The Lost Space – Facets of a Concept
Guy Mees uses the name lost space for two groups of works in his oeuvre, each coinciding with a particular period in his development. The works from the first group were done between 1960 and 1967, those from the second group between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s. The work from the sixties is striking for its use of (industrial) lace and frequently also neon light-pink, blue or white. The recent ‘lost space’ works are composed of ‘scraps’ of coloured paper, pinned to the bare wall. They have the same title, yet the two ‘lost space’ series look completely different. They are also about twenty years apart. So what does a title like this mean? Each of the lost spaces groups forms in itself a distinct type, which differs from the preceding or subsequent works. And as far as their mutual difference is concerned: “this is perhaps the very thing that can help us to articulate, beyond material and formal features, the ‘loss’ they have in common. What sort of loss do these works ‘have’? What have they lost and how are we to understand that they are that loss?
Lost Space 1960-1967
The lost space works of the 1960s exist in two versions. There are, put simply, lost spaces that hang on the wall and lost spaces that are conceived as free-standing objects. The first type is presented as a painting, in other words frontally and in two dimensions. The other behaves like a three-dimensional body, a concrete and quantifiable volume in space. Both types have their membrane of industrial lace in common. In the wall works this is placed over a frame, a panel or an aluminium sheet. Behind the lace there is sometimes a neon tube giving out pink, white or blue light. In some circular works the lace is literally stretched over the horizontal light tube; with other rectangular works the neon tube, which in this case is usually blue, is situated slightly deeper in the frame, giving the light a more three-dimensional aura – the blue strip is reminiscent of the glowing line – of a distant horizon. In the three-dimensional ‘lost space’ the lace is stretched over a bar-shaped framework. The neon light, if there is one, is on the inside of that volume, and gently illuminates the tactile membrane.
The two lost spaces have their materials and their aesthetic in common; the only striking difference is that one hangs on the wall and the other stands in space. Two methods of presentation: as a painting or as a spatial body. One of the ‘lost spaces’ refers to a ‘meta-space’ (that of painting, for instance), the other is literally three-dimensional and stands in the middle of it. Why these two; why one and the other? Why are both necessary to articulate what a lost space is?
On The Wall
The mural works appear as paintings, as frontal planes. We can expect two things of this plane: it can give access to another, imaginary space, as a classical painting does, or it can fix the attention on itself, as required by the modernist paradigm. Though the ‘lost space’ looks sensual and suggestive, with its membrane of lace and its luminous glow, it nevertheless employs ‘modernist’ principles of form. In this way it concurs with much art from the sixties that expressly strove for neutrality and auto-referentiality. The lace surface is white and monotone. It has a serial structure and therefore denies a compositional hierarchy. But at the same time the ‘lost space’ is, of course, the opposite of neutral. Its materials do something that inverses any neutrality: they suggest something, they ‘conjure up a world’. A world that, in the case of lace, is situated between the cosily old-fashioned arid the sensually erotic, or in the case of pink and blue light, between boudoir eroticism and romantic grandiloquence. The neutrality of the ‘lost space’ is always ‘semblance’ It is precisely that: nothing but semblance. The light is not a pure light but a sheen. The lace is not a dumb material, but a provocative shell. The gauze eroticizes and the light, in a shamelessly atmospheric way, demands surrender. The works convert the processes of neutral, auto-referential art, which says nothing, into their opposite: pure ‘referentiality’. It is as though they were trying to say that that ‘neutrality’ was only possible as a desire for neutrality, and that every attempt of modern art to be neutral and to have done with semblance has in turn plunged over into ‘semblance’.
The medium of the ‘lost space’ is semblance. Just as some art from that time tried its best to be ‘neutral’, the ‘lost space’ is ‘purely impure’. It really does nothing but seem. This does not mean that the classical game of representation is being dug up again. The ‘lost space’ is too much caught up in its dreamy web for that. The lace is often in layers on top of one another. Sometimes it is wrinkled. The fabric is compressed and the suggestive material is sucked tightly into its physicality, scarcely suggesting anything further. The light, which is supposed to set the atmosphere for us – a fluorescent tube – is disconcertingly close. In one instance the tube bulges out visibly and when, on another occasion, it is lying deeper in the frame, though it is given more space to conjure up its mystical aura, this makes the fairy tale illusion, if possible, even more transparent: we see the fabricated strip making an effort to be something other than a fabricated strip. The ‘lost space’ looks exactly like a parody of the aesthetic semblance. The fine promises of art have sunk low. They have gathered together into a thick, almost material afterglow – a sediment of aesthetic semblance. Aesthetic dregs. A comparison with lighted brothel windows may be a little far-fetched, but the ‘lost space’ does have something about it of soiled, corrupted painting – painting sunk low. The idea that every positive counter-gesture against the existing world, every aesthetic gesture as such, has something trollopish about it, is abundantly revealed by the industrial sugary quality of lace and neon light. It is romantic irony and, seen within the artistic context of the time, the Nouveau Realisme side of the ‘lost space’. In the ‘lost space’ the ‘unique’ aesthetic moment appears in the light of its decay.
But the ‘lost space’ is not a cynical throw-away gesture. It affirms the semblance. It ‘knows’ that every glance at a work of art is entangled willy-nilly in escapist expectation; by its very existence art promises something other than the existing. The only thing art can do is to raise the matter of its own entanglement in semblance. The ‘lost space’ therefore does not break through the ‘window of painting’, it does not cherish the hope of definitively getting rid of the dispositive aspect of semblance. It maintains the idea of limited representation, the inevitable view on to the other world. It has an immoderate love of the dream factory in which art circulates in one way or another and absorbs into itself the ‘aesthetic promise’ that emerges from this. It is doing exactly the same as classical representation: promising something beyond itself. Just like classical representations, it focuses our attention not (only) on ‘the paint’, but ‘beyond the paint’. Or, at least, it is permeated by a substance which does precisely that. The lace and neon light arouse the expectation of something other than themselves, and, however base the gesture may be, the ‘lost space’ is full of it. It is full of the gesture with which art fulfils our ‘aesthetic desire’, with which it (for example) promises us admission to a transcendental world, or the ultimate experience of whatever.
But it does not simply give us value for money. The ‘lost space’ invites us to enter that ‘other space’ of art – it says ‘go in’, ‘here awaits you …’ or ‘come here’, but it says nothing more than this. There is nothing to experience. What takes place is only the ineradicable promise of that experience. The ‘lost space’ consists of the mystical force of attraction, the ‘transcendental transport’ with which art has always greeted us. It is woven out of it, compiled from it. It is its inert substance. The light that is supposed to put us in the right ambience for the performance monopolizes the performance and in this way deletes the scene it was supposed to illuminate. The suggestive lace conceals or reveals nothing, its titillation has become opaque. It is as though frame and framework, compositions and attributes, suggestive mist and romantic mood, in short everything that invites us to believe in the representation and enter into it, itself expands into the representation. The fine promise in the showroom of art has taken over the place of art itself. The window has been cleared, nothing more awaits us, only the waiting itself. In that waiting area the provocative promise of aesthetic semblance contracts into a weak and base light. A refracted shine. The ‘lost space’ is the disenchanted remains of aesthetic enchantment, remains in which that aesthetic does not fulfil its loss. Access to that other space, full of promise, has become blind and materialistic; and in this blind materialism, in its capacity as an insubstantial quasi-material, left-over area of the immaterial aesthetic space, the ‘lost space’ also enters the tangible, material space.
In The Space
The first thing that strikes one about the three-dimensional ‘lost space’ is its quantifiability. It is a concrete volume that almost tangibly cuts out a niche in the space. Wherever it is placed, it always settles there in the space, almost domestically like an item of furniture. It does this, in fact, practically as made to measure for an interior. Its sense of rhythm is that of a living space. In a short text from the 1960s by Winn Joris Lagriliere, a kind of programmatic epigram, the ‘lost space’ is described as one that is ‘complementary to the contemporary living space’. The description owes its particular significance not so much to the fact that lace is reminiscent of the sanctuary of an old-fashioned living room – even though the obsolete nature of lace certainly does say something about the ‘being lost’ of this ‘space’ – but to the fact that it suggests a scale and an (intimate) environment from where we can interpret the ‘lost space’. The ‘lost space’ does indeed fit less well in an exhibition hall than in a room. It is conceivable that it would take that feeling of scale with it everywhere, even if it were being presented in a huge hall or an industrial space. It would always be possible to imagine a room round that strangely concrete volume. The ‘lost space’ has no superhuman pathos, in spite of its almost mystic glow. It does not make expansive gestures, it does not promise a breakthrough into an eternal, immaterial space. It remains ‘close to the ground/earthbound’, and its light is locked up within quantifiable limits, almost like the electric fake fire in a stove.
It is a kind of peripheral item of furniture, a strange kind of volume that nevertheless fits in with the living room, its scale and its furnishings. It leaves the morphology of the site intact, and at the same time brings in the idea of the exotic. It introduces the ‘other’ into the normal environment, the ‘aesthetic’ space into the everyday. It does this as a ‘commodity’ made to measure for the house, as if it were coming to recommend the mystic experience ‘for your own living room’. It is the homeless in our homes. However, this does not make its place any easier to describe. The ‘lost space’ is ambiguous. It is a quantifiable, concrete, tactile, domestic volume, but within that ‘familiar’ dimension it also represents what is alien, other than the familiar etcetera. It is tangible, domestic and yet also a Frerndkörper, an ‘alien plastic body’. Whatever its whereabouts, it stands there ‘tangibly lost’. It has the dimensions of the living space, but never seems to be really integrated. It belongs to the house, but is not at home there. One could think of it in terms of the ‘lost space’ behind a cupboard or in a hidden corner. It is a marginal space, a deft-over space.
Lagriliere’s epigram tells us that the ‘lost space is an adjoining space’; and it is also ‘complementary’. It sounds unpretentious, like an understatement, and this is the treacherous thing about it. It is precisely that modest marginality that makes the ‘lost space’ so difficult to place. It is different from the ‘normal’ space, and yet its ‘otherness’ does not try to assert itself, it simply attempts to supplement. The light of the ‘lost space’ does not command the concrete space, for example, or transform it into ‘another’ space. After all, in the gallery where a ‘lost space’ is being shown, the gallery light is not dimmed. We do not therefore have to forget the physical environment in order to be open to this sublime shine; there is no question of revelatory rhetoric. And the light of the ‘lost space’ is also only added to the normal light. Just as the ‘lost space’ only supplements the ‘contemporary living space’, this light also does no more than ‘supplement’. Translating this marginal nature into a hypothetical presentation model, we could say that these works remain at the edge of the space in the dimensions of the space. In photographs in the catalogue of Guy Mess’ retrospective exhibition 1958-93 (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1993) the lace volumes do indeed often stand at the edge of the space, facing the wall, so to speak ‘between the wall and the space’.
The unpretentiousness of the ‘complementary’, added place, makes the ‘lost space’ into a non-place. It does not belong purely and simply to the normal space, but neither is it a totally different space. It does not manifest itself as the central point that transforms the existing space or incorporates it into itself – as an installation often does and yet neither does it subject itself to the normal space and it does not fit in there as a normal thing in a normal place. It is not on this nor on that side of the space. It is not ‘here’, but neither is it ‘elsewhere’. Its place is eccentric – in letter and in spirit.
As a physical body it is also Janus-faced. The ‘lost space’ is physical, tangible, anything you like; but at the same time the physicality has non-physicality as its substance, being woven of material which does nothing other than disseminate non-physical promises, immaterial sensations, transport to a transcendental space. Its physicality is, after all, not simply what it is, it is the ‘residue’ of the aesthetic semblance. It is the redundant substance of it and its space is the quasi-material left-over area of the aesthetic space. Here before us, in this space, it therefore continues to disseminate the afterglow of that other space. It stands here before us promising everything that is not here and will definitively separate us from this ‘here’. It continues to create a shell for what is different and elsewhere.
The ‘lost space’ is ‘the object among objects’ and at the same time an aesthetic Pandora’s box that embodies the alluring sign, the scenic gesture with which art has always promised us something other than the world of things. With this gesture it supplements the space, as though it were somehow inadequate, missing a sniff of sublime experience or a dose of spirituality. It poses the gesture of that spiritualization, of the sublime miss and abyme, the mystic transport, the romantic vista, the breakthrough of the infinite, and so forth. But this gesture is at the same time no more than a ‘supplement’; in other words, it does not open another space, it is not an actual entrance. The ‘entrance’ is only an ‘addition’. The ‘lost space’ is simply the material description of the expectation that something is going to appear, that an ‘aesthetic experience’ awaits us here. It says ‘elsewhere’ within the ‘here’, but leaves the ‘act of saying’ itself undecided. Its gesture is without depth. It is as quantifiable as an item of furniture. The ‘lost space’ is the non-place of the aesthetic in the dimensions of the existing space. That which is in the space, without belonging there; an ‘elsewhere’ that is a ‘here’ and vice versa. And because it does not lead to anything, the ‘lost space’ only makes a difference with the existing space, nothing more. It is the always slightly ill placed place that stops the genuine place, the concrete space, from closing. There is apparently still something left over from the aesthetic semblance, an ineradicable residue, which just obstinately keeps occurring in the space, which continues to supplement this space. As though it were still inadequate, and ultimately the ‘lost space’ indicates only that inadequacy. There is still ‘something else’, it says, and that something else is simply the incompleteness that signifies the space itself.
Lost Space 1985-1991
The ‘lost spaces’ that appear from the mid-1980s are the result of a development that can be traced back to fifteen years previously. Around 1970 Guy Mees began to work with colour on paper. To begin with he arranged horizontal stripes of colour in columns; eventually those stripes broke free and became ‘intuitively’ recorded dots and commas, in pastels, scattered over large sheets of very thin, almost transparent paper – often silk paper. After a while these sheets were given rounded edges, and later still they took on irregular shapes. The works evolved into collections of several pieces of paper with an irregular shape. Parts of them were covered with pastels, no longer dots of pastel, but complete areas. Halfway through the 1980s the pastels disappeared and the work consisted only of simple cut-outs of coloured paper. It was given form by the shape, cutting edge and composition of the paper cut-outs, which were pinned directly to the wall. These works were again called ‘lost space’.
In the works on silk paper the colour only touched on the paper; it was a pictorial particle of matter and was rather like a shooting star that is extinguished as soon as it touches anything other than itself. The aesthetic gesture had shrunk to a pictorial moment, smothered in its slightest initiative, as if encountering its deceit the instant it was externalized.
These dots of colour are the remains of the aesthetic; but in the lost spaces, where colour, handwriting and support coincide, it is no longer a question of dots on paper. If the dots of colour had the character of a residue, of sparks in a disintegrated pictorial space, then the lost spaces are those sparks. It is as if those coloured ‘moments’ have become their own carrier, have gained contours and light up in the space. The ‘lost space’ thus retains the momentary nature of the dots of colour. The coloured cut-out seems to light up in the space, as if it had simply just broken into the ‘here’ without belonging there. Adorno says that time is stored in every work of visual art. In that case the ‘lost space’ lasts only a fraction. It is the fraction in which the aesthetic moment is cut out.
The residual nature of the works on silk paper comes into its own in the lost spaces. Here the work is nothing but residue, fragments broken off from the pictorial space. The fact that it ‘is left over’, is surplus to something, has become its formative principle. You could even say that the ‘loss’ of the aesthetic space, already announced by the coloured dots, comes into its own in these paper cut-outs, even if it is the ‘selfless self’ of a residue. It makes it completely understandable that the term ‘lost space’ crops up again. The ‘loss’ of that space is now, though, speaking less from an ironic distance, as could still be seen in the earlier lost spaces; it is now to be found entirely in the residual character of the works. There is no longer any romantic irony. The coloured cut-outs from the 1980s are unashamedly beautiful; they radiate, their colour is insouciantly clear and luminous, as in quattrocento paintings. Now that the ‘lost space’ is allowed to be a surplus from the aesthetic space, it is this to the full. It is in its innermost form marked by the loss of the aesthetic, and yet it is full of it. It is full of what it is the residue of: full of its loss.
That makes its ambiguity even more pointed. Its ambivalence now lies in the fact that it is a beautiful residue, a ‘piece’ of beauty. The paper cut-out is entirely beautiful, nothing other than beautiful, but its beauty is at the same time all too material. For the coloured cut-out is at the same time an ‘object of colour’, a paper cut-out fixed to the wall with a pin, therefore even casting shadows on the wall. It is like a skin peeling off the wall, or off the aesthetic space it refers to. It no longer absorbs us in any way. We can no longer lose ourselves in this ‘piece’ of aesthetic space. The work catches our eye, but immediately reflects it back. It is as if in its cutting edge it repeats the cutting out by the eye and in its ‘lighting up’ now only materializes the moment in which our eye meets the object or is met by it. The cut-out appears to be scarcely more than that eyespot of the aesthetic glance, the afterimage of the glimpse in which that glance loses itself in the beauty. It gives colour to that moment. That aesthetic moment is cut out in the space, more emphatically than in the 1960s. The paper cut-outs are not only pinned to the wall separately, they also have more freedom within the space. The lost space can no longer be seen as a three dimensional work in the strict sense of the word, and yet it breaks into the space, it lights up there like a coloured flash and in this way it also always ‘does’ something with the place where it appears.
Its relationship to that space is again ambiguous, however. The ‘lost space’ hangs on the wall like a painting, but it does not forget the wall by opening up that ‘missing fourth wall’ of classical representation. It is too much of a ‘pictorial object’ for that. At the same time it is not a modernistic material and a self-referential thing, for its radiation refers to something else, to the aesthetic space from which it has broken off. The ‘lost space’ is not part of the aesthetic space, it has peeled off from it; nor does it belong, however, in the tangible, disenchanted world of objects, since there it continues to refer to that ‘elsewhere: It differs from both the aesthetic space and from the genuine space. It is, just like the works from the sixties, an ‘intermediate object’.
The paper cut-out cuts its way into the space, in a fraction of time a breaking moment – it carves open the space and thus for a moment withdraws from itself. Its incision makes us blink, as though for a second we were not in this space. Just for a second ‘something else’ opens up, or just for a second it seems to. For naturally ‘nothing’ opens. In the place where the aesthetic space once opened, in the wall, only this opening ‘itself’ lights up. The cut-out does not open a space, but materializes the moment of that opening. In the pure, shallow cut of that opening it catches our glance, not to carry that glance and to transport it. It is simply the cut by which the aesthetic space opened up and fixed our eye. Only that fixing caesura is still materialized in the ‘lost space’. No other aesthetic space appears; only the pure opening on to that ‘otherness’ appears, the fracture that catches our eye. The otherness of the ‘lost space’ does not belong to the space in which we find ourselves; it is something that escapes the ‘here and now’. But still it is no more ‘something different’ than this space. The shallow cut simply continues to give substance to the suture that fixed our eye on that ‘otherness’. The only thing it still materializes is the moment at which we briefly think we are not here.
The coloured cut on the wall of the space is therefore only the eyespot that prevents the illusion of a perfect concrete space from succeeding. It is that whereby a space still does not come into its own, whereby it does not appear as a ‘here and now’, a space existing perfectly on its own, without illusions. The only thing it does is ‘differ from the space’. And it makes that difference look like something aesthetic, something of the order of the beautiful, the aesthetic semblance. For a second it unites with the space, in a fraction as thin as the pin that holds it on the wall; and at the same moment it dispossesses that space and defines that dispossession as an aesthetic phenomenon. But the shallowness of that cut, the fact that it materializes only a ‘pure difference’ with the space, makes this ‘aesthetic’ into something completely negative. The shallow cut does not open anything, it simply prevents the space from closing. It simply says that the space in which it appears is not complete, it is still inadequate, and in this way it rebounds on that space.
So it is not illogical that the ‘lost space’ of the 1980s was followed around 1990 by the skirting-boards, which we can effectively label ‘spatial works’. The skirting-boards consist of a coloured band that marks the surrounding space, precisely at the spot where a skirting-board is normally found. A skirting-board marks the caesura of the space by concealing it. Mees’ skirting-board specifically fixes the attention on that caesura. That attention is, unsurprisingly, an aesthetic attention. The colour of the band that runs along the lower edge of the bare wall is as full and ‘radiating’ as that of the ‘lost space’. It also goes back to an aesthetic space, but it now literally marks the true space. It marks this space as an aesthetic space. It is as though the coloured band is tearing it away from its ponderous self and placing it on the pedestal of semblance. The skirting-board says that the ‘here’ of the space is of an aesthetic nature. It says: this ‘here’ is not purely and simply here, but is being demonstrated as a ‘here’. It shows itself as a ‘here’, and the skirting-board preserves, in exactly the same way as the ‘lost space’, that moment of demonstration. It indicates the appearance of that ‘here’, the fact that it was created in semblance.
The skirting-board as it were lifts up the space. It gives the space the lightness of an apparition. Suddenly it looks as though this space is not simply a material place, but a ‘field of vision’, a place that continues to exist only in front of our eyes. The coloured skirting-board shows the space not so much as it is, in its material capacity; it shows the space surfacing before our eyes, the moment of ‘illustration’ at which the space occurs. The rim with which the skirting-board marks the space is like the rim of an eye; it is the rim by which the space is cut out as a scenic place before the aesthetic glance. The skirting-board shows the space as a place that does not exist per se, but demonstrates itself to us. The space exists in its perceptibility. It is an aesthetic space. And in so far as it is aesthetic, it does not concur with itself, it is not purely and simply what it is. It ‘is’ not, it shows itself. Modern art wanted to strip the space – in essence the space of art itself – of all semblance; but where the negation of aesthetic semblance occurs that aestheticism remains and art is entangled yet again in semblance. In its attempts to poke out its own eyes it continually leaves behind the rims of eyes and eyespots. These works retain those moments of aesthetic negativity.
Dirk Pültau, “Guy Mees”, Ludion, Ghent-Amsterdam, 2002, pp 252-255