THE POETICS OF SPACE
SOME BASIC MOTIFS IN SARAH WESTPHAL’S WORK
O Haus, o Wiesenhang, o Abendlicht,
auf einmal bringst du's beinah zum Gesicht
und stehst an uns, umarmend und umarmt.
Uit: Es winkt zu Fühlung fast aus allen Dingen (1914)
Rainer Maria Rilke
The work of Sarah Westphal is thoroughly site-specific and imbued with a very special kind of topophilia. She loves spaces, especially abandoned spaces, such as old, desolate houses. The empty house is her preferred biotope. She enters the godforsaken, derelict house like an archaeologist of the psyche, probing its soul through a careful exploration of its often faded materiality. By scraping away layer after layer, she slowly uncovers and unveils the past. Gradually, she resuscitates the hidden atmosphere of the house, its living memory.
The exploration of an abandoned house thus becomes an encounter with the intimacy of its former inhabitants. And what makes Sarah’s endeavour so rich and also aesthetically intriguing is the way she meets these inhabitants of bygone days through the material traces within the house: the wallpaper, the stains on the floor, the light shining through its windows, the withered curtains, the cracks in the walls, the colour of the paint. It is as though she gently penetrates into past lives which would otherwise have remained forever receded into oblivion.
Sarah's approach reminds us first of all of the way palaeographers scrape off the visible text from a palimpsest to lay bare the text underneath. Similarly, architects use the word palimpsest as a powerful metaphor to highlight the material history of a built space. Whenever spaces are altered, refashioned or rebuilt, material traces remain. In exploring these material traces, Sarah steadily and literally uncovers the hidden history of the built space. She reconstructs what is concealed beneath the surface of the space.
In the second place, Sarah’s procedure embodies a poignant meditation on the nature of memory. While exploring the traces, she also enters the realm of former habitants, the shadows of the past. Thus, it is not only the space but also time that is resuscitated. All of a sudden, she breaks the ice of frozen time, revealing the mental landscape of former inhabitants, which makes itself felt as a living presence, a presence which does not tell the whole story, but acts as palpable absence. The space becomes the now, the sublime moment in which a ghostly presence emerges, a whole universe which is in itself unspeakable.
In the third place, inner landscapes of Sarah herself are projected onto the space, the mental space, the dormant narratives of the dead. As Bachelard emphasised, not only our memories, but also the things we have forgotten are ‘housed’: ‘Our sole is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms” we learn to "abide" within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them (…)’ (Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston, 1994, p. xxxvii). More than anyone, Sarah is conscious of this supreme interplay between our patient searching for the soul of a place and our projections of our own soul, our imagination, our sensibilities onto its space. In this sense, she is well aware that she is acting as an intruder, as someone who appropriates the space. At times, this intervention involves minor changes, at other times, its manipulations transcend the aesthetics of the hidden things, described above.
However, rather than simply appropriating it, she recreates and re-imagines the house. She adds objects to the space, for instance a shelf, or photographs on the wall, creating an optic illusion or trompe l’oeil. Sometimes she makes use of projections, sometimes she even covers the space and the objects with draperies. In doing so, she apparently ‘experiences the house in its reality and virtuality, by means of thought and dreams’ (Bachelard, p. 5). She knows that 'the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’ (Bachelard, p.6). She testifies with her art that ‘the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind’ and that ‘each of its nooks and corners are a resting-place for daydreaming’ (Bachelard, pp. 6 & 15). Thanks to the subtle interventions and the dream-like atmosphere, she literally transfigures the common place.
The transfiguration is thus always rooted in a homebound mood. Indeed, one of her first projects is entitled Heimsuchen, a German word which literally means ‘searching for a home’ and connotates such notions as protection, security and peace. In a similar vein, Heidegger referred to the German word einfrieden, which literally means ‘to enclose’ and includes the word Friede, i.e. 'peace'. In many ways, however, Sarah Westphal goes beyond the notion of a home as an enclosed place or space.
She achieves this precisely by exploring the interplay and the in-between, which is the fourth and final characteristic of her approach. Sarah's work is not only about the interplay between reconstruction and construction, but it amply questions and even deconstructs the clear-cut oppositions between past and present, presence and absence, fact and fiction, the visible and the invisible, the self and the Other. On a more technical and formal level, she deconstructs the distinction between the 2- and the 3-dimensional, between materiality and immateriality, between the inside and the outside. This deconstructive stance has allowed her in later exhibitions to reframe some of the objects or scenes and to re-explore or investigate them as autonomous, aesthetics objects. At the same time, it has enabled her to focus on the sometimes surprising beauty of worn materials. It has also made it possible for her to confront us with the light shining through the windows, a light which constantly and inescapably shows us how and why the outside changes the interior of the room: an aesthetical experience and poetics of space beyond any control.
Antoon Van den Braembussche