Euyoung Hong
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Spatial Thought through Capitalist Negative Production


Euyoung Hong

Dispossession occurs in a variety ways. External coercion by some superior power (merchants, states, colonial powers, multinationals, etc.) entails the penetration of some pre-existing social order and geographical terrain to the advantage of that power.

Fresh room for accumulation must exist or be created if capitalism is to survive.

In the field of art, space has been understood and developed in different ways and contexts, depending on artists’ perspectives. Some artists, such as Bruce Nauman and Doris Salcedo, consider negative space an important element for structuring and visualizing a work of art. In his work, A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1965–1968), for example, Nauman created a cement cast of the underside space of a chair. He deals with negative spaces of the unknown, the hidden and the invisible by experimenting with our understanding and perception of spaces of everyday objects and architectural spaces. This work conveys questions about the territory and emergence of objects, including the potentiality of existence, the awareness of the unfamiliar and the expansion of our perception, passing through the spaces between the visible and invisible, between the positive and the negative and between materiality and immateriality. The works of Salcedo, such as Untitled (Armoire) (1992) and Untitled (1998) are mostly derived from her country’s social and political history, including Columbia’s civil conflicts. Her works rediscover the potentiality of negative space in everyday objects, such as wardrobes, bed frames, dressers, tables and chairs, transforming a negative space into a solid form by closing its empty and open space with cement. This newly produced space expands its original spatial structure through the creation of new shared yet condensed spaces between different objects. The awareness of the interrelationship between different objects, which were once used by different people with different personal stories, is certainly related to a collective sense of dark history in her country. Rather than making literal representations of violence or trauma, Salcedo’s sculptures and installations present a heavy materiality, a strong silence, or even a bleak and desolate landscape, in which one might overlap these new spaces in dysfunctional or destroyed objects with victims, remains, ruins, wreckage or debris from past fragmentary memories. The transformation of available spaces in collected furniture, either by sealing doors or the inside of drawers or by constructing new structures and relations between different objects, creates a quiet monument, not only to absorb existing spaces and structures of objects, but also to evoke something disappeared, overlooked, destroyed by conflict, violence and cruelty in human society. Other examples are Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures, such as Ghost (1990) and House (1993). Charlotte Mullins describes them: “As if excavated at Pompeii, House was a solidification of the social spaces of an entire building. Since it had been three years in the planning, it related closely to Ghost. It was riddled with history, fragments of the past embedded in its pale grey surface like fossils.” In these works, Whiteread transforms negative spaces into solid forms, casting from empty spaces of architectural structures in actual houses and rooms. Rather than external characteristics of architectural spaces, Whiteread focuses on the inside of dwelling space, in which not only the mundane physical details of ordinary human lives, but also particular spatial and temporal memories are embedded. House, for example, was made as large as an actual building; it appeared for a few months in the middle of neighbouring houses until the area was cleared and people were displaced for urban development. Whiteread’s work also reconsiders the social realities of urban transformation and people’s lives, influenced by them.

In these particular examples of art practice, the notion of the negative, or of negative space, has been understood in certain ways, indicating the space around and between an object or an empty space in the inside of architectural space, rather than the object itself, particularly in the context of the ideas of loss, memory, nostalgia and traces, witnessed through social and political realities in society. From a different perspective, Spaces through the Negative intends to discover productive yet critical aspects of the negative, discovered in the capitalist system of urban space. Rather than emphasizing emptiness, absence or something invisible between and around objects and architectural spaces, the negative is conceptually and materially expanded and understood as a decisive force, which is able to determine the moment of the production and destruction of both object and space in the system of capitalism. This exhibition explores the complex relationship between space and the negative in contemporary society, by looking at changes in an encounter of space, things and society with the system of capitalism. The concept of the negative is deeply rooted in a certain aspect of urban space, in which the production of space in the system of capitalism is inseparable from the occupation and development of degenerate spaces and the system of negative production through dispossession, displacement, disappearance and destruction. The logic of the negative can be considered an essential urban production or a capitalistic system of transforming the visible to the invisible by undoing and erasing existing spatial orders and relations.

In this exhibition, the notion of the negative is explored, expanded and visualized through conceptual and material experimentation of various art practices, particularly concerning ways in which the negative acts as a productive yet critical element in the process of the production of spatial singularity and knowledge in contemporary societies or in urban spaces. Curtain Room (2017) is an installation work, which is built in a 6 m × 2m rectangular room. Four sides of the room are replaced with covering ivory curtains, which are hung in the middle of the exhibition space to provide an open space from the bottom and top of the work. The internal structure of this curtain room is subdivided into three smaller rooms of different sizes. Since the structure of the space is created by curtains, these rooms are variable, movable, penetrable, flexible and vulnerable spaces, which are easily influenced and invaded by small internal and external changes, such as lights, shadows, movements or sounds. For example, a room constantly creates living noises, which can be heard from neighbouring spaces. The idea of this work was originally derived from a small subdivided dwelling space in Manhattan, New York, where I stayed for a short period in 2016, while participating in an artist residency. It was a one-bedroom apartment. The tenant of the apartment, who was a college student, sublet her place for almost a month. To earn more money, she accepted more occupants than the room’s capacity. By using curtains, more private spaces were made between the dining and living rooms. This installation work focuses on the heterogeneous relationship between different things and ideas, discovered in between dwelling and space in contemporary society. Rather than simply representing or describing a space, the production and function of space and its order and system, where people’s desires, frustrations, tensions and anxieties are formed and expressed through a space in a particular social structure, are explored and reinterpreted from the viewpoint of a critical observer, participant, producer or researcher. The space of the negative can be understood through this temporary dwelling space, which rediscovers conceptual and material boundaries of sharing, invasion and demarcation in the capitalist system of dwelling space.

By developing further issues and questions raised in A Study of the Space of Han Pyeong (2016), Goshiwon Project (2017) explores various events, witnessed in and around small and dense dwelling spaces on a visit to a goshiwon in Shinrim-dong in 2017, specifically its system of space, which participates in the production of the events. In a capitalistic society, it becomes relatively easy for an economically vulnerable group of people to experience the blurring and invasion of the boundaries of private spaces. This goshiwon, a particular type of collective housing in Korea, occupied by low-income urban dwellers, is located on top of an old six-story commercial building. This dwelling space is structured by ways of subdividing one floor into over thirty minimally tiny private rooms, in which people necessarily become squeezed into the allocated space and its spatial system, rather than making spaces of their own. This particular dwelling space – which is dense, yet divided in the form of thin architectural structures – is shared in extreme tension mixed with heterogeneous sounds, lights and movements, produced in and through each private room. Based on actual measurements of the space, Goshiwon Project (2017) reconstructs an actual room and corridor of a goshiwon into an open, linear structure, using 10mm square pipes. Corners of this reconstructed space are cut and removed to make it unbalanced. Some found objects, such as tin cans, plastic containers, a glass jar, an abandoned flower pot or a wooden table, support these unbalanced spatial structures, providing a temporal balance and tension.

Squeezed (2017) is constructed by using a reconstructed linear space of an actual goshiwon room, which is cut in half, pressed into a small size and squeezed into a corner of the exhibition space. This work focuses on the changing meaning of space, particularly the lightness of space in terms of the tendency of exploitation in the system of capitalism. Squeezing can often indicate an action or power of firmly pressing, managing to get into or through a restricted space, forcing out or by pressure, or extortion. In this work, the notion of squeezing is expanded to rediscover the concept of the negative, particularly in the survival of space and people in the system of capitalism. In the coercive system of competition, space and human labour are exploited, pressed and forced by pressure, according to the logic of market needs. The disappearance of places and people in the process of urban development cannot be avoided, as the market always demands a new product, space and spatial relation. For survival, spaces are necessarily developed to increase their economic value in the market through the deconstruction of old systems and relations. Exploitation or dispossession becomes a negative productive force as a way of surviving in the system of capitalism. When there is nothing to exploit, spaces and people are squeezed into corners. This work presents the spaces of others in capitalism, which are easily abandoned, forgotten and replaced with something new by the fetishism of capitalism.

At the corner of the exhibition space, Day without Day (2017) spreads a dim light. This work is made by reconstructing a partly detached linear structure of Goshiwon Project (2017). This fragmentary architectural structure supports a large rectangular semi-transparent pane of glass. Behind the glass, a small work lamp provides a dim light. This work was originally inspired by the closed spatial system of the goshiwon. The first impression of the goshiwon was a complex spatiality, which is mixed with darkness, separateness, closedness, sharing, tension and vulnerability. Since one floor of a building was subdivided into over thirty individual spaces, the entire space was almost blocked and filled with small rooms. In this space, it was difficult to find a window towards the outside, not only in the shared spaces, but also in each private room. A tiny room that I went into was smaller than 3.3m2 and had no window. There was only the small rectangular semi-transparent glass pane right above the room door towards the corridor, which indicated whether the room was occupied by a person or not. This room seems disconnected from almost everything, from time, from natural light and even from society. As there is no window, it is difficult to recognize the passage of time from inside.

A site-specific installation work, Variable Demarcation (2017) is composed of small green flags, which are temporarily installed in an empty site in front of the museum where the exhibition occurs, forming a diagonal line. This work explores the concept of the negative by developing certain aspects of temporal occupation and demarcation of urban space in the system of capitalism. This empty space, which was once a residential area and is currently owned by Gimpo-si, is planned to be changed to a green area. This site-specific installation will be destroyed and removed immediately by construction workers, once construction starts on the site. The area where the museum is located was originally a residential area, densely occupied by old houses. Gimpo-si decided to transform this area to construct a large industrial complex zone, roughly at the beginning of 2010. The city bought all the housing in this area with compensation for relocation cost. All the owners of the houses left this area except for this museum, which was the dwelling place of an art professor at that time. This is not only an interesting aspect in terms of the social and political history of urban space, but also one of the main reasons that I consider this museum as appropriate for researching, developing and presenting my art practices. According to the museum’s deputy director, the museum was the only house standing against the city’s decision of industrialization and displacement; and the use change of the territory of the property from a residential place to a cultural institution was the only way for the museum to survive from urban development and industrialization, exempted from the expropriation of the property by the city. Within a couple of years, the museum will be surrounded by newly built large factories.

In this exhibition, the idea of negative landscape is structured and expanded by four different works, Negative Landscape(Rectangle and Circle)(two styrofoam works) (2017), Negative Landscape (a work made of MDF(medium density fibreboard) (2017), Negative Landscape (a glass piece on the ground) and Negative Landscape (a corner installation work).The three pieces of Negative Landscape (Rectangle) (2017), Negative Landscape (Circle) (2017) and Negative Landscape (2017) are based on actual topographic maps of several redevelopment sites in Seoul, which are densely filled with old houses and buildings awaiting demolition. In these works, the size of these areas is changed to a scale of 1:400 and dismantled and rearranged in a different form and order, leaving empty territories by removing existing architectural spaces, houses and buildings. Negative Landscape (2017) explores a certain aspect of the negative, asking questions about the relationship between the production of space and disappearance, change and uniformity and demarcation and social zoning in the space of capitalism. Negative Landscape (Rectangle) (2017) and Negative Landscape (Circle) (2017) are constructed on the basis of topographic maps of ten areas of redevelopment sites, including Jeongneung-dong, Hannam-dong, Sanggye-dong, Hongeun-dong, Heukseok-dong, Sajik-dong and Myeongnyun-dong. In this work, the contours of each area were formed by stacking 2mm thin white styrofoam boards without attaching them to each other. The lines, forms and structures of these works can therefore be easily destroyed and changed by a small movement or touch. The reassembly of these different areas presents a uniformed scenery of urban space in Seoul or the fatalism of things and spaces, in which old towns are wiped out, replaced by a monolithic style of apartments in the standardized urban development policy. Next to these two styrofoam pieces, Negative Landscape (2017) is installed, which was reconstructed by reproducing a section of the Hannam-dong area in Seoul at a scale of 1:400 from 2mm MDF boards. This rectangular form was divided in half and placed on separate pedestals in the exhibition space. Negative Landscape (glass) (2017) is composed of abandoned broken glasses, which are collected from different residential areas in Seoul and vertically placed and layered on a moving platform. Another work with the same title, Negative Landscape (corner installation) (2017) is made using found objects, such as plastic containers, broken glasses, mirrors, light and rubber bands. An oval mirror, placed in the middle of a vertically hanging rectangular plastic container on the corner wall, divides its interior space into two. A small light bulb, which is installed at the upper left side of the mirror, also divides this tiny container into light and shadowy spaces. Above this unstable mirrored surface, which is temporarily relying on two rubber bands, collected broken glasses are laid one upon another, creating not only a sharp tension, but also precariously layered platforms in half of the interior.

The idea of negative landscapes is definitely related to a certain tendency of capitalist urban transformation. In the system of capitalism, a space encounters barriers or limits in the process of accumulation and (capital) flow, and tends to open up and transcend the difficulties of its existing systems and boundaries. In many cases, old systems and relations can be destroyed, leading to a course of crisis. According to Harvey, capital accumulation has particular tendencies. “Activity is expansionary and growth is accepted as both inevitable and good; growth is sustained through the exploitation of living labor in production […] crises are inevitable and are characterized by overaccumulation […] if the surplus cannot be somehow absorbed then they will be devalued.” Capital fixity thus produces capital mobility. This can be an aspect of successive systemic cycles of capital accumulation in space. In this respect, urban territoriality cannot simply be reduced to either a static spatial point or a movement; rather, it operates in the contradiction between mobility and fixity, which can be considered an essential factor for the formation and operation of the negative in the capitalist system of urbanism. In the interactive connection between mobility and fixity, territoriality constantly proposes and actualizes new ways of using, deploying and systemizing a space or spatial elements for the survival from competition between rival producers. By exercising its power expansively yet coercively, territoriality refers not only to the colonization of a space, but also to the transgression of boundaries and borders. The uneven and conflictual movements or powers observe and encounter zones of territory. In the course of the transgression of boundaries, existing orders and relations of the space necessarily enter into the process of destruction, to be expanded or even replaced with the new. This is an aspect of the negative in the space of capitalism, which becomes a driving force to (re)produce the new in the contradictory relationship between construction and destruction for survival.

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