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Negative Space: Protagonist in Art, Design and Architecture

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on April 29, 2015 at 04:52 PM

‘Negative Spaces’; what does this mean? Does it connote, as with the negative character or anti-hero or with negative thoughts, the antagonistic force in a scheme? Well, as we know, this is not true of either art or architecture. Here, ‘negative Spaces’ simply allude to the spaces that are left empty around a painted or sculpted object, or spaces that get created around or within a built structure, as a remnant consequence of the space occupied  by the shape of the object or structure. The inference, therefore, is that the object, structure or shape in question is the positive space, and also further that the negative spaces are unintended as opposed to the object or structure, which is the intention of the creator, the protagonist of the scheme. But, we often come across creations which have schemes contrarian to this view point. The unvoiced thoughts of the human mind often find a greater expression than spoken words, ‘sweet nothings’ form far more cherished memories of a relationship than exchanges of loud but hollow endearments. That which we don’t give shape or structure to becomes the foundation upon which the entire scheme is built or the central idea around which the creation revolves. In such cases, the consequential remnant or the ‘negative space’ plays protagonist. It becomes the bearer of the central theme in a creation, the voice of the idea the creator seeks to convey. Here, the observer’s gaze is drawn, not by the objects portrayed in the scheme, but by the aura of what is not. Yet, mind you, this protagonist negative does not have an existence removed from the context of the objects that surround and shape it. It is given life only by the ‘positive’ yet seemingly subordinate structures around itself. It is said, quite correctly, that ‘event’ and ‘consequence’ are inextricably tied to each other, and you can’t have one without the other. The negative and positive spaces complement, each giving to and deriving from the other, dancing in harmony as the yin and the yang in the circle of life energy.

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Architecture: Gyeongju Tower, South Korea: Cover image, images 1 - 5

Located in a cultural expo park in Gyeongju, South Korea, this tower is a modern glass and aluminium monument in homage to South Korean history and culture. This purpose is fulfilled by incorporating an inverse silhouette of the 9 storey pagoda of the Hwangnyongsa Temple which was burned to the ground during a thirteenth century Mongol invasion. This tower rises to a height of 82 m (approximately 30 storeys) on either side of an empty space which is shaped in the form of the destroyed pagoda’s silhouette. The top storeys house an observatory and a display hall. This silhouette comes to life especially in the night when it gets lighted up in myriad colours. Highlighted against the dark frame of the building and the night, this carved negative space becomes the protagonist, conveying and celebrating South Korean historical heritage. The structure, in all its modern splendour, successfully avoids stepping over the past and makes a space for it to be revered.  

Painting: the works of Vincent Van Gogh: Images 6, 7

The post-impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh had mastered the art of expressing through the negative spaces in his compositions. Van Gogh, a master who painted prolifically through his short troubled life, was unable to sell more than one painting in his lifetime. But, his posthumously recognized genius was to guide generations of artists, including masters like Picasso. Some of his most famous works, like ‘the cat’, are brilliant studies in negative space expressions. Even in his most well known painting, ‘the Starry Night’, the negative space in the form of the sky (background) occupies the upper two thirds of the canvas, while the objects like the hills, houses and fields are limited to the lower third of it. This negative space of the night sky is painted in swirls of blue-purple, contrasting highly with the luminous yellow-orange stars and crescent moon, attracting the observer and evoking intense emotions. The drama of this space contrasts with the peaceful aura surrounding the houses and hills in the lower part of the painting. Thus, it becomes the protagonist in the scheme, the bearer of the message, the conveyer of emotions.

Graphic Design: Images 8 - 15

The use of negative spaces to convey hard hitting messages has always been a favourite playground of graphic designers. They are most popularly used in tessellations, which work on this very concept (img. 8) Malaysian artist, illustrator and designer Tang Yau Hoong has mastered this art to create jaw dropping art works, often for social and commercial campaigns. Two of his well known works have been created for the anti addiction campaign – two faces of drug addiction viz. chronic and temporary (img.9) and pulling out of the abyss of addiction (img.10). ‘Sky Aperture’ (img.11) also by him, depicts the problem of urbanisation while his ‘Vengeance’ (img.12) attacks deforestation. Belgian Designer Caroline Remy created this campaign (img.13) for a client who was popular in the market for their smaller animals but had larger cattle as their speciality, by hiding the cow in the negative spaces of the graphic showing smaller animals. Illustrator and artist Ale M couples the negative space with a wonderful use of perspective in this creation (img.14). Lastly, no discussion on negative spaces is complete without a mention of Edgar Rubin’s ‘Vase’ (img.15) which is framed by the silhouettes of two faces in the negative spaces on either side.

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