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'Spaces That Matter: Awareness and Entropia in the Imaging of Place'


Presented at The 'Mediated Spaces' Symposium, The University of Melbourne, October 2002 and accepted for presentation at 'New Cities New Media' conference, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, January 2003.

Spaces That Matter pdf (2.81Mb pdf).



Abstract: This paper investigates moments of presence that are realised when photographing 'the poetics of empty space' and argues that awareness of these poetical spaces/places can lead to 'entropia', a term I conceptualise as the combining of utopia (the longing for paradise) and entropy (the loss of energy from a system), present in the language of the collective gaze of some contemporary australian photographers. Their gaze seems to be directed towards the naming, longing for, and solidification of, a 'poetic space', a formal construction of space that immobilises Barthes 'punctum' through awareness, possibly in order to deny the fluidity and fragmentation of space present in the ephemeral images of a media-rich informational society. Sections include an analysis of the work of photographers Minor White and Eugene Atget, analysis of images by Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus, the 'voids' of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin: 'a/voiding awareness', 're-velatio', 'entropia and contemporary Australian photography', and 'spaces that matter' : how new technologies can offer an evolution in the way we conceive of space.


Keywords: photography, Australian photographers, empty space, entropia, gaze, awareness, voids, digital technology, space, Eugene Atget, Minor White, Daniel Libeskind.



Anon French photographer
Anon French photographer


Anonymous French photographs.

personal title : "the missing portraits of roland barthes mother"




"All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warning or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment and you will find that we are all, as I said before, bugs in amber."

Kurt Vonnegut 1


"Allow me to direct your attention to your present experience, to how it is with you at this moment when (as far as possible) you drop memory and imagination and desire, and just take what's given."

John Harding 2



Paris, a few years ago

Rummaging through bric-a-brac at a flea market in the north of the city I chanced upon an old cardboard box full of musty letters which I had, at that time, no inclination to read. For no particular reason, I started searching through the letters. At one end of the box my eye fell upon a black and white photograph of an elderly woman wrapped in a shawl, seated in a cane chair with a clock on the mantle-piece behind her. The experience of her image captured me.
Excited by my discovery I searched through the remaining letters; and yes, at the other end of the box of letters was a second photograph of this anonymous woman, the clock on the mantelpiece behind indicating a passage of time, her hands now holding a pair of glasses, resting on a book with the French word 'demain', tomorrow, inscribed on it's cover. These small, gem like photographs were like a 're-velatio'. It did not occur to me to read the letters within the box with the possibility of finding out more about this woman, for somehow I did not desire that her jouissance should be constituted through another language; or perhaps it was because I never even thought about this at the time, so excited was I by my discovery. I wonder what insights those letters could have provided into the spaces between the now and then, between the ticking of the clock and the expressions of the face, between the mortality of the body and the word 'demain', the physical, spatial separation of images by text.
Would my re-velatio, the glance of my experience have turned to stone? Would my awareness of signification, of memory, and imagination have been immobilised in the fixity of a prolonged gaze of desire?


A Revealing Awareness

According to Norbert Schneider in his book, 'The Art of the Portrait', "since early Christian times the curtain had been seen as a 'velum', whose function was either to veil what was behind it, or, by an act of 're-velatio', or pulling aside of the curtain, to reveal it."3 In my everyday experience of the photographs of the elderly woman a metaphoric veil had been pulled back on the 'true nature' of the sitter. This is not always the case with photographs as surfaces abound, are bound, by the awareness of the photographer. Two dichotomous images can be proffered as examples. One is a photograph of Arnold Schwarzenegger taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1976,4 and the other, taken six years earlier by Diane Arbus, is titled, "A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C., 1968."5
In Mapplethorpe's photograph Schwarzenegger is placed on bare floorboards with a heavy curtain tied back to reveal a white wall behind him. The photograph reveals nothing about his identity, his inner self or his state of mind save that he is a bodybuilder with a body surface made up of large muscles that has been posed for the camera; his facial expression and look are blank, much like the wall behind him. It is a barren landscape.
Compare this photograph with the photograph by Diane Arbus. Again a figure stands before parted curtains in a room. Here we see an androgynous figure of a man being a woman surrounded by the physical evidence of his/her existence. The body is not muscular but of a 'natural' type, one leg slightly bent in quite a feminine gesture, a hand on the hip. Behind the figure is a bed covered with a blanket. On the chair in front of the curtains and on the bed behind lies discarded clothing and the detritus of human existence. We can also see a suitcase behind the chair leg, an open beer or soft drink can on the floor, and what looks like an electrical heater behind the figure's legs. We look at this persons' place of living, of sleeping, the space where this person possibly has sex.


Robert Mapplethorpe
Diane Arbus


Robert Mapplethorpe

"Arnold Schwarzenegger."




Diane Arbus

"A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. 1968."



Framed by the open curtains the painted face with the plucked eyebrows stares back at us with a much more engaging openness, the body placed within the context of its lived surroundings, unlike the photograph of Schwarzenegger which has very little context. Much is revealed about the psycho-logical state of the owner, how he lives and what he likes to do. The black and white shading behind the curtains reveals a yin/yang dichotomy (in Eastern mythology yin/yang is both/and, being transformable and interpenetrating whilst in the West black/white is either/or not both, being exclusive and non- interactive), the opposite and the same of this personality far better than the blank white wall that stands behind Mapplethorpe's portrait of Schwarzenegger. Arbus has made us aware of the paradoxical nature of his/her life by revealing something more than surfaces, something more than an act of repetition, a 'performativity',6 a photograph that is both text and texture, a textu(r)al response to the act of visuality that upsets a ritualised production of equilibrium. In this, re-velatio can be linked to Barthes 'punctum' or prick of consciousness that takes us out of ourselves,7 that achieves Barthes' 'absolute subjectivity' as we allow ourselves, "to say nothing, to shut [our] eyes, to allow the detail to rise of its own accord into affective consciousness."8
Here, the photographers trained eye is perhaps more of a hindrance than may at first be thought. The photographer may struggle with, "a sense of intense inevitability, insofar as
this kind of image seems to be one that the photographer 'could not not photograph'."9 Awareness may become a double bind for the photographer. It may force the photographer to photograph because he can do nothing else, because he is aware of the presence of 'punctum' within a space, even an empty 'poetic space', but this awareness may then blind him, may ossify the condition of revealing through his directed gaze, unless he is very attentive and drops, as Harding says, "memory and imagination and desire, and just take what's given."10 The object, as Baudrillard notes, "isolates itself and creates a sense of emptiness ... and then it irradiates this emptiness,"11 but this irradiation of emptiness does require an awareness of it in order to stabilise the transgressive fluctuations of the ecstasy of photography (which are necessarily fluid), through the making of an image that, as Baudrillard notes, "may well retrieve and immobilise subjective and objective punctum from their 'thunderous surroundings'."12 Knowledge of awareness is a key to this immobilisation and image making. The philosopher Krishnamurti has interesting things to say about this process, and I think it is worth quoting him extensively here :

"Now with that same attention I'm going to see that when you flatter me, or insult me, there is no image, because I'm tremendously attentive ... I listen because the mind wants to find out if it is creating an image out of every word, out of every contact. I'm tremendously awake, therefore I find in myself a person who is inattentive, asleep, dull, who makes images and gets hurt - not an intelligent man. Have you understood it at least verbally? Now apply it. Then you are sensitive to every occasion, it brings its own right action. And if anybody says something to you, you are tremendously attentive, not to any prejudices, but you are attentive to your conditioning. Therefore you have established a relationship with him, which is entirely different from his relationship with you. Because if he is prejudiced, you are not; if he is unaware, you are aware. Therefore you will never create an image about him. You see the difference?"13

Now apply this attention to the awareness of the photographer. If he does not create images that are prejudice, could this not stop a photographer 'not not' photographing because he sees spaces with clarity, not as acts of performativity, spaces of ritualised production overlaid with memory, imagination, desire, and nostalgia?

Here an examination of the work of two photographers is instructive. The first, the early 20th century Parisian photographer Eugene Atget, brings to his empty street and parkscapes visions that elude the senses, visions that slip between dreaming and waking, between conscious and subconscious realms. These are not utopian spaces, not felicitous spaces that may be grasped and defined with the nostalgic fixity of spaces we love,14 but spaces of love that cannot be enclosed because Atget made no image of them.

I believe Atget moved his photographs onto a different spatio-temporal plane by not being aware of making images, aware-less-ness, dropping away the appendages of image making (technique, reality, artifice, reportage) by instinctively placing the camera where he wanted it, thus creating a unique artistic language. His images become a blend of the space of intimacy and world-space as he strains toward, "communion with the universe, in a word, space, the invisible space that man can live in nevertheless, and which surrounds him with countless presences."15 These are not just 'localised poetics'16 nor a memento of the absent, but the pre-essence of an intimate world space reinscribed through the vision (the transgressive glance not the steadfast gaze) of the photographer. Atget is not just absent or present, here or there,17 but neither here nor there. His images reverberate (retentir), in Minkowski's sense of the word, with an essence of life that flows onward in terms of time and space independent of their causality.18

The second photographer is a man who sought to be attentive to fundamental truths, the American photographer Minor White (active 1938-1976). After studying Zen Buddhism, Gurdjieff, and astrology, White strongly believed in the photographers' connection to the subject he was photographing and the subject's connection back via the camera to the photographer thus forming a circle.19 When, in meditation, he felt that this connection was open and that he was seeing the object for what it was and what it could be, he would expose the negative hopeful of a numinous moment of "revelation" of spirit in the subsequent photograph.20

Working with images which stood as 'equivalents' for other states of consciousness, of being-in-the-world, and with sequences of images using what he called 'ice-fire', the tensional spaces between images (which the Japanese call 'ma', the interval which gives substance to the whole), White lets his awareness of the image drop away. In re-velatio his images open 'poetic spaces' that are not composited or flattened, in which the alienation and opposition of inside and outside, of objectivity and subjectivity are seen to be disconnected. This produces a transgressive desire within and for these spaces, not objects (the photograph, the space, the language) of desire that have been (re)turned to stone.21


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link to papers db



1 @
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. London: Johnathan Cape, 1970, p. 61.

2 @
Harding, Douglas. "On Being Aware." n.d. The Headless Way Organisation website, articles section. [Online] Cited 05/07/2002. No longer available.

3 @
Schneider, Norbert. The Art of the Portrait. Kšln: Benedikt Taschen, 1994, p. 67.

4 @
Mapplethorpe, Robert. "Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1976," in Ellenzweig, Allen. The Homoerotic Photograph. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, p. 139.

5 @
Arbus, Diane. "A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. 1968," in An Aperture Monograph. Diane Arbus. New York: Millerton, 1972.

6 @
"I would suggest that 'performativity' cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability,a regularized and constrained repetition of norms... This iterability implies that "performance" is nota singular "act" or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance."

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 94-95.

7 @
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. (trans. Richard Howard). New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, p. 26.

8 @
Ibid., p. 55.

9 @
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. (trans. Richard Howard). New York: Hill and Wang, 1981, p. 47, quoted in Zurbrugg, Nicholas."'Apocalyptic'? 'Negative'? 'Pessimistic'?: Baudrillard, Virilio, and techno-culture," in Koop, Stuart (ed.,). Photography Post Photography. Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography, 1995, p. 79.

10 @
See Endnote 2. I believe that this form of attentiveness to present experience is not the same as Featherstone's fragmentation of time into affect-charged experiences of the presentness of the world in postmodern culture.

"Postmodern everyday culture is... a culture of stylistic diversity and heterogeneity (comprising different parts or qualities), of an overload of imagery and simulations which lead to a loss of the referent or sense of reality. The subsequent fragmentation of time into a series of presents through a lack of capacity to chain signs andimages into narrative sequences leads to a schizophrenic emphasis on vivid, immediate, isolated, affect-charged experiences of the presentness of the world - of intensities."

Featherstone, Mike. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. London: Sage Publications, 1991, p. 124.

11 @
Baudrillard, Jean. The Transparency of Evil. (trans. James Benedict). London: Verso, 1993, quoted in Zurbrugg, Nicholas. "'Apocalyptic'? 'Negative'? 'Pessimistic'?: Baudrillard, Virilio, and techno-culture," in Koop, Stuart (ed.,). Photography Post Photography. Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography, 1995, p. 80.

12 @
Baudrillard, Jean. The Art of Disappearance. (trans. Nicholas Zurbrugg). Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1994, p.9, quoted in Zurbrugg, Nicholas. "'Apocalyptic'? 'Negative'? 'Pessimistic'?: Baudrillard, Virilio, and techno-culture," in Koop, Stuart (ed.,). Photography Post Photography. Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography, 1995, p. 83.

13 @
Krishnamurti. Beginnings of Learning. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 130-131.

14 @
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. (trans Maria Jolas). Boston: Beacon Press, 1994, p. xxxv.

15 @
Ibid., p.203.
16 @
Palmer, Daniel. "Between Place and Non-Place: The Poetics of Empty Space," in Palmer, Daniel (ed.,). Photofile. Issue 62 ('Fresh'). Sydney: Australian Centre for Photography, April 2001, p. 47.

17 @
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. (trans Maria Jolas). Boston: Beacon Press, 1994, p. 212.

18 @
See the editor's note by Gilson, Etienne (ed.,) in Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. (trans Maria Jolas). Boston: Beacon Press, 1994, p. xvi.

19 @
Bateson, Gregory. Steps To An Ecology Of Mind - Collected Essays On Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology. St. Albans: Paladin, 1973.

20 @
See Bunnell, Peter. Minor White: The Eye That Shapes. Boston: Bulfinch Press/Princeton University, 1989.

21 @
"The only defence against transgressive desire is to turn either oneself or the object of desire to stone."

Wilson, Elizabeth. "The Invisible Flaneur," in Watson, Sophie and Gibson, Katherine (eds.,). Postmodern Cities and Spaces. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1995, p. 75.