We usually don’t think much about what a thing is, because its self-evident qualities make it understandable: A chair, a desk, a brick all seem complete and coherent enough. But as soon as we look into things deeply and philosophically, as the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty has done, they become far less coherent. Objects “behave as though they had an internal principle of unity,” he says, but “they are only mild forces that develop their implications on condition that favorable circumstances be assembled.”
A chair presents itself as a chair from the right distance and angle, but get too close and it becomes other things—legs and joints, or wood. A wall is more ambiguous than a chair; it is sometimes discrete and freestanding, sometimes continuous with other walls, floors, and ceilings. It is always made of many parts: bricks and mortar, or studs, insulation, and sheathing. The space between walls is more ambiguous still, being only vaguely definable and with variable—sometimes inexplicable—qualities and intensities.
Art often finds value in the gaps. When the writer Italo Calvino advocated for precise language and description in literature, he gravitated toward “the beauty of the vague and indefinite,” and “all those objects… that by means of various materials and minimal circumstances come to our sight, hearing, etc., in a way that is uncertain, indistinct, imperfect, incomplete, or out of the ordinary.” To write poetically about such things requires, Calvino claims, “highly exact and meticulous attention to the composition of each image, to the minute definition of details. … The poet of vagueness can only be the poet of exactitude.”
This fall, visitors to Harvard’s Frances Loeb Library will have the opportunity to experience a concrete manifestation of architectural vagueness in an exhibition designed by Graduate School of Design assistant professor Michelle Chang. A Hole in the Wall presents holes, gaps, cavities, space—all decidedly vague concepts—within the context of five freestanding walls, which are themselves conceived as “broad, vague masses.”
In the library, this space of imagination will start with holes—not apertures like windows and doors—but holes considered, Chang notes, as “a conceptual principle.” The origin of Chang’s thinking lies in an art restoration technique called in-painting. Conservators use it to repair damaged artworks by replacing gaps with something simultaneously vague and exacting. The replacement might include an approximation of the missing original highlighted with clearly identifiable paint strokes, or a precisely brushed color field that matches the surrounding context. It never involves filling the gap with an indistinguishable facsimile of the original.
Chang points out that this makes in-painting fundamentally different from content-aware fill, another process that influences her thinking about holes. Content-aware fill is used to repair raster images by drawing colors and patterns from surrounding areas to conceal voids with new information. Unlike this digital process, the goal of in-painting, historian of science D. Graham Burnett explains, is to “reconstitute the aesthetic unity of the work… while scrupulously honoring the work’s material reality.” In other words, filling the holes with in-painting preserves the ineffable qualities that make the work art while also accounting for the object’s history.
A curious aspect of in-painting is that it makes gaps and holes elements of primary concern. Similarly, in A Hole in the Wall, voids become central to the exhibition. Careful detailing of the walls accentuates places where openings shape the composition: score lines that facilitate warping of flat drywall panels, raw cut edges where each wall stands free of the ceiling, a reveal between the wall and the floor. At a larger scale, the habitable spaces between and inside the walls are filled with new possibilities—intimate reading spaces or unscripted spaces of imagination. A Hole in the Wall presents a newly configured library in which walls become vague and visitors linger in the gaps.