"The Solemn Geography of Human Limits": Some Notes on Art, Space and Gender

By Whiteman, Maria | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

"The Solemn Geography of Human Limits": Some Notes on Art, Space and Gender


Whiteman, Maria, Resources for Feminist Research


Using Michel Foucault's concept of heterotopia, this paper argues that art is essentially heterotopic. In particular, current forms of feminist installation art uniquely exercise and produce the kinds of reflections of the construction of lived space that characterize heterotopias. By looking at the recent art of Judy Pfaff, Jessica Stockholder, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, this paper focuses on the ways in which contemporary artistic practices explore and critique the gendered nature of contemporary spaces.

Space and place, spaces and places, and our senses of them (and such related things as our degrees of mobility) are gendered through and through. Moreover they are gendered in a myriad of different ways, which vary between cultures and over time. And this gendering of space and place both reflects and has effects back on the ways in which gender is constructed and understood in the societies in which we live. -- Doreen Massey (1994, p. 186)

Art, space, gender

In this article I want to examine the issue of space in contemporary art. In part, my interest in this topic arises out of the fact that while there has always been a discourse of space in discussions of art, it has, in my opinion, rarely been thematized or investigated in a theoretically or philosophically rigorous manner.

If there is something missing in discussions of the space of art, it is the realization that space is not something fixed or permanent, but something that is only produced historically. Rather than being understood as simply a void populated with objects, which remains the dominant idea of space from at least Kant onwards, recent theoretical work on space by writers such as Michel Foucault, Edward Soja, and Doreen Massey, has emphasized that space constantly undergoes changes in its own volumes, significance, and polarities. Instead of taking space as a fact that the artwork produces -- which is the usual way in which space is understood with respect to art -- a number of contemporary artists have explicitly set out to explore the ways in which space is fashioned and created. This task has been central to the work of a number of contemporary artists such as Jessica Stockholder, Nancy Rubins, Judy Pfaff, Eva Hesse, and Louise Bourgeois, and so it is with an analysis of the work of these artists that I will concern myself with here.

But there is another reason for looking at these particular artists. It is not just the place of space in art that I am interested in, but the way in which the artistic investigation of space can be seen as the site for an investigation of a third term -- gender, as it is triangulated by both space and art. I want to elaborate a very specific concept of space as it relates to art and gender. So before assembling some notes on the work of the artists mentioned above, I want to begin by establishing more clearly the new sites that have recently been set out for discussions of space, through an examination of Michel Foucault's important essay, "Of Other Spaces" (1986). It is in this essay that Foucault elaborates a concept that I see as essential to the examination of space in the work of these artists and in my own work -- the concept of heterotopia.

Heterotopia

In order to destabilize our idea of space as a fixed, unchanging property of the universe, Foucault first explains how much our idea of space has changed over history. Foucault's aim is thus, first and foremost, to make space historical, so that we are able to understand the ways in which it is socially structured and created, constantly changing and open to change.

Gaston Bachelard's phenomenological work on space (The Poetics of Space, for example) is important for Foucault in this respect, because it shows how space is fundamentally heterogeneous -- not a homogeneous property, but a complex lived relation. Instead of being unchanging and eternal, external space is in fact defined by internal space ("the space of our primary perceptions"), but also by "something we have in dreams" (Foucault, p. …

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