For What Is an Empty Hoose But a Body Without Organs
Essay published in October 2023 for RIAS Quarterly Magazine
Commissioned by Patricia Fleming Gallery, Paul Stallan (Stallan-Brand Architecture), Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland
‘I am the space where I am’1 claims the poet Noël Arnaud. Our experience of the build environment is defined by the tectonic language of the surrounding spaces we inhabit. We confront the world with our bodies; we touch, trace, taste, hear everything around us with our senses. We are in a constant tectonic dialogue with the world which revolves around our personal universe spiraling from the centre of our bodies. Architecture gets activated through us. As Juhani Pallasmaa put it ‘The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.’2
As a practicing architect and multimedia visual artist I am interested in the intrinsic relationship between the spaces we inhabit and our bodies, the ways architecture and ourselves could coalesce through the medium of photography and painting and the tangible and intangible parallels that could be drawn between the morphology of both.
My artistic practice embraces the potential transactions between the body, imagination and its surrounding environment through various photographic methods including slow and double exposure, use of slow shutter speed, deliberate light bleaching and blurring which creates various types of digital or analog layering of the subject on top of itself or the surrounding spaces in an ephemeral, ethereal and ghostly manner that aims to merge body with space and space with body. This allows for the recording of an evanescent moment that is happening in a fraction of a second, to become imprinted and remembered within its environment with its temporary geometrical arrangement inevitably defined by its surrounding context. Fundamentally, this record of movement aims to provoke the imagination and speculate a story about the temporary nature of inhabitation, a certain tale of contained existence.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that ‘our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive; it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system’.3 Made of a skeleton, organs, the biggest of which being our envelope, the skin, our bodies are like a piece of architecture - with a structural frame, interior and façade. We are living systems, perfect machines and like our built surroundings, we are subject to the natural aging processes and weathering, bearing the traces of time and the elements. The interior and exterior of both buildings and bodies have surfaces onto which experiences, emotions, relationships and histories inscribe themselves. The skin and the façade are an interface to the world, a sensory storehouse of memory.
The gradually accumulated patina onto the surface of our skin or the façade of a building in the form of wrinkles, cracks, scars, scratches, marks, tattoos, graffiti is a carrier of remembrance. “All matter exists in the continuum of time; the patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time to the materials of construction.”4 Similar to ourselves, architecture is something transient and everchanging, it is a ‘verb rather than noun as it is active, not a static moment in time’.5 This constant ageing defines an aesthetic based on the “inevitability of transience”6 whilst engraving traces of impermanence and solidifying an identity onto an ever-changing haptic canvas.
My recent practice reimagines this process of patina accumulation in the form of paintings and fabric installations through an abstract but highly haptic method of representation that aims to reinterpret the surface of the body (or a façade) and its interaction with its surroundings. This tangible type of representation needs to be investigated closely and is expressed through creating series of ‘distortions’ or ‘scars’ onto the multi layered fabric surfaces with varying transparencies such as burn marks, wax stains, ripped edges, folded and sown surfaces, dips and troughs caused by pulling of the canvas, crawling sown stitches, layered oil paint or bleached sections onto delicate semi-transparent or solid patchwork of sown fabric pieces. On top of this expressive distortion is a layer of oil paint with occasional suggestive figurative shapes forming an abstract but complimentary narrative further expressing the individual presence and intimate story of each work whilst recording a memory of brush action. Wax ‘stains’ are often instinctively placed by hand causing burns. They leave traces of touch with a ghostly presence. The sensation of touch is defined by its ephemeral nature leaving invisible, delicate and temporary marks whilst in the paintings it is permanently cemented through wax. Its memory is visually recorded. Furthermore, the act of stretching of the dyed and sown fabric onto the frame often rips the fragile semi-transparent fabric causing ‘scars’ and open holes through the stitches from the created tension. The crawling stitches deform the fabric mimicking the waving skin surrounding crust of the scars and burn marks expose the inner layers of surfaces.
My interest in creating a palimpsest of textures through the various described methods aims to embrace and amplify the accidental or deliberate imperfections of the fabric surfaces with its deformations whilst reinforcing the narrational potency that the process of ageing might bring. The patina is a symbol of life itself and has the potency to create an identity, a voice, an atmosphere. These strange, elusive skins present a paradoxical combination of forms that are sturdy yet fragile, transitory yet perpetual, solid yet flexible; they are echoes of time.
Noël Arnaud, L’État d’ébauche (Paris: Le Messager Boiteux de Paris, 1950).
Juhani Pallasmaa, Peter MacKeith, and Steven Holl, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Third edition. (Wiley, 2013).
Maurice-Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London Routledge, 1945).
Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin.
Roisin Tinneny, Fingerprints of the Mac (Dissertation), (Glasgow School of Art, 2015-2016).
Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, (London: W&N, 1997).