More Open than a Field: Creative Expansions of Enclosed Space

Before housing Mattin’s Social Dissonance, the small room at the far end of Documenta-Halle was home to two expansive installations at two previous documentas: Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Game Station at Documenta 11 in 2002 and Nalina Malani’s In Search of Vanished Blood at dOCUMENTA (13) 2013.

Looking at installation shots of these two works, you see visitors entering through a curtain into Tayou’s network of a constructed a street, with house, wires and TV-monitors and the audience gazing in wonder at Malani’s installation of rotating reverse painted Mylar cylinders, projecting shadows on the walls, I was struck by how both artists used this small room to generate expansive spatial encounters for the visitors.

Under the direction of the prophetess Cassandra, Malani bridged contemporary feminism and ancient ritual in terms of ideas of voice and gendered violence, while Tayou’s monitors transported the visitor to Jaunde, Cameroon, showing scenes of street life.

They reminded me of the fantastically expansive and excessive description of the Roman Emperor Domitian’s dining hall by the poet Statius, which I always like to read when visiting the site on the Palatine Hill with students. I ask the students to look at the remains of the small hall in front of them and then listen to Statius’ overblown poetic revelry:

The hall is sublime and vast: no hundred columns merely,

But enough to hold the gods and heaven above the earth,

Should Atlas retire. Jupiter in his temple gapes

At your home in awe, Domitian, and the gods rejoice

In your equal footing. No need for you to hasten to heaven;

That structure spreads immense, and the reach of its giant hall,

More open than a field and holding in its embrace

More space than the sky, is only outdone by its lord: he fills

The happy home with his mighty spirit. Here stone competes

With stone, Numidian yellow rivaled by Phrygian purple,

Granite from Egypt, blushing marbles, and sea-green stone;

White slabs of Luna are relegated to the bases of columns.

The ceiling is a distant view, and the eyes must strain to reach

Its summit, to glimpse, it seems, the gilded panels of heaven.

Such was the setting where Caesar commanded the senators

Of Rome to sup together with knights at a thousand tables.

In stark contrast to these works that expand the space beyond its walls, the durational concert performance of Mattin, which is streamed online and archived on YouTube, does the reverse by bringing the world into this space. Recently a curtain has been installed in the room (which the artist has described as “the first fabric”), which has added a subtle sense of theatricality to the empty, white-washed space, but aside from that, the attention of the outside world is focused on the people who are there – their words, sounds, noises, movements, arguments and confessions. That said, like Statius, if you pay attention to what happens in Social Dissonance, you will no doubt find far-away lands and mythical stories in this space where the collective subject emerges.

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