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Time and Light: Alienation in Contemporary Space
Traditional spaces serve to facilitate movement and commerce1, simplifying life through
efficient design. The mall, casinos, airports, and other commoditycentres function to encourage
a numbing alienation and propagate consumption. Alternative, nontraditional spaces undermine
these aims, instead providing a space for selfreflection and repositioning away from the
capitalist trajectory of space, and therefore the mechanics of the everyday through their
manipulation of time and light. A synartetic, or nonhistorical, approach to the analysis of these
alternative spaces provides an avenue that cannot be periodized or folded back into the more
traditional narratives of space.
Benjamin’s arcades and the shopping mall participate in the traditional trajectories of
capital, commerce and space. In this traditional narrative, spaces function to serve us by
facilitating movement and commerce through their architectural makeup. Benjamin references
An Illustrated Guide to Paris
in his seminal
These arcades, a recent invention of industrial luxury, are glassroofed, marblepaneled
corridors extending through whole blocks of buildings, whose owners have joined
together for such enterprises. Lining both sides of these corridors, which get their light
from above, are the most elegant shops, so that the passage is a city, a world in miniature2
These enclosed microcosms, with their monumental facades and wide array of consumer options,
parallel the 1960s American mall in both form and purpose. Victor Gruen, a prominent
shoppingplaza designer, believed that suburban malls could become the epicenter of suburban
Here I mean commerce as a signifier of the implicit narrative of traditional spaces.
Benjamin, Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann.
The Arcades Project
. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999. Print.
social interactions.3 The community sphere Benjamin detected in the Arcades was perhaps fully
realized by the American mall.4
This traditional trajectory directs us towards spaces that facilitate commerce and
movement. Space is treated as an engine of capital, chained to an insatiable desire for goods and
services. Although overlooked by this narrative, there is a rich history of nonconsumable spaces
in the 20th century. These spaces resist us: they are non indexical, serving to neither facilitate
commerce or movement. These spaces manipulate time and light in order to motivate
selfreflection; through them we examine the positioning of our bodies in the contemporary
environment. Unlike in the mall, within the alternative spaces we are faced with an introspective
experience that unveils (rather than obscures) the true nature of alienation in the contemporary
For instance, James Turrell’s
A Frontal Passage
transforms the passivity of
light into an active force by endowing it with a physical presence as the singular artistic medium
utilized in the work. This manipulation increases the awareness of one’s own body, and therefore
one’s positioning in the space. Light becomes a marker of the existential moment in that to
become aware of one’s body and its temporal limitations is the feeling of existentialism. The
properties of light, when manipulated through structures, forces a reorientation that is
symptomatic of an experience with existential questions5. This existential moment hinges on
Davidson, Ronald A.. “Parks, Malls, and the Art of War”.
Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast
73 (2011): 27–51. Web...
I think it is important to note here the furthest articulation of this spatial impulse: ecommerce. However, this
conclusion of the narrative seems to function more to implode the dialogue in on itself rather than furthering it. In
this way, ecommerce becomes the ouroboros. By shedding it’s locus, ecommerce distances itself from a discourse
on physical structures or site and moves towards one regarding modes of consumption.
These existential questions, and the experience attached therefore, mark a new sublime differing from the historical
sublime in form and function. The sublime is no longer an individual experience, instead it is marked by a collective
existential experience. Furthermore, the new sublime is no longer strictly attached to “art space” or feats of god,
instead it is extended into commodity space and the everyday.
manmade structures with alienation as a key determinant of the contemporary experience. The
selfreflexive manipulation of time and light open the body to the feeling of existentialism and
causes a subsequent repositioning in the contemporary landscape. Turrell's work provides us a
lens through which to examine the intersection of time, space, and light as mechanics of the new
social existentialism. As the catalogue establishes: “
Instead of diffusing freely from one side of
this wall to the other, the light ends abruptly in space, as if it had density. The power of the work
lies in this paradox, in which nothingness gains physical presence.”6 The physical presence of
nothingness, manifested through the physicality of light, confronts us with our own finitude. In
other words, we disappoint the desire to fill space undefined, as light can. Therefore,
disappointing the accompanying wish for immortality. As one moves around the work, the work
itself changes. The positioning of the body to the piece transforms it from a mere light show to
an expansive view of the abyss. Our body’s relationship to the piece is therefore of tantamount
importance. The experience of becoming reaware of the limitations of our body is in fact the
experience of existentialism. Light, space, and time function in the work to trigger a new
awareness of our body in the space. Our awareness of our body in this space then triggers an
awareness of our body in the contemporary environment. This repositioning is symptomatic of
the new social existentialism. This new understanding of the contemporary environment
includes an acknowledgement (or a purposeful unacknowledgment) of our own alienation from
other bodies and space itself.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art,
, New York: The Museum of Modern Art,
revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 343
Shopping malls and casinos are designed to encourage naive alienation; their windowless
facades obscure natural light, and the passing of time. Naive alienation encourages an acceptance
of our positioning and a continuation of the rhythm of neoliberalism through a shrouding of the
potential for collectivity. If we are all individual consumers, then we are alone and must
consume products to bridge the gap between ourselves and others. Alternatives to these
traditional structures, such as Isamu Noguchi’s
California Scenario (
use light as a
physical force to express a revelatory alienation. Revelatory alienation functions to unveil our
positioning, allowing for self reflection and a radical repositioning. Revelatory alienation tears
down the constructed individualism of neoliberalism. In its place emerges a collective
existentialism experienced through the body's relationship to space. Noguchi’s work is
symptomatic of this type of unveiling. Nestled in between the largest mall in California, several
office centres, and a parking lot,
is a dramatic pause in the monotony of the
everyday7. Light in Noguchi’s work is as present as the sculptural elements, arguably becoming a
sculptural object in itself. Standing in
feels similar to standing on a sundial
one becomes aware of the passing of time as a physical presence. During the afternoon, the sun
bouncing off the neighboring parking lot causes the space to become so bright and hot that it is
physically overpowering for many viewers.8 The heat and light reflecting off the adjacent
parking garages dramatically changes the environment. It is through this heat that light becomes
a texture in the work; this heat makes it uncomfortable to be within the space and therefore
Ironically, in reading the Yelp reviews of the California Scenario it becomes clear that (when not reflected upon)
the work often becomes an elaborate stage for the everyday. Vivian A. writes “
My friends and I took our prom
pictures here (...) It was an impeccable place to take pictures at; nice, quiet and may I add, very clean too! Although
it's a quite a small space, there's a lot of different artsy backgrounds you can choose from, which made it the perfect
Yelp user Tilla L. writes “
I came around 2 pm which was so hot that day so it could have a huge impact based on
my experience here.”
changes how one composes their body within the space. Compare this to the florescent lights of
an office building or mall, lights within these structures pass as neutral and unremarkable. They
work to neutralize the space, anesthetizing the aesthetic experience of existing within them and
therefore distancing us from a real awareness of our bodies and the passing of time. Light within
functions as the only real temporal marker. The piece does not change; the
landscape and sculptures are constantly preserved as to appear atemporal and unchanging. Even
in just moving across the plaza, one can observe how light is utilized as haptic and dynamic.
Approaching the forested area of the plaza feels like approaching a mirage, the heat reflecting off
the stone ground contrasts the lush grass and temperate shade (Figure 3). The transitioning
between the two environments within the larger scenario shocks the body into a revelatory
alienation. Using this experience as a key; one can then reconsider the positioning of their body
instead of naively accepting the conditions of their positioning in the
Naive alienation, or acceptance, suggests an abstraction or denial of space. To follow
Abstraction and Empathy
to its conclusion would be to admit that to productively
exist in the contemporary environment one must mentally abstract space. Completely absorbing
the myriad of hyperreal contemporary spaces would be overwhelming to an individual.
While the tendency of empathy has as its condition a happy pantheistic relation of
confidence between man and the phenomena of the external world, the tendency to
abstraction is the result of a great inner conflict between man and his surroundings, and
corresponds in religion to a strongly transcendental coloring of all ideas. This state we
might call a prodigious mental fear of space.9
Things outside us, Worringer implied, need to be redrawn to overcome our anxiety in their
presence – rediscovered in collective experience and individual perception. To make an abstract
image of the world is not to admit incompetence at depiction or mimesis but rather to embrace a
psychological need to show the world as seen through the imperfect distortions of humanity10.
The mall abstracts its own space, the often times circular or winding design of the mall creates
the environment for Benjamin’s flanneur without the requisite social interactions (Figure 4).
Take for instance the floorplan of the food court (Figure 5), the very design of the tables
functions to avoid social interaction and encourage alienation due to a intentional distancing. The
very setup of these food courts illustrates Worringer’s fear of space not being filled, the colorful
banners and kiosks distract us from any existential interaction within the cavernous architecture
of the mall. We become individual consumers within the space of the mall, there is no awareness
of its true spatial properties behind its shroud of synthetic neutrality and therefore no awareness
of our true identities. Due to our presence as individual consumers, there is also no call to
collectivity or desire for a greater social consciousness. Noguchi’s
a new type of hyperrealness anathema to the malls construction, no longer that of a crowded
pedestrian thoroughfare but one of simplicity and stark minimalism. Through this minimalism,
and its ictus on light, one becomes hyperaware of the environment and henceforth the
positioning of the body. Leaving
after a period of solitary meditation is
similar to exiting a 3d movie or sensory deprivation tank. There is no tangible ontological
"Abstraction and Empathy (ebook) by Wilhelm Worringer."
. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.
Empathy and Abstraction, (Excerpts)
. Marres/Centrum Voor Contemporaine Cultuur, 0. Print.
change, but one’s senses are briefly retrained to examine the world (and by proxy one’s
positioning within it) differently due to the physical properties of the space.
designed with architects Philip Johnson,
Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry, interacts with our body in a way that is similar to
California Scenario. Rothko Chapel
rises out of a manicured public park in a
gentrified arts district in the heart of Houston, Texas. Its windowless, tomblike structure mirrors
the form of a mall, however the
acts more as a pause in the rhythm of the
everyday than as a continuum, or catalyst, for capitalist atrophy. The facade has no signage or
advertisements to distract from its form. The nondescript exterior shrouds the interior’s
transformative properties, acting more as a obstruction of the park space than as a signifier of the
The Rothko Chapel
’s very obstruction of the parklandscape is symptomatic of its
radical presence. Public parks generally exist to provide opportunities for leisure to the public,
however this leisure is not radical or reflective it services the rhythm of capitalist life.
is not in tune with this rhythm. While public parks do function as pauses, they are
actually integral to the continuation of this capital, and therefore the hyperreal conditions of the
contemporary world. Parks function as pauses in the same way a musician may pause to flip a
page of sheet music, it is part of what makes the continuation of the melody possible.
The Rothko Chapel
functions as a disruptive pause, not a structural one. This
disruptive pause provides time to examine positioning of one’s body in the contemporary
environment rather than functioning to service our body in the contemporary world. Instead of
focusing on togetherness as a public park does,
The Rothko Chapel’s
revelatory alienation or strangeness in the positioning of our body in the world. This new
positioning does not function to continue the rhythm of capitalist, everyday life, but instead
Upon entering the chapel, one is immediately faced by a physical presence of light.
Similar to the
light prompts us to become hyperaware of the contingencies
of the space and the positioning of our body. Benjamin notes in his
French words for time and weather are both “la temps”. This connection between time and
weather, and therefore light, in
illustrates a key component of
The Rothko Chapel.
The only light inside the structure comes from a series of skylights, creating an ambient space
entirely reliant on the time, season, and weather. The light, in its dynamism, illuminates the
paintings, transforming their surfaces in real time. The paintings metamorphose through dull
browns, vibrant purples, and rich burgundies as the sun moves across the sky. This constantly
changing environment is ambivalent to our temporal bodies; we cannot fully experience the
piece because it is constantly changing. To see the paintings at noon is a radically different
experience than seeing them in the early morning or late afternoon. Furthermore, returning a day
later at the same time would be a thoroughly different experience than that of the previous day.
The space becomes one marked by a psychic geography, rather than a chartable physical one.
The experience of leaving the work at a specific time, and then returning a few hours
later to find an entirely different, alien space is truly disorienting. This phenomena places our
presence as a fixed point in the timeline of the piece as the work outlasts our presence in its
dynamism. The comfort found in viewing “stationary” works, which also outlast us, is found in
knowing that future generations will view the exact same work. However, this is a fallacy. The
presumed unchangeability of art is purely illusory. How are we to know that future generations
will view the same
that the paint will not have faded past repair or that restoration
efforts will now have transformed it past recognition? There is a certain dread accompanying the
understanding that art will outlast our physical bodies, but even this is a feeling we can
understand and process through a certain set of intellectual structures. The authority instilled
within the federalist architecture of the classical art museum functions to instill the work of art
with the properties of the unchanging, eternal masterpiece (Figure 89)11 . Of course, these
properties are pure illusion.
The Rothko Chapel
reveal the “unchanging, eternal masterpiece” as a
misconstruction. These new, nontraditional spaces engender the dynamism of light with
psychogeographical meaning. The nonindexical properties of The Rothko Chapel are
understandable only as fragments. The finite effects of the infinite (in this case light) unveils the
finitude of our own flesh. Unlike in the traditional museum setting, there is no illusion that future
generations will view the same work as us.
The Rothko Chapel
operates to make us feel small or
finite utterly trapped by our own corporeal bodies. Kant explains that a nonpurposive nature is
what forcefully reminds us of our finitude as well as the tragic that is, purposelessness and
meaningless, the true nature of existence
circles light and time, never quite approaching the topics
frontally but instead letting them drape the space. He, perhaps unintentionally, depicts a
quintessential reaction to to atemporal spaces in the act one:
: I'm asking you is it light?
It is important to note that the same phenomena occurs in contemporary institutions such as The Whitney, New
Museum, and MoMa. The use of modernist architecture insures the position of the artwork as avantgarde, authentic,
Sanderson, Matthew Walter.
Religious Sublimity and the Tragic View of Life in Kant, Schopenhauer and
. Southern Illinois U Carbondale, 2007. Print.
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