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Petri Kaverma

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sculpture, conceptual, mixed-media landscape installation photography, site-specific, memory, writing installation landscape


…in this vertical city, in this compressed city where all voids tend to fill up and every block of cement tends to mingle with other blocks of cement, a kind of counter-city opens, a negative city, that consists of empty slices between wall and wall, of the minimal distances ordained by the building regulations between two constructions, between the rear of one construction and the rear of the next; it is a city of cavities, wells, air conduits, driveways, inner yards, accesses to basements, like a network of dry canals on a planet of stucco and tar…

Italo Calvino: Marcovaldo or The Seasons in the City. Translated by William Weaver.

The primary framework of Negative Space Sculptures is the basics of visual art, according to which an image contains two types of space: positive and negative. Positive space is formed by the actual object or topic. In other words, even each and every letter on this page constitutes a minuscule positive space of its own, whereas the white paper background is negative space, as are the white areas between letters. Thus, negative space exists around and between positive space as well as behind and before it, although in a two-dimensional presentation such as the paper you are holding, it is not possible (necessary) to actually perceive the posterior and anterior space. The shapes of a sculpture, an artwork or an image are usually defined in terms of positive space. However, negative space creates shapes just like positive. (Here, negative and positive are not value judgments). If the subject, or positive space, is removed from the image, we experience the negative space to be left all empty. This means that writing becomes writing only through the positive space of the letters – without them, the paper would be nothing but blank. Similarly, the process of perceiving or rendering the perceived into visual form can be conceived as a linguistic process as it involves signs, whether words or images. Words and images exist in a void, in the space in-between where the process of understanding takes place. It is precisely in this whiteness surrounding words where our reading takes place, since the whiteness reminds us of a much greater space within which the word comes about. It is precisely this way that the shapes of negative spaces are determined by those of positive spaces, but rarely, if ever, do we set out on reading a text by the intermediate negative spaces. Negative Space Sculptures ask whether this, however, could be possible, and if so, in which situations.

Another conceptual framework I used for Negative Space Sculptures is Rosalind Krauss’s essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field (1979), in which she delineates the changes in the function and site of sculpture in the postmodern period. The last few decades have seen the focus in visual art shift towards the utilization of established space. This shift has allowed us to downplay the requirement for universality that typically has been linked with the utilization of public space external to the art institution. Negative Space Sculptures regard the environment by the scale of spaces left in between objects, people and buildings. They are focal points in space and call for a reverse reading according to which it is more essential to see distances between things, people, places, thoughts and fragments than to elicit similarities. This idea corresponds to the concept of relational sensibility, the reverse strategy suggested by Miwon Kwon.

Another idea that responds well to interpretation through the concept of positive and space is that of perfect structure presented by the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1942–1976). Negative Space Sculptures are about scale, as was Matta-Clark’s perfect structure: how large can be small and vice versa. Also for his contemporary Robert Smithson (1938–1973), scale means instability. Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon, Smithson writes.

Negative Space Sculptures are independent and self-sufficient pieces, and they can be seen as abstractions the function of which is determined not by spatial restrictions, but by the viewer’s reception capacity. Their scale depends on each viewer’s alertness and readiness to take in the reality surrounding them. The most important point is to apprehend what is around and before one’s eyes, no matter how unstable or fugitive. When we cling to positive space for the safety it provides, we prevent space from becoming permeable and fluid the way Negative Space Sculptures suggest. When we refuse to release scale from size, we are left with a language where scale and dimensions are inseparable and which is predominated by the object, Smithson wrote when describing his famous work, Spiral Jetty. He describes precisely such tendency of viewing art where language and preset mental images preclude one from seeing anything else but the object often laden with unfulfilled desires, positive space. Negative Space Sculptures cannot be conceived with the terms of the ”object” of art: just like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, these pieces reject ”objective criticism”, because that would stifle the generative power of visual scale.

The substantiation and expansion brought forward by Negative Space Sculptures occurs when our eyes move in space and time – up, down, right and left. Now our eyes, roaming the negative space, meet the void peeking at us from between the tines of a designer fork placed in front of the leaning tower of Pisa, now they see the boundless horizon, now the empty space between buildings. Negative space can also be perceived in the distance between two people – in the street, store, bus, elevator... You can observe it by watching how people settle themselves in relation to each other – how close to or how far from one another – or how the twin brothers Gordon & Sebastian are placed between their mother and grandmother.

twin brothers Gordon & Sebastian

Twin brothers Gordon Matta-Clark & Sebastian Matta
© The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), Montreal

The sculptures suggest the concrete act of occupying airspace: they not only visualize an idea, but also constitute the very artwork. They are located between the language and the matter, the image and the concept; they are linked to both, yet they are not unequivocally attributable to neither. Negative Space Sculptures are of no other form. They do not emphasize the necessity of creating an object in the traditional sense, an artefact, or the primacy of such process; instead, they endeavour to challenge the cultural process of creation. In this process, the production of an artefact, an object or the actual creative work should be a voluntary option. Again citing Smithson, “the question about the form of the artwork often seems as hopelessly inadequate as questions about content.Problems are unnecessary because problems represent values that create the illusion of purpose”. It all comes down to the viewer’s relation to Negative Space Sculptures. Thus, the sculptures enable the scrutiny of the abstract and incorporeal space presumably left between the viewer and the work – the apparent distance, static, disturbance or silence, which is one of the predominant forms of empty/negative space.

Even the mere intention to possess and control is a factor that organizes and predetermines action by setting conditions with which we then slavishly comply in our thinking. The relation between possessions and the possessor is built around the concepts of personality and consumption, but Negative Space Sculptures propose a reverse strategy - they are possessed by no one. The sculptures are abstractions in the same manner as, for example, the ownership of a condominium, in which context the possession is not seen primarily as an ”object”, but a right. This way, Negative Space Sculptures pose their questions: is it only that which we can control that is our own? Do we feel alive only when we experience our personality being actualized through the use of our possessions? What about the conquest, use and control of space - could it mean, rather than the accentuation of individuality, the unravelling of the will and the power hierarchy attached to possessions and the act of possessing through history? Could that which has no value of use finally be registered as something with value of exchange? Could that which has no use and that which is worthless and unproductive be a potential source of new type of space? Let me propose that the empty airspace of (mental) images I present should be named Negative Space Sculptures.

...It would seem, prime minister, that you share the belief that death exists only because it has a name, that things have no real existence if we have no name to give them...

Jose Saramago: Seeing. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

* Auster Paul, Book of the Dead. The Art of Hunger, Sun & Moon Press, 1992.
* De Oliveira, Oxley, Petry, Installation Art in the New Millennium, Thames & Hudson, 2003.
* Kwon Miwon, One Place After Another, site-specific art and locational identity, The MIT press, London, 2004.
* Smithson Robert, Entropy and the New Monuments, The Spiral Jetty and Cultural Confinement, The Collected Writings (ed. Jack Flam), University of California Press, London, 1996.
* Krauss Rosalind, 1998. Sculpture in the Expanded Field, The Anti-Aesthetic Essays on Postmodern Culture, New York, The New Press, 1998, 31-42. Originally published: October 8, 1979.

The visual artist Petri Kaverma is unbiased in the choice of media for his work, which can be sculptures or photographs, installations compiled of ready-mades or found objects. Aiming to create a dialogue between the works and their physical and social setting, he has made several works for public spaces. Kaverma has taught in several art schools as well as in the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts; he has curated exhibitions and organised visual art and environmental art projects both in Finland and abroad.

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