With the publication of his general theory of relativity a century ago, Albert Einstein swept aside traditional notions of a static and unchanging space and instead gave us the stretchy, supple miracle fabric of the space-time continuum.
No longer could space be seen as a featureless void, the nothingness between the somethingness of galaxies and stars. Einsteinian space has heft, shape and a sense of place. It bends around giant suns and plunges down the throats of black holes. It expands restlessly in all directions and drags us along for the ride.
Space refuses to be ignored, clamoring for attention even in human pursuits. In art, architecture, music, the designs of our cities and the psychology of the invisible, multistage privacy zones we construct around our bodies, space can speak volumes, and it demands to be explored.
Think you’re comfortable with a colleague at work? Anat Perry, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests you try this simple exercise. The next time you speak to the person, adjust the space between yourselves by the length of a pinkie, standing two inches closer or farther away than you normally would.
“It changes everything,” Dr. Perry said. “You can’t interact the same way.”
The sculptor Rachel Whiteread expresses the pushiness of space graphically by creating what are often called negative spaces. She uses resin, plaster or other material to fill in the area under a table, behind a bookshelf, or an entire room.
The resulting three-dimensional impressions are like space trapped in amber, or the frozen ghost of a room, prompting the viewer to appreciate the specific power of interstitial space and to recall what it felt like to hide under tables as a child or to seek solace in the compartmentalized wilderness of a college library’s stacks.
“Music is the space between notes,” the French composer Claude Debussy is believed to have said — that is, only by the grace of precisely articulated pauses can the character of individual notes be perceived and music distinguished from noise.
In a slightly different take on the theme, jazz musicians often insist that the notes they choose not to play are as important as the ones they do. Music is tightly bound up with expectation, they say: You hear a sequence of notes in a familiar scale, and you anticipate the rest of the progression.
In a collaborative art form like jazz, the pianist Geri Allen said, a willingness to listen closely to the other musicians on the stage is essential to success, and sometimes “not playing can be a greater contribution to the flow” than grabbing every chance for a solo.
Among painters, advances in spatial representation have often ushered in broad aesthetic revolutions. “The formulation of the laws of perspective in the 14th century gave artists permission to see everything in a new way,” the artist Matthew Ritchie said. “Now your sky isn’t flat. You’ve got a proper sky with depth, and now your angels can get up to some real mischief.”...