The Impossibility of Isolation: The frame as a pervious border (2017)

Ron Left, AUT University, New Zealand

The space of the world is not an inert, static realm through which we move and overlay our marks, gestures and structures. This article, and the artwork it refers to, imagines ourselves in a continuum between object and subject, subject and background, and between inside and outside. To this end, a series of current artworks explores sites where we, and our personal paraphernalia, are rendered virtually inert and largely invisible, in order that the virtual world of forces and transition is given priority and made almost visible. In the mechanised spaces of travel and transit, we are static in spaces that move, allowing a sense of the dynamic play of actual and virtual forces that engulf us. Here we do not dominate and define space and movement, rather we are coded, transported and anaesthetised. We are caught in a local and global temporal network of virtual dynamics. As in the transit space where personal and global times become confused, the artwork explores a breakdown of the isolating function of frames and framing from their surroundings, and by implication a dissolving of the separation of self and outside the self.

The artwork referred to in this article essentially explores ideas of movement, gesture and temporality. Images of escalators, for example, are not used as centrally visible content in the artwork; the work is not about the airport transit space, rather it uses such images as a vehicle for exploring movement and transmission. The subject or the self is imagined by implication and by the viewer outside the work, and the mechanised space of transit is a partly obscured underlying, abstract vehicle. The self is largely overtly excluded, at least as an overt image, more of an implication, and left for the reader/viewer to imagine in relation to the ideas in the artwork. When movement is frozen we are perhaps more aware of movement itself, we are once removed from the moment and the sensation, and perceive the dynamics of change itself.

The artwork enters into places where space is increasingly mechanised, specifically the transit space of air travel. Here, travellers passing through a between-space are rendered inert and often stationary. On the carousel our personal belongings surrender to continuously revolving motion. The numbed traveller is transported on the escalator into and out of spaces, up and down between layers of space. The transit space is dedicated to processing and movement. It is dominated by new forms of movement, and an inversion of our normal experience of moving in space. Here we are still and the space itself moves. It is as if we are experiencing a film or moving image from the inside. Space as a unified field fragments in deference to temporal experience. This study is concerned not solely with the phenomenon and social impact of the mechanisation of space, but proposes that this inversion of the relation between objects, space and movement allows radical shifts in thinking related to space and time. Rather than a focus on social control through an analytical study, I am interested instead in the aesthetic possibilities of the transit space by entering into the dynamics of transition and moving space through creative practice. It uses this vehicle to propose ideas of how every image[1] is surrounded by a dynamic field of virtual association and connection.

The frame and the impossibility of isolation

Playing with a vocabulary of images and visual strategies, the artwork explores ontological ideas of the impossibility of completeness and isolation. In the work illustrated, the actual images of the escalator are deeply buried, obscured and rendered abstract. A perhaps expected process of finding deeper layers of activity or meaning beneath the real and actual is reversed in the artwork. The photographic image becomes an underlying diagram of forces and virtuality. In this, gesture is not only in the ownership of the self or individual, but appears as the display of movement as change and transformation outside the self. For Marrati, following Deleuze, time is a creative process, and thus the poetics of creative process itself is capable of getting close to ontological processes (Marrati, 2008, p.15).

The exploration of these ideas is via the medium of creative practice and specifically two series of recent works. At its most essential level the artwork disrupts the separation and completeness of the frame. The term frame is used not solely to refer to the borders of a painting, but boundaries, surfaces and the singularity of objects in general, and including the frame, and framing of the self. In this sense the creative work explores ontological ideas. Two key strategies are employed to open up, fragment and infiltrate the separating function or notion of the frame. The first relates to the subject or image content of the work, the second to creative processes internal to the work.

Transit spaces and the denial of isolation

In the transit spaces of air travel, the private life of the traveller collides with a highly coded and controlled space. We are scrutinised, processed and codified. There is a resultant simultaneous loss of a sense of personal time, and a hyper-realisation of time. Waiting and boredom slow the pace of time, and we surrender to being transported through space and time. Dodge and Kitchin propose that

…air travel has become a real virtuality par excellence, seamlessly blending the material (travel) and virtual (networked communication) – …to produce new spaces that facilitate the space of flows and timeless time. These new spaces we call ‘code/spaces’ – spaces in which the materiality of air travel is produced through information and communication technologies…which are themselves produced through spatial mobility (Dodge & Kitchin, 2004, p.197)

The traveller is robbed of time, yet bound by codes of timing, control, and the globalisation of time. But the traveller is also robbed of space, and is carried through space that has no history, and thus no future. The transit space is populated with mechanical devices that present coded information, scan and check and scrutinise. Paradoxically, it is here perhaps, as we are forced to step outside ourselves, that we can sense the overlapping and porous boundaries between actual and virtual worlds.

In this strange, isolated, yet disturbingly familiar, world we move almost as figures in a diagram or board game. In the structural abstraction of this transitory space there are isolated moments, states and events that by their function are diagrammatic, obscure and coded. The transit space is a potent space/event for the exploration of time and space; as movement, as the interaction of the actual and virtual, and of the self in this field of transmission.

These places that we pass through in limbo between coming and going, are increasingly familiar and everyday, and yet the implications of such transformations of time and space are significant. Likewise there is potential to use such experiences for adding to the dialogue on the nature of space, time and movement, inseparable from the self. The approach here is to re-present to us the experience of transiting via the processes and images of creative practice. It is suggested that through poetic means we are able to enter into moments of change and transmission beyond everyday experience. When the increasingly familiar experience of transit and travel is re-presented to us through image and poetics, we are more able to see the dynamics of actual and virtual forces at play and can be drawn into strange realities underlying the anxious concern for the moment and getting from one place to another.

In 1969, Bachelard challenged many of the mechanical and scientific notions of the nature of space in a work titled The Poetics of Space . The artwork approaches an idea of a poetics of timespace.

Images of mechanised space

Surrendering our capacity for movement to the carousel, travellator or escalator has become prevalent and normalised experience. In these mechanised spaces, however, the traveller and the traveller’s paraphernalia are rendered inert, and space itself moves. In this process the boundaries of space and time merge into one. In the images of the escalator in the paintings illustrated here, for example, the frame of the artwork is broken, and we experience a constant entering and exiting the frame. The expected capturing, framing and composing of the contents of a painting is replaced by a continuous renewal and recycling of content. For Deleuze the frame is dynamic and complex, and not merely a pre-existing physical entity that is populated by a set of images . In this paradigm a painting is only ever finished in the sense that painting activity has ceased on its surface. It continues beyond this moment to be highly active into and out of its frame.

Figure 1. Escalator Painting No.4, 2017, 900mm X 1600mm. Left: initial digital photograph on aluminium. Right: completed painting, acrylic and digital photograph on aluminium

Source: Left, 2017

In Figure 1, Escalator Painting No.4, the escalator establishes a dynamic field in which we, as travellers and viewers, are transported. The frame, whether a physical boundary as in the painting, an idea, or a perceptual focus, is opened up to the outside. We look down into spaces that take us out in multiple directions, and we are carried into and out of the frame. The escalator in this way acts as a symbolic vehicle in the paintings. It visually and conceptually draws us into and out of the work and the frame of perception, denying any sense of decisive or privileged moment, in favour of a constantly moving field.

For Wood, “A boundary is not a thing, but a cluster of procedures for the management of otherness” (Wood, 2000, p.227). . Otherness could be read as all that lies outside the frame, or as the ‘out-of-field’ in Deleuzian terms. “The out-of-field refers to what is neither seen nor understood, but is nevertheless perfectly present” (Deleuze, 1986, P16). Despite painting’s flatness and the isolating and excluding function of the frame, the proposition here is that it is these properties that allow an awareness of an external field of meaning and interaction. Deleuze referred to this as a fourth dimension, “the more the image is spatially closed, even reduced to two dimensions, the greater its capacity to open itself on to a fourth dimension which is time, and on to a fifth dimension which is spirit”(Deleuze, 1986, p.17).

In the most recent Escalator paintings, the mechanical device is photographed close up with the entrance to the escalator almost a ground level in the painting. As we approach the work we are virtually stepping onto the moving space, drawn up into a cacophony of movement and surface noise.

A number of processes and devices in the artwork explore a dissolving of boundaries and an insistent denial of enclosure and isolation, both in the internal dynamics and the work itself in relation to its exterior. The figure is obliterated from the image, yet we are perceptually and conceptually drawn into the work and consumed in its field of gestures and transformation. In this way we, as spectators, enter into the experience of time and movement.


A number of overlapping and closely related strategies are employed within the works that undermine the hermetic nature of the frame.

Multiplicity and singularity

Each of the works involves a single photographic image that covers the entire surface. These images are then split and divided into sections and sub-frames. This is not merely an aesthetic, visual device, but creates (out of a single image) a sort of continuous painting that has a sense of re-invention in multiple directions inside and outside of the actual frame. Each sub-frame, like a sequence of a film or book chapter, has its own internal logic, at the same time as connecting and having an origin in all other frames. Not only do the frames relate to each other, but each forces a re-working and re-reading of the others.

In discussing Gerhard Richter’s work, Francés describes his work as operating in “two major strands: the figurative and the abstract, although the border between the two is extremely ambiguous and undefined” (Francés, 2004, p.108). In the works illustrated here, painting and photographic image infect each other, denying even the framing of their disciplines.

“Philosophy is the theory of multiplicities, each of which is composed of actual and virtual elements. Purely actual objects do not exist. Every actual object surrounds itself with a cloud of virtual images” (Deleuze & Parnet, 2002, P.148).

A painting therefore is a field of virtual and actual elements and forces that are inseparable and connect with outside the frame.

In ‘Shadow Painting No1, 2017, (Figure 2), the underlying photographic image is split down the middle. Each half is the mirror image of its other half. In this way the frame of the work is complexly multiple. “Every object is double without it being the case that the two halves resemble one another, one being a virtual image and the other an actual image” (Deleuze, 1968/2001, p.209). Neither half could claim to be the origin of the other, or rather both sides could stake the claim. The denial of singularity has itself multiple dynamics in the work. The supposedly hermetic, iconic square of Modernism is split and reversed, the underlying shadow is a mirror image and leads into an unknown and uncertain space, and the pour of paint down the surface starts outside the frame and continues beyond the edge. The shadow itself is a shadow of something outside the painting. As much lies outside the frame of the work as lies inside it.

Figure 2. Shadow Painting No.1, 2017, 500mm X 500mm acrylic and digital photograph on aluminium

Source: Left, 2017

Pouring and the inside and outside of a painting

In ‘Escalator Painting No.4, 2017 (Figure 1), the pour of paint dominating the centre of the painting mimics the flow of the escalator into and out of the frame of perception. The gestural sweep of red half obscures the machine, at the same time allowing glimpses of form and structure that are rendered beautiful and gestural. It is not only that the ordinary and mechanical are aestheticised, but it is proposed that gesture also lies outside the work and the artist. As artistic gesture could be seen as the play of mind, hand and material, external gesture might be seen as the display of virtual and invisible forces playing with the actual.

The latent image

The underlying photographic image in some sections of the painting illustrated in Figure 1 is partly obliterated with paint, pushing it back to become a barely visible image beneath the surface. These hidden images appear like latent photographic images awaiting development. They are yet-to-be-completed images, such that the work has an implication of continuous re-invention and transformation. In this way the painting not only bleeds into the surrounding space, but into the future of itself. Cut and re-framed from a larger image these ‘latent’ ghost images become partly complete in themselves, but not fully realised. They become ‘idea/images’, caught in the process of disappearing or appearing. In their making they perhaps carry out both of these processes simultaneously.

A latent image implies an outside of the frame both physically and temporally. It is becoming something which is not within the frame, and as it is yet to be realised, lies in the future. More of the life of the image sits outside itself than inside, and yet completely dependent and interacting with it. Perhaps this accounts for some of the depth and potency of painting despite its flatness and thinness. This relationship between actual and virtual worlds is succinctly put by Merleau-Ponty, “… the visible is pregnant with the invisible …” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, P.216).

Reciprocal determination

Figure 3. Shadow Painting No.2, 2017, 580mm X 2000mm, Acrylic and digital photograph on aluminium

Source: Left, 2017

In a paper presented to the Societé Française de Philosophie in 1967 Deleuze outlined the core principles underpinning his philosophy of time and becoming. He stated that key to understanding the nature of change is the way in which the virtual[2] and the actual operate and that “We thus invoke a principle called reciprocal determination” (Deleuze, 1967, p97). The idea of these two elements, the actual and the virtual, not only interacting but actually determining each other is core in Deleuze’s philosophy. Applied to the act of painting this is an insightful and productive idea. In ‘Shadow painting No. 2, 2017 (Figure 3), the idea of mutual determination plays out on a number of levels. In relation to the painting, the photographic image becomes gestural and painterly in response to the painting. Areas of image and abstraction are not solely juxtaposed, but appear to respond and turn into each other. Through the duration of the making of the artwork each section responds to previously worked areas, but in turn insists on rethinking, reworking and seeing earlier sections in a new light. The concept of reciprocal determination has deep implications for the practice, understanding and analysis of creative work. In relation to the frame, the edge and border, it implies the impossibility of isolation and containment.

In all the works illustrated, the constructions and separations between painting and photography are rendered pervious through processes of mimicry, overlapping, fusion and confusion. Making a painting is thus a non-linear process. Each work is divided into chapters or sequences, each sequence demanding a revisiting of previous and future sections. When a thing is mirrored, mimicked or transformed it insists on returning the process, and undertakes a transformation of its originator; that is, the future transforms the past. These reciprocal transformations flow across the works, horizontally and vertically, and back into and out of the surface of the works.

The shadow

Shadows cling to transitory beings, consumed in a multiplicity of times. In the transit space we witness the movement of the object and the subject, the endless grinding of mechanical transportation machines, the stuttering shuffling of global times and places, and the flow of duration itself. In the words of Elizabeth Grosz, time functions as “a silent accompaniment, a shadowy implication” (Grosz, 1999, p1). Shadow is substanceless and transitory, constantly denying all sense of the stable and the permanent. The shadow might be the symbolic form of the virtual in operation with the actual. It is a visible reminder and link to the passing of invisible time and transformation. Like the actual and the virtual, shadows and the objects they define engage in a constant process of mutual determination. The shadow is an absence, but one with an actual presence, and it connects the object and the self with the outside.

Gesture and movement (and the self)

Gesture is a complex manifestation of movement. It implies a creative display resulting from the interaction of mind, body and material. In the field of painting gesture has a long association with the self, the individual and the unique marks of the artist. In many of the recent works illustrated here, gesture appears on the painting surface before the application of paint. In the large shadow works, shadowy figures and reflections read almost as abstract expressionist brushwork.

In Escalator Painting No.1 (Figure 4), the photographic images operates like an underlying drawing giving structure and movement to the painting. Here gesture sits on the surface as painterly gesture and mark, but also beneath this surface as if in the world itself. It is suggested that gesture might be a suitable term for the creative displays of the engagement of the virtual and the actual worlds. Marrati proposes that “time is not an external frame in which events occur but is identical with invention itself ” (Marrati, 2008, p.15). If time is a creative process of invention, then we might constantly witness the gestures of change and transformation outside and a priori to our own gestural displays.

Figure 4. Escalator Painting No.1, 2017, 400mm X 720mm, Acrylic and digital photograph on aluminium

Source: Left, 2017

Merleau-Ponty assigns meaning to the realm of the invisible (or the virtual in Deleuzian terms). “Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not the contradictory of the visible: The visible itself has an invisible inner framework (membure), and the in-visible is the secret counterpart of the visible, it appears only within it …” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p.215). In an article on the poetics of time Wood talks of shelters, as all things which establish some sort of boundary. The term shelter is not used in the sense of security, but as an enclosure of qualities and defining characteristics. For Wood, “The boundaries of such shelters are essentially permeable, in ways that allow interruption – invasion, infection, corruption” (Wood, 2000, p.227).


The artwork discussed in this paper proposes ideas about the nature of being and change, and the relation of the self to the outside world, through the poetics of art practice. Although the paintings open up the frame to the outside and beyond the work, they deny any sense of the transcendental. There is no singular origin or original source image. The multiple sections of the works are both complete and discrete, at the same time as connecting in multiple directions outside the frame. There is no sense of an essence of things; rather constant transformation and possibility. Shadows and latent images constantly insist on referral outside themselves, but not to an original form, essence or greater state, but to continuous other transformations, connections and re- inventions.

Artist Robert Smithson spoke of this connectedness of things, suggesting that “Separate ‘things’, ‘forms’, ‘objects’, ‘shapes’”, etc., with beginnings and endings are mere convenient fictions; there is only an uncertain disintegrating order that transcends the limits of rational separations” (Smithson, Artforum 1968/1979, p.91).


Figure 5. Escalator Painting No.6, 2017, 180 cm X 110 cm, Acrylic and digital photograph on aluminium

Source: Left, 2017

As we approach Escalator Painting No. 6, Figure 5, we are drawn up into the sensation of pure movement and time itself. There is no single time here though, and we enter into a rhythmic pulsing sense of duration, a sensory moment in the instant sweep of paint on the surface, and a cacophony of surface noise and movement. Time is multiple and the frame is as much a temporal device of transition and external connection as a spatially contained one.






Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

Deleuze, G. “The Method of Dramatisation.” Bulletin de la Societe francais de Philosophie LXII (1967): 89-118.

Deleuze, G, and Parnet. Dialogues Ii. Translated by H Tomlinson & B Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement -Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. MInneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Deleuze, G. “The Method of Dramatisation.” Bulletin de la Societé Française de Philosophie LXII (1967): 89-118.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet. Dialogues Ii. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Francés, Fernando. “Richter: Between Painting and Freedom.” In Gerhard Richter, 107-10. Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2004.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “Thinking the New: Of Futures yet Unthought.” In Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures, edited by Elizabeth Grosz, 15-28. New York: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Marrati, Paola. Giles Deleuze: Cinema and Philosophy. Translated by Alisa Hartz. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Smithson, Robert. “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects.” In The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt, 82-91. New York: New York University Press, 1979.

Wood, David. “Time-Shelters – an Essay in the Poetics of Time.” In Time and the Instant: Essays in the Physics and Philosophy of Time, 224-41. Manchester: Clinamen, 2000. 

About the authors

Ron Left: Director of Future Environments Research Network, Faculty of Design and Creative Technology, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand

[1] The word image is used to refer not solely to the external images we construct of the world but to all the perceptions and imaginings of our world.

[2] For Deleuze, the virtual is a realm of invisible, yet real, elements and forces. Every actual things has a virtual part, and it is the play of actual and virtual states that creates change and transformation.