Skip to content


Post date:

Art comes with its own conceptual space observers are expected to enter. If this weren’t the case, then a person wouldn’t even know they were in the vincity of an artwork. [1]

Boundaries exist to be broken but an artwork’s conceptual space is usually congruent with the physical space it’s displayed in. You can be reasonably sure something is art if it’s in an art gallery.

Or at least a painting because paintings need the conceptual space of a space displaying them, even though there was a moment when paintings tried to deny it. [2]

Sculpture was never that attached. It had an existence independent of space-enclosing elements but, regardless of how the sculpture relates to its intrinsic conceptual space [called the “sculptural field”, I learn], its external conceptual space is still likely to be the physical space of a museum or gallery where you may be shocked by the encounter but not by the fact you encountered it.

Strange things begin to happen when the congruency of physical space and conceptual space is upset by artworks not appearing where they’re expected to appear or by objects not considered artworks occupying physical spaces in which we expect artworks. [3]

Tazro Niscino gives artworks alternative contexts that contradict their given conceptual spaces. His 2002 Villa Victoria in Liverpool was a temporary hotel room constructed around Liverpool’s Victoria Monument. The strength of his artwork spaces depends on how credible they are as living spaces.

Rather than exhibit art as an everyday occurrence, the Dadaists exhibited everyday occurrence as art. It was probably always necessary to propose and exhibit something as art in order to create the conceptual space for it to be considered Art but what the Dadaists did was prove it was sufficient. Moreover, once that conceptual space is created, it can’t be uncreated. The found object can’t be unfound. [4]

The threshold for shock is higher these days as we become numbed to “but-is-it-art?” artworks appearing in public spaces to enliven them or at least indicate the commercial intent to. Guerilla art may once have prompted reflection on the nature of art and existence but commercial interventions seem to err on the site of bright colours and whimsy.

Public space is a lost cause when driven by coffee shops and footfall. It’s time to retreat inside and think about the manner in which art is placed in physical spaces, what it gives and what it takes away. If Art is never accidental then neither is its position in space.

The most unselfconscious positioning an artwork can ever have is in the artist’s studio. Here’s two photographs of Piet Mondrian in his, one with canvasses leaning against the wall and the other having a more self-conscious arrangement for display.

In the second photograph, there contrived surface similarities of colour and pattern between the artworks and the room, and there are also contrivances of placement. Some paintings draw attention to architectural features such as the door. Monochrome shapes blend the sofa into and out of the room and, via a cushion, red shapes morph into cupboards. The chimney breast is treated as an extension of the stove (that, come to think of it, it is) with black and grey squares for whimsical soot and whimsical smoke showing us not Mondrian the abstractionist but Mondrian the representationist.

We don’t know if Mondrian was consciously trying to make his studio into a total work of art but we like it anyway and Mondrian exhibitions typically reconstruct it. This next photo also contains a black square in another space that’s often reconstructed for exhibitions. This time it’s Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 Black Square in its special corner.

In any room, a corner is a special position not normally occupied by paintings but the allusion to an icon corner would not be lost on persons of the Eastern Orthodox or Russian Orthodox faith.

But what did this association-heavy positioning mean? Was Malevich asking us to worship Art? His painting? Himself? In 1930 Malevich was accused of “degenerate art” and subsequent works until his (natural) death in 1935 posed no more unsettling questions. We’re always told what the positioning of Black Square alludes to but we still have no idea what it was supposed to have meant. All we’re left with is a sense it’s important.

Implied importance is always the case when an artwork occupies a singular position such as the corner of a room or the midpoint of a wall – it’s as if the space exists for the sake of the artwork. The sensation is heightened if the artwork is large, apparently heavy, and weighty in content. Less substantial artworks can employ Position to Unite for synthetic gravitas.

The centre of a room is the intersection of all axes passing through corners and wall midpoints. It’s the primary spatial hotspot.

Donald Judd’s art is often based on the sculptural field between the artwork and the observer – or so I remember reading once. It’s basically the relationship we have with furniture before we use it. Furniture as art pays lip service to the notion of art for the people. These are artworks waiting for patron-collectors with spaces to fill. They might appear less like artworks and more like furniture if the spaces containing them looked less like galleries.

It’s not unknown for people to purchase an painting or a print in order to “fill a space” that appears to be “needing something”. Sometimes the opposite happens and specific spaces are created for the display of specific artworks.

The Bilbao Guggenheim website says “The entire room is part of the sculptural field. As he has done in other sculptures composed of many pieces, the artist has arranged the works deliberately in order to move the viewer through them and through the space surrounding them. The layout of the works along the gallery creates corridors with different, always unexpected proportions (wide, narrow, long, compressed, high, low).” [5]

Even if the room is part of the sculptural field, the distinction between art and space is clear, muddied only by a shared curviness. It’s sometimes the case that shared surface characteristics of colour and pattern tell us the elements enclosing the space around the artwork aren’t just the sculptural field but very obviously part of the artwork itself.

Yayoi Kusama Dots Obsession September 18 – November 2, 1997 Rice University Art Gallery

In her infinity room series, Yayoi Kusama uses mirrors to negate the physical space to create art with a infinite sculptural field even the observer is external to.

In this next example a found space has been made an integral part of an artwork. Artwork and space are one and people are invited. This is not a simple juxtaposition of art in space but nor is it space as art or architecture as art. It’s an artwork that could exist nowhere else but in this space.

Now we’re finally beginning to approach where we want to be.

A space constructed of elements unique to Architecture.
A space that has its existence as Art.
A space that admits the presence of People.

Here’s another.

photo: Knight Rise by James Turrell photo by Sean Deckert

In all his works that I know of, artist James Turrell uses our perception of light to conjure up spatial experiences as artworks one contemplates and ponders accordingly. In this next image the volume is created out of nothing but light.

These next ones admit people and are also constructed from light but lack the usual spatial delimiters of surfaces with shadows.

Turrell’s Skyscape series have a chamber with an opening to the sky and, because the frame of that opening has no apparent thickness, it makes the sky appear as if on a screen. It’s bizarre how this makes it seem more real to us but most art is about making something strange in order to gain our attention and focus it. Within, Without is one of Turrell’s skyscapes and is part of the permanent collection of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra.

The approach path slopes down below the surface of the moat-pond as you cross it to enter the truncated pyramid at a corner. You realize you’re not as indoors as you thought you’d be as you find it’s hollow, see a square of sky, and find yourself external to another raised pool of water pond with an object-structure at its centre. Either of two inclined L-shaped ramps will take you to its entrance and the space within from which you view the space without (and by doing that, I venture, your space within). It’s a series of thresholds leading to one you can contemplate but not cross. The entire thing is a work of art.

This artwork uses much of the stuff of Architecture to make something that is very clearly Art and not Architecture.

  • There’s spatial anticipation and progression.
  • There’s the play of light and shadow on simple spaces as well as masses.
  • There’s more materiality than you can shake a stick at.
  • There’s a sequence of spatial experiences as you progress inwards.
  • There’s the heat of the summer air and the cool sound of water.
  • There’s the view of the sky that never before looked so stunning as it does now.

The question then is In what sense is architectural space Art? And what makes it Architectural and not Sculptural?

I don’t want to get diverted by arguments of the Function vs. Form kind because I’d like to leave open the possibility of Function (or Performance, etc.) simply being a different form of beauty even if our era has no appetite for such ideas. But the issue of Function isn’t irrelevant. The sole function of Turrell’s Within, Without is for persons to enter and contemplate it or the sky or themselves etc. It doesn’t exist for them to have a sit down, a lie down or a sandwich, chat or nap though it could be used for any of those.

Let’s suppose Within, Without wasn’t part of an gallery compound but on privately-owned land. It would still have the same existence as Art, and it won’t suddenly become architecture if utilities, plumbing and some items of furniture were added to make it habitable. It’ll still be the same artwork but with people living in it. It’ll be as if – if you’ll excuse me – the accoutrements of living are conceptually external to the artwork. The existence of the artwork remains conceptually separate from the people camping inside. All the same, that existence is a fragile thing and is easily compromised by the physical requirements for (the function of) habitation. For example, adding a glass roof to Within, Without for purposes of climate control would diminish the gradations of inside and outside that have been so thoughtfully set up and the artwork would suffer more from that than it would from a bed or a sock or toaster lying around.

Many people offer opinions on what makes architecture different from buildings but the question What makes art different from architecture? remains unanswered and, until now, unasked. What if it was possible to live in art? Where does that leave architecture? Is it possible to live in art that stays art and does not become or claim to be architecture? After half a century of increasingly joyless iterations, we’ve probably reached the end of the road with Houses are Art. Art as Houses opens up new frontiers.

So then. We began with ART IN SPACE! and ended up with Art as Space or, to be preceise, selected architectural devices used to create spatial experience as Art. The goal now is to find the conditions for intersecting a basic habitability with that and in doing so create Art as Houses. 

How it’s going to happen is another question. How to add people to an artwork without making it into or reducing it to architecture is going to need some more thought so this post is the first of four. The plan is to follow it with Houses as Art, Living as Art and Art as Houses.

• • •

[1] Urban Camouflage, IKEA, Stockhom, 2008
[2] Left: Robert Rauschenberg,; Right: Robert Rauschenberg, Pilgrim, 1960
[3] From the Tatsu Nishi exhibition, Sometimes Extraordinary, Sometimes Less than Common, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Aichi, Japan, Gallery, 2006 (Photos by Yoshihiro Kikuyama)
[4] Ji Lee, Duchamp Reloaded
[5] The Matter of Time, Richard Serra, 1994–2005



  • says:

    Thank you for this article. As an artist who uses their home as a canvas I found your article truly inspiring. You’ve generated some fresh ideas that will give friends and family some OMG moments! 😁😅😆