Intersections: Feet through: artistic practice between space and place
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 23, January 2010

Feet through:
Artistic Practice Between Space and Place

Utako Shindo

  1. In this article I would like to reflect on artistic practice in the age of globalisation. I consider how art might reflect the experiences of those who move across national borders, who experience feelings of displacement and emotions of longing. I consider how artistic practice can be grounded in embodied experiences. These experiences are often influenced by everday life, where we interact with various others with a consciousness of gender and other social characteristics. This discussion draws on my experience in creating the video installation work Feet through. The installation, in turn, draws on my reading of the concept of the 'haptic aesthetic,' and the concept of 'ma' in Japanese aesthetics and performance forms. The work was filmed and exhibited at Conical Contemporary Art Space—an Artist-Run Initiative space in Melbourne—in 2008. The installation consisted of four video projections, which show feet rubbing and moving against the wall surfaces of the gallery, suggesting a sense of belongingness to the site (see Figure 1).

    Figure 1. Feet through, installation view at Conical Contemporary Art Space, photographed by Christian Capurro, April 2008.

  2. I understand globalisation processes to involve the circulation of finance, capital, commodities, knowledge, information, and cultural representations,[1] in which people move across national borders as workers, students or sometimes as refugees. This discussion will be shaped by my perspective and experience as an 'international artist' who has been able to move between countries and cultures across the Asia-Pacific region in the regime of movement under the globalised market of art. Within this movement, I have investigated certain conceptual frameworks and artistic practices which are often site-specific, suggesting links between individuals' experiences from different places. Furthermore, through my artistic practice I intend to reach some place that exists beyond the limitations of globalisation, expressing the universal connectedness among people and places.

    The site and identity
  3. I initiated the project Feet through, with a physical and psychological investigation of the specificity of the installation site. Prior to the exhibition, I was given access to the site and spent time in the empty gallery space, gazing at and touching the surfaces of the gallery in different positions: sitting, kneeling, lying, rolling. Through these actions, the memories and desires contained in my body were recalled. I began to capture these emotions and sensations in the form of drawings derived from my experiences and anticipations in the multiple places where I belong. I attached drawings on Post-it notes to the wall and floors. My body, my drawings, and the architectural surfaces began to be felt as a continuous body, dissolving into each other (see Figures 2–4). This investigation led me to perform with my feet interacting with the wall surface, generating four different videos of feet moving (see Figures 5 and 6). Drawings and texts from the development stage were superimposed onto the footage, as if they were something that was embedded in the human psyche and happened to emerge from beneath the skin (see Figure 7). In the exhibition, these videos were projected in multiple positions (see Video 1).

    Figure 2. Study for Feet through, digital images, 2008, photographed by the author, January 2008.
    Figure 3. Study for Feet through, digital images, 2008, photographed by the author, January 2008.
    Figure 4. Study for Feet through, digital images, 2008, photographed by the author, January 2008.
    Figure 5. Feet through, installation view, four video projections and sound, 2008, photographed by the author, January 2008.
    Figure 6. Feet through, installation view, four video projections and sound, 2008, photographed by Christian Capurro, April 2008.
    Figure 7. Feet through, still image from the footage, 2008, photographed by the author, January 2008.

    Video 1. Feet through, Special edition for Intersections, 2009.

  4. In this way, the work expresses a sense of being in a non-specific position under the currents of globalisation. In the book, One Place after Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity, Miwon Kwon describes such positions as 'being rewarded for enduring the "wrong" place.'[2] Furthermore, she articulates that 'the distinction between home and elsewhere, between "right" and "wrong" places, seems less and less relevant in the constitution of the self.'[3]
  5. The gallery space itself was initially neither right nor wrong to me. It was a neutral blank page. The blankness, however, eventually made me project my self 'images' onto the site. The gallery space, then, began to appear as 'an actual place.' Kwon has commented on a similar process:

      the phantom of the site as an actual place remains, and our psychic, habitual attachment to places regularly returns as it continues to inform our sense of identity.[4]

    I felt that my identity as an international artist was enhanced by my temporal inhabitation of the gallery, while the recalled memories of different places turned the space into an 'actual place.'

    Body, space and time
  6. Feet though was developed as a part of my Master of Fine Arts research project through which I investigated two concepts which articulate the relationship between body and place (or space and time): the concept of the 'haptic aesthetic' and the Japanese concept of 'ma.' The 'haptic aesthetic' is a particular condition that orients both the content of an artwork and its spatial installation in ways which stimulate 'tactile sensations' in the audience. This thus produces a sense of immersion within a gallery context. This aesthetic is applicable in creating audio-visual installations that work to integrate with their surrounding contexts, thereby activating a shared environment among gallery spectators.
  7. The Japanese spatio-temporal concept of 'ma' articulates the idea of time and space as an interval, gap or void. Furthermore, this idea of 'ma' describes a situation of being 'among,' which, I believe, explains the relationship between time, space and the body within the context of the installation. Richard Pilgrim summarises this idea in his essay 'Intervals (ma) in space and time.'

      The word…carries both 'descriptive objective' and 'experiential subjective' meaning; that is ma is not only 'something' within objective, descriptive reality but also signifies particular modes of experience.[5]

    I consider this 'particular mode of experience' which 'ma' signifies as what is derived from our sensuous and conceptual engagement with the world. In this respect, 'ma' exists not as what is objectively marked but as what is subjectively felt or imagined in the process of perceiving and interpreting what we encounter. In other words, it refers to our experiential relationship with our environment. In this sense, the 'haptic aesthetic' can also be explained in the context of a 'particular mode of experience' as it is something to be perceived not exclusively by touch, but is rather an idea which can include other senses such as seeing and hearing. Thus, even though it can be felt physically, it does not necessarily require direct bodily interaction.
  8. In the light of these two concepts, with Feet through, I examined a particular experience of globalisation whereby one oscillates between states of losing and gaining a sense of belongingness to multiple places. By means of video installation, the work aimed to express both the actual and imaginary contact which a body makes with the physical and psychological, and spatio-temporal environment that surrounds it.

    Intensities and tactile sensation
  9. Here, I will discuss the concept of 'intensities,' which the haptic aesthetic conveys, in relation to the 'dissolving' sensation that was recognised in the beginning of the making of Feet through. Clare Colebrook describes the idea of 'intensities' in her conference paper, 'The Sonorous, the haptic and the intensive.'

      An extensive economy explains relations according to the distribution of a pool of energy; an intensive economy is not the circulation of matter, measurable by a subject, but moves across thresholds of discernability…The subject does not exist as some distinct consumer, distributor or mastery of energy. Instead certain forces enter into relation to create intensities: light meets the eyes, heat warms the skin, and vibrations can allow the ear to hear or (if sufficiently intense) the body to shake.[6]

    I would argue that this concept of intensities could be applied to the conditions of bodies experiencing the processes of globalisation. Colebrook further describes the human body immersed within an environment of 'intensities,' meaning that it is 'not just a self-organised and autopoietic machine'[7] but a body in which 'some of its organs move in ways not yet determined by a specific end.'[8] This particular understanding of the body resembled how my body felt—as if it were dissolving into the surrounding environment in the making of Feet through.
  10. The idea of tactile sensation, which has informed my understanding of the process of linking different senses and materials, is explored by the architect Juhani Pallasmaa in his book The Eyes of the Skin.
      All the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility. Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialised part of our enveloping membrane.[9]

    This reciprocal perceptual relationship between humans and the world, in which they are immersed, has been similarly expressed by dancer, Merce Cunningham. Cunningham describes the observation of his own body making contact with the world through the act of dancing, as follows:

      it has such fluidity like water which goes through your fingers, you know it's there, it has substance, but at the same time, it disappears, and it's so full of what to me are possibilities.[10]

    The body is an empty site full of potentialities for 'fluid like water' to come and go. The idea of 'fluid water,' which is what Cunningham feels when he dances, is similar to the idea of a tactile sensation which takes place at the 'boundaries' of things, through the 'haptic aesthetic' in art. This fluid continuity may challenge the idea of 'I' as an independent autonomous entity. In Feet though, it was, indeed, not certain where my body belonged or existed. The fluid-self ran though feet, through the wall and through the space behind.

    Experiential subjectivity
  11. With the concept of ma, a body is also considered as not a single entity when ma is applied to explain the concept of human-ness. For example, the Japanese word for human is ningen (人間) and, according to Pilgrim, in this compound ningen ('human being'), ma (間, read gen here) implies that persons (人, nin, hito) stand within, among or in relationship to others.[11] I understand that the word ningen (human) thus depicts the human as set in the midst of things or other people, and not as a separate or autonomous entity.
  12. In this way, it can be considered that the concept of ma refers to the space and time that could be generated by 'experiential subjectivity.' Pilgrim introduces the discussion of ma by the architect, Gunter Nitschke, referencing his essay '"Ma": The Japanese Sense of "Place" in Old and New Architecture and Planning.'

      For Nitschke ma is ultimately 'place' or 'place making,' in that it includes not only form and nonform but also form / non-form as imaginatively created or perceived in immediate experience…"the simultaneous awareness of the intellectual concepts form + non-form, object + space, coupled with subjective experience…it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. Therefore one could define ma as 'experiential' place…" [italics in original].[12]

    I thus consider my work as a particular 'place' emerging in the immediate experiences of both artist and audiences. The intervals of blankness and projection were, therefore, inserted into the work in order to emphasise the immediate experience of both the actuality of the site and the ephemerality of the work, which takes 'place' as ma space and time. In some cases, the intervals of the projection might have been filled by the presence of feet, given as an 'after image' within the viewer's perception, memory and 'imagination.' At other times, the interval might have been filled by the actuality of site and the material, or the physical properties of the visual and sonic technology that are perceived by audiences. The audience's experience of both the work and the site might, then, have taken 'place' along the paced timing between the presence and absence of the work.

    Secret adherence
  13. In this way, the concepts of ma and the haptic aesthetic articulate the human body as being in a close relationship with 'place' through extended body and 'experiential subjectivity.' In the discussion of site specificity in contemporary art practice, Kwon articulates the close relationship between body and place in the context of survival. 'This persistent, perhaps secret-adherence to the actuality of places (in-memory, in longing) may not be a lack of theoretical sophistication but a means of survival.'[13]
  14. In Feet through, this 'secret adherence' to the actual place can be recognised in the act of feet rubbing against the wall. The movement could also be read as a gesture of survival, like an animal declaring its own territory by repeatedly walking around particular spots and creating an invisible territorial track. Furthermore, the video projection of this particular movement directly onto the wall surface, where the performance was filmed, appears as an expression of the body being 'glued' to the architectural body.
  15. One of Japan's post-war dance movements, Butoh, influenced my performance in Feet through. In particular, the Butoh method of 'walking' was also derived from the necessity of the body being tied to a place. With this 'walking,' a performer walks very slowly in a low position, insistently heading toward and beyond a wall, by imagining a 'place' which you miss and long for. This walk appealed to me as an expression of 'persistent adherence' to places as 'a means of survival.' It is reasoned that Butoh, meaning 'stepping on the earth,'[14] was founded in Tokyo even though it is based on the climate and history of Tōhoku (North Eastern Japan); the birthplace of the founder, Hijikata Tatsumi. The dislocation which Hijikata experienced in moving to Tokyo might have resulted in his creating a new dance form as his way of surviving.
  16. In Feet through, I interpreted the Butoh walk in my own context of being away from 'home,' at which situation I required a technique to survive in the movements of globalisation. I translated the feeling of 'missing' into 'longing' and shifted the position of the feet from on the floor to against the wall. Beside those interpretations I made, the sensation of 'dissolving,' which was carried across body and space, stayed close to what the Butoh walk conveys. In 'A Bird with Mercy Come with the Fluttering of Wings Skeleton', Hijikata describes the feeling of 'missing' as 'convulsions…you don't know the one from the other.'[15] The sensation of 'convulsions' between you and something else appears to me similar to a haptic sensation that travels across 'different' materials and bodies or 'experiential subjectivity' in ma space and time.

    Feet and universality
  17. Tadashi Suzuki, who developed the influential Butoh method called the Suzuki Method, also places special emphasis on the feet. He explains that this is not only because the body's contact with the ground leads to a great awareness of all the physical junctions of the body,[16] but also because a human can achieve 'a personal metamorphosis' with the act of stomping or beating the ground with the feet.

      Whether in Europe or in Japan, stomping or beating the ground with the feet is a universal physical movement necessary for us to become highly conscious of our own body or to create a 'fictional' space, which might also be called a ritualistic space, where we can achieve a personal metamorphosis.[17]

    Such a personal metamorphosis was similarly experienced as a feeling of convulsion in Feet through. The gallery was also turned into a kind of ritualistic space as sensations were transferred through the gallery surfaces. What was it that my body was intermingled with, and what was I exchanging sensations with?
  18. According to Suzuki, these feet movements originated in ancient Japanese rituals to calm down the spirits or the soul. This influence can be seen in the theatrical forms of Noh and Kabuki, for example, in the way the stage was built above graves or mounds, or in contemporary times, upon hollowed-out ground or above a buried pot. It was believed that the resonance of the stomping sound in the hollow enforced the physical feeling of responding to the spirits. Suzuki argues that 'the illusion that the energy of the spirits can be felt through the feet to activate our own bodies is a most natural and valuable illusion for human beings.'[18]
  19. In the work Feet through, my feet, the sound of rubbing the wall, and the sensation of the feet touching the wall were all resonating with the vibrating rhythm of some force, which could be spiritual energy, activating a space as a place. The sensation was also felt as a feeling of longing for belongingness. As it went back and forth, my body and the place behind the wall felt connected through and through. I felt that I could have been behind the wall, reaching a universal space.
  20. Suzuki similarly connects the idea of the universal concept of 'mother' to the hollow below the stage.

      Graves and mounds can be regarded as wombs from which we have been born. In that sense the earth is a 'Mother' herself. Actors can undertake their roles on the premise that they are connected with all humanity integrating individuals.[19]

    We are still tied to the limited movement of globalisation and our being seemingly separated from others. In Feet through, for a few seconds, it seemed that liberation from fixed identity could be achieved. I was connected to the earth via convulsed 'bodies': my own physical body, the material body of the artwork, the architectural body of the space and the much larger body of the universe. This connection was achieved through my feet, which Suzuki specifies as the place where the physical sensitivity common to all races is most consciously expressed, and as the last remaining part of the human body which is, literally, in touch with the earth, the very supporting base of all human activities.[20]

  21. The body under globalisation may not ever be in the 'right' place, but neither in the 'wrong' place. This state could be contradictory and unsettling. We cannot choose either side of 'nomadism or sedentariness, space or place.'[21] In this regard, Kwon, however, argues that 'rather, we need to be able to think the range of the seeming contradictions and our contradictory desires for them together; to understand, in other words, seeming oppositions as sustaining relations [emphasis in original].'[22]
  22. The feet were quivering differently across the four video projections, in turn generating a sequence of sounds. The combination of rubbing sounds with repetitive movement gave an all-pervading presence. This movement of feet rubbing against the wall and its sounds can be understood to be an embodied movement: the movement of sensation between those 'sustaining relations.' Gilles Deleuze described this movement as 'rhythm' in his discussion of the attempts of artists like Paul Cézanne and Francis Bacon to 'make visible a kind of original unity of the senses.'[23] In the book Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze writes,

      this operation is possible only if the sensation of a particular domain (here, the visual sensation) is in direct contact with a vital power that exceeds every domain and traverses them all. This power is rhythm…[24]

    The traversing of rhythm in the domain of visual and aural sensation is apparent in Feet through. The images of feet appear to be travelling across the space, due to the fact that the images are composed by laying out video projections of four pairs of feet filmed in a similar manner. Also, the projection 'quivers' between appearing and disappearing. The soundscape of feet moving was layered and generated a sequence of repeated rubbing sounds across the space. Thus, this visual image, combined with a soundscape, pictorially, aurally and materially, appears to concentrate the rhythm of 'a vital sensation,' which expands beyond the surrounding urban context in which the work is presented, and activates all domains of the senses. It would be interesting to imagine that this vital force is running as an undercurrent of the world, exceeding the limited movement of globalisation.
  23. This 'rhythm,' in a way, obtains a 'positive' contradiction in its effect and function since it succeeds in causing the sensation of being immersed without asking perceivers to physically make contact with any material. It is therefore 'useful' to be employed by somebody who needs to belong to some place without physically being there: for example, bodies under globalisation. Thus, Feet through can state both the senses of liberation from one place and belonging to another place simultaneously.
  24. Throughout the process of working on the video installation project, Feet through, I explored and expressed the sense of being at a 'place' through corporeality and imagination. Within the movement of globalisation, we dream of a condition of the world where everyone can belong to everywhere on the earth, but it is still the case that the movement is limited. We still miss a particular place that is vital for our existence and we long for belongingness. Through engaging a particular site specifically within contemporary installation art practice, I took an action which was almost violent: feet rubbing against wall surfaces. The intense repetitive rhythm of the movement was almost strong enough to peel off the skin, which is what separates the body from the rest of the world. The movement might have potentially connected the corporeal to an invisible and ungraspable place where we might encounter spirits or vital forces.
  25. Feet through projects my experience of being involved in the movement of globalisation and reveals the gradual decline in my sense of being a lone human body, encountering another worldly space through feet. Consequently the work created an immersive environment for audiences to engage with as a place through their memory and imagination. I claim that this immersive experience which art works can generate is important to be shared among contemporary human beings, for us to get closer beyond differences and beyond the limited movement of globalisation, connecting to space that is universal, and beyond.


    [1] Vera Mackie, 'The body and the globe: Asia-Pacific perspectives,' unpublished position paper, Workshop on Globalised Bodies, Embodied Globalisation, University of Melbourne, August 2008, p. 1.

    [2] Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002, p. 157.

    [3] Kwon, One Place after Another, p. 157.

    [4] Kwon, One Place after Another, p. 165.

    [5] Richard B. Pilgrim, 'Intervals (ma) in space and time: foundation for a religio-aesthetic paradigm in Japan,' in History of Religions, vol. 25, issue 3 (1986):255#8211;77, p. 256.

    [6] Claire Colebrook, 'The sonorous, the haptic and the intensive,' unpublished conference paper, 2006, p. 4.

    [7] The notion of autopoiesis is often associated with that of self-organisation, yet an autopoietic system is autonomous and operationally closed, in the sense that every process within it directly helps maintain the whole.

    [8] Colebrook, 'The sonorous, the haptic and the intensive,' p. 4.

    [9] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2005, p. 10.

    [10] An interview with Merce Cunningham in Cage/Cunningham, directed by Elliot Caplan, DVD, ISBN-0-7697-8496-8, New York: Kulter, 1991.

    [11] Pilgrim, 'Intervals (ma) in space and time,' p. 256.

    [12] Pilgrim, 'Intervals (ma) in space and time,' p. 266. Original Text is by Gunter Nitshke, '"Ma": The Japanese Sense of "Place" in Old and New Architecture and Planning,' in Architectural Design, vol. 36, no. 3 (March 1966): 116–56, p. 152.

    [13] Kwon, One Place after Another, p. 165.

    [14] Akiko Motofuji, 'Distance to a body,' About Hijikata Butoh–Essays on Butoh–About Butoh in Butoh Kaden–Part2, ed. Yukio Waguri, CD-ROM, ISBN-13: 978-4883094516, Tokyo: Kozensha, 2005.

    [15] Voice of Tatsumi Hijikata from A Bird with Mercy Come with the Fluttering of Wings Skeleton, recorded by Keiya Ohuchiba, written down by Gohzoh Yoshimaru, The footprints of Tatsumi Hijikata–About Butoh, in Butoh Kaden–Part2, ed. Yukio Waguri, CD-ROM, ISBN-13: 978-4883094516, Tokyo: Kozensha, 2005.

    [16] Tadashi Suzuki, 'Culture is the body,' in Interculturalism and Performance, ed. B. Marranca and G. Dasgupta, New York: PAJ Publishing, 1991, pp. 241–43, p. 243.

    [17] Suzuki, 'Culture is the body,' pp. 246–47.

    [18] Suzuki, 'Culture is the body,' p. 247.

    [19] Suzuki, 'Culture is the body,' p. 247.

    [20] Suzuki, 'Culture is the body,' p. 248.

    [21] Kwon, One Place after Another, p. 166.

    [22] Kwon, One Place after Another, p. 166.

    [23] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, London, New York: Continuum, 2002, p. 42.

    [24] Deleuze, Francis Bacon, p. 42.

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