Gigantic, borderless, inflated, oversized, when dealing with space in Science Fiction movies, it is difficult not to flirt with the notion of infinity or astronomical scales … Science Fiction movies don’t like to play small. they often take place in the outer region of the cosmos, where the notion of scale is lost or out of range of common understanding.
Far from being unique, it is a quite a common setting, leaving the spectator with some puzzling representation of limitless spaces.
Anticipation movies are the mythology of our time, utopia or dystopia, expression of hope or fear. They are influenced by the present, as much as they influenced it in return. Through the XXth century, they became a genre, on the B-side of the history of cinema, with its own codes, recurrent themes, not only for the plots but also for the setting, the use of certain materials, design (architecture, transportation, furniture, garment …) and lighting. Some contemporary artists use similar setting for their own plastics research and it is interesting to consider the similarities of these works.
In this post, I will focus on these oversized spaces, not for the liking of superlative but to try to understand how they are conveyed, what are the key elements which compose these sets or installations,
For the movies, it is easy to understand, the narrative benefit of having such sets, putting the viewer into a cosmic realm, out of place, scale and common notion of space. For the artist works, I will leave aside the elaborate discourse for which I hope to be forgiven.
Wide perpective, borderless space or blurred borders
Most of the examples, I could gather, present wide angle perspectival views, only composed by two plans, a floor and a ceiling without vertical enclosure. By omitting sides or a front, the two horizontal plans create an abstract landscape with a horizon somewhere at the limit between reality and virtuality. The whole art of the set or the installation design is to suggest this absence of limit.
Extreme light and white
One great solution was found by George Lucas in his first film, THX 1138 with its amazing prison with no walls and without border. What a concept ! The inmates dressed in white, freely wander in a space made of only an immaculate white floor and ceiling bathed in white light, a desert of “whiteness”, where the camera is unable to register anything else than a color and a bleak perspective.
In distant shot, only the extremities of the actors (head, hand and feet), faintly appear: these body parts are moving endlessly into a blurred, almost translucent field. It is a field since all references are lost as if there was some kind of fog.
Blurring space: The Fog
This incapacity to distinguish borders or limits as if they were constantly pushed back as one moves toward them, is particularly present in the work of Ann Veronika Janssen  . In, Blue, Red and Yellow (2001), Jamaican Colors for Melle Léone (2003), Lee 121 (2005) and many others, the wall of the room are color and one move into a mist / smoke/ fog which seems to carry the color far beyond the surface of the wall, creating a field of color or colored fog.
This immersion into color is a bit uncomfortable. On one hand the boundary seems to be lost or very far, opening it up a very wide apparently borderless space not very different than into a very dark night and on the other hand, the space is field with something, smoke or mist, which is not palpable but present, breathable… seeing without seeing, or in such a blurred and diffused way.
Difficult not to mentioned, even if it is on the fringe of the Sci-fi genre, James Carpenter ‘s movie, “the Fog”, which use both the blurring of space and fear of the monster hidden into fog has the main plot of its movie…
Here again, by removing the notion of distance, either because of the emptiness without anything to relate or because the fog which makes the space physically not perceivable, bring us close to experience blindness. This is certainly the raison of this uneasy feeling that is present into the installation and used (and abused) in the movie.
Darkness can conveniently replace the fog, and this is very widely used in movies, so I will mentioned only one reference before it takes us to far away ( with the Noir movie for instance)
It is “Pitch black”, directed by David Twohy. Everything is in the title, the set is almost constantly a black field with many dangers and creatures, basic fear, primal instinct, very efficient.
Then there is the installation of James Turrell, “Backside of the Moon”.The principle is again simple, a very dark room, one enters through a long corridor, in order to ease your eyes which need to adapt to a sudden shift from daylight to a total blackout. Being disoriented, we are invited to sit down.
The room is quite long and at the end of it, a very faint light is projected on to the wall, the light level is just at the limit of what the eyes can register. While you waiting for your pupils to adapt to darkness, you hear the sound of people walking in front of you, on the coarse sand. It gives you a sense of distance, little by little, from the field of black in front of you, one distinguish some blurred silhouette moving in the distance. Once you feel confident enough, you stand up and start yourself to move into darkness.
As for the Janssen pieces, a text or an image will never be good enough to describe the actual experience, which plays with your senses. While concentrated on your own experience, it makes one wonder about an odd feeling of loneliness in a space field with people.
Beyond the sensory trouble, there is an underlying stand about the infinity of space and who we are into it ? Alone or collectively? How a building or an installation can make one reflect about being?
One simple way to push the boundary is to soften the edges between the horizontal and vertical plan, to diffuse them, merging one plan into another. It turns wall, ceiling and floor into one continuous surface, breaking the ground / sky / horizon usual split.
Susanna Fritscher has used this idea of edge softening with success at la Frac Lorraine courtyard installation in Metz. She covered the paved ground with coating of tinted white silicon, which gets denser to be almost completely white at the edge. This gradient reminds the fading of the horizon, turning the courtyard ground into an unreal surface, as if floating.
Now, let’s imagine this without the presence of the exiting building which brings back a palpable scale, with a surrounding surface that does not bring an idea of scale. It might not be too far from the very promising interior decoration by Tsustumi associates, architect in Beijing. Here, two ideas are at play, mirrors and gradient of white painting over the mirrors. The result is very convincing.
First of all, the mirrors, the old trick to extend a space, there are used all around. Usually when one uses mirrors all around or facing each other, it is meant to create a self reflection, which turns into a multi reflexion. Apart people in love with themselves, it turns the space more into an ego trip of self replication than into a foray into endlessness. In this peace, only the bottom portion of the mirrored walls is very active. The planks are oriented in order for the reflection to give a seamless impression of a non-ending floor and avoid partially the tackiness of seeing oneself over replicated.
Then the ceiling interface with the walls has been softened with a rounded corner to provide an impression of continuity. Finally a white paint is applied with a gradient going from 100% to 0 %, from the opaque ceiling to the mid height of the mirrored wall.
With very few means, an endless room has been created; I imagine that it could be much more refined in a future projects.
Creating the “Absence”
The rounded corners backlighted or eluded boundaries, creating an ambiguous transition between an horizontal to vertical plan, is exactly what Douglass Wheeler has worked on right with his early work and more recently with some re-installation.
It would not be fair to reduce Wheeler’s work at some “corner trick” but at the end this is what is mostly doing the job with many other tricks, very small things which takes years to get right. “It’s very hard to create absence,” says Wheeler.
Doug Wheeler is the lesser known of the “space and light” group from California, who comprised also James Turell and Rob Irwin. Wheeler is certainly not the less gifted. He has produced very little but very strong work such as “the Infinity room” or the “49 Nord 6 Est 68 Ven 12 FL”, is it necessary to say anything, the picture speak for themselves?
Endless mirror reflection
When writing about endless spaces, it is difficult not to mentioned Yaoi Kusama, the Japanese artist. I am fond of her installation with a room field with lights and with walls made of mirrors, titled “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity″ 2009 or “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” 2013.
The room is pitch dark which partially avoid the self replication effect mentioned above. Here again with very little means, the boundary of the room are only lost but Kusama avoids the void, the nothingness attraction of most proposals, on the contrary she saturates the space with dots, with myriads of light points, colorfull constellation. The room becomes a space with no border but even more it is field, saturated with millions of lights which makes it even wider.
To come back to the Sci Fi movie references, “Mission to mars” from Brian De Palma offers an interesting abstract setting, at some point, the actors move from a white space which seems also borderless to a dark one through an opening, a threshold, which acts as a horizon that the actors go into
In fact, in one hand the goal is to erase the boundary between horizontal and vertical plans to blend them into one continuous surface in the other hand, defining a horizon, even just a line between two horizontal plans is sufficient to create a notion of space.
This shot from “Matrix “shows with just a row of shelve and in the “Freejack” with just a horizontal strike of light .
Olafur Eliasson has made several installations which are not far from replicating a similar minimalistic definition of space and of an abstract horizon such as “Your black horizon” in 2005 or “Contact “in 2014, but my favorite is definitely “your watercolored horizon” 2009 which I would have love to experience.
The apparatus is really clever; a line of light is being reflected on a undulating surface of water toward a circular wall. What a installation!
Extrusion: being endless one way
In this quest for new horizons and out of scale spaces, we saw that one way is to limit the definition of space to a top and bottom horizontal plan and optionally to suggest an horizon. One other way is to do an extrusion, in other term a corridor. Corridors are to sci-fi movies what horses are to western, it is very difficult to find a SF movie without a corridor .
They are found in all forms often just an abstract representation of a space and time travel Among them, it isn’t rare to find some examples of corridors conceived as a vehicle for endlessness, where the horizon is a point instead of a line.
Strangely, I have found very few examples of corridor spaces in contemporary Art installation apart the Green corridor from Bruce Naumann.
To conclude this journey into limitless space, it would be useful to look at very limited ones in there geometry but that can suggest very easily endlessness, the spherical spaces. Even if they are actually closed, they seem to be limitless due to their circular nature and because they don’t show any border or limit.
As with the corridors, but certainly less frequently, spherical or semi spherical settings are also very common in Sci –Fi Movies. Usually they are rooms that host an apparatus to generate or gather energy: physical, mental, alien whatever serves the plot.
All these spherical spaces have a great precedent in architecture, the cenotaph for Newton, from Etienne Louis Boullée, which is itself certainly the best example of this kind of set up. This project reunites out of scale proportion and a point lighting scheme to represent the night sky. To me, as trivial as it reads, it is the architectural transcript of Kusama room of tricks with mirror and light.
In a similar topology, the KamioKande research facility, built in Japan is a quite fascinating space. It is an observatory, built underground designed to search for proton decay and study solar and atmospheric neutrinos. If we forget for one moment that superK is built for true scientific research, it could be used for the set of the many of movies mentioned in this post. Similarly to Kusama’s saturated space, the bulbs which covered the spherical space add a dimension to the space, but the large numbers of bulbs, like for the corridors, through repetition reinforce the feeling of oversized scale.
Science fiction movies, plots and dialogues have this bad habit of seeking for the “essence of things” , the place of humanity in the universe, large truths which often turns into some quite incomprehensible soup of concepts with at some point a reference some christic figure, a savior. The good side of this quite painfull and almost unavoidable plot, is that these movies show countless experiments which aim to represent or simulated oversized spaces, as if these cosmic apparatus were the best set to have profound thought about the universe.
These ideas request often very little means which is fascinating to me, how to push the limit of a built space with almost nothing?
Some of these set designs are comparable in principle with the works of a few artists and architects who have similar aims. I won’t dare commenting on why they end up creating these type of spaces not being sure myself why they attract me.