Horror Vacui
June 14, 2011 5:28 AM   Subscribe

"Horror vacui - 'fear of emptiness' or empty space is a term I love. The phrase carries with it intimations of mania and compulsion —covering every surface, interweaving pattern atop pattern. Perhaps it can be as loosely interpreted as Collyer Brothers piles or the noisy and noisome claustrophobic streets of Dickensian London. Somehow, though, I relate the term to an overall sensibility. A complex density with an awareness of the whole, not an open-ended haphazardness." A blogger explores the artistic notion of horror vacui.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn (40 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting space is mentioned but not time. Many people also seem to have a compulsion to fill every second. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing--I tend to read while walking, etc to try to do SOMETHING in every free minute. But if you are filling that space/time with junk (TV, say, or stacks of newspapers) then it can be bad.
posted by DU at 5:46 AM on June 14, 2011

Man, those pictures of the Crystal Palace are amazing.
posted by empath at 5:58 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

So happy to have learned this term. Thanks LiB!
posted by timshel at 6:09 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the reverse problem, horror clutteri.
posted by bwg at 6:12 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

And if you like abstract renditions, here's a game for you. Doesn't quite relate to the wiki definition, however.
posted by cherrypj at 6:19 AM on June 14, 2011

I was taking an art history class and I almost cried when the gorgeous Baroque period was mocked and then replaced by horrifying minimalism.

'I have to do 5 things at once to avoid thinking about death.' - Woody Allen
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:39 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anybody else think of comics artist George Pérez?
posted by kimota at 6:42 AM on June 14, 2011

It's a concept I first learned in design school.

Outside of its use in clinical pathology (horor vacui is a characteristic of the art of schizophrenics), it's a great way to summarize and quickly apprehend any ordinary client's request to fill every square inch of the (advertising/website/commercial/book) you're designing with pictures, words, buttons, animation, and anything else that's not breathing room.
posted by ardgedee at 6:43 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

There was practice among 19th Century artists to paint in studios draped and carpeted with patterns and colors. Here's Manet's studio, more extreme examples can be found.

The theory was that if the work was created in a cluttered environment that it would have to be strong enough to overpower the surroundings.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:45 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

I had never thought of this before... it's interested to see that this is both a generally applicable concept and something specifically reflected in art. I've been living in my current apartment for almost ten months now but I only just recently unpacked a bunch of boxes (mostly books). After having been "half-living" in the space for so long, I didn't realize how unsettling the empty shelves were until I filled them, and then it all clicked.

I don't have an art background, but when I was a kid I used to sketch a lot and I remember being tugged between a compulsion to add as much detail to the drawing as possible and letting it stand finished. Giving in to the former always made me feel like I had 'ruined' the drawing once I was done. Not that children's sketches can really be compared seriously, but I guess it hinges on how you fill in that detail, because I also appreciate baroque things (in the general sense, I don't know anything about the artistic period) but I think it gets exponentially harder to pull off without causing the whole thing to collapse on itself the more complexity increases.

(I can see that tension everywhere in my life, too--I want to subscribe to so many podcasts, but I also don't want that huge 'unlistened' number glaring at me forever. I want enough books that I have options but not so many that I don't read them. Etc.)
posted by Kosh at 6:46 AM on June 14, 2011

An auditory example of this is "background noise:" inability to be in silence, so there's always a TV or radio in the background, etc.

In psychoanalysis, the significance of this is that such people are likely to be unwilling to reflect on their unconscious, of going outside their "safe" spaces alone, and will want a protector rather than an analyst (e.g. favor the kind of therapist they call by their first name, if they do therapy at all.) They will think that they are interested in psychology and the like, but only in so much as it allows them the illusion they are "learning about themselves" but doesn't force real self-reflection.

Empty spaces= incomplete ego. I've carefully avoided the words "castration anxiety" but I will say that the empty spaces represent sudden, intense violence, i.e. you'd have no chance of protecting yourself from it. But the violence isn't external, it's internal-- sudden, intense emotions which are painful. Because of this fear they don't venture out of their safe world (unless it's with someone they feel has a more stable ego), so they also experience considerable boredom and ennui, which gets filled with the things that fill empty spaces-- TV, internet-- and the cycle continues.

Simple example: say you're an angry, spiteful person (even though you project to the world a caring, warm exterior) so the background noise of the TV blocks out your own wandering thoughts that turn, inevitably, to thoughts of The Ring coming to get you.

The "treatment" is really about the boredom, not the fear, i.e. identifying behaviors and activities that solidify and reinforce your ego so that in the downtimes you're more centered and whole.

Oh, look eyes rolling everywhere.....
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 7:05 AM on June 14, 2011 [13 favorites]

I've never heard the phrase "horror vacui", but I'm sure I'll be overusing it in the very near future.

kimota: Anybody else think of comics artist George Pérez?

For cartooning and filling the page I think of Jack Davis. The new post over at one of my favorite art/illustration blogs, Temple of the Seven Golden Camels, discusses "Detailed Areas vs. Blank Areas" and Jack Davis cartoon. As a young cartoonist and Mad magazine fanatic I used to obsess over Davis' cartoons and how much he crammed into them. My style ended up following Don Martin's lead, but it was Jack that I wished I could draw like. This Art of Jack Davis Flickr set is loaded with examples.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:08 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Will Elder is another MAD artist who certainly qualifies.

Those victorian homes make me want to flee to an Apple Store.
posted by Scoo at 7:15 AM on June 14, 2011

That Total Perspective Vortex reminds me of something Dan Graham made (70s American conceptual artist) involving mirrors and one-way glass and time delay video. Basically, you'd step in front of the "mirror" and see a tape delayed reflection of yourself from a few moments prior.

The viewer in Graham's contraption is not lost in space, as with Zaphod in the TPV. Instead, the viewer becomes unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim.

My ego didn't last a minute.

To square this circle ... "horror tempuii"?
posted by notyou at 7:21 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Apple stores make me want to flee to a Vuctorian Home, minimalism requires such constant work to just look okay, such a puritanical style.

I always liked the word Maximalist. I could stand another flowering of pop-baroque.
posted by The Whelk at 7:23 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Not you, the British Musuem has that at the end of their current Science Fiction exhibition, you turn a corner and are greeted by yourself turning the corner a dew seconds before and looking at you.

It's very ...interesting.
posted by The Whelk at 7:24 AM on June 14, 2011

Gah! British LIBRARY.
posted by The Whelk at 7:25 AM on June 14, 2011

( of course maximal detail without a strong sense of design is just noise, I'm looking at you Vienna )
posted by The Whelk at 7:27 AM on June 14, 2011

It's interesting to see Richard Dadd's painting Fairy Feller's Master Stroke in there: a fine exemplar of horror vacui if ever there was one. It's worth noting, though, that Dadd painted other works during his confinement in Bedlam and Broadmoor where this compulsion is less evident.

I'm intrigued by the engravings by Jean Duvet mentioned in the wikipedia article: I'd never seen these before - thanks, Lovecraft in Brooklyn.

Another flavour of horror vacui:
Parmenides made the ontological argument against nothingness, essentially denying the possible existence of a void. According to Aristotle, this led Leucippus to propose the atomic theory, which supposes that everything in the universe is either atoms or voids, specifically to contradict Parmenides' argument. Aristotle himself, proclaimed, in opposition to Leucippus, the dictum horror vacui or "nature abhors a vacuum"...
posted by misteraitch at 7:55 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

An auditory example of this is "background noise:" inability to be in silence, so there's always a TV or radio in the background, etc.

My girlfriend suffers from this. But I'm not sure parroting your explanation to her would improve the situation any...

I do learn. Slowly.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:10 AM on June 14, 2011

"Oh, look eyes rolling everywhere....."

Hmm. And why do you assume a defensive position?
posted by methinks at 8:35 AM on June 14, 2011

Yeah! I'm so interested in this. Forgive the rambling: for me, it's related to the concept of value in art, if you cover a huge wall in tiny, intrincate ornament it at least has that intrinsic value — "that was a lot of work!". Then industrial methods come along and suddenly ornament is cheap, but Victorians are still living in the old mindset. It takes still a few decades until Modernism happens, a new aesthetic that is deeply, structurally industrial.

Funnily, current vector art seems to be going back to horror vacui, with masses of ornament lumped together, but the artisanal feeling is lacking, it is actually copypasta of — irony! — Victorian mass-reproduced ornament collections.

But if you take a look at folk and naîf art, the artisanal value proposition is there — "that was a lot of work!". See Fileteado Porteño and afghan Jingle Trucks, my current obssession. Interestingly, it is art from places where labor costs are low.

Completely unrelated, Ma 間! The anti-horror vacui (amour vacui?), but born not out of a production method, but a philosophical outlook. Oh boy!
posted by Tom-B at 9:13 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was thinking of this term when reading the last Metafilter graffiti debate (the one centred around recent Toronto initiatives). For several decades now in design and architecture clean lines and simple massing have been valued qualities, and decoration has been diminished. But graffiti seeks to return the decoration, to fill all the spaces. Advocates often talk about how an ugly blank space, often referred to as a grey concrete wall, has been improved by something beautiful.
posted by TimTypeZed at 9:14 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, Joe Coleman — dude uses a single-hair brush to fill in huge canvases, takes him 3 years or so to finish a painting.
posted by Tom-B at 9:18 AM on June 14, 2011

It is at this stage of the proceedings where I link to my own Background Noise Theory posted here in 2007, the basic idea of which is that we feel the need to drown out our internal critic by saturating our senses of sight and hearing with background visual and audio noise. Think of people who have to put on the TV or music every time they come into a room.

It is essentially a subconscious effort to achieve the opposite of the contemplative, empty zen-spaces that people often deliberately seek out.

A corrollary to this is my Three Room Theory which says that an adult living alone cannot tolerate sleeping in silence and without chemical assistance in an interior space with more than three rooms between where they sleep and the exit.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:02 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

See also, Ornament and Crime.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:07 AM on June 14, 2011

Pastabagel, anecdotally, your Three Room Theory definitely applies to me. I lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment for two years; it was the largest space I had ever had to myself in my life, and I had no idea what to do with it. I never figured it out. I frequently left music/talk radio/podcasts on to help me sleep, went through periods where I would take melatonin or Advil PM regularly, and during some tough times where I was dealing with acute anxiety I would actually sleep on the couch (essentially, temporarily making the living room my bedroom and "reducing" the size of the apartment to something more manageable), with the added bonus of being able to have the TV on and feel like I wasn't in such a huge space by myself.

I don't have the background noise problem, though; there have been a few periods where I've lived at home after living alone and my mother or sister constantly needing to have the TV on 24/7 would drive me up the wall.
posted by Kosh at 11:30 AM on June 14, 2011

Great post, thanks LiB. I just read "A Rebours" and reviewed it for my blog. The overdescription in the novel has a cumulative deadening effect, much as looking over a terribly cluttered room might tempt one to gloss over such a wealth of detail. The hero of A Rebours could also be read as attempting to ward off true introspection (as Pastabagel discusses) via aesthetic excesses.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:18 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh god oh god oh god. So very claustrophobic. (And interesting for as long as I can read without my skin crawling.)
posted by dame at 1:57 PM on June 14, 2011

Women especially feel the need to comment on this when visiting me. Sorry, I just don't see the need to put crap all over my walls. Though I would like one room in my eventual house that is walled entirely with fully-stocked bookshelves.
posted by Eideteker at 3:16 PM on June 14, 2011

It's Joyce and Beckett. Joyce filigreed over nothingness with endless detail and elaboration. Beckett reacted by stripping everything back.

I cannot go more than 10 seconds in silence. TV, iPod, whatever. If I on't have my devices I hum or sing. If I
phone but no headphones I'll read MeFi or TV Tropes while walking.
I live alone and suffer from anxiety and depression. I'm also literally ared of the void/nothingness/livion. I just moved into a new ,and I'm actually trying to keep the clutter to a minimum, but I still have a bunch of band posters and books and nick-nacks. It gets worse the worse I get.
I love graffiti art, and I don't mind that Ed Hardy school of design.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:49 PM on June 14, 2011

I just moved into a new ,

Apartment. A new one-room apartment.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:50 PM on June 14, 2011

I am also reminded of the extensive catalogue of items that were not in the house in House of Leaves. That entire book is about the horror of the void, yet expresses itself in postmodern maximalist style.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 5:08 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am also reminded of the extensive catalogue of items that were not in the house in House of Leaves. That entire book is about the horror of the void, yet expresses itself in postmodern maximalist style.

I was trying to work that in somewhere. The book did everything it can to embellish and circle around the void, but the void still defeated it.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:18 PM on June 14, 2011

Then industrial methods come along and suddenly ornament is cheap, but Victorians are still living in the old mindset. It takes still a few decades until Modernism happens, a new aesthetic that is deeply, structurally industrial.

Interesting sideshow to the Grand Progress of Art was Arts And Crafts and later Deco (and aligned movements) which strived for clean, simple lines but emphasized quality materials and workmanship as a reaction against mass-produced ornament.

And one of the first mass-produced ornaments? Those horrible tacky Romans and their damned leaves they just stuck on everything.
posted by The Whelk at 6:00 PM on June 14, 2011

a bunch of band posters and books and nick-nacks

That sounds more like a few personal mementos than clutter or over-crowding. Unless the posters could be mistaken for wallpaper, and there are books stacked up in the shower or something. (I nearly made a joke about that, but I've seen Hoarders and it ain't funny).

It's fascinating that there are so many examples of this that match up to the psychological profile of the person (or culture) creating the space. I know my own pack-rat tendencies are caused by a deprived childhood, and are easing the more financially secure I get. I'm happy with silence, but only if I've got a nice long book to read.

There's a little bit of an attitude here towards people who need to fill up their space - as if it's a character failing to be afraid of your own thoughts. But if your thoughts are the irrational ones of depression, or anxiety, or schizophrenia, then surely it's better to have a way of drowning them out so you can take a break once in a while?
posted by harriet vane at 3:25 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think any natural space is going to be crowded and intense, a forrest is a city, a meadow is a riot of detail, actual spare blankness takes effort and intent.
posted by The Whelk at 5:48 AM on June 15, 2011


one addition to your Background Noise: it's not simply that you can't handle the silence or the isolation, but the mind actively populates it with other beings, or, as they say in the Matrix no one saw, "projections." What you populate your house with (bugs vs. Jason vs. animals) isn't arbitrary.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 8:20 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes when I'm particularly stressed I'll drive to the coast, Ruby Beach is one of my favorite spots, hop in my kayak and start paddling west. After several hours I'll reach what I'm looking for, a place where the only thing I can see in all directions is empty ocean. I'll sit there for a while, eat lunch then start back to shore. For me It's a very relaxing experience, though I doubt Lovecraft In Brooklyn would feel the same.
posted by the_artificer at 12:11 PM on June 15, 2011

« Older Confessions of a Nuclear Power Safety Expert   |   Blood and Scrapes be Damned Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments