THE CELLA WAS EMPTY
Within a Box
As a child I would hide inside a box within the house my father built. The outside of the box was made from pinewood and the inside was lined with fragrant cedar-wood. The box was approximately one-meter by one-meter and was an integrated part of a closet within the space between the dining room and my parent’s bedroom. The pinewood box contained dirty clothes waiting to be washed. While in the box I sensed the smells of my father, mother and sisters. The clothes were soft—tactile, and the smells of my family fused with the smell of the fresh cedar-wood. The form of my body made an impression within the crumpled fabric. It was dark inside the box but not black, not total darkness.
If it were afternoon the sun would sometimes pierce the west-facing windows of the dining room and penetrate the small vertical fissures in the pine panels. When someone passed the box the light inside the box would hesitate and falter. I could tell who caused the interruptions from the sound and cadence of the footsteps upon the wood floor. The sounds inside the box were softened and distorted by the fabric and material layers between outside and inside. In the dining room there was a piano and while inside the box I would imagine the storied travails of Peer Gynt as my sister practiced; and there were voices – conversations and arguments. And there were the smells of food.
Inside the box the presence of my family was perceived through interstitial filters of time and materials. The pine and cedar box was another kind of skin, a material skin that housed a space for another body, my body, within which I ‘fit’ and perceived parts of my world in a manner askew: the box was a space-within-a-space that contracted and expanded—enfolding and unfolding—via the material transmutation of the familiar into reconstructed realties. The box was held in a strange balance by negotiation. The world within the box—my world—and the outside world inhabited by the people and artifacts of my detached daily existence were negotiated by a kind of liminal distance that I now construe as a casting of resistance – a simultaneous separation and connection – betwixt: a wall – perhaps, an architecture.
There was another box.
While he worked my father would sit me in a shallow wood box filled with sand that was suspended between two creosote-soaked wood poles that were a part of a larger outdoor structure. The sand in the box was fine sand and was used to hold the imprinted form of dead animals. My father was a taxidermist. After the desired—trophy-like—form was found the animal would be surrounded by a flexible wood barrier. Within the space between the barrier and the stiffening animal he would pour plaster of Paris. After the plaster dried he would separate the dead animal from the mold and then the animal’s skin would be surgically removed. If the mold were small he would hand it to me so I could feel the warmth brought forth by the plaster’s chemical curing process; if the animal was large I would lean over and touch the surface of the warm plaster. I would imagine that the animal was alive and that its ‘aliveness’ created the warmth inside the plaster mold; a transfer of energy of sorts. I would imagine that the mold—its material, its content—was alive; that the mold was waiting to animate what was to come.
These are obviously personal—childhood—anecdotes, yet in some not-so-remote way the stories cast the body and the space of habitation as primary referents within the installation The Cella Was Empty and other works. They posit the notion that space is an interstitial filter altering our perception of any presence. This installation is in contrast to the tenets of universal space[i]; it favors the politic of liminal materialism[ii] and the framed view over dematerialization[iii] as a lens to perceive my relationship to the world and fosters alliances with narrative structures rather than the rule of objective formalism.
Architecture is in the world of the visible. This means that the bodies of architecture and the human body are one in front of the other and between the two there is ‘not a frontier’ but a contact surface.” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 271)[iv]. Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests a space of reciprocity ‘formed’ by bodily correspondences. In this sense a “contact surface” is liminal[v], it has thickness, a liminal distance, a space formed by reciprocity. The “contact surface” is the malleable space cast from the tension of mutual presence. The revealing and unfolding of this “cast-space” is where The Cella Was Empty begins.
The Cella was Empty is three-dimensional installation using the transformed narratives and artifacts of human habitation. For this work the house of the Slovene architect Jože Plečnik[vi] was the site for the excavation of traces, artifacts and rituals that then served as points of departure for the construction of a new spatial environment using transformative processes: full-scale x-ray imaging of spaces and artifacts that serve to index the existing environment[vii]; relief oil paintings over x-ray images; x-ray images of the paintings; the construction of three-dimensional talismans—enfolded reliquaries—using x-ray images as sources.[viii]. The enfolded reliquaries and images were then installed within the space of the Iauv Gino Valle Gallery as a reformed spatial system.
It is inevitable that I am asked about the x-ray image: “what are you looking for?” and “are you looking for hidden structures?” are understandably common questions. The x-ray has a certain technological cachet. The x-ray and its product (and byproducts) are perceived with an aura of scientific mystery, even fear. For my purposes the x-ray device instantly indexes[ix] an object or system of objects. The x-ray particle conically forces energy—violently—through a three-dimensional object upon a two-dimensional film – it creates a contact surface between the x-ray source and the receiving surface that can be interpreted, reread and unfolded without physiognomic bias; this artifact of violence, this contact surface is the liminal distance between the object and the receiver; it is a spatial artifact. In his text Not From Scratch: The Sweet Moment of Discontinuity, Levent Kara speaks to the x-ray’s role within the project.
“You may say ‘but it is all about underlying structures, is not x-ray all about this?’ I will say ‘no’, the structures laid open by x-rays are not underlying structures as a grammatical system or a deep structure, they are highly arbitrary and accidental, they do not [necessarily] determine the objects physiognomy [for the lack of a better word]. This is, for me, the beauty of the whole performance. In dissolving its contents, [the exhibition] finds nothing to reveal deeper somewhere in its objects causing them, there is nothing that holds the presence of its objects. Thus, nothing to hold the presence of absence either, in the objects themselves, [The Cella Was Empty] constructs its own performative structures upon its objects. X-ray is there only momentarily to distance the reality of the object, the presence, to create the critical distance that triggers and ignites the spontaneous machinery of imagination, which explodes that presence in the multiplicity of iterative tracings, markings, spacings. The eidetic intensity of the work is not because of a phenomenological reduction, bracketing, that yields essences. It is there because the meticulous calibrations of each iteration altogether form a space of ordering that consciously discontinues the object while constantly referring back to it. This is also what cancels out the objects’ object(ness) in the experience of the work. The architecture of [The Cella Was Empty], or [The Cella Was Empty] the architectural intervention, does not rely on its objects for its own systemic(ness); it casts its own machinery that re-assures ordering while constantly rejecting an order of things.”[x]
The Enfolded Reliquaries: Bed & Recumbent
The installation’s three-dimensional pieces—Bed, Antepurgatorio and Recumbent—are positioned along the central axis of the Gino Valle Gallery and collectively serve as directional talismans for the x-rays and relief paintings (figs.1, 1a&1b). Bed and Recumbent are enfolded reliquaries[xi] (figs.2&3). The x-ray Antepurgatorio and its correspondent relief painting are positioned back-to-back upon a vertical steel armature. The void-space (hagioscope) within the armature is aligned with two vertical steel elements supporting Bed and Recumbent (fig.3). The installation begins with the suspended x-ray Angel 1 whose angular position defines a perspectival arrangement focusing on the suspended x-ray Kristus Indexus at the end of the axis (fig.1).
Note: Kristus Indexus (the cruciform) is a constant sign within all the spaces of the subject site. The conceptual and structural constructs of the form are layered within the installation’s enfolded reliquaries. Although the form is evident in the work, it is not the charge of this text to explore its complex role in both the spaces and artifacts used to define the work. For the purpose of this discussion the cruciform is appropriated as a bodily trope that is both a scalar and navigational artifact multifariously disseminated within the work and space of the installation.
The bed of Jože Plečnik is a simple rectalinear wood box (Fig.4). Within the frame are the necessary elements for sleep – a metal wire mesh nailed to the pine-wood frame that supports a crumpled wool and cotton mattress. The bed is small by modern standards. It is for one person; it would not be a particularly comfortable bed. The head of the bed is located on the east wall of the small circular bedroom. The longitudinal aspect of the bed is perpendicular to the false wood ceiling beam above that dissects the round space. The bed faces 4 windows and looks out upon the long thin yard stretching to the west. A wood crucifix is nailed to the wall above the bed and there is a metal candlestick on the north side of the bed; it is Plečnik’s design. The space is filled with personal artifacts.
The x-ray Bed is constructed from 33 individual x-ray images (fig.3). The images were taken with a portable x-ray source positioned on a track 100cm above the surface of the bed. A 20 x 40cm receiving plate was moved in synch with the source in accordance to a grid superimposed on the floor under the bed. Longitudinal and transverse sections were made by measuring downward from a horizontal laser beam that was positioned 20cm above the highest point of the bed.
The enfolded reliquary Bed begins with the three-dimensional reformation of the x-ray image. The section is inverted expressing the nightly presence—the weight—of the body: the inversion is the molded space of the body – a material casting of absent form. Inverted section and x-ray image are then conjoined. A mold is made of the interstice. The enfolding of the two images suggests the compression of time and material formed by the spectrum of light. The dialog between black and white (night and day) determines the liminal thickness and textural character of the molded shell. The exterior surface of the form is now determined by the interior structure and material density of the 50cm thick bed. The compressed x-ray—the contact surface, the entire internal material composition of the bed—is extracted from the x-ray as a new tactile skin, an index, affecting the shape and material character of the reliquary.
Kristus Indexus—its reductive organizational form via x-ray imaging—structures the armature that supports the new molded shell – the evidential form of sleep (fig.5). Elements of the steel armature penetrate the shell at four bodily points located in both the bed-body form and Kristus Indexus: legs, chest, head and arm. Each penetration tectonically connects armature to casting and defines a directional marker relating to the spatial positions of reliquaries Antepurgatorio and Recumbent while simultaneously holding the shell above the floor; the shell now floats upward exposing the space occupied by the supportive abstracted body (fig.6).
Recumbent suggests the laying-down of something—a body, particularly—that was once vertical. The recumbent is most associated with sarcophagi; it also alludes to sleep, to lovemaking and general aspects of horizontal repose; but mostly, death: the recumbent body defines the liminal distance between earth and sky. The body is the contact surface.
The Recumbent, in terms of process, is similar to Bed. The primary difference is the added process layer of the relief painting. As in Bed, the casting is taken from the x-ray. The source x-ray for Recumbent is the x-ray of the relief painting Antepurgatorio, not the original artifact. The supportive steel armature is made from plate-steel and organized to suggest pathways that align with (as Bed) both Recumbent casting and other constituent pieces of the exhibition (Fig.7&7a).
The Enfolded Reliquary is a reformed indexical casting of an artifact of habitation. It emerges as a talisman projecting possibilities for spatial considerations. In this project—this installation—reliquary is imbued with manifold presences, and absences, of the history of habitation and via its present state it participates in the synthetic manifestation of new space.
This short essay begins with stories about perception. Not unlike the arch in Michel Deguy’s peom, the embodiment of stories emerges the artifice of poetry, and hence a means to shape experience through the construction of filters that link the body to the external world.
Paul O. Robinson, Venice, April 2016
The Cella Was Empty
Emptiness as it is called
Placed in secrecy within the hollowed arch
would be the part’s absence for a whole
And removed from sight
The renouncement but peacefully hushed
Of possible symbolization
from Recumbents Poems
translated from the French by Wilson Baldridge
The Cella Was Empty at the Gino Valle Gallery, Iuav Venezia, June 2015
Curated by Agostino De Rosa and Alessio Bortot
Installation assistant and digital drawings: Paulo Barbaresi
Installation assistants: Ana Klofutar and Martin Košir
Installation photography: Umberto Ferro
Copyright Paul O. Robinson
[i] I use universal dually: first referencing the modernist notion of dematerialization and transparency—predominantly manifest via the use of glass—as means to heighten one’s connection to the exterior environment; second in terms the open/free plan as a ‘democratic’ environment.
[ii] Liminal materialism refers to the ability of a material to connect and represent two differing conditions via its form and material content.
[iii] Refer to note 1
[iv] Frascari, Marco. “Monsters of Architecture: Anthropomorphism in Architectural Theory.” Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 1991, pg. 33 paragraph 1. In the context of the installation I take the liberty to interchange “Architecture” and “Art”.
[v] Here a liminal condition operates dually: 1. Liminal is the least amount of distance (space) needed to connect/attach two surfaces. 2. In anthropology liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”).
[vi] Jože Plečnik 1872 – 1957, was a Slovene architect known for his work in Prague and Vienna, but most notable is his architecture and urban design in Slovenia, specifically Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital city.
[vii] Index is used here in reference to the definition coined by Rosalind Krauss. According to Krauss: “…as distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms. Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects…” Refer to: Krauss, Rosalind, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America” October Vol. 3 (Spring, 1977), pp. 68-81
[viii] The enfolded reliquary is a reliquary whose artifact is embedded into the object/form rather than
held, separately, within; it is more a material body whose purpose is to reveal its making and its contents by virtue of enfolding its history, and the history of its making, until both container and object are found to be one.
[ix] Refer to note 7
[x] Kara, Levent. Form of Absence: Radiographs|Paintings|Reliquaries. USF Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa 2015, pg. 75
[xi] Refer to note 8