Making the Space of There Not There

A week after the closure of ‘There Not There’, let us return full circle to the exhibition’s origins: a brief and a space – The Courtauld Gallery’s main exhibition room: 12 metres long, 7.5 metres wide and 4 metres high. The idea of   informed both the theme of the show and our work as curators. Artworks are physical objects and exhibitions are spatial experiences. This means that the physical and spatial characteristics of the room and the works it contains must be considered at all stages of the planning process.


The space shapes the exhibition: a single room calls for a focused show and requires that each work speak to all others. Placed next to the wall text, Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Hole in Snow’ and ‘Black (Soil Covered) Snowball’ (1979) illustrate the exhibition’s central idea: that presence and absence are not dissimilar. Monochromatic and geometric, these photographs find an echo in Christine Hatt’s drawing, ‘There Not There’ (1991), and in Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967). Together, they form a triangular anchor that articulates upholds the unity of the room, as they offer the clearest expression of the concept cryptically formulated as ‘There Not There’.

A scaled bird’s-eye view enables curators to think about the connections between the artworks in spatial terms.


While we did not want to impose a prescribed route (and indeed the artworks can be viewed in any order, since they all relate to each other), the placement of the wall text and of the central box that accommodates Runa Islam’s video work indicate a clear entrance and exit. The four walls provide a way of grouping artworks according to the themes they address: Tillmans and Ohiri both manipulate photographs to re-write reality; Tudela,   and  all express the bittersweet taste of decay and loss in an urban setting; Long and Hatt foreground the bodily traces of the creative process; and Michael Craig-Martin and Jasper Johns both take an introspective look at the transformation of personal identity. Disseminated throughout the room, the geometric works that form the Goldsworthy-Hatt-Long triad contribute to the exhibition’s emotional balance, providing respite from the heavy emotional charge of works such as Ohiri’s and Seawright’s.


Inside the room, another room houses Runa Islam’s  . This construction was necessary because, as a video, ‘Stare Out (Blink)’ is best viewed in a dark space. Enclosed in its own box, the work occupies a prominent position and de facto becomes the exhibitions’ centrepiece. And this status is one it deserves indeed, being the only work that enables viewers to see a presence when there is nothing there. While the size of the box was partly determined by the video projection requirements, we opted for a small structure to reinforce the confessional and confrontational character of the work.



The way the artworks are hung suggests a certain interpretation. Some artists give curators specific display requirements, some allow a degree of freedom, and some grant full curatorial license. For ‘Kid’s Stuff 1-7’ (1973), Michael Craig-Martin sets the rules, specifying a precise distance between each piece and height from the floor – the artist’s eye level. The mirrors are too high for many visitors to see themselves in them, but this conveys the self-centeredness of the work. Jasper Johns does not provide a specific order for hanging his four ‘Seasons’ prints (1984-91), so we chose to end on ‘Spring’ to emphasise the sense of renewal.




Faced with the twenty-two photographs that make up Karl Ohiri’s ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart’ (2013) and no instructions as to how to hang them, we settled on a compact, slightly jolted configuration that alludes to the domestic nature of these family pictures. By isolating the wedding photograph from the others, we indicated its separate status as the only unaltered image. In itself, the inclusion of Ohiri’s work in ‘There Not There’ makes for a gesture of hope and a blueprint for the future: that of ‘making space’ for emergent artists among canonical figures, such as Wolfgang Tillmans or Rachel Whiteread, in a gallery with its own prestigious history.

Camille Feidt

Further Reading

Brian O’Doherty, ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space’ (1976)

Carol Duncan, ‘Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums’ (1995)

Mary Anne Staniszewski, ‘The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art’ (1998)

Victoria Newhouse, ‘Art and the Power of Placement’ (2005)

Robert Storr, ‘Show and Tell’, in ‘What Makes a Great Exhibition?’, ed. Paula Marincola (2006), pp. 14-31


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