Border, Edge, Map: A Topology of the Invisible, and the Objects it Produces

Isabelle Hersant
Translated from French by Sarah Froning

Take a map of France with its meandering roads winding through the green on blue background that forms the forests and mountains. One can see the villages on each side of the French-Belgian border as well as the zigzag line that separates them.
The yellow dots that represent the villages render them so distinct from one another that passing through them in reality reveals both the uniqueness of each and the similarities between them. First comes the road that links one village to the next, then the sign showing the village name, brick houses, a central square, streets….until once again, the road continues among the trees to the next village where the houses, the square, and the streets are even closer to the border with the other country. That is, unless the border has already been crossed somewhere before or beyond one of the villages, or on the road that links the two.
The real border between France and Belgium is crossed in the mind. The act of crossing nullifies the border’s visibility as a line, rendering it wholly unlike the red mark that indicates its presence on a map, transforming it instead into a zone that is thus invisible. It is in this way that crossing through the space of a limit that is never met can suggest the notion of “non-place” as a figure of atopia. Such a path evokes a topology of the invisible, the idea of which suddenly becomes visible through the simple – if one can call it simple – untangling of arresting images unfolding before our eyes.
The landscape exhibited on the monitor screen appears as if filmed from a bus that follows a daily route along the few kilometers separating the last French village from the first Belgian village. Standing in front of this screen, it is as if we were looking out the bus window, seeing the landscape through the same eyes as the fictive camera’s operator. The images have a hypnotic effect that is exacerbated by the endless repetition of a few notes of music from a merry-go-round.
This ritornello was recorded in one of the public parks in Paris, where it had accompanied a carousel that carried children on wooden horses. Here, it repeats itself endlessly along with the images of the landscape. The circularity of the strident and melancholy notes responds in almost geometric fashion to the linearity of the path, which no act of border-crossing can arrest, articulate, or punctuate; the music precisely emphasizes and gives rhythm to this inability to stop in the space-time of a voyage that lacks exchange or dialog.
Carousel-border (Manège-frontière), with its sequences describing a passage that has neither words nor face, is the latest of three videos realized by the artist. The video renders the approach to an art of volume and surface even more precise. Whether via environmental installations or architectural models, reproducible artifacts or unique drawings, the work of Aï Kitahara reflects on a topology of the in-between, with here as elsewhere always deployed between inside and out.

(Frontal) Kiss and (Physical) Constraint

Just as an architect’s plan comprises the invisible because it represents that which remains to be built, the devices Kitahara realizes formally constitute a world perceived via the non-place that is the interval or edge, extremity or border. In other words, the non-place that is the point of passage for the body living in the physical world.
This was the case for the open-air labyrinth she erected on an agricultural site in the East of France in 2002. Constructed according to the principle that the trellises or fences would ensure that the inside could be seen from outside, the structure of the labyrinth makes visible to all the experience of confinement that it imposes on the body. Whoever ventures into Kissing Gate Labyrinth is greeted by the ordeal of limit as constraint – in the sense of a coercive space of incarceration where the limit is first the physical barrier rather than the topological frontier – and the knowledge that such an ordeal can prove to be doubled.
Indeed, not only will the visitor be trapped by barriers that bear no indication of whether or not they lead to the exit, but also, if ever another were to venture in similar fashion into this work in situ, he would have to endure the face to face and inescapable confrontation with his alter ego. The visitor who thought himself a carefree wanderer is suddenly deprived of distance from a face-body, one that blocks his way. Just as his gaze embraces the landscape offered up to him, he is led without choice or intention to “embrace” his fellow creature who is, like himself, caught in the trap where one reveals to the other the surrounding view along with its meditative perspective.
Thus alter ego is the true name of the other as self – as will become any other person who has also penetrated this enclosure — that is, penetrated the single logic of transparence that Kissing Gate Labyrinth presents in the first instance. The fact that the “internal mechanism” of the maze remains invisible makes it that much more transparent. So simple is the play of fixed or mobile barriers that creates the maze as a trap, yet so complex is the trap itself in that it operates as an exterior place of interior confinement.
Open to the light of day, we are nonetheless obliged to grope about as if we were immersed in blind obscurity. Two steps forward, three steps back — the wandering of the visitor who believed himself simply out for a stroll constrains his body to repeat this single movement. Restrained by the narrow limits that the barriers provide, such movement forces the visitor to confront the realization of how inane it is to face life feeling powerful. Instead, it takes him back to the invalidity of any action in the face of a power that subdues him, rendering him servile from the moment he enters this space in which he becomes nothing more than a cog.
Such is, in the end, the experience that the exiguity of Kissing Gate Labyrinth compels us to live through. Derisory compared to the bucolic immensity of the area it occupies, the space of the Labyrinth is constructed via the repetition of a unit of space that reproduces a livestock pen, a narrow enclosure designed to immobilize an animal for its vaccination. Inspired to multiply this minimal cattle pen into many “isolation cells,” each placed under the control of the other, Kitahara has developed here, as elsewhere in her work, the very Foucaldian figure of the panoptical structure – or the architectural device, basis of the modern prison, that has generated contemporary society under a kind of “archi-structure” of surveillance.[1]
Perhaps in a more unexpected fashion that is nonetheless more in line with Foucault’s epistemological analysis, Kitahara’s work also evokes the literary approach of Kafka. “The world of The Trial is a world of misleading appearances,” writes the translator of this great novel. “Yet there is this in particular — when an appearance is revealed as such and crumbles, it does not necessarily unveil a truth that it had been hiding: it reveals only another appearance, just as ‘natural’ and as ‘credible’ as the previous one, and just as improbable.”[2]

The Letter K, or the Game of a Liaison

The world of Kafka evokes a condition equivalent to that of damnation, in which one passes through doors and enclosures only to come upon more doors and enclosures. In the same way that the linearity of a landscape can be linked to the circularity of music, the immobility of the Japanese artist’s “archi-sculptures” can be linked to the narrative movement of the Czech writer. The opposition between the two allows for a convergence around a common dialectic, one of human beings’ own alienation from the structures they build as architectures for their own capture.
Upside-down staircase or border-column, blueprint for a foundation, or vestiges of a penitentiary fortress…is it not always this same question about unlivable spaces that Kitahara poses, here on a thread of drawings hung with clips from a wall? Highlighted with watercolor, these digital printouts are sketches of previous works, some of which remain unfinished. Just as fragments are a contingency of creation, the precariousness of the sheet of paper, medium for an unfinished work, becomes another figure of the non-space.
This work serves only to amplify the gesture of creating as a whole what the precariousness of existence would perhaps have left as a mere part. The designation of monuments or architectural elements is essential in the work of Kafka, even when they are not part of the title. In the unfinished story The Great Wall of China, which deals with military defense understood as the edification of an imperial totalitarianism that isolates, even “incarcerates” those it pretends to protect, such are the stairs that evoke an in-between place for definitive wandering. Similarly, in the masterpiece that is The Castle — that citadel of nobility that has lost both name and power, but yet does not fall due to the efforts of a man who possesses neither of the two – we have the cathedral that serves as a place of rupture with the world.
Through the paradigm of Joseph K., caught in the trap of a dehumanizing administrative system exploited by the submissive obedience of civil servants who are thus rendered all-powerful, Kafka’s characters evolve in the solitude of an interior maze. Just as for Kitahara, this passageway without an exit reproduces the imaginary form of the real world. Are our limits not first and foremost constructed against the fear we have of the world and then imposed on us by that same world? Built by and for us, the world as “archi-exterior” to a human “archi-interior” is a factual response to this paradox: because of our terror, this world lulls us, assured as we are to recognize it even as we reject it, because we built it in our image.
Built according to the limits that we establish in ourselves in order to interiorize the world as belonging to us, the world is thus always destined to destruction at our hands, we who will always rebuild it according to the sole and unique blueprint of our interior fears and constraints. In so doing, do we not speak the world inasmuch as it informs what we are, at once subjects of power and objects of servility?
Half-way between a “neither blue nor green” that appears as extinguished as death itself, universal is the grey of administrative spaces, wherein waiting suspends life in the form of a number, name, or stamp that is missing, or comes too quickly on a sheet of paper lost in the labyrinth of a stack of files. As anonymous as the flat color of these non-spaces is the blue-green of a solitary two-seated chair, by which Kitahara breaks with the chromatic game that she uses to punctuate the white on grey background of her work.

Zone (of passage) and Line (of partition)

In spite of its title, seuil-fauteuil (border-chair) is first and foremost a door. Its exhibition in Tokyo on a custom-built wall gave it the character of a door that communicated between two interior spaces. Since the artist created it as a functional, in situ object, in Paris, the work has become the door that separates her studio from the corridor.
Emptied of its center by a perfectly cut rectangle, the object is made up of a board that forms the seat of a chair replete with armrests. It is designed to allow one to sit just as easily on one side as the other of the door, alone facing the dark and closed space of the corridor, a place of circulation from inside to out that gleans together the sparse elements of daily life. Or, alone, facing the open and luminous space of the studio, the interior space that hosts the elements of creation gathered together.
The viewer who thought himself a visitor is thus still alone. Following the ordeal of being face to face with his alter ego in the Kissing Gate Labyrinth, it is now via a back to back separation that he encounters the alter ego who is, like himself, sitting on the other side of the “door-chair” as a result of having wanted to feel the physical experience of a threshold as a non-space. Yesterday in the maze or today on the edge, the encounter with his fellow creature is impossible, just as it is impossible to occupy this “interior object” with the body whose presence it nonetheless requires. In the same way that one cannot remain on the threshold without nullifying its function as a passageway, one cannot sit on the chair without invalidating its function as a door.
As a mobile object whose transformation into a fixed object renders it absurd, the door that allows the passage from one space to another, hidden, space has become a chair that, while it is open to both spaces, cuts off access to them. Instead of encouraging the passage from one to the other, this temporary altar compels one to stop in the in-between, as one stops without lingering on a bridge, that place which serves as an interval or liaison between two otherwise delimited, outside spaces, rather than as an interior installation of limits that separates each one. This shows just how much the door of border-chair is no longer a door, as its title indicates. For, to open it would be to displace the threshold rather than to cross it.
And because to displace it is to transform a line or stroke into a zone or surface, it is thus that to slide the threshold beyond or underneath its limit is to create a space that did not exist heretofore; the same holds true for the geographic border that is traversed by the a-topical zone of manège-frontière. What this zone itself traverses is the line of separation, traced in red on the map, which disappears in the imaginary of its invisible crossing.

The Hyphen or the Loop Effect

Visible in itself, the relationship to the name that gives meaning offers itself as a given with the work. Between the frequency of the hyphen by which Kitahara joins two words of a title, and the prevalence of the limit as “line of separation” that she captures as spatiality, the link is as subtle as it is solid. The six sculptures that transpose the topographical surfaces of the six borders of territorial France are designed to be “crossed on foot.” “Fifteen square meters of border” (Quinze mètres carrés de frontière) is the generic part of their title that then becomes specific. From Franco-Belgian to Franco-Spanish, each one has its own ending that provides it with distinction in the form of repetition.
Apart from Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain are thus represented by their adjacent borders. All are spaces of a limit that is never encountered — forested or mountainous, identical from North to South — in that they organize the continental countries in an indivisible whole despite the borders that, in fact, fail to mark the landscape that geopolitics separates using a line on a map. From this comes the undifferentiated aspect of the square or rectangular sculptures laid on the floor, similar by their rounded surfaces but unique by their right-angled areas, each having been realized by Kitahara according to geological maps.
No longer real lines on a map but rather imaginary discourses under our feet, the six frontier spaces that these sculptures take us to appear in the image of villages adjoining two countries. Unique yet similar, they present the same kind of truncated pattern that leads the spectator-wanderer to zigzag on an area that is not a line, or a border that is not visible. The visitor who considered himself to be a surveyor is now crossing the space of these six demarcations as he would a bridge cluttered with rocks. Or, he approaches them as zones of separation in union, seemingly issued from a single folding terrain cut up into six fragments; six fragments of space as a simple, if one can call it simple, declension of the non-space.


[1] This analysis is developed in my article “Aï Kitahara, Scènes de surveillance au pays des merveilles,” Hors Champ (Montréal), April 2002. Hors Champ is an online journal dealing with social issues, media, and cinema: see http://horschamp.ca.
[2] Bernard Lortholary, introduction to Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Le procès). Paris, GF Flammarion, 2006, p. 15.