The Function of Space

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Täällä Ainolassa tämä hiljaisuus puhuu.
(Here in Ainola the silence speaks.)

Jean Sibelius

Composition in visual art has many elements of which I have written here from time to time. Within these elements, space plays a prominent and still narrowly defined role. Mostly, it is discussed as negative space, that is space which surrounds, isolates, contrasts, and highlights a subject. As negative space, space has a supporting role and is not part of the subject matter. In my work I have become, however, more and more interested in space as part of the subject matter. I would call this type of space active or energetic space. And yes, I know, this needs explaining…

In the picture above we can see a rather classical way of using empty (negative) space. Although the water has a wave-structure, it serves mainly as background to the plant. It’s emptiness and tonal contrast highlight the subject. Even the fact that this seemingly empty space is directed diagonally supports the curvature of the plant and it’s reflection. As, however, the space surrounds the subject evenly the result seems calm and stable.

Now, let’s try something more radical:

Printed A.P.

In this photo the subject seems placed “wrongly”, squeezed down in a corner and the empty space seems to create a certain tension: too much emptiness in the center of the picture. It is difficult to see this on the screen without boundaries between picture and background but I have this picture framed on a wall and sense the tension whenever I pass by.

In both pictures, we might realize now, that empty space has an active role either as a balancing or as en even slightly disturbing element. “Nothing”, like the silence in the Sibelius quote, can speak.

As often mentioned here before, the first ones to discover and use this surprising quality of emptiness were the landscape painters of the Song dynasty in China. Another photographer, who like me is on the hunt for the synthesis between Chinese landscape painting and photography, George DeWolfe, called this space “mindful emptiness”. That is a good name for it, except that I have my reservations about the increasing misuse of the term “mindful”. Therefore, I would rather call this kind of space energetic space, which, I think, is more in line with what the Chinese masters meant. In Chinese art the empty space evolved from a quest to depict the workings of ch’i (qi), the vital energy, in nature. DeWolfe’s term, however, has the advantage of highlighting that this is a meditative space – and it was used as such, e.g. in Tohaku’s pine tree screens.

The more I have been reflecting on, and working with, this kind of space the more, I confess, I become obsessed with it. Hunting for energetic space in my pictures has become a central theme for me. Once we start to see empty space not as merely something surrounding something else but an active ingredient in a picture, a whole new world of possibilities emerges. As a last example, in the following photo, if you think about it, not the plants but the empty space between them “makes” the picture.

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But don’t just take my word for it. You can experiment (maybe especially now in the holiday season) to just sit there and try to actively see the empty space between things. It can be quite a revelation!

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