Poetics of No Place
A non-place (non lieu) is one of those concepts that we live daily without even being fully aware of it. Non-places (from the definition by Marc Augé in Non-Lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, 1992) substantially are passing points such as railway stations, supermarkets, airports but also the waiting rooms of hospitals or refugee camps. Non-places are, at the same time, physical places and relationships that are created between the people that are passing by and between the places themselves and the people. These places are containers without a real identity and a dominant feature, since everything is levelled in the light of plurality. A privileged example, says Marc Augé, are shopping malls, where you can find an Arab restaurant next to a Chinese one, not as an added value, but as a curiosity on the sidelines, which is precarious by definition. In non-places people don’t experience a real relationship but, at best, observe each other
to feel part of a social context we can’t help but look at others that are passing by and who, in turn, are observing us:a show where actors and spectators are confused with each other in a continuous and reciprocal exchange of roles
The very same relationship that develops between the person and the non-place becomes an expression of the emptiness of the non-place, which basically makes it possible to recognize yourself in a container without coordinates
paradox of the non-place: a foreigner that is lost in a country he doesn’t know – the “passing stranger” – is able to orientate only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, department stores or chains.
Non-places are, in short, a space where symbolic expressions of identity, relationships and history do not exist.
never before in the history of the world have non-places occupied so much space
Another concept that I find very interesting, even though I’ve never really analyzed it in-depth as well as, I must confess, that of non-places, is that of heterotopia. Michel Foucault (Des espaces autres, Hétérotopies, 1984), who coined the definition, describes it like this:
Of all these places, the ones that I find interesting have the curious property of being in relation with all the other places, but in a way that allows them to suspend, neutralize and invert the set of relationships that are outlined, mirrored and reflected by them. These spaces, which are in some way linked to all the others and that therefore contradict all the other places, are of two major types. There are, and this probably happens in every culture as in every civilization, real places, actual places, places that are outlined in the institution of the same society, and which constitute something that could be defined counter-place, some kind of utopias that have actually been realized and where real places, all the other real places that are located within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and subverted; places that are located outside of every place, even if they can actually be localizable. These places, which are totally different from all the places that reflect and represent them, I will call, as opposed to utopias, heterotopias; and I believe that between utopias and these places, heterotopias, there is an undoubted kind of mixed experience, which might be like that of a mirror
Heterotopic places essentially are different places, places of suspension for a different place/relation. Among the different principles that don’t have to be specified here Focault identifies several possibilities:
privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved to those individuals who are, in relation to society and the human environment where they live, in a state of crisis […] These are nursing homes, psychiatric clinics and also, of course, prisons […] the cemetery certainly is another place that goes against the ordinary cultural spaces, however, it is a space that is integral with the set of all places in the city, society or village, etc., since each individual, each single family has relatives in the cemetery […] in a single real place, several spaces, several places that are mutually incompatible. So it is that the theater realizes in a scene a whole series of places that are foreign one to an other; so it is that cinema manages to create a very special rectangular room where, on a two-dimensional screen, a three-dimensional space is projected […] there are heterotopias of time that accumulates indefinitely, such as museums, libraries. Museums and libraries are heterotopias where time never ceases to pile up and accumulate in itself, but in the seventeenth century, and until the end of it, museums and libraries were the expression of an individual choice. On the other hand, the idea of accumulating everything, the idea of creating a place for every time that is, in turn, out of time, inaccessible to its own corruption, the project of organizing a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in a place that does not move, this all belongs to our modernity. Museums and libraries are heterotopias that are typical of western culture of the nineteenth century […] they always presuppose a system of opening and closing which, at the same time, isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, you can’t get in a heterotopic place just like that. You are either forced to, in the case of barracks or prison, or you need to complete rites and purifications. You can’t get in if you haven’t got a permit and if you haven’t made a number of gestures […] they have the task of creating an illusory space that indicates how even more illusory any real space: all those places where human life is relegated. This may be why, for a long time, there have been the famous brothels that have now been closed. Or, instead, they create another space, a real space, so perfect, so meticulous, so well-furnished to the point of making ours appear messy, chaotic and ill-disposed […] closed homes and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia, and if you think, after all, that shipsare a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that lives to itself, that is outlined by itself and that is abandoned, at the same time, to the infinite sea and that, from port to port, coast to coast, from brothel to brothel, leads to the colonies to look for what more precious there is in their gardens, you will understand why from the sixteenth century until nowadays ships have been not only the largest economic development tool (but this isn’t what I want to deal with right now), but also the largest reservoir of imagination for our civilization. A ship is the heterotopia par excellence.
Augé’s concept of supermarket as non-place gets close to the definition of heterotopia by Foucault in some ways. And here I would like to mention a particularly interesting comment by Augé himself for the Corriere della Sera of the 12 July 2010, where he stated:
Some years ago, I used the term non-place to designate those spaces of circulation, consumption and communication that are spreading and multiplying across the planet. In my eyes, these non-places were temporary spaces of passing, spaces where we don’t find any signs of social relations, or shared stories, nor any sign of collective belonging. […] This definition of non-places, however, has two limits. On one hand, it is clear that some form of social ties can emerge everywhere: young people who regularly meet in a shopping mall, for example, can make it a meeting point and thus invent a place. Non-places and places do not exist in the absolute sense. Somebody’s place can be somebody else’s non-place and vice versa.
This long introduction, necessary to define albeit in a not very scrutinized and perhaps a little too general way the concepts of non-places and heterotopia, basically describes what art is in its broadest sense of artistic expression, therefore in an all-encompassing sense: a non-place in the sense of a transitory and indeed precarious relationship between the viewer and the work if not also between the artist and the world, and heterotopia in the form of a place of suspension, a space of its own. And, even more, we can imagine a heterotopic non-place in the moment where it is capable, in any case and in an unexpected way, to become place as in the case of Augé supermarket and in the moment it becomes a metaphor or allegory:
Heterotopias are the place where the phantasma lives, where hybrid territories ontologically suspended between reality and imagination find their place
Art is the non-place and the heterotopia par excellence, just as Foucault’s ship.
An artist who only recently emerged also as a poet and who can certainly be mentioned as an example of this definition is Rachel Slade. A painter who was born in Putnam, Connecticut (USA), she has lived in Maniago, Italy for many years. Her most recent exhibitions are Citizen Ship (Villa Corrier Dolfin, Porcia, PN, in 2014, with a presentation by Alessandra Santin), Crambe Tataria (Villa Cattaneo, San Quirino, PN, in 2015, with an introduction by Carlo Vidoni) and Ephemeral (Teatro Russolo , Portogruaro, VE, also in 2015, on the occasion of the ballet Cinderella by Sergei Prokofiev). I have already dealt with her work a few years ago and I would now like to talk about her artistic production in the light of these two concepts: non-place and heterotopia.
what letter begins your country’s name
how shall we begin to make something whole again.
how shall we name the body.
its rivers and roads.
my companion folds herself into sleep.
how shall we name the fields
where we were abandoned
and i ask.
how shall we name the beginning of the stone
used to martyr the bird
or the blue wing of solitude.
how to beat the names black.
how to die like a column of numbers.
i ask. though she sleeps.
how to name the honey in the mouth.
the body of my body, sex of my sex.
the patron saint of empty houses.
This poem, taken from her project The Apocryphal House, is a non-place, since it has no references or specific coordinates. Yet it immediately appears as an absolutely precise and punctual text. In the symbolism of her images the lack of clear autobiographic references (Bauman’s identity but also of Augé’s) makes the encounter with that poetry (the passage) an evocation of the archetypal principles. And it is a heterotopia to all effects because the blatant darkness of the text itself forces you to take action to get in and it introduces a different place within the text itself. Precariousness is not lacking in her poetry because the encounter with art always is precarious, or in the message. It deals with a geography that was somehow lost and never found again. An empty place without history. Or rather, deprived of its history: how shall we name the fields / where we were abandoned / like nightgowns.
The gold body was a cup for our voices
that edged time,
not finding the shape of the fold of the hand above
god, the threshes, the manifestation.
cross hairs and violent deluge.
You were our father and you’re still writing letters
that lead us to fragments
In the night you must be calm, he says.
In the night you must awaken with full knowing.
In the night you must follow the plan to ask nothing.
In the night you will be led back by a dog
sometimes the dog is invisible.
Sometimes everything is invisible.
In the night the land is not your land
but a language that magnifies
the indifference of your own thigh.
That was your father.
Someone is calling but not to you.
You are calling but not to them.
The gold body was a dream of us.
Even more evidently, in this text, the non-place of the body becomes a heterotopia in its definition (the gold body was a dream of us) that requires a particularly careful reading for a full understanding. In fact, nowadays it is the task of the poet to create rooms of thought where to suspend the reader and help him discover those points of re-created references that were mentioned by Augé in relation to the supermarket. And Rachel Slade succeeds admirably in this measurement of the distance that erodes private references to the bone, obviously not without injury, for a real passage that is anonymous as much as possible, metaphysical, but not less effective.
the black line drawn thin
is beyond weight
holds up everything
the snow cannot enter it
it divides sleep
and pierces dreams, heaven
There are chasms for it to cross
between us, even though I love you.
It goes further than we can
here in the nearly closed palm of living
and sleeping and asking.
Drawn on you,
you become like the earth
an animal among stars
a natural thing.
was the gold foil edge under the smooth hand
a dry bay leaf
over our infant shadows, a song without words
the skull on the garden wall. eggshells in the pail.
angles and planes tell the story:
this is not trying to be a painting
stop the paper hell of creases.
my shoe came off in his hand.
then we both forgot at once, at the same time.
while the mechanism turned and worked
we wanted the perfection of a horse
between our hands.
sex is a simple orange.
turning white under the weight of ashes.
I sleep with my head down
we become rare under our own gaze.
the observation renders us invisible
and we burn like hunger.
on this page your blurred thumbprint
your smear that burns through
The very same mechanism we find in the recent artistic production of Rachel, which can be seen on the website rachelsladeart.com. Paintings that immediately present themselves as the mirror that had been quoted by Foucault
heterotopic is, for example, the mirror where we see where we aren’t, in an unreal space that virtually opens up behind the surface but that, at the same time, is an absolutely real place, connected to whatever surrounds it
and that apparently tip over the natural and aesthetic order of the world by suspending it an apnea of form where there is no memory but only a path. What originally was the opening or the trace of the work, and something of this remains in the title, for example: Sun, Birds, Stone, Bird Forest, Twin Forms, becomes a maze we have to traverse without any pretense of destination. The heterotopic non-place becomes the essential need for a meeting in a reality that is photographed in its most archetypal nudity or, as the artist likes to say, the wildest.
The words of Carlo Vidoni at her exhibition Crambe tataria prove to be particularly effective, in reference to both the artistic and the poetic production of Rachel Slade:
The search for the self, of their own identity, is a task that every individual has tried to accomplish in the course of time and in the alternation of generations. It is a founding act and, as such, it requires the overcoming of some tests, the passing of dangerous situations. The punishment for those who fear having to deal with them is to remain in an existential limbo, living futile preconceived lives. If we look at the works of Rachel Slade we might think they are speaking of this great trial to us, that she faces and lives through the pictorial material. Painting is a major challenge in itself, where Rachel gets deeply involved in with the courage of a shaman that ventures into a dark forest. Her latest works, which show how tortuous tangles of color and layering of signs seem to be a strange state of equilibrium between explosion, reversal of the interior to the outside, and implosion, a collapse that brings the multiple images of the world inside. The strength of the works by Slade lies in their incompleteness, the stalemate between these two opposing tensions where, beneath the surface of consciousness, filaments, stratifications, indistinct signs emerge from. The deep place where her images come from has to do with a primary archetypal condition which leads us back to the roots of a feeling that is connected to nature. […] It looks like Slade wanted to face a Herculean task in her works, connecting inner space to landscape, personal language to universal psychological symbols, history and intimate life to social context, while keeping open, through painting, that window that makes dimensions dialogue with parallel universes. Her painting is difficult, it rejects any decorative style, it does not yield to the ever pleasing shapes and colors that are end in themselves, it rather invites us to pass the test of the first visual impact to share an adventure and some risk. On the threshold of a mysterious forest, the sound of a mysterious song calls us, a song that, if heard with enough time and sincerity, dissolves our fears and resistance, giving us the chance of a journey into uncharted territory.
There are references to a heterotopic non-place:
a condition of incompleteness, the stalemate between these two opposing tensions where, under the surface of the conscious, strands, layers, indistinct signs emerge from
A non-place that becomes deconstruction with Rachel.
Her painting is difficult, it rejects any decorative style, it does not yield to the ever pleasing shapes and colors that are end in themselves, it rather invites us to pass the test of the first visual impact to share an adventure and some risk.
The heterotopia of the place which we can only access to after having completed a certain action.
And finally, the heterotopic non-place is defined by the same painter, now a poet, in her description of the above-mentioned exhibition:
An exhibition, Crambe Tataria, that wants to deepen those particular landscapes, both internal and external, of those wild places, those stretches of desert, where orientation and disorientation, danger and salvation coexist […] a desire to offer a moment in these fields, in the open, where one shouldn’t look for easy escapes but research, awareness, to better understand the here and now. A search for ourselves that sometimes takes place in silence, often alone, among the things of our world that are still wild. Just like the flowering plant that gives the title to the exhibition. Crambe Tataria, an endangered species that blooms in the wild steppes of Central and Eastern Asia, and in the Magredi Friuli in Italy.
Red land, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, 2015
Landscape, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, 2015
Landscape II, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, 2015
Grave landscape, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, 2015
Iron and Stone, oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm, 2015
Gold machine, oil on canvas, 80 x 120 cm, 2015