1. Space is an abstraction
At first glance, space is transparent, invisible: we
see the things, the persons and the objects, but not space itself.
Perceiving space involves a whole process of abstraction. It is in space
that geometry originates, based on an abstract vision of nature and
the forms found in nature. On this point, as on so many others in our
cultural tradition, the conception of space is a product of the Greek
It is a well-known fact that the Greeks knowledge
of astronomy was no more advanced than that of neighbouring civilisations,
particularly the Babylonians. And yet, by developing a rational focus,
by going beyond mythological or astrological thought, the Greeks founded
cosmology and astronomy, the disciplines concerned with the scientific
study of the universe.
This rational conception of knowledge, which has its
basis in what the Greeks called logos, thought-language, involves
the replacement of a symbolic system of representation by a numerical,
mathematical, geometrical system. For example, whereas in the Ancient
Greek cosmogonies, the Earth was conceived as being set on roots that
descended down into infinity, or placed inside a large receptacle, for
Anaximander (c. 618-c. 548 B.C.), the philosopher from Miletus, the
Earth was a truncated column situated in the middle of the cosmos. Comparing
these two representations, the Hellenist Jean-Pierre Vernant (1973,
p 187) writes: We see the birth of a new space, which is no longer
the mythical space with its roots or its receptacle but a geometrical
type of space. It is of course a space essentially defined by distance
and position, a space that allows the stability of the Earth to be founded
on the geometrical definition of the centre in relation to the circumference.
It was in fact the Ancient Greeks who, going beyond
the mythical notions of place (topos) and of home the
human home (first a palace, then a heros mansion and finally a
family residence) and the home of the gods (the temple) established
the idea of space, which was to become one of the most important and
significant categories in Western thought.
The idea of space requires the configurating, operational
activity of a rational, mathematical mind. Only on this basis do the
literary, artistic or musical i.e. aesthetic uses of it
become possible afterwards, in a cultural afterwards conceived
as anthropological tradition.
The concept appears in the process of creation of science-philosophy
in Greece, and probably for the first time with Pythagoras (570-497
b.c.), which in itself is relevant, given the central role of numbers
and of mathematics in his thinking. It later occupied the attention
of Zeno of Elea (490 B.C.), in his well-known logical paradoxes on movement.
And it received a precise formulation as a category in one of the last,
and in time most influential, of Platos dialogues Timaeus,
probably written in the second half of the fourth century B.C.
How did the creation of the world occur? It is in this
cosmological context that Plato establishes a precise categorial use
of the term space (jora) when he states that being and
space and generation, these three, existed in their three ways before
the world was born (Timaeus, 52d). In Plato, the being
corresponds to the exemplary Forms or Ideas,
which he characterises as the same, uncreated, indestructible
being, and also as invisible and imperceptible by any sense.
On the other hand, creation is perceived by sense, created, always
in motion (Timaeus, 52a).
Between these two opposite poles Ideas-Forms,
which are beyond the world, and creation, which relates
to the world of the senses there is also, according to Plato,
a third nature, which is space, and is eternal, and does not admit
of destruction and provides a home for all created things, and is apprehended
without the help of sense, by a kind of spurious reason; which we beholding
as in a dream, say of all existence that it must of necessity be in
some place and occupy a space, but that what is neither in heaven nor
on earth has no existence. (Timaeus, 52b).
The Platonic conception of space not only makes it
a kind of intermediary between the essential fixedness of
being and the changing creation of what is perceptible to the senses,
but in addition its eternal, indestructible nature provides a home to
everything that has an origin; in other words, it acts as a receptacle
or container, in which all things and beings are situated and have their
place. It can only be apprehended by a kind of spurious reason,
and in this it is distinguished from the Forms that can only be reached
through true reason, through the strict use of reason; but
without the help of sense, which also implies that it is
different from creation, apprehended by the senses and not by reason.
Thus in the final instance, in a situation midway between reason and
the senses, while at the same time outside both planes, space is such
an abstract idea that, as Plato himself admits, it is difficult to credit.
Certainly, this abstract idea of space can only be
sustained in the framework of a cosmological reflection, and can only
be apprehended by a type of reasoning that is eminently numerical and
formal the reasoning of mathematics, of geometry. But precisely
because it lacks figure, lacks form, space acts categorially
as the conceptual framework of possibility in order to distinguish and
demarcate every form or figure; and also as the territory that enables
us to make distinctions between what is empty and what is filled, which
were central aspects of Greek cosmological thinking prior to Plato,
particularly in Parmenides and Democritus.
It is obvious, moreover, that this abstract category
is formulated on the basis of the experience and the impulse provided
by forms of construction, by architecture. In all human societies, from
the most ancient and remote times, the solution to the problem of shelter
or habitat has been a fundamental question. The notion of home
that covers both domestic use and the different ritual uses (in religion,
power, etc.) involves changing from a more or less prepared natural
space to an artificial space constructed according to the
material determinations of the ecosystem and the use to which it is
However, what is interesting in the Greek case is that
the different forms of construction (house, temple and city) form a
unit together, a visual unit, that derives precisely from
the existence of an organic system of structuring space: The only
common factor whose essence is not susceptible to material alteration
or practical change is the system of structuring space that lies behind
all the manifestations of architecture in Greece (Martienssen,
1956, p 145). The construction variables derive from the requirements
of the specific purpose, whereas the elements of the measurement
and organisation of space appear as constants, which shows the
subtle gradation of the abstract as a constituent element of Greek architecture
(Martienssen, 1956, p 146).
Measurement and organisation, or measure and
order, are precisely two of the aesthetic categories that are central
not only to Greek culture but also to the Roman and Hellenistic world.
But they in themselves appear in the constructive process as procedures
for defining an abstract premise that acts as a substrate or foundation.
In other words, measure and order are ways of making space visible,
of demarcating it in a specific human use.
2. Visual space
The Greek conception of space as an abstract entity
not only permits a mathematical, geometrical foundation for the theories
of the universe but also confers a unity on the visual forms of representation.
It is not only architecture, but statuary and painting too are involved
in placing it on an abstract plane of experience that makes its autonomy
and development possible.
But there is a great difference between the geometric
and cosmological version of space and its visual version. Visual space
is conceived as an image of cosmic and geometrical space, which
it presupposes, though situated in a different order of thought and
existence. The visual (and literary and musical) version of space in
the Ancient Greek world was established within the framework of perceptible
representation, as one more aspect of mimesis, that skill or
talent for producing images that, with time, has become central
to our idea of art.
The artist (sculptor, painter and to some extent architect)
makes a cut, a caesura, in the abstract substrate that we conceive
as a receptacle for all forms and things, thus making it visible:
by giving it a perceptible support, by demarcating its form, the work
of art becomes a kind of echo, a materialisation, of that abstract idea
that enables us to think scientifically of the development of the cosmos.
The classical order of representation, which in Greece
and the ancient world in general already had as one of its principal
objectives the achievement of figurative illusion, was finally
to be structured in the Quattrocento thanks to the perfecting
of geometrical perspective as an artistic universe whose
figures looked more lifelike on account of the illusion of spatial
framing that was then perfectly possible. Nearness and distance
became elements in a process that gave priority to the fixed, stable
nature of the visual space, which in turn determined the strict position
of the viewpoint, the observer.
Although geometrical perspective is a visual and symbolic
convention (cf. Erwin Panofskys classical study, 1927), it was
eventually to become the sole and exclusive criterion for the representation
of space in the Western artistic tradition until the eclipse of Classicism
in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth
It is perhaps not too hazardous to establish a relationship
between this tendency to fix as an absolute in art what must have always
been considered as one option among many others, and the similarly exclusive
nature of Euclidean geometry, which served as the scientific basis for
it. The question is of even more concern when, in the process of development
of modern science, Isaac Newton (1687, p 33) formulated what is known
as his theory of absolute space: Absolute space, in
its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always
similar and immovable.
This idea of space is, as already mentioned, the counterpart
in physics to Euclidean space in mathematics. Cosmic space becomes a
kind of large stage: according to Gray (1992, p 244), it
can be conceived as an immense stage on which occur the events that
constitute the universe: eternal stars, small particles, ourselves.
In fact, we are not far from the Platonic concept of space as an eternal
receptacle, but of course with Newton we have a mathematical and cosmological
foundation for his theories that had not yet been possible in the Greek
These questions serve to reveal an interesting parallel
in the field of art. If in Newtons physics space and time are
conceived as absolute magnitudes, in one of the high spots
of the theory of the arts of the Classical period, in Laocoon
(Lessing, 1766), the notions of space and time are the reference points
that enable a semiotic difference to be established also in absolute
terms between the visual arts on the one hand and literature and music
on the other.
It is well known that at the core of Lessings
book is the need to establish a rigorous critique of the humanist formulations
of the identical nature of the arts. To fix with precision the limits
of the different artistic languages or genres is certainly
fundamental to the stability of the Classical aesthetic order. In this
context and based on Aristotle, Lessing magisterially formulates a semiotic
rather than a normative theory of the difference between the visual
arts (painting, he says metonymically) and literature (poetry
in its equally metonymic formulation).
Painting and poetry, according to Lessing (1766, p
106), use entirely different media or signs in order to imitate reality.
Whereas painting uses figures and colours arranged in space,
poetry uses articulated sounds that succeed each other over a
space of time. Hence, too, he says, the representation of the
bodies is the object of painting, whereas, since the successive
objects or their successive parts are generally called actions,
it is these that constitute the object of poetry.
Lessing (1766, pp 106-107) nevertheless concedes a
degree of crossing-over between the objects of poetry and
of painting. This is because, as the actions have no independent existence
but are performed by specific beings, and to the extent that these beings
are bodies, poetry also represents bodies, but only in an allusive
way, through actions. This merely allusive representation of the
body involves a choice, since, as a temporal art, poetry can only
use a single quality of bodies; hence the fact that it has to choose
the one that brings to the mind a more visual image of the body from
the viewpoint that this art requires for its own purposes.
In the same way that bodies exist not only in space
but also in time, painting for its part can also imitate actions,
although again only in an allusive way, through bodies.
In the same way as what happened with poetry, the characteristics of
the signs it employs mean that painting, when representing actions,
can only use a single moment of the action; so it has to
select the most pregnant of all these moments, the one most able to
take over the preceding moment and the following moment.
Although in Laocoon itself there are certain
lines of perspective that afford a glimpse of the then imminent crisis
in Classicism and the beginning of the Romantic revolution, particularly
through the central role that Lessing (1766, p. 53) attributes to the
imagination in the perception of beauty, nonetheless the structural
frontier between spatial arts and temporal arts
is too rigid. He also ignores the fact that the mixture of supports
and forms of expression in a single aesthetic proposal have been a constant
factor throughout the history of perceptible representation in our cultural
tradition, as occurs, for example, in the case of drama, or in the inclusion
of song, music and gesture in the most ancient forms of Greek poetry.
3. Space is indissociable from time
Already in our era, with the development of modern
technology, and in the specific field of the arts, with the invention
of motion pictures, which epitomised the combining of the dimensions
of space and time in a single expressive universe, the aesthetic, semiotic
separation between the representation of space and of time increasingly
came to be seen as somewhat inadequate. In this new cultural climate,
the artistic avant-gardes also rejected the Classical idea of the frontiers
between the different artistic genres or languages, precisely seeking
in the violation of these boundaries a new aesthetic ideal that
of the convergence of all types of processes and materials in the unity
of the work of art. This was an idea already anticipated by Richard
Wagner, in his theory of the musical drama and his formulation
of the category of the total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk),
as the maximum expression of the desire to transgress the classical
limits and merge all kinds of materials and processes in the unity of
Paul Klee (1920, p 4), for example, who in his youth
had been an enthusiastic reader of Laocoon, expresses quite clearly
Lessings rejection of any distinction: In Lessings
Laocoon, much noise is made about the difference between temporal
art and spatial art. And this, contemplated with greater precision,
is no more than erudite delirium. Because space too is a temporal concept.
Klee considers movement as the basis of all creation, and this means
seeing the temporal dimension in the creation of space. Obviously, Klee
is referring to visual space rather than to that abstract space,
conceived as a receptacle of creation, that Plato had characterised
It should be noted also that, since Antiquity and even
in the ordinary sense, space and time had been considered as related
entities. The Latin expression spatium temporis (space of time)
is a good example of this. Succession can also be perceived as extension.
Only the abstract, cosmological formulations of Newtonian physics, with
its ideas of absolute time and space, considered as independent
magnitudes, could conceptually justify such an absolute separation between
the two categories.
But the development in the nineteenth century of non-Euclidean
geometries and the appearance later on of new theories of physics, such
as undulatory mechanics or the theory of relativity significantly
in the same period as the emergence of the artistic avant-gardes
was to lead to a profound questioning of the absolute conceptions of
space and time, and to different cosmological formulations all based
on the idea of the space-time continuum.
The resistance to the abandonment of the postulations
of Newtonian physics in the scientific community itself is well documented.
As Gray (1992) explains, what shocked most people was the complete abandonment
of absolute space. The existence of an external world independent from
the observer had been associated with the belief in the absolute properties
of objects in space. The objects move, therefore the objects are there,
whether we like it or not. Despite this, and in principle for philosophical
and aesthetic reasons (their elegance and beauty, a decisive
aspect in the acceptance of scientific theories), the formulations of
the new physics were forging a path: Einstein showed, however, that
the description we offer depends on what we are doing and where we are
in a way that is more subtle than any other we would have expected,
and more subtle that what many people were prepared to accept (Gray,
1992, p 254).
The questions raised by the great mathematician Hermann
Minkowski, at a lecture given in 1905, clearly and precisely establish
the new use of the categories of space and time in contemporary physics:
Space and time must be lost in the shadows and only a world in
itself will exist. And again: Nobody has yet observed any
place other than in a time, nor has anybody observed any time other
than in a place (quoted in Gray, 1992, p 255). Although it should
be taken into account that the notion of time-space prevalent in physics,
and especially in the generalised theory of relativity, formulated by
Einstein in 1916, must not be confused with an intuitive image of a
reality or parameter in which time is blended
with space, there is no doubt that the abolition of the conception of
absolute space and time in the framework of contemporary scientific
knowledge was to have a notable repercussion in the field of artistic
practice and theory as well as in matters of common sense, gradually
accustomed to confronting more or less successful film or literary versions
of the paradoxes of Einsteins relativity, today so familiar to
4. From the representation
of space to the construction of space
The art of our time gradually took a revolutionary
turn that hinged on the idea of the transition from the visual representation
of space to the construction of space. It was a step that
was strongly influenced by the new sensibility that had made the development
of technology possible. New viewing mechanisms provided by high precision
machines, and in particular photography and films, liberated the visual
arts from the commitment to figuration and illusion that had marked
their fate since Classical Antiquity.
The visual idea of space, the artists work of
perceptibly demarcating the image, was thus released from a conventional
representation and gave way to the fully autonomous possibility of spatial
structuring, or construction of the visual space, conceived as
an entirely independent, perceptible, intellectual entity.
The emblem that marked this new horizon
in the arts was Picassos Les demoiselles dAvignon
(1907), with its deconstruction of classical representation and the
inclusion of different representational conventions in a single painting.
After this would come Cubism and the various Constructivist proposals,
whose developments were to cover the entire twentieth century down to
the present day.
This, as I mentioned above, is the context of Paul
Klees ideas (1920, p 4) as expressed in his Creative confession
on the integration of space and time in the work of art: When
a point becomes movement and line, it requires time. The same happens
when a line moves to become a surface. In the same way the movement
of surfaces creates spaces.
These ideas are clearly echoed in Point and line
to plane (1926), one of the most important theoretical texts written
by Wassily Kandinsky, who had joined Klee at the Bauhaus in 1922. What
is notable, in particular, is the counterpoint that Kandinsky (1926,
pp 109-110) establishes between artistic work and technical work, and
his call for a pure art: The Constructivist works
of recent years are in a large part, especially in their primitive form,
pure or abstract construction in space, without any practical
purpose, which distinguishes them from works of engineering and forces
us to place them in the category of pure art.
Something had changed, radically and irreversibly,
in the world of art, and the newly emerging conception of visual space
played a fundamental role in that change. When Kandinsky spoke of pure
or abstract construction in space he was fixing with precision
the new horizon of the plastic arts, finally freed from the mere reproduction
of a fragment of space. The art of our time had entered
a territory that was entirely different from any previous references
that of the dynamic construction in time of a fully autonomous
space. Instead of reproduction, construction. This is what Paul
Klee (1920, p 2) had also expressed in different terms in the first
sentence of his Creative confession: Art does not
reproduce the invisible, but makes something visible.
All the rest was to follow along at its own pace. With
Brancusi, sculpture was to begin a process of emancipation from the
pedestal and of formal, staged expansion that has continued down to
the present day. And at least after El Lissitzsky, with his constructions
that he called Proun (an acronym for Project in affirmation
of the new) in the early twenties, art appeared as the global
articulation of a set of diverse elements.
The concept of installation derives from
all this, from that Constructivist core that finally freed the work
of art from any subjection to representation, steering it towards the
production of a space a space that can contain the traditional
supports and media of the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture,
etc.), but also the new media from photography and
film to video and digital supports and, more importantly, the
supports and media that are non-visual (?) according to
the classical mentality: language, sound, gesture, setting, etc.
Art opens up a process of generation of autonomous
universes, each with its own time and space, breaking away from the
everyday experience or the practical uses of technology. Worlds apart.
In them, we seem to hear an echo of what Hermann Minkowski, as I mentioned
above, formulated in the field of the theory of physics: Space
and Time must lose themselves in the shadows and only a world in itself
R e f e r e n c e s
- Jeremy Gray (1992): [Ideas of Space] Ideas de espacio.
Spanish translation by F. Romero, revised by J. Ferreirós;
Mondadori, Madrid, 1992.
- Vasily Kandinsky (1926): [Punkt und Linie zu Fläche] Punto
y línea sobre el plano. Contribución al análisis
de los elementos pictóricos. Spanish translation by R.
Echavarren; Barral, Barcelona, 1971.
- Paul Klee (1920): [Schöpferische Konfession] Confesión
creadora. Spanish translation [there are many other versions]
from the catalogue Klee. Óleos, acuarelas y dibujos;
Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 1981, pp 2-7.
- Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1766): [Laokoon: oder über die
Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie] Laocoonte. Introduction and Spanish
translation by Eustaquio Barjau; Tecnos, Madrid, 1990.
- R. D. Martienssen (1956): [The Idea of Space in Greek Architekture]
La idea del espacio en la arquitectura griega. Spanish translation
by E. Loedel; Nueva Visión, Buenos Aires, 1980.
- Isaac Newton (1687): [Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica]
Principios matemáticos de la filosofía natural.
Spanish translation and notes by Antonio Escohotado; Tecnos, Madrid,
- E. Panofsky (1927): [Die Perspektive als "symbolische Form"]
La perspectiva como forma simbólica. Spanish translation
by V. Careaga; Tusquets, Barcelona, 1973.
- Jean-Pierre Vernant (1973): Mito y pensamiento en la Grecia antigua;
Ariel, Barcelona. Spanish translation by J. D. López Bonillo
from the corrected version of Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs;
F. Maspero, Paris, 1965.