelled through local schools and community spaces for their "M+ Rover" campaign.
This raises the question: is physical definition the only way that we can perceive space as both artists, and as the public? Taiwanese artist Teching Heish - also called "The Father of Performance" by Marina Abravomic - challenges the physical boundaries of space in his work. In ‘One Year of Performance’ (1978-1984), Heish engaged in a series of yearly performances that included jailing himself for one, and not entering any indoor space for another. He decoded ‘space’ as the toil between politics and liberty. By immobilising himself to such an extent, his work may be seen as the miserable outcry of an artist on the ultimate degradation of freedom in urban society. Heish's art came to a riveting climax when he decided to disappear and disconnect from all social networks in ‘Teching Heish – or Thirteen Year Plan’ (1986-1999). Finally, the evanescence of space became the entirety of art.
It is almost arrogant to summarise all topics of space into one short article such as this. Yet, behind all the arguments and theories, there is one conclusion that it is worthwhile acknowledging. Art has been rapidly politicised by the turbulence of social instability and fluctuating political ideologies of the 21st century. The once prevailing aestheticism and the advocacy of "art for the sake of art" has never sounded as anachronistic as it does today. All these idiosyncratic characteristics of now have endowed the understanding of ‘space’ with an alternative meaning - while technological trends can carry young artists to unimaginable execution, the artistic epiphany shall not be undermined by any means. Perhaps it is vital for artists to reach a ‘space’ in their work where an authentic and introspective connection with viewers can be built through collaboration between public and private spaces.