Timothy Thompson’s Gathering Space ReviewBy Billy Friebele
Gathering Space, by Timothy Thompson challenges our assumptions before we even enter the gallery. From the sidewalk on U Street, the view through the gallery window is of a series of large blue tarps hanging perpendicular to the sidewalk. These tarps may spur memories of a construction site, or a space still in development. Entering the door to the gallery one’s perceptions are again challenged. The taught blue curtains extend from the floor to the ceiling, blocking the flow of foot traffic, altering the light, framing our view of the space. Thompson asks us to choose a path as soon as we enter the space. There is no clear directive to move in one way or another. This immediately implicates the viewer and invites them to engage the artwork, to manipulate their bodies in order to interact with the obstructions.
One experiences the extended framing mechanism of these blue curtains cutting diagonally across the narrow gallery space from the door. The white walls become a part of a larger spatial dialogue; they are rigid in comparison to the flexible plastic sheets. The tarps are tightly wrapped around the air ducts above, swiftly weaving in and out of previously unseen elements hanging from the ceiling. This causes the viewer to peer upwards; in fact one is constantly drawn to look in directions that are unconventional in a gallery space. The lighting attracts our gaze to the place where art is traditionally is hung, but the beam of light is now interrupted by the giant blue curtain, casting shadows and creating dark corners on the vacant walls. As a result we are drawn to the periphery, to the aspects of space that are often taken for granted.
These delineations continue through the gallery in a diagonal pattern. There is an opening near the center of the room where we can choose to explore the other side of the membrane. Viewing Gathering Space when it is full of people becomes a study in social interaction. On one side of the division, crowds gather in pockets, nestled tightly in the angular spaces. Traversing through this scene becomes a tough navigational task as the dimensions of the room shift constantly. On the opposite side of the blue membrane there is plenty of space to maneuver. A few people pensively observe the construction. The figure-ground relationship is emphasized on this side as we frame each other (and ourselves) within the space, seeking to judge the relative dimensionality of our environment. In this instance it seems as though the room has been divided between social space and perceptual space.
One is reminded of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse series, large steel constructions that also emphasizes our physicality by framing the act of walking within and around larger structures. Thompson’s work utilizes a similar sense of scale and division to alter our perception of space in relation to our bodies. However, in the works referenced by Serra the forms are often curvilinear and include an interior chamber. As the viewer enters the Torqued Ellipse the sense of location is lost due to the height of the walls and the interior passageways. By contrast, in Gathering Space we are never unsure of our position. Instead we are asked to reconsider our relationship with a familiar place, the white walls of the gallery.
The flexible tarp material is deployed in straight lines, from point A to point B across the room. As a dialogue with the architectural aspects of the space, namely the right angles in the room, this piece works within the systems of linear design rather than by completely resisting it, which at times seems odd given the flexible nature of the tarps and tent poles that are deployed. Given that the entirety of the piece exhibits a sense to scale and spatial engagement for the viewer, one may wonder why the curvilinear aspects of the material were not used to further this feeling of disorientation, or to run further against the grain of the existing architecture. Thompson states that this iteration of the project is site-specific, so it may be that the linear design reacts directly to the narrow dimensions of the gallery.
However, if we consider the nature of the blue tarp material and the associations with utilitarian use and value, the tarp introduces an informal element into the formal setting of the gallery. Tarps often signal that work is being done, that a space is undergoing change. To use this material as a staging device transforms the gallery into a space of perceived flux. So the root of the tension between the installation and the existing structures is more about our associations with the materials than the forms themselves.
The series of six watercolor drawings in the back of the gallery act as small studies, mock-ups, or imaginings of the space in a similar vein as the drawings of Christo. In fact, the work of Christo and Jean Claude, namely Running Fence, a 24.5 mile veiled fence that runs across the hills of Sonoma and Marin counties in California, as well as the Wrapped Buildings series have a lot in common with this work. These pieces alter our sense of familiarity by covering or delineating, but the enormous sense of scale in these works make it impossible to perceive the whole piece; there is no privileged viewpoint. In Gathering Space there is no singular view either. I found this piece to cause a chain reaction as I wandered up and down the corridor, beginning with the engagement and disorientation of the body in reaction to the architectural alteration of the room, followed by an attempt to frame the entire installation from certain angles within the room, and finally succumbing to a sense of reasoning where I conceived of the space in my mind as a blueprint. Essentially the experience moved from the body to the eyes to an interior process in the mind.
The installation leaves the viewer contemplating an altered space that employs common materials to transform the white walls of the gallery into an informal space of flux. The minimal construction may leave some viewers guessing, but ultimately those that engage will walk away with a heightened sense of awareness, perhaps noticing the subtleties in the spaces that surround them in new ways, or seeing the possibilities inherent in everyday materials. There is both a social and perceptual shift that is caused by this work, which is experienced by the viewer in the same manner as architecture. That is, our bodies are literally controlled by the forms and the site lines determine our understanding of space. Ultimately these two dialogues seem to be paramount to our interaction with Gathering Space. The constructed environment heightens our awareness of spatial characteristics of our social interactions and habitual patterns of movement, as well as our ability to perceive volumetric aspects of the space we inhabit. It reveals that the perception of space is inherently linked to time, in that we must explore the space with our bodies in order to fully understand it.