We are at Once Infinite and Finite

Open Doors (1905) by Vilhelm Hammershøi

Open Doors (1905) by Vilhelm Hammershøi

24 May 2013
11:20 PM


I spent most of the day with my sister. It’s probably one of the most exhausting times we’ve been together.

What’s in my head all the while: love is being strong for other people. It is being an anchor even if I myself am lost. It is staying put. It is holding on, even if we have to grip each other so hard that it leaves both of us wounded. It is riding it out with her, whatever this is: anger, fear, frustration, grief. It is seizing upon a map of what she’s feeling and thinking, and navigating it with her–keeping her from hurting herself, hurting others.

As for hurting me–love means enduring her worst. It is persevering in leading her out of that self-possession, a labyrinth that she could get lost in for days, that without a guide she’ll start to chip away at everything until there’s nothing left. It is being an audience to cruelty. Oh, how cruel we can be to the people we love. Don’t you think?

This might be the first time in a long time that I have found myself in this place in someone else’s life. I confess to not having so much experience about my love–and not my care, nor my counsel–being needed. It took me whole.

Quite literally a picture of nothing more than several open doors in his bare apartment, Open Doors (1905) is painted in a room looking outward through another to a window in the rear of the apartment…The possibility of entry into each room is highlighted by its respective open door, the various compartments of space spreading before us like a maze of unknown possibilities. Just as an open door is a common symbol for opportunity, each door presents the viewer with the promise of a new room, a new experience. Yet as each of these spaces could be entered, none of them are; access is simultaneously granted and denied.

…Each room is connected yet separate, a finite space within a theoretically infinite one. The possibility of the unseen spaces—as well as of an undivided space free of form—is palpable. The doors stare back at us, reminding us that they are the only potentially active forms, emphasizing the total sparseness of the apartment and essentially making that the painting’s subject. We experience a domesticity that is at once welcoming and impenetrable, peaceful and haunting. Open Doors is a portrait of unfulfilled transition, of an entity on the cusp of transformation, endowing the painting with an elusive spiritual presence and a glimpse into the metaphysical possibilities of space.

…The open doors—much like our senses (reminding one of Blake’s “doors of perception”)—expand the space yet make us aware of its boundaries, the essence of human phenomenological experience. We identify with the space of the room as well as its walls—we represent the possibilities of infinity yet also its limitations. As Sartre wrote, humans are “condemned to choose.” So are we as we imagine inhabiting the space. Which door do we choose? What do we want to explore? The possibilities are many, yet only one can be chosen at once—another irony of the liberty of free will. As in life, we are at once infinite and finite, the room and the wall, free and captive.

– Ben Rose, from What Does Light Look Like? Love, Silence and the Paradoxes of Being in the Paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi (originally published in the Fall 2011 Quarterly issue of Artwrit)

I went to a few galleries for an hour. Looked at paintings. Saw bits and pieces of my life, and the world.

Images that have stayed with me: a girl who has a clock for her right eye. A heart used as a palette, but everything was in a shade of blue. Two lovers embracing with their hair on fire. Someone asleep by the tree, the book covering the face, roots and leaves and vines growing out of it. A woman with a television for a head. A big red circle that engulfed me. Dried leaves that, on second look, seemed like naked torsos. A ladder dangling out of someone’s hair. A white bow.

Finally: a bronze sculpture of a naked woman levitating. It was titled, An Ode to Joy. Or at least something like that. She was almost falling away from her body, her limbs almost behind her, her chest heaving forward, as if she was being called forth by an unnamed god. What I remember from this: a similar sculpture of a woman that I have back home. Her head was tilted back, her body almost yielding, too. But this one was fashioned after a poet who fell backwards from the balcony. Did she take her own life? Did the wind carry her, sang to her, before gravity made its claim?

Two women in flight. One embracing and the other closing her eyes to the light.



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