Of spaces between
I was tramping along a stretch of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, swept up in thought, when a horse flew by and was already enveloped back into the mist by the time that it dawned on me that I had seen one of the famous wild horses. It hardly felt material at all but more like some fugitive delusion. Me and the sea and a ghost horse: I was not even sure I had seen it.
Silence, solitude and emptiness, even, perhaps, a phantom horse. Not that I go severely to the ‘minimum’ side, but how can we paste those vacancies into our homes–imagine a neon sign above the door–Copious Vacancies? In short, how does space come to matter as much in our home as anything else, and not just exist as an unpleasant emptiness we try to fill? That compulsion to fill every itty bitty inch of space was known, in the Middle Ages as horror vacui, a dread of emptiness. Botticelli, whoo, flowers packed in everywhere. That was countered, also in the Middle Ages, with the sublime emptiness of Cistercian monasteries where the spirit of god could float like a Laguna Beach hang glider.
My wife just gave me a wonderful volume of photographs by Michael Kenna of Mont St Michel, the unworldly island monastery off of the coast of Brittany. Though the images are almost all of the ancient stone volumes of that magical mountain, the overriding sense–Kenna’s genius–is one of emptiness dissolving the stone like some metaphysical solvent.
I am a poet. Poetry is a literary form where space–the space between words, between lines, between stanzas–is as replete as the words themselves. Read e e cummings. Or any of the concrete poets. To break a line in an ’arbitrary’ way is to leave a surprise disjunction of white space where phantom horses lurk and unsayable heresies twinkle like stars.
In fact, poetry, with its irreverence for syntax, has much to teach interior designers (and ethicists) about space, particularly about the ‘space between.’ That emptiness is a fabulous milieu of compromise, of synthesis, of making what’s on either side better; it is an invisible priest marrying two separate entities into one new union.
It is a commonplace in museums but equally true in our homes, that two paintings placed side by side, with a white window of emptiness between them, will, through that fresh affiliation, become new paintings. In your homes, choose what you display with delicate discretion. Then separate things with enough space that a new third work may emerge between them, a work of charged, moderating vacancy. One great designer of such spaces, often orchestrated between wildly incongruous objects, but all to sublime effect, is the Belgian wizard of mix-and-match marvels, Axel Vervoordt.
Let me just mention, to close, my old hero, John Cage, and his 4’33”. The pianist sits at the piano but doesn’t play; doesn’t make a sound. All you hear is the ambient noise of the auditorium. The ghosts of the place. Just emptiness. It’s beautiful, it’s turbulent, it’s certainly never empty.