An Artist’s Meditation: On Space, Art and Experience

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Editor’s Note: A sculptor and painter muses on the inner dimensions of space, consciousness, art and experience. The piece has a meditative quality to it, and takes the reader to a space within where the inner gradually begins to merge with the outer infinite which is not different from the infinity within.

Centrality of Space

Space is central, and not circumstantial.

Space is more abstract than we presume we understand. Space defines and also defies understanding. Perhaps the only way we perceive space is as an enigma that is both personal and impersonal simultaneously.

We have a personal sense of space defined by our physical form as an internal space, and that which is outside of us becomes impersonal and infinite. Our inner spaces can be further divided as physical space, psychological space and emotional space, and we assume we know less of the former two and more of the latter.

Universal space and perception of personal space (Image source)

A creative mind such as that of an artist grapples with this inner space and tries to express it in the external space using media that would evoke, replicate, imitate or intuit the inner. For instance, a portrait is an internalisation of the experience and emotion belonging to the artist’s and sitter’s space, personal yet exposed.

We appreciate a work of art when it resonates with our personal understanding of those spaces. A landscape painting describes space from the perspective of the artist’s concept, and again we admire it when it resonates with or reveals to us a dimension of space we are familiar or surprised with.

A still life painting that studies an arrangement of objects describes a space that can be remote or intimate, pleasant or neutral, analytical or factual, – and these are our judgements of objects in space and their relative spacing.

Our comfort levels are deeply personal, psychological and emotional in all the above three. Do we hang a painting or install a sculpture that does not have identification through content or import with us? If we do so, we are farcical, artificial or superficial.

It is human nature to reflect the innermost core, and whatever is important to that core, in the external world as a reminder of the truth to which we must return. Our personal sense of space dictates our worldly ambience.

Universal Space to Spiritual Space

When we find ourselves either in an ambience of natural aesthetics such as in captivating landscapes, it uplifts us and leads our eyes and spirits upwards. So also, when we behold spaces created under the visionary guidance of people who have dwelt on recreating beauty, harmony and order of a certain kind. Places and edifices of worship, palaces, great cities and forts are some instances of this. In such places we again experience something similar.

In museums we find artifacts that remind us of personal spaces belonging to another time period, but we can still resonate with the causal condition as it still emanates an aesthetic that expresses its truth. And then we also find ourselves in ordinary man-made spaces full of superficial fancy, pallor or ugliness.

This indicates lack of involvement, vision and thought in reflecting our own truth. When anything appears fragmented, and the whole appears incomprehensible, it negates unity of design. And to design living spaces there needs to be a vision, a holistic vision where beauty, truth and harmony reverberate with the innate sensibilities of the dwellers. Is that not why it is called a dwelling, a space which you do not want to leave?

A holistic vision where beauty, harmony and order reverberate with meaning (Image source)

 At this point our topic becomes intensely spiritual because we are talking of uniting the inner and the exterior spaces we reckon, and we are attempting to dwell there. Therefore that point comes to be known as the here and the now, the spatial and temporal centre of existence. The artist is like the sage who dwells eternally in the eternal centre of space and time – the ‘nowhere’ or ‘inhere’ (to play a bit with these meaningful words!).

This is why, I reiterate that, space is central and not circumstantial. It is not to be dictated by external forces but illumined by the inner light. Whether artists or thinkers, leaders or visionaries, centres of learning or organizations of management, it is the imagination of the ideal that brings about the effect. If the aesthetic ideal of an age is meagre or lopsided it reflects our own lack of understanding of space and the narrowness or weakness of our vision. 

Personalization and Experience of Space

While pronouncing the word Space, we can realize it is just one syllable. It can be taken as a personal one that starts with us, moves outward briefly with the breath and returns to its origin. Amazingly true indeed!

Even if we begin to experience this Space as a mere word, connect to its sound, and then give it an import – a meaning that can reverberate with its usage – limited or infinite, we have come a long way with(in) ‘Space’. And besides, all the synonyms or antonyms of this word ‘space’ only deepen the mystery of space which is what delights and defines life.

When we personalize anything it becomes ours. Space is no exception. When we define ourselves to others, it is the intangible and the not so obvious that we take pains to express or convey like an artist. When one tries to communicate one’s feelings, space is the first problem to tackle. What, where, how and why are the questions to be answered first. This could be a selection and description of form, whether obvious or subtle.

As in portraiture, where besides the formal aspects it is the psychological traits of the sitter that the artist interweaves into the creative space, so also our atmosphere is an expression of our self-definition. The distance between two forms can be stifling if too close and disconnected if too far apart. Similarly, forms that are relatively large or small detract from the original intent.

To find the right spatial arrangement is called a composition which ensures balance, rhythm, harmony, beauty or the desired effect. Just as an artist tries to pin down the intended implication through a formal arrangement of elements of art and principles of design within a creative space, the onlooker may be intuitive and have a grasp or allow the artist’s space to interact, guide and lead the viewer’s intellect and respond or reject it.

Any space infused with feeling speaks without words. We are always subtly aware and sensitive to spaces around us, and our comfort depends on this awareness, by and large. In design, it is often the space that is the core concern along with its purpose. Architecture articulates man’s vision of space, and the fact that everyone wants to have his or her own home indicates a universal tendency to personalize space. 

Until we understand that we are imprisoned in a cage fashioned out of our own unwillingness to infuse true feeling to our personal spaces we proceed outward, meaninglessly expanding in larger and larger concentric circles without realizing the centrality of our existence. We shall not be free from the illusion of space as binding, limiting, fragmenting or dissolving until we return to the core of our existence, the experience of the self and stop wandering about.

The fragmentation of space – unified yet individual, unnecessary yet interesting, giving life its meaning when truly understood (Image source)

Our expressions in terms of the subjective and objective are dependent on the time-space continuity as we consciously or subconsciously expand our knowledge-experience framework and proceed to actualize the true meaning of our nature. It gets reduced to the seed word – Consciousness – which is the core of Indian philosophy.

It is irrefutable that only experience ‘anubhava’ can confirm this and until then we continue to use words, gestures and expression as the finite means to convey the infinite. It is quite like expressing the radiance of the sun by indicating the full moon, beautiful but insufficient nevertheless!

Essentials of Space

Let us ponder a bit on the ‘essence’ of Space. The world is a storehouse of experiments and every seeker can find something that inspires, initiates or impels one to go forward or deeper. Yet, without analysis of the essence of each emotion, response or feeling created by the spatial condition we cannot progress further.

Physical requirements, social needs and emotional or familial frameworks help in setting up a comfortable spatial positioning that provides personal comfort, interpersonal relations and emotional bonds which give meaning to life. If these are not in order revisiting these spaces and rearranging them can solve most of the problems.

A simple diagram or chart using spatial equations can throw much light on our issues. If it is not physical space it would be emotional space that has to be iterated. Playing with it like an artist, positioning and repositioning arrangements on the canvas, a balance can be achieved.

We now know that the external state is but a reflection of our internal state in the ultimate sense.

Therefore, if we truly realize and infuse with feeling the necessity of the a harmoniously balanced space – the ‘in here’ and ‘now here’ – with urgency and clarity, qualitatively we shall arrive at an evolved humane society, respecting the totality of universal space and infinitude of personal spaces that require beauty, harmony and order for living in love and peace and not war.

Amazing spiral architecture of the Stingless bee.  Architecture and vision of spatial arrangements for an ideal society (Image source)

Transition from Fist Space to Heart Space

Can you briefly clench your fist lightly such that there is space within it? Let that space vibrate as you try to ‘feel’ it. Open your fist gently and flatten your palm to let the space out!

Sounds strange?

Was there a new space called the fist space, in the first place? And did you let out any new space that wasn’t part of the total space already? Or reframe the question as – when did the infinite space become a personal space and when will it become infinite once again?

If you try answering these questions you are into sadhana, a practice for understanding a benign space that maliciously binds you to your own self-made limitations. We can relate our fist space to our own individual space much like a little clay pot that seems to hold a private space within while nonetheless whole. And when the pot breaks the pot space merges with the infinite outer space.

The fist space (Image source)

* * *

If we imagine that a boundary can create, confine and define a finite space such as a personal space, then we must also realize the folly that we are forgetting about the space within the physical properties of that which we imagine to constitute the framework of that boundary, diminutively to the minutest particles of creation.

Whereas if we choose to remain as a centre point pulsating as the conscious self in us, then there is no outgoing or homecoming but just a perpetual existence irrespective of eventualities. The personal spaces we behold around us might just be reflections of our very own self much like reflections in fragments of a shattered mirror, virtual not real.

In simpler words, when we focus on the centrality of space there is no movement (inward or outward); and when we dally around the finite formal contours, we lose an imagined space when the form succumbs to temporality of structure. This is why aesthetics defines beauty as in the eyes of the beholder. We agree with it but do not retain its import continually.

Consider this as a significant spiritual practice.

Every morning, we begin to wake up from an undivided space of nescience and begin to divide space. And as we proceed from the subtle to the gross, we begin to recognize more finite forms and beings, along with the ones within ourselves, such as the ones in dreams, and outside as the world.

From undifferentiated space we create a gross physical space, finite up to the horizon and material up to our sensory perception, like concentric circles increasing and intersecting with other such circles, small or big. Thus, by concretizing our awareness we establish relationships and comfortable distances to avoid turbulences or surprises.

With deliberation, and if we remain aware of this process, from the centre of our existence we can amend or redefine these spaces in relativistic and absolute terms.

The beautifully expanding centre of consciousness as against a disjointed fabrication, interesting but meaningless (Image source)

* * *

Thus, what results can be a creation which is beautiful, meaningful and true to our aim, until the letting go eventually happens as we open our fist for dissolution of space as a natural and eventual occurrence. In this there is no pain but a transcendence of pain and limitation, similar to beginning and ending at the same point, like a dot from where a line walked, took on a shape only soon to return to its origin.

Recall the word ‘space’ sounded the same, like a homecoming to the centre of one’s own self, the starting point and residence as one and the same, however far we seem to travel!

When we awaken the awareness of space within us it will feel as if the insulation which differentiates the inner and the outer is lost. Though the feeling of insecurity would be natural, briefly for some, one is becoming boundless and that is the trade-off. The heart becomes the centre not of a finite being but of the very indivisible totality. The choice of identification with the centrality of infinite space is ours!

All images selected by the author.

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