How Space Becomes Place
Quynh VANTU introduces herself as an architect/artist whose architectural works focus on spatial experience, the notion of hospitality, and thresholds of social interaction. In particular, she is interested in liminal spaces such as hallways and thresholds that serve to connect inside with outside, private with public, and investigates how people behave and interact within those spaces.
Vantu’s ACAC production, Welcome | Dreaming of Katsura, was inspired by Japanese gardens and architecture, in particular the liminality of the porch-like engawa that surround traditional Japanese houses. Its angular shape and moon viewing platform are both direct references to the Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa in Kyoto. The inside of the piece is accessible by way of a gate-like entrance, the only break in the artwork’s engawa-like exterior. Enveloped in warm orange light and the smell of wood, visitors are invited to relax by sitting on the engawa to take a rest and chat, or use the moon viewing platform to admire the scenery that lies beyond the window.
Welcome | Dreaming of Katsura plays with our physical senses by utilizing the architecture and the scenery found beyond the windows. Through steel frame doors you set foot into the high-ceilinged Gallery B, the entrance to Vantu's work appearing before you. As you stoop to pass under its low, gate-like entrance, your gaze naturally lowers and connects with a suitcase next to a pair of overalls hung on the back shelf. To the left is a lamp, some books, a pair of slippers, and other personal belongings. If you would like, you can pick up a book and sit on the engawa to read, the calming orange glow of the lamp making it easy to get lost in a good story. Or perhaps you will be drawn to the afternoon light coming in from the west-facing window to enjoy the scenery outside while remaining indoors. On cloudy days or after sunset, visitors gravitate toward the inner space and the personal belongings that accent the artwork, while on sunny days they are pulled toward the window to appreciate the views beyond the space.
Vantu combines spaces both large and small to create these feelings of rest and relaxation, knowing that she can use the ever-changing natural light that comes through the windows to create these unique moments. What is even more interesting is that in this kind of meditative space, you forget that you are in a public place. The artwork has transformed what would otherwise be a cold exhibition gallery into a cozy and familiar place. By creating new inner and outer spaces within the gallery, we feel a sense of being in a space that goes beyond public and private. When looking out through the large windows from inside the gallery, your consciousness is essentially transported to the outdoor scenery, obscuring your sense of inside and out. That is to say that the spaces created by Welcome | Dreaming of Katsura serve to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, public and private.
However, if we only pay attention to the spatial composition of the artwork, we may overlook its architectural aspects. We should also take into account the social interaction that emerges from the architecture and consider something that is referenced throughout this work—how humans go about creating physical spaces.
For example, a person will alter their behavior when someone else enters the gallery space. Even if you are sitting down, you discover yourself bowing slightly to them or exchanging pleasantries. Some people may even move out of the way if they are standing near the entrance. Culture and custom may dictate whether these pleasantries are a slight bow, a smile, or an exchange of words, but you could say that the warmth or uneasiness of a space is dependent upon each individual’s awareness and behavior toward one another. In other words, a space does not depend solely on its physical elements but, rather, is formed in a tangle of emotional and social factors that play out in the movements and behaviors of and between the people within it.
Let us next take a look at Vantu’s belongings, which she places within her work to denote an air of comfort. In her work we find a well-worn suitcase, ceramics, a necklace, and other small trinkets. Vantu says that these objects, which she has acquired in different countries over the course of her nomadic lifestyle, give her a sense of home wherever she goes.(*1)
In his essay “On the Concept of Ibasho” (ibasho ni tsuite), psychopathologist Bin Kimura talks of the differences between aru and iru, the two existential verbs that mean “to exist” or “to be” in Japanese. Aru refers to the recognition of a manifestation or existence, including that of abstract concepts, whereas iru refers to the existential state of being stationary in a particular place. Kimura goes on to say that the act of building a home is an active behavior that delineates the boundaries of an ibasho, the Japanese term for a place where one feels at home, by separating inside from out. (*2) In other words, he says that in order for us to lead a proactive existence, we need an ibasho, a place where we truly feel at ease.
In terms of Kimura’s theory, the items Vantu chose for her work are proof of proactive and repeated ibasho place-making at each of her destinations. Here emerges the image of an artist who travels to a slew of exciting places but is in constant pursuit of peace, someone who is accustomed to crossing cultural boundaries yet is always seeking a sense of home. The concomitant desire for both stimulation and inner peace is a dream familiar to many. Moreover, the fact that a visitor’s behavior can add to or detract from the comfort of Welcome | Dreaming of Katsura is a testament to the very act of ibasho place-making.
By extension, even in inevitably uncomfortable situations, small behaviors and the atmosphere of a space can actively contribute to the creation of a cozy ibasho. Vantu’s artwork transcends the boundaries between art and architecture, inside and outside, public and private, movement and stillness. It suggests that our behavior shapes physical spaces and hints at the possibilities of ibasho beyond physical bounds. Vantu reminds us that by actively creating space for ourselves, we have the ability to traverse seemingly huge gaps, both physical and cultural, no matter how far we are from home.
(*1) Statement by the artist at the opening artist talk held on Saturday, October 27, 2018.
(*2) Kimura, Bin. “Ibasho ni Tsuite.” In Anywhere, edited by Arata Isozaki and Akira Asada, p. 36–45. Tōkyō: NTT Shuppan, 1997.