PAR: Yaniya Lee
ILLUSTRATION PAR: Jason Logan
Once upon a time, art forms were simple: There were sculptures and paintings. What began as frescoes painted directly onto walls and ceilings later developed into images painted onto wood and canvas. Mouldings were crafted to resemble the faces of Greek and Roman temples or the features of a church. The intricate work put into the frame reflected the value of the thing being framed and enhanced the work by focusing the eye. In the 20th century, with the dematerialization of art, we moved away from the frame entirely. Yet its relationship to how we decipher images should not be overlooked.
Whereas frames are a structural container meant to adorn and embellish, windows, also a type of frame, have a different function. They are first a threshold between the outside and the inside. Air passes through them, as does light. Some windows, like frames, outline a clear view onto something else. My most sustained and extraordinary view occurred when I was in my early 20s, a university dropout who had run away from a breakup with my first love to a small city in northern Germany. My entire apartment was a single room on the top floor of an altbau. There was a coal furnace, a kitchenette and a toilet—but no shower. Looking out from my desk, I could see rows and rows of windows into people’s apartments in the massive building across the strasse.
I spent a year in that room—a heartbroken foreigner in exile—attempting to write through my grief. I spent the oddest hours at the lamplit desk. My eyes would invariably come to rest on one or another of the apartments across from me—and the activities inside.
The year I sat at the window, that threshold became a site of great transformation. The view, in its anonymity and intimacy, was a space for self-reflection. As I watched people eat standing up or fight with unseen others over the phone or talk to their loved ones in bed, I learned more about myself than I ever had. I witnessed the small stuff of life and began to understand how those details were necessary—and important. I needed to be able to sit with myself and develop my own world before I could begin to share it with another person. I learned from seeing all those moments of solitude, and the deep mundanity of quotidian activity, that it would have been impossible for me to continue in a relationship without first having a sense of independence, a sense of self.
The window, the view, came to frame an interiority I had not yet considered. I now write frequently about visual culture, and I’m careful to remind myself that how I see art will always be framed by my own experience. I learned this looking through those windows. Someone else sitting in that apartment might have had a completely different experience than mine. But I’m certain, somehow, that looking out would have given them a new means of introspection.