Liminal Spaces

How are we to define a liminal space?  Expressed as a dictionary definition, we are informed that the term ‘liminal’ relates to ‘a transitional or initial stage; at a boundary or threshold’.[i]  The liminal spaces defined within the photographs of Virgile Simon Bertrand exist in the physical world.  They can be pointed to on a map, entered, walked through and experienced with the senses.  They can be altered and even destroyed but despite their physical existence these locations are also sites of ambiguity and transition, existing at the edge of perception.  Architecture has been within photography’s sights since the beginning of photography’s short history, from Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 and Maxime du Camp’s views of Egypt through to the practices of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Hélène Binet of our own times.  As we pass through a building our experience of architecture can be measured as a seamless succession of moments where time and distance conjoin.  Photographs too are a manipulation of the same factors, the conjunction of distance and time in fractions of a second recreated in the form of a photograph.  Bertrand’s Liminal Spaces directly address the relationship between architecture and photography, but do not restrict this relationship within the common denominators of time and distance.  Architect Peter Eisenman describes ‘another condition’ one that is specific to architecture which he identifies as  ‘presentness—that is, neither absence nor presence, form nor function, but rather an excessive condition between sign and being’.[ii] Working within this condition of presentness Bertrand’s photography compels us to reconsider our view of the iconic.  Within this new perspective familiar buildings are seemingly reinvented and reinterpreted, whereas new buildings, some in the process of construction, are suspended in a tenuous equilibrium between clarity and abstraction.  Structures and forms are delineated and given substance using a narrow palette of monochrome tones or colours so subtle and sparing as to be barely perceptible.  All that is extraneous is removed and one becomes aware of the precariousness and even irrelevance of human presence within these liminal spaces. 

In a startling example of this reinvention, Bertrand’s photograph Opera House, Jorn Utzon, Sydney, renders Australia’s architectural landmark completely unrecognizable.  Taken in twilight, the familiar barnacle cluster of the building appears to have been dismantled and randomly reassembled.  The staffage of a solitary figure disrupts our assumptions concerning the scale of the structure, throwing into doubt the logic of perspective.  Bertrand’s photograph of the skeleton of the Guangzhou Opera House (Opera House, Zaha Hadid, Guangzhou) presents us with a repetition of triangles forming a canopy that appears to float over a structure of concrete. Within the order imposed by the geometry of the canopy, the eye is seduced by the disorder and ambiguity of scale beneath its web; what at first appears to be the chaos of an unfinished building reveals itself as a seemingly organic network of finely detailed fragile structures that suggest the hollow spaces that lie beneath.  Seeking to impose some kind of order, the viewer is compelled to draw closer, discovering the minute figures of construction workers which finally divulge the true scale of the structure.

In the same way that Eisenman suggests that ‘architecture may also function without necessarily suggesting that function’,[iii] in the absence of verbal prompts, the liminal spaces defined in Bertrand’s photographs never explicitly signify the function or purpose of the structure depicted.  The photographs appear to reduce structures to their most basic forms, relegating function in architecture to a secondary role, exposing both the mathematical and organic elements that lie at their core.  However, this relegation of function provides these liminal spaces with their distinctive uncertain and ambiguous qualities, endowing the viewer with what Bertrand describes as ‘a floating level of perception’.[iv]   In Foreign Relations Palace, Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia we are presented with a series of curved planes that appear to float within an undefined space.  The exterior space glimpsed in the photograph is distorted by the reflective surface of the floor, which calls further attention to the photograph’s ambiguity of scale.  This gravity-defying form is physically dependent on the liminal space between two horizontal planes for its existence, but within a photograph, the physicality of form is subverted within a two dimensional plane.  Isolated within the parameters of the photographic plane, the essential subject matter of the photograph extends beyond the merely documentary to form a psychological landscape that oscillates between abstraction and clarity.  The same tension between abstraction and clarity permeates Modern Art Museum, Ando Tadao, Fort Worth.  Bertrand’s photograph manipulates the building’s scale, dissolving and extending the vertical lines of the building into a body of water.  The foreground is dominated by the negative space of a building thrown into dark relief, its irregular windows offering few visual clues to the relationship between the building, its neighbours and the space that it occupies.

On the face of these photographs it is evident that liminal spaces have a physical existence.  We can point to them on a map, visit them, touch them and see them, but the common denominators inherent in Bertrand’s Liminal Spaces are the qualities of ambiguity, abstraction and clarity which transform physical locations into tense, unfamiliar landscapes.  Undermining the role of function, Bertrand’s photographs appear to remove anything that might assist in conferring familiarity upon these enigmatic spaces, paring structures down to their basic forms.  Without the assistance of scale, people or words to help navigate the viewer through the photographed space, the ‘floating level of perception’[v] defined by Bertrand comes into being.  Our appreciation of Bertrand’s Liminal Spaces is in part dependent on our pre-existing perceptions of architecture, conditioned either by direct experience or through the interpretations of others, and the difference between what we have known and what we see within the photograph, which compels us ultimately to reconsider our interpretation of what is iconic.

Davina Lee

Curator, August 2008

© Davina Lee 2008

 This essay was written to accompany the exhibition "Espace Liminal", 2008.

[i] Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2004), s.v. ‘liminal’

[ii] Peter Eisenman.  ‘Post/El Cards: A Reply to Jacques Derrida’, in Critcal Architecture and Contemporary Culture, eds. William J. Lillyman, Marilyn F. Moriaty, David j. Neuman (New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994), 41.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Virgile Simon Bertrand, interview by author, Hong Kong, July 2008.

[v]  Ibid.