A negative SPACE

The more prisons I visit, the stronger the feeling I have of coming up against that wall. The wall that keeps me outside, literally and figuratively.

I had this experience while working on a study of detention, and the related notions of inclusion and exclusion, which I approach from a spatial perspective. My point of departure in art is always architecture and the relation between built substance and its surroundings. That’s also the case here. The basis for this study lies in considering the state of exclusion. I visited numerous places that embody a state of exclusion, and prisons are the places of greatest interest to me. Psychiatric hospitals, monasteries and royal palaces are separated from society in a much less physically recognizable manner.

I visited prisons over a period of eight months to photograph their walls. After I had seen a large number of prisons, I became increasingly aware that, contrary to what I had assumed, these visits would not lead to any close degree of familiarity. I thought that approaching the building, moving closer to it from the surroundings, zooming in on a detail – a pars pro toto, in fact – would at least give me some sense of the place. But the opposite turned out to be the case. The more I stood in front of these walls, the more I realized that I have absolutely no idea what lies within. For the walls are silent. They tell me nothing about the other side.

What initially impressed me most were the walls themselves. So solid and sculptural, designed to fill us with awe. My fascination essentially lay in the fact that the separation into two areas, inside and outside, in front of and behind, revealed almost nothing more than itself. Every subsequent prison made me think of nothing but the blind wall, the mute divider, that endless deaf surface. Despite the obligatory embellishments on the walls, they express nothing but solidity. These walls stand.


In Architectonic Space, the Benedictine monk and architect Dom Hans van der Laan writes elegantly and insightfully about what is needed to separate a space. According to him, a single solid block is not enough, nor is raising this block to form a column. He writes that widening a column to form a plane creates a wall that is capable of splitting the space into two parts. Two walls then make the architectural space.

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe states that architecture begins when you carefully put two bricks together. I think he is right when it comes to a wall, but more is needed to separate a space from the seemingly endless space of the earth’s surface. Even so, the possibilities for putting two bricks together are so numerous that, if all these combinations are placed together, they can probably define a space.

During one of the first conversations I had about this subject with Arjen Oosterman (writer, curator and editor in chief of VOLUME), he referred me to Exodus, or the voluntary prisoners of architecture, the 1972 thesis by Rem Koolhaas (together with Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia Zenghelis and Zoe Zenghelis) at the Architectural Association. In it, Koolhaas describes with the help of eighteen drawings, collages and watercolours to explain a situation grafted onto West Berlin but set in a fictional London. It is the inversion of a prison. In Exodus, it is the walled enclave that people want to enter. They want to escape from the surrounding world. What is interesting is that the wall is built at the behest of the area from which people want to escape, not to protect the area to which they want to flee. We now see the opposite happening across Europe.

The reversal draws my attention once again to the fact that exclusion is not always negative. It can also be desirable and thus positive. Perhaps one might better view it as a contrary situation, albeit one that manifests itself among a minority, than as an exclusion.

An important influence on my thoughts about inclusion and exclusion has been the work of painter Alan Uglow, in particular the Standards. I read them as abstractions of playing fields. He deploys a limited number of lines to define a rectangular shape that frames all aspects of the game: the players and spectators, and certainly the rules too — the rules that can be broken, the lines you are supposed to stay within. The work clearly indicates what is inside and outside, and where the importance lies for the painter. The cut-out ensures that there is little free space around the canvas, which is defined by lines. Uglow shows a limitation; he indicates what’s in and what’s out. The cell paintings by Peter Halley do this too, though Halley fudges things a little. His works feature not only strictly barred rectangles but also communicating cells and open structures. What Uglow and Halley have in common is that they leave spaces empty. It’s as if the observer can complete them, at least if they manage it.


The newer the prison I visit, the further from the inhabited world its location. In Flanders there are lots of prisons in the heart of the city – although that was usually not the case at the time of their construction. Now they are surrounded by houses. That is only partially true in the Netherlands.

An interesting example of placing people far away from society is Asterdorp in Buiksloterham, now Amsterdam North. This village was built in 1927 for ‘intolerable ones’. They were dysfunctional families sent for rehabilitation before they could return to the city. For this purpose, they were confined to a walled village far from the city. The distance between the new playing field and the old playing field, both subject to different rules, was enough to clarify the difference between the residents and their surroundings. Asterdorp was subsequently used to house people from Rotterdam made homeless by the bombardment of 1940, then as a ghetto for Jews during World War II, and finally as emergency housing under the name Tolhuiscomplex.

That distance fascinates me. I wonder if it’s true that most crimes for which one ends up in prison involve transgressing borders. In the case of violent crime, it is clear that a distance has not been respected. The same goes for burglary and vandalism, but it is perhaps less clear-cut in the case of fraud. In any case, crimes are often discussed in terms of distance: somebody has entered the private space of another person, or crossed a border.

The punishment that follows also has something to do with distance. Everything about the current detention system is about putting the convicted person far away not only from society but also from love, knowledge, nature, various materials and, especially, from that which makes us humans part of society.

On the other side, there is in a prison what I imagine to be an absence of distance. Inside, everything is nearby — the walls of the cell, the fellow inmates, the security staff. And I assume there is little opportunity to find any distance from yourself. Stepping back from yourself is essential for repentance, however paradoxical that may sound, and that is now precisely one of the ambitions of the imposed regime.

It is interesting to note in this regard what sociologist Richard Sennett says about the relation between interior and interiority. He explains that the emergence of modernity changed the relationship between private and public. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century there was practically no privacy in the home. All activity took place in one single room. Later, houses were divided into rooms to accommodate different functions. As a result, space was created in which people could develop subjective feelings, interiority, within the privacy of the home. Domestic space became a private realm that was not intended for the public.

That is not the case in a prison cell, where there is no separation of functions. The space is hybrid, so to speak, depending on the activity to be accommodated — from toilet to living room to bedroom to study. In addition, privacy ceases to exist. The cell can be searched at any time, and individual cells are increasingly used to house several inmates. Obviously, there is no question of anonymity as a form of privacy.

The prison inmate is denied that which we consider the most important quality of life, namely our interiority, the possibility to reflect, the space to be yourself.

How is it possible to find yourself or to repent if turning inwards is impeded by the lack of privacy?


Zooming in and out is an interesting exercise. I do this time and again when standing in front of a prison wall. To what extent can the whole stand for the smallest part, and vice versa? Can a prison cell describe the whole prison? Can the prison be reduced to the cell? I often go a step further and try to imagine if the cell can be reduced to its resident. I do not think that the cell resident can be seen as a pars pro toto of the prison. But I do think that there are aspects of the individual that bear comparison.

It is Sennett again who writes about borders in The Open City. He also references ecologist Steven Gould, who makes an important distinction between boundaries and borders. The boundary is where something ends and the border is where interaction takes place. The boundary is dead; no exchange takes place there, while the border is a place where two situations meet in a productive manner. Gould makes a comparison with a cell wall and cell membrane in biology. The cell wall keeps everything inside while the membrane is permeable, controlling passage in and out. It is not an open door, because it is porous and resistant at the same time. The natural difference between boundary/wall on the one hand, and border/membrane on the other can easily be applied to the built environment.

After reading Sennett’s explanation, I understand better why I perceive the prison wall as deaf, mute and blind. This boundary is designed to allow nothing pass through and makes the surrounding space dead.

How different would it be if the wall was a membrane, if an exchange to the benefit of both sides took place? I fantasize that big round holes are cut out of the walls, whose function is to connect the areas on both sides of the wall, at least visually. It would be a slightly less radical version of my work The Air We Breathe, which I made for the Zaanstad Judicial Complex — a sculpture of a cell block of which only the ribs are visible, while the walls, floor and ceiling have been omitted.


In the case of the prison, the wall encloses an area that I know is subject to other rules than those that apply outside the wall. I can think about life on the other side of the wall, but I cannot imagine it. The enclosed piece of ground contains a great unknown. It is so unfamiliar to me that it feels like a void. In contrast to the place from which it is separated, the ground I come from, it is perhaps the greatest contrast with the void: I come from the ground that is full — where there is everything, and even more.

It’s a void I know from somewhere else. The unknown that feels like a void. Isn’t that what people do with a trauma so big it’s a risk to the system and can infect many places? A traumatic experience is encapsulated and placed at a distance so that one can keep going. It is a familiar strategy.

Once it has been separated, one can try and forget the trauma. The longer you do this, the more unfamiliar it seems, and the emptier the place where it was initially located feels. This could be the place in the individual where I ended up zooming in from prison to cell to individual.

Could it be the case that society employs the same strategy as the individual when it comes to certain traumas? Is placing inmates behind a wall far away not the same as the often-felt void of the trauma in the individual?

I can imagine that if we look over the walls of the void in ourselves, then we would learn that those walls serve no purpose, that the place is not empty or unfamiliar but is inextricably connected with ourselves. I can imagine that if we switch from cell wall to membrane, it will mark the first step towards reconciliation with the negative.

What does it mean if society accepts the existence of a walled emptiness within itself? In Spaces, Poetics and Voids, architect Simone Pizzagalli writes: “A void is a tool for analyzing the structure that contains it.1 If I take my experience that the prison wall encloses a void, and that Pizzagalli is right in stating that this void offers an opportunity to analyze the surrounding structure (i.e. society), then that means that the state of exclusion is decisive for the rule.

The contrast between empty and full, between absent and present, plays a big role in the work of the American sculptor Carl Andre. I first became familiar with his work because I was never sure if it you could or couldn’t walk across it. That’s also an interesting detail in this regard, but less relevant for now. I always return to the work 8 Cuts from 1967. It is a plane measuring almost ten by thirteen metres, consisting of concrete block capstones from which eight indents of different size, but of the same area, have been cut. The indents, the voids, are not filled; there is nothing in the empty spaces. And yet the crucial question is: what is more important in the work, the voids or the solids? What is clear, however, it that the voids exist by virtue of the solids around them. In fact, the voids are nothing but an exhibition of existing space.

I have not been able to fully study detention or the accompanying notions of inclusion and exclusion. I quickly realized that I could only approach detention from myself and had to stay on my side of the wall. I would never be able to question the other side of the wall with the same honesty because the inmate’s situation and mine differ so fundamentally that I would never be able to imagine life on the other side of the wall.