Usurping the Big Other: Understanding Symbolic Space

Catalogue essay by Jason Starnes, PhD


Babak Golkar’s Grounds for Standing and Understanding (2012) explores representations of space by creating a sculptural interface between bodies and architecture that generates contemporary forms by opening a new dimension on a historical mode. This conceptual intervention produces a critique of the ideology underpinning architecture and the design of public space, questioning their use and effects, while posing imaginative problems that encourage the bodily engagement of the viewer.

Golkar’s recent work develops critical acuity by establishing a coherent spatial vocabulary as it surveys the postmodern juncture of concepts, acts, subjects and objects that are spatially interrelated. Exploring spaces traditionally supposed to be sacred, zones excluded from the everyday, Golkar examines their philosophical integrity, illuminating contradictions in the gulf between thought and activity. But this exclusion from the everyday is revealed as a metaphysical fantasy that a particular space could be exceptional; that something escapes the ubiquity of terrain. Golkar reveals these spaces as produced in a sense similar to that established in Henri Lefèbvre’s theory: the space of his work is not a neutral, accidental container of objects and events, but is itself the product of activity, and the expression of otherwise unconscious interactions.1 In what follows, I review the way Golkar’s practice moves from literal space to symbolic space; from content to ideological frame.

Golkar’s earlier Parergon series (2011) functions as a fine introduction to the expanded spatiality of his practice. These parerga, or frames, disrupt the expected function of literal framing: where usually a frame surrounds an artwork, here the work is the frame, disrupting the familiar opposition of inside/outside. The extrusion of an architectural silhouette through space generates an interrupted frame, which secretes the recognizable referent, the exterior shape of a mosque, in a dimension of the frame that is usually closed-off: the cross-section. The literal lack of closure of the frame leaves just enough information to disclose the building, a holy site hidden in plain view.

Each Parergon from Golkar’s series forces consciousness of the fact that the architecture depicted literally frames behaviours in situ; this is doubly true of the symbolic space of mosques, buildings repeatedly transformed by historical over-determination and religious claims. The Dome of the Rock, for example, a historically contested symbolic site, is spatially significant to both Jews and Muslims, itself framing a foundational stone deemed holy by both traditions. 

According to Jacques Derrida’s definition, “a parergon is against, beside, and above and beyond the ergon, the work accomplished. … But it is not incidental; it is connected to and cooperates in its operation from the outside.”2 But Golkar’s innovation of the frame flattens the expected spatial dichotomy of inside/outside: these works literalize the “internal structural link by which [parerga] are inseparable from a lack within the ergon.”3 The ergon, the work itself, is invisible until the viewer looks ‘awry’ (to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek) and adopts the required framing of her own perspective.

The space within the frame of Golkar’s work is empty and open; it allows its content to escape, disclosing “a lack within the ergon.” A frontal view of Golkar’s Parergon offers only an abstract partial frame, its cross-sectional relief collapsed. As Derrida notes, Greek philosophical tradition dictates that parergon “is that which should not become, by distinguishing itself, the principal subject”; “parerga should not be allowed to take precedence over the essential.”5 But Golkar deftly refutes this prohibition, inverting and cancelling the presumed difference between a primary object of attention and its supplement by foregrounding a neglected spatial dimension of the frame. 

As Golkar’s work demands vertiginous perspectival shifts of the viewer, requiring movement through gallery space and conceptual space alike that animate the visual object and generate new images, it brings the often invisible influence of space on social practice to the fore. Engaging the signifiers of both Suprematism and Islam in From God to Malevich... (2009), Golkar dictates the viewer’s position and motion to induce an imagined space through the relatively simple effect of a lenticular illusion, an image situated behind a lens so that it appears to move as the viewer changes position. In order to see what the work does, a viewer must obey its full title: From God to Malevich: 180° View, Left to Right, Then Reversed, To Be Viewed at an Arm’s Length. From one perspective, the viewer is hailed by the work, interpellated as a moving/imaging platform, a seer in the specific space of the gallery. In treating the viewer as an object encountering another object, a spatialized cubic version of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1913), the work almost elides subjectivity, even while disclosing the appearance of a moving image that relies on the participation of the individual. But the ambiguous cube establishes a simultaneous association with the Kaaba of Mecca, the black cubic building toward which Muslims pray. Appearing to turn before him in response to his own steps, the cube also interpellates the viewer as a Muslim pilgrim following the traditional Hajj, which requires every Muslim to circumambulate the building at least once in his life. Here a contested, ambiguous space is produced that is both profane and sacred, and which recalls both the Suprematist response to Catholic icons in the Black Square and the locus of sacred Muslim tradition in the Kaaba.

Golkar’s myriad spatial interventions culminate in the work Grounds for Standing and Understanding. Semantic doubling hints at the manifold nature of the project: the ‘grounds’ are both a conceptual basis for communication and a literal support on which people stand.

The works that make up Grounds for Standing and Understanding engage with the traditional craft of Persian carpets by making them the pattern for speculative fantasy architecture. Related to the earlier Parergon, the extrusion this time is through not horizontal, but vertical space. By selecting patterns in the woventwo-dimensional surface and translating them upward as tower structures, the artist generates objects that traverse the three-dimensional space above the plane. These stacked forms that emulate the distinctive shapes of traditional weaving grow out of shapes that always/already imply geographic and architectural patterns: traditional Persian carpets function as particular representations of space, including gardens, waterways, walls and paths.

Golkar’s Grounds for Standing and Understanding forms an oblique response to the architectural megaprojects of the past decade. His forms call to mind the phenomenon of ever-taller skyscrapers rising globally with increased frequency and concentrated recently in the Middle East. Vertical projections rise from carpets in Golkar’s work to form a wholly new architectural idiom, which also bears an uncanny traditional appearance, due to its origin, in the millennia-old Persian tradition of weaving. The traditional forms positioned on the carefully chosen carpet often give rise to areas that might function as public space, but these are dominated by towering skyscrapers, forms that soar with geometrical precision and remain aloof from the lower structures of the carpet’s surface. It is difficult not to see a reference in these competing towers to a real-world monument and specifically to the vertical dimension of the recently completed Burj Khalifa in Dubai (which is discussed below). Why do we build up with such fevered obsession? If it is an attempt to escape the pull of gravity or the profanity of the Earth, then the question is raised: escape into what? More to the point: for whom do we build ever higher? 

In the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, the ‘Autre’ or ‘big Other’ is the presumed god-like perspective that sees all from above and anchors meaning.Lacan’s claim that there is no big Other does not mean that it does not function; in fact, now that ‘God is dead’ the big Other has more power—we observe ourselves with imagined acuity from the perspective of an empty place. The postmodern big Other is a force dwelling in an imaginary Earth orbit, always above, beyond the horizontality of mortals, compensating for their limited vision: seeing an ordered whole where mortals perceive contingent chaos.

It is this perspective for which feats such as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa are engineered. At 2,717 feet, architect Adrian Smith’s mammoth tower is taller than both of the former World Trade Center towers stacked; from its pinnacle the curvature of the Earth is clearly visible. When seen from above, its three-lobed footprint resembles the Hymenocallis, a regional desert flower. But for whom is this shape developed? Who will ever see this view? So far only those who have viewed a satellite image of the structure. In a similar bid for the attention of the big Other, Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan carved ‘HAMAD’ into the restricted desert island he owns; his name is legible only at altitude. Both of these cases contain a feature that is invisible in the horizontal experience of terrain, but which leaps into view when seen from the perspective of the orbital big Other. This perspective has now been visualized by Google Earth, a digital atlas, itself a carpet of stitched-together satellite photographs. The conspicuous characteristic of this software is a scale fluidity that allows a flying eye to freely zoom in and out, from street view to continental and planetary comprehension: to both examine detail and survey vast area. The apparent resolution into recognizable content from the orbital perspective is both an affirmation of the imaginary powers of the other’s surveillance and an opportunity to dethrone the big Other, to assume the perspective that confers omniscience. Moving among Golkar’s architectural miniatures, which elide any hint at their precise scale relative to the human body, the viewer might feel traces of the overhead flight offered by Google Earth, soaring over the rooftops of fantasy skyscrapers, peering down at a distant surface.

The forms that rise like three-dimensional expressions of the carpet are both complemented and complicated by scaled-up segments of his imaginary building, generating a body-space relationship closer to street view on the scale continuum.

Without their incorporation in a building, these architectural elements pulled from their context recall Robert Morris’s Untitled (three L beams) (1965). Golkar’s elements pose spatial problems in terms of function and scale: function, in that they appear to have a purpose, but no ready use; scale, in that the sharp-eyed viewer will recognize these architectural elements from the miniature building complexes that rise out of the nearby Persian carpets. As they partially enclose and divide space from space in complex patterns, these building fragments also resonate with Richard Serra’s sculptural interventions in public space, with their bewildering effect on the locomotion of those who travel through the space. 

Here the collision between miniature-scale towers that one can walk among while looking down at their details, and bodily-scaled portions of those models creates a feeling of vertigo by enhancing the implied magnitude of the models and creating the sensation that the viewer has been shrunk to fit into the carpet-generated forms. These contradictory feelings show the flaw in our perceptual systems that are so easily misled by the imagination: human bodies appear to us as a universal standard of scale, but the scale-fluidity of Golkar’s work results in vertigo of relative sizes. Bodies feel bigger or smaller relative to the geometric environment that embraces them. This generates a dynamic resizing of the viewer in response to what is actually the scale fluctuation of the environment. It is pertinent to ask: what is the zero-level of scale? Are the large pieces magnified or actual size? Do the ‘miniatures’ stand in for something massive, or are they actual size? By one reading, Golkar’s poetics of scale produce a spatial derangement that sends one back to the most recent reference points: in this case, the nation, the ‘imagined community’ that has resurged since its apparent attenuation with the rise of globalization.6 By another reading, this derangement, this scale-vertigo, can be read as mimetic of a postmodern characteristic: a hyper-awareness of the spatial dimension of reality that is revealed in the relations of globalization and the technology of the space age.

Resisting stasis by compelling the viewer through gallery space, the work of Golkar’s work inheres in his dialectical engagement with perspective itself. The combination, even oscillation, between a first-person horizontal view and an (imagined) overhead view forces the subject to be viewed as a broken continuity of itself as an object; to see distortions of the large at small scale and the small at large scale; to see what is normally elided by our fixed vantage points, both literal and ideological.



1. Henri Lefèbvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 1991).

2. Jacques Derrida, “The Parergon,” The Truth in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 20.

3. Ibid., 24.

4. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge: MIT, 1991).

5. Ibid., 20.

6. Slavoj Žižek expands on this connection of the big Other and meaning: 

‘Transference’ designates the subject’s trust in meaning-to-come.... Consequently, in so far as the big Other functions as the guarantee of the meaning-to-come, the very fact of the big Other involves the subjective gesture of precipitation. In other words: how do we pass from the...dispersed, inconsistent collection of signifiers to the big Other consistent order? By supplementing the inconsistent series of signifiers with a Master-Signifier, S1, a signifier of pure potentiality of meaning-to-come; by this precipitation (the intervention of an ‘empty’ signifier which stands for meaning-to-come) the symbolic field is completed, changed into a closed order. (The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters. London & New York: Verso, 1996), 144.

7. See, for instance, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London & New York: Verso, 2006.); Jeff Derksen’s Annihilated Time: Poetry and Other Politics (Vancouver: Talon, 2009); and Neil Smith’s “Scale Bending and the Fate of the National” in Eric Sheppard and Robert B. McMaster, eds., Scale & Geographic Inquiry (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 192–212.