‘…artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius. Nature, he used to say, has had her day…’ (22).
The protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s seminal novel Against Nature takes a late nineteenth century Baudelarian view of his surroundings. As a solipsistic orchestrator of good taste, Des Esseintes reacts to a panoply of material encounters, from a metaphysical understanding of great works of literature and masterful paintings to a psychosomatic appreciation of colours, fragrances, and even the glint of gemstones encrusted on the gilded shell of a live tortoise (obtained to complement the hues of his Oriental carpet). Quintessentially the nesting collector, he guides the reader on a private tour of his utterly self-indulgent world; significantly, this world is framed by the house he has designed and the contents within. Dwelling-as-decadence is a theme that allows fiction to simultaneously satirize aristocratic obsessions and celebrate common pleasures; it links humanist philosophy to the sensuality of everyday life.
Palazzo Biscari might be construed as a similar site of personal, artistic expression. Ignazio, fifth Prince of Biscari, philanthropically contributed to Catania’s visual culture within the taxonomic spirit of the eighteenth century by amassing his own collection through archaeological expeditions and architectural flourishes (‘Palace History’). Such a romantic stance towards one’s domicile resonates with Gaston Bachelard’s ruminative endeavour to ‘show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind’ (6). Indeed, the splendour of this building effectively encourages an understanding of the poetics of space as anthropocentric – the palazzo truly manifested from a Baroque Weltanshauung or ‘worldview’.
In his reading of Leibniz, Gilles Deleuze considers the theoretical implications for interiority, observing that ‘for ages there have been places where what is seen is inside: a cell, a sacristy, a crypt, a church, a theatre, a study, or a print room. The Baroque invests in all of these places in order to extract from them power and glory’ (31). Historically, this ornamental style has been invested with properties that establish a clear division between interior and exterior, private and public, or, ‘domesticity’ and ‘environment’. Sunlight, for example, was often bent through high windows in order to illuminate a domed room without granting full visibility of the grounds beyond. For Deleuze, put simply, the differential relationship between the façade (public, lower level) and the chamber (private, upper level) of a baroque house typifies a philosophical folding – that of the macrocosm into the microcosm or the outside (‘cosmos’) with the inside (‘mundus’) (32-33). On the one hand, spatially charged Baroque epistemology placed man at the centre of his conceivable universe, whilst paradoxically distinguishing Nature-as-other and thereby privileging external critique through interiority and illusion (symbolized by the camera obscura). On the other hand, this reciprocity between subject and object connotes a continual development of consciousness.
Thinking ‘context’ as a site-specific Baroque fold that rightfully complicates and extends a ‘being-with’ should be followed by a notion of ‘habitat’ as a localizable zone of interactivity. Rural and urban landscapes are physically, politically, and ecologically negotiable; they are in constant states of (de)construction and (de)compartmentalization. Concerning the production of space, Henri Lefebvre has identified three critical categories: ‘absolute space’ refers to pre-modern sites of ritual and embodiment where the political overtook what was natural; ‘abstract space’ emerges as a condition of modernity and capital that disconnects labour from place; ‘differential space’ is proposed as a necessary re-articulation of space after its homogenous abstraction; it will ‘restore unity to…the functions, elements, and moments of social practice’ (48-52). On that note, it would seem that contemporary visual works that engage with questions of scale, perspective, performance, architecture, and the lived environment in response to such a rich history can only push towards the activation of this third spatial paradigm – folding, inverting, delimiting.
[introductory text for student-curated exhibition catalogue]
How to cite:
Wood Roberdeau, ‘Poetic Spaces, Baroque Contexts, Differential Habitats’, http://www.conceptualecologies.org [date of access].
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space (1958), trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (1988), trans. Tom Conley (London: Continuum, 2006).
Huysmans, Joris-Karl, Against Nature (À Rebours) (1884), trans. Robert Baldick (London: Penguin Books, 2003).
Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space (1974), trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1991).
Palazzo Biscari, ‘Palace History’, http://www.palazzobiscari.com/info/history.htm [Accessed 31 May 2015].