Exercise 1: Exploring 'place'

‘Place – The First of All Things’, an essay by Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar (pp.11–26)

The essay provides a conceptual and theoretical introduction to understandings of "place" and begins by walking through some basic definitions before moving looking at how the concept has evolved over the centuries.

Dean and Millar use "place" in a technical sense that goes beyond a simple understanding of location of an object or place in space. In fact, much of their discussion has to do with distinguishing "place" from "space." In their use, "space" has more to do with attributes of physical location or presence, while "place" has overlays of meaning, value and interpretation. Along this line, they go so far as to suggest that "[o]ne might even argue that a landscape ceases to exist if there is no one to look upon it" (p.13). Space might just be there, but place has to have relationship and meaning or order.

The relationship to a viewer or interpreter means that "place" is also touched by time, whether by simply becoming familiar (one way that "space" becomes "place," p.14) or by association with particular events.

There then follows a discussion of how developments in theology, philosophy and science gradually inflated the understanding of "space" and downgraded appreciation of "place." God could not be less than the space He created, so it was posited that a limitless God implied an infinite space. Space, then, became the stage for expanding imaginations and exploration, while place seemed diminished by comparison.

The notion of "place" was never completely eclipsed, however, and came back into its own at least partially because of romanticism. More importantly, "place" still had interpretive power to help people think about human experience and meaning: 

As such, we must recognize not only that there are fundamental differences between place and space, and place and site, its modern replacement, but also that there are many places within place, many regions, each with their own identities, dialects and dialectics.
— Dean and Millar, p.15

And those places have interesting qualities—they can change in meaning over time and can relate to one another through overlap and interpenetration.

Overall, I found this to be a very useful article that helped me to think differently about the importance of "place" in art (and in other ways, too). I have to admit to rolling my eyes in the past when I would read yet another artist statement about "exploring space," but I've gained a new appreciation for the concept.

My only real quibble is that I think Dean and Millar are a little hard on the Enlightenment philosophers who gave greater weight to "space" than to "place"—this was an age of exploding knowledge and exploration in all the sciences, after all.

I will want to think more about a number of the ideas they present. For example:

  • the role of time, meaning and value in defining "place" helps to underline how two or more people can inhabit the same "space" but not necessarily the same "place."
  • a single space could constitute multiple "places" even for the same person, depending upon the interpretative lenses he or she chose to wear.
  • the idea of "thresholds" is very helpful in suggesting how different places can relate to one another without marking hard boundaries between them. There is not necessarily one "place" beyond which is limitless and unknowable space: there can be limitless "places" beyond, all shifting and changing in size and meaning, like soap bubbles running over one another.

All told, a good piece for generating some fresh ideas for me!