When I studied art history in college, the teacher devoted a portion of lecture to discussing negative space. When we are looking at an image, it is the human tendency to look at what is being depicted. In Hokusai’s Great Wave, our eye takes in the wave and the distant mountain.
Yet we’re only able to focus on the wave because of what isn’t in the painting. Instead of filling the image with trees, more waves, a few birds, the artist instead gives us a void. It is the space around the focal points which give the painting it’s tension and meaning. Because of the space, we feel that the wave is going to come crashing down. This is the negative space.
One of the places where negative space is most apparent to me is in love story lines in television or movies. There is often a moment when the two people are close, sometimes looking at each other, sometimes not. But I become very aware of the space in between these two people and of my desire for them to close the gap. When they touch, or kiss, I feel a relief. The tension is gone and I can relax with the connection complete. This, of course, is why so many romantic story lines end up oscillating in “Will they or won’t they.” The desire to watch people connect keeps the audience showing up, waiting for that moment when everything is okay again.
Any time I venture out into the world right now, I am very aware of the spaces between me and other people. We are all like magnets with similar poles, pushed away from each other by an invisible force. I change my path through the store so that I do not impinge on another person’s six foot space. I appreciate the space with strangers, but with those I love, the ones I want to connect with, the space has become painful. I’m not sure whether talking on the phone with people I miss makes missing them easier or harder. I suspect that being socially distanced in the same place would just make us more aware of the space that should be maintained. The space definitely feels negative. We’re all trapped in that moment of not-quite-connecting. The moment of highest tension. And there is no relief in sight.