Space in All of its Capacities

Kris Martin, “T.Y.F.F.S.H.”

The “S, M, L, XL” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago is a small but compelling show. The exhibition opens explaining how some sculptors in the 1960s moved art from the pedestal into the viewer’s space. This theme has continued over the past five decades in various sizes, as the exhibition’s title suggests. As visitors experience the physical and mental attributes of space, they may begin to think about other ways artists are using space today.

Of the exhibition’s four pieces, two stand out. The first is Kris Martin’s “T.Y.F.F.S.H.” One side of a hot air balloon, along with the accessories for a ride, rests on the ground; two fans open the hot air balloon for visitors to walk into. The other is Robert Morris’s “Passageway.” This converging curved hallway of sorts disrupts how passageways are typically used: to move from one end to another. Tellingly, the dichotomy between the open space in Martin’s balloon and Morris’s tapered passageway underscores how art can also inhabit visitors’ mental space.

Robert Morris, “Passageway.”

Visitors wander around the expansive interior that makes up Martin’s hot air balloon. This physical freedom gives way to mental freedom. Keeping with this spatial theme, thoughts of how hot air balloons are used today may fill visitor’s minds: flying over sweeping mountain ranges in Switzerland or vast landscapes in France. However, these sensations are overshadowed upon entering Morris’s “Passageway,” which is physically and mentally constraining. One at a time, visitors are permitted to walk down this increasingly narrow hallway. The constricting space, deliberately claustrophobic, penetrates your thoughts: what lies ahead in the sea of darkness on the other end? This question remains unanswered, as the space eventually becomes too small, forcing visitors to turn around. Indeed, the autonomy in Martin’s piece is replaced with confinement in Morris’s — an effective juxtaposition, and a highlight of the show.

“S, M, L, XL” is successful for the physical and mental sensations each piece creates. Although the exhibition reflects a continuum over the past five decades, the question is: what other ways are artists and creatives using space today? Virtual Reality (VR) is a chief example.

Another Type of Space

Take the film “Clouds Over Sidra,” created by Chris Milk, a director and photographer, and Gabo Arora, a United Nations advisor and filmmaker in association with, a VR company. Wearing a VR headset, viewers “enter” the 360 degree world of a twelve-year-old Syrian refugee, Sidra. Instead of watching the video through the confines of a television screen, viewers inhabit Sidra’s world with her, as Milk explains in his March 2015 TED Talk, “Chris Milk: How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine.” He says, “when you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground she’s sitting on.” This is important. By virtually occupying this space, viewers see and understand Sidra’s life in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan as if they were with her. As a result, viewers become more “empathetic,” as Milk describes it. That is, “we become more human . . . we feel humanity in a different way.”

Compared to the pieces on show at MCA, this VR headset takes up little physical space. However, its virtual space is immense and takes viewers to a place they may not otherwise go. What is more, “Clouds Over Sidra,” and other films like it, could have a big impact. In January 2015, “Clouds Over Sidra” was shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — to “people whose decisions affect the lives of millions of people,” as Milk puts it. This is just the beginning. More VR films revealing stories in Liberia and India will be shown at the United Nations. “We’re showing them to the people that can actually change the lives of the people inside of the films.” This is the potential of VR: a powerful technology, small in size, that could be life changing.

“S, M, L, XL” does a good job drawing a parallel between past and present as it relates to space. But what about the future? With the continual progression of technology, artists and creatives can use devices that take up little or no physical space, but occupy virtual space. And the recent unveiling of the “Rift,” Oculus’s VR headset, underscores this increasing interest in virtual spaces. That said, artists will presumably keep off the pedestal as they have for decades. But as technology continues to infiltrate our lives, the physical spaces artists have occupied may be replaced with virtual ones.

“S, M, L, XL” is on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago until October 4, 2015.

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad