PRINT May 1978

Peter Berg: Filling In the Holes

EACH OF PETER BERG’S gallery installations juxtaposes a life-sized, or larger, Minimalist sculptural element with a corresponding hole in or through a wall—either an accessible interior space in a casemate wall1 that appears part of the gallery, or a doorway through a wall Berg builds to divide the space. In all cases, the framed or enclosed (negative) space has the same volume and form as the solid (positive) space of the minimal element. In discovering this similarity and contradiction we see the element as a removal from the inclusive structure, something replaced or displaced by the hole now there, or perhaps an explanation of the hole. We may even imagine restoring the element to its niche and leaving its present space empty, like the space already surrounding it.

Berg’s use of architecture to make space a visual material is compelling if not new. One detects an influence of Robert Irwin’s divided rooms and framings. Irwin, however, put space on display, showing it was in the gallery and denying its representing anywhere else. He succeeded but also made the space auratic, almost opaque and inert, something to be contemplated. Berg, in making the gallery space accessible to us, makes it interactive and corporeal. It can penetrate structures and be displaced.

In the beginning of his series of works—first conceived at the end of 1975, with about ten installations built and others proposed—Berg used the vocabulary of architecture and the space it visualized in the service of a drawing analytic in order to examine the indication of forms and boundaries. For example, he divided a space with a wall, put a doorway through it, and placed the corresponding sculptural element directly in front, 18 inches away, to be skirted by the passerby in entering or leaving the sealed space. This focused attention on the break and thematized boundary maintenance and form-integrity. The architecture thus served to create planes and areas and to make the drawing problems felt as well as seen. More recently, in certain interior space pieces Berg begins to explore the syntax of architecture—the spatial relations it posits beyond those of drawing, including the creation of volumetric space and the comprehensibility of enclosed space. His work thus approached a juncture of the two analytics.

The removal/reinsertion movement that we note follows from its positive/negative visual syntax formed by the element and its counterpart space. This is a closed system of reciprocal indicing and a very successful iconic metaphor for dialectical process, of the identification of a thing with its negation. Too frequently artists interested in representing such a process have assumed that the inversion of any structural feature guarantees a positive/negative polarity and a resulting dialectic. However, the convincing envisualization of dialectic requires a continuous reciprocity between two poles, a closed loop that repeats itself infinitely. The poles must therefore be totally and unambiguously indicative of each other and without any visual reference to or from an object outside this relationship. In addition, closure of the reciprocal indicing entails some integrative principle that grounds the process: the negative is at the opposite end of a continuum from the positive; rather than being the absence of something, it is definite in itself, an antithesis. Finally, for the parts to be comprehensible as forming this whole closed self-perpetuating system, the integrative principle must be found in the repertoire of principles we use to construct our representations of the world. Otherwise, it will seem an arbitrary, lifeless caprice.

Berg’s work overcomes these risks in the following ways:

1. The positive and negative spaces are made context-free through absolute contradiction with their own contexts. Berg keeps the gallery space empty except for the element, and, likewise, the inclusive structure is featureless except for its interior space.

2. The element and the inclusive structure are freed of representative potential. They are plain white, rectilinear, regular, and constructed with competent carpentry out of sheet rock nailed to plywood frames. Berg confines their dimensions to the human scale. A height of 6 feet and a width of 18 or 24 inches are standard measures for his doorway-like openings, the height of the interior spaces, and the width of their passages. The outer dimensions of the inclusive structure—and, on rare occasions, of some inner ones—are determined grossly by site dimensions and finely by the slab size of sheet rock.

3. The indicing system is intuitively grounded in the principles of conservation of volume (space) and of projective space (topological form). According to the cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget these principles, which inform us of an object’s volume and form, remain constant despite movement and contextual changes and are not normative or logical abstractions. They are active biological competencies for representation that develop in us with maturation and as the result of our manipulations in the world. Such competencies allow us to free objects from their contexts and to perform operations such as comparison with other objects and forms. The mastery of these principles therefore allows us to identify the negative with the positive space despite their substantial contradiction.

These principles together are the deep structure of the installations’ visual syntax in the approximate sense that Chomsky’s generative grammar understands the subject-verb relation as the deep structure of all grammatical sentences. In both cases, the perceptible or surface structure—the negative-positive syntax seen here—is, like the sentence heard, understood because generative rules connect surface to deep structure in the opposite direction as well. The procedure that Berg follows in planning (if not executing) the surface structure—the same procedure we employ when we mentally see the removal/reinsertion process—is a transposition whose logic is: take space indicated by form X located at Y, and place the indicated form at Z, and, to enable this, simultaneously take all space under indicated form X located at Z and put at Y. Effective realization of this organization guarantees the ultimate intelligibility of Berg’s installations, that is, we do eventually see the mutual referencing because we are biologically capable of “seeing” the identity. I stress this, for it signifies that the relation posited in the installations has no intrinsic existence independent of its being observed by a competent observer. The relation is not an abstraction, but an extraction that must be made for it to be.

However, like Lucio Pozzi, whose works deal articulately with both the syntax and the semantics (the fits and incongruities) of transposition, Berg consciously works only at the surface structural and procedural levels. He does not expose the biologically based, necessary relation which enables the procedure, according to which the indication of a form in an environment and the iteration of the indication is equivalent to the indication of the form itself. This limit on his reflection, however, does not jeopardize an installation’s success—its capability to work on us and our capability to work on it—although it may constrain the direction of Berg’s future work.2 Moreover, his sensitivity to the transpositional logic enables him to use it in a noninterfering manner as a metaphor for violation or penetration of personal space resulting in a displacement, and the subsequent problem of contextual incongruity and recontextualization. Take, for example, his doorway installations of 1976 and 1977, in which a walled-off part of the gallery is approached through a tight 18-by-18-by-72-inch slit in that wall (here the inclusive structure), the slit 6 feet long, 18 inches deep, and from 18 inches to 2 feet across. Within the room, directly opposite the point of entry, Berg places the corresponding sculptural element, almost as if to invite its replacement and, hence, the restoration of the violated boundary—an act that would leave the viewer alone in the private space which he or she would appropriate as his or her new, secure context.

Nevertheless, Berg has indirectly and intuitively referenced the deep-structural principle—and, with that, the impact of some installations—by increasing the risks that the viewer will not be able to identify the negative with the positive space or be able to follow the transposition. Should such failure occur, the viewer, unable to follow Berg’s procedure, would miss the mutual indicing and, thus, the vision of the work as a coherent whole. However, once identification is made, the difficulty experienced in negotiating it intensifies the recognition of coherence. Berg’s risk-taking has moved in the direction of obscuring the complete visual image, making either the positive or negative space unavailable for direct visual comparison with the other and thereby calling on the viewer’s memory of the form, or else making the negative space unavailable as a visual whole and instead requiring the viewer to derive this from the experience of moving through the space (the form being felt rather than seen). Through establishing such conditions Berg begins to realize the potential richness of the interaction of the architectural structure with the visual one in the installation.

Such risk-taking is absent in the doorway installations, which are essentially rooted in the drawing problematic. These focus on the created line—the wall and its opening— while keeping the positive element in the opening immediately proximate to emphasize the line as broken. Such pieces, concerned with boundary maintenance and “trespass” much more than with the visualization and experience of space under form, received their overkill articulation in an installation Berg did at Wesleyan University in February of 1977. There he constructed two parallel 14-inch-thick walls, 10 feet apart and 22 feet long, across the axis of traffic-flow in a lobby. In each wall, at 2-foot intervals, he built four passageways, each 18 by 18 by 72 inches. Eighteen inches behind or in front of each (depending on the direction of approach) he stood the corresponding element. The viewer could not remain indifferent to the transposition, since Berg’s passages were the only way through the lobby. Furthermore, the passage through in effect re-enacted the removal of the “Minimal” element from its context. The repetition of the procedure at the second wall, and the fact that the installation offered the passerby six other visual examples of the same opportunity, eliminated all uncertainty that special significance was claimed for the juxtaposition. Identification of the reciprocal referencing contradiction of positive/negative space was rather over-determined, although the didactic character of the piece was perhaps appropriate to its academic setting.

Installations done at the Hartford Art School in the fall of 1976 and at the City University Graduate Center in New York that same summer were riskier. For the latter Berg constructed an inclusive structure 75 feet long and 7 1/2 feet deep along the wall of a mammoth lobby. Centered along its back wall, the structure had a passage 32 feet long, 18 inches wide and 6 feet high, approached from the structure’s outer wall by two parallel passages 18 inches wide, 6 feet long and 6 feet high, located 2 feet to either side of the structure’s vertical axis. The resulting symmetrical π element was placed 18 inches in front of the wall, with its two legs extending into the lobby. Passage into and through the inclusive structure was neither instantaneous nor functional (as regards reaching another space): it was sequential, segmented by turns, durational. In effect, the viewer discovered and excavated the interior space—an impression served by its snugness. At no point could the space be seen as a complete form. Walking the hall could, however, bring the sculptural element into relief as a “thingification” of that experience—a map or promise that collapses the experience into a timeless, objectified, perhaps even alienating—because over controlled—thing.3 Space experienced could thus be identified with space seen, but the viewer could miss the connection (or worse, be forced into it).

The installation at Hartford had similar results. Although the element there was smaller (in keeping with site size) and less ponderous, the excavatory path was more physically taxing and, hence, even more likely to be experienced in discontinuous segments and as a collection of topologically discrete networks. Into an inclusive structure built against a gallery wall, Berg ran two parallel passages 8 feet apart, each 6 feet long, 18 inches wide and 6 feet high. Halfway down their length he connected them at right angles by a crawl way (that thus paralleled the structure’s front surface) 2 by 2 feet in cross-section and raised 2 feet above ground. The corresponding structural element, reminiscent of a catamaran, was again placed 18 inches in front of the inclusive structure. Since the sculptural form had some intrinsic visual interest, while the excavation of the interior required body changes from vertical to horizontal and back to vertical, identification of the two spaces, one suspects, was a cognitively difficult task. Yet when it was negotiated, and when the element seen first was recognized later as a recapitulation of the spatial experience, the strength of the association was intense.

In his most recent installation, in January and February of 1978, Berg took the gamble of removing the visible referent of the negative space from the inclusive structure’s environment. The latter walled up an alcove at the University of Akron, and contained at floor level a 24-inch high, 18-inch wide opening into a crawl space 72 inches long, which was joined for its last 2 feet into a 72-inch vertical shaft of the same cross-section. The space was like an angular teepee made for one. The corresponding sculptural element, however, looks like something by Robert Morris. Berg stood it two miles away, amid a collection of medieval armor and tapestries in the Akron Art Institute. There was no printed explanation at either location. I envy those who saw the two parts and the piece as a whimsical whole.

Risky as such pieces are, Berg has good justification to demand that the identifications be made, justification that lies in the stratalike development of our own cognitive capabilities. The acquisition of a sense of form (the principle of conservation of projective space) first develops through topological experience by feeling out the connectivity of objects and spaces. Moving through, rather than seeing, enclosed space thus provides a deeper grasp of that space’s form, although visualization may not be immediate. Secondly, the sense of the compatibility of forms (the union of the principles of conservation of volume and projective space) is primarily developed through manipulatory experience, and is much less the result of memory of visual gestalts.4 Rubbing shoulders with the narrow low corridors—crawling inside, perhaps—then constitutes our act of displacing or separating space from space, tantamount to indicating the form and learning it. More than looking at the form, this enables us to recognize its visible representation when we encounter it someplace else and then mentally return it to where we first met it. Finally, the complexity of the forms may be a factor in believing the identification, even if it is a hindrance in making it. The cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky argues that the recognition of similarity is a matter of matching the salient features of two compared objects, while the perception of dissimilarity keys to the inventory of mismatched features. Objects with more shared features will consequently be judged more similar to each other than pairs with few features even if members of both pairs stand in relation of identity to each other. The identification of a complicated interior space network with its sculptural double is, by this standard, a stronger association than that of a doorway with its corresponding element, although, because more features must be inventoried in the first case, the identification takes longer in coming.

I suspect the strength of the identification in these pieces leads us to the impossible idea that the sculptural elements are actual removals from the inclusive structures and that somehow we can reinsert them. No way. In the Hartford piece, for example, the hulls of the “catamaran” could be inserted less than halfway before the bridging horizontal connective would block further insertion. In the City University piece the attempt would not get past the door. This contradiction between the conceptual structure so far discussed and the physical realities of enclosure, comprehended in the architectural problematic, is, however, a tension that brings an entirely new relation into the understanding of the work. This is clarified in looking at the procedure that Berg actually follows.

Instead of constructing a solid object and removing some indicated form of volume from it (a drawing process), Berg constructs the sculptural element twice. In building the inclusive structure, he frames out the negative space with plywood girders, to which he nails the sheet-rock while standing inside the negative-space-to-be. In doing the positive, the sculptural element proper, he repeats that process but works from the outside. This posits a devastating truth of architectural logic: that what we see the inside of, from the inside, we see the outside of, from the outside. And yet, most frequently without realizing it, we see the same thing, whether what we see from outside even has an inside, or vice versa.

Reversibility is, of course, basic to the transpositions discussed here, but this reversal is different: it involves a topological transfer, not an algebraic one. It is one thing to exchange one balloon for another one; it is something quite different to turn it inside out. In Berg’s doorway installations the implication of such reversibility was latent, obscured by the saliency of the boundary problematic and by the negative space being more framed or included than enclosed. Nor do I think the artist was fully aware of the implication in the early enclosed space pieces; or at least he was not certain how to run with it. I say this because one ramification of the inside/outside transposition is to dispense with the need for the second balloon.

However, in an installation at the Bertha Urdang Gallery this past November, Berg merged the planar, or drawinglike, contradiction of positive/negative space with the architectural contradiction. Three feet into a gallery room reached from a long hallway, across the room’s width and from floor to ceiling, he built a wall, and he placed opposite the doorway, 2 feet above the floor, a 2 by 2 foot opening in the wall. This was the entrance to a crawl passage that continued in for 8 feet, where it ended in an opening in another wall. The viewer finding himself in a sealed room had no choice but to retrace his crawl. The puzzlement this may have provoked was surely replaced by shock bordering on stupefaction when the inclusive structure was viewed from a doorway to its side. For a sculptural element slightly larger than 2 by 2 feet in cross-section and 6 feet long was suspended 2 feet above the floor between two walls. The negative space had become its own positive, and one did have the sensation of its having been turned inside out.

As visually clever as Berg’s works are, they may also suggest a metaphor of the self and the self’s relation to the environment and to others. I do not mean they are autobiographical (although in having a monist underpinning and a preoccupation with space and boundaries they betray an intense underlying desire for privacy). But the works so obviously thematize displacement, contextualization and reintegration—as moments that one experiences in moving through these pieces, as well as visual problems—that it is hard not to see here Berg’s reading of the human condition. Such an interpretation is of course in line with these works’ architectural quality, architecture traditionally being a metaphor of self.

Berg has posed some somewhat banal but basic problems: the private space with the dislodged door; the impossibility in reality of returning the displaced material stranded outside to the emptiness that remains inside versus the possibility of fantasizing about it; the need to visualize the void and match it with the outside. The last piece, in asserting the self-referential connection between inside and outside, seems to point toward a satisfactory solution. In taking responsibility for the inside/outside relationship—through investigating the inside while retaining the perspective of the outsider—integration is depicted in this reciprocity as immanent, and the self as its own context. Like much else in Berg’s work, this depends on making the connection and identification.

Roger Hurwitz does research in the political science department at M.I.T. and edits Leviathan, a journal of Mideast politics and culture.



1. A casemate (according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary) is “a fortified position or chamber or an armored enclosure on a warship from which guns are fired through embrasures.”

2. The majority of the conceptualists evidence in their art epistemic relations on the order of Platonic abstractions which are interpreted as imposing corresponding procedures that maintain these abstractions in working on material. The contracted constraint is then justified by declaring that it was willingly accepted, an act of free choice. Although abstractions which govern the relations of things in the world have resonance with our competence to perceive them, unless abstraction is reflected upon as constitutive of one’s own existence, it becomes, in the artist’s relation to it, merely a reification of others’ practices and hence contingent on their will. Under such conditions, the artistic practice is not, and cannot be, claimed an act of self-determination.

3. The viewer may be said to duplicate rather than reverse the production of the piece in the first place. The piece is thus causing itself to be quoted. Such recursive quality is characteristic of many closed systems and is the embedding of the same routine with itself. Since here the embedded routine is performed by the viewer, while the routine is embedded in the artist’s, if the viewer does perform, he is inevitably taking the artist’s viewpoint. For that reason, the degree of control Berg chose to exercise is a flaw.

4. J. Flavell, The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget New York, 1963: “We eventually come to see objects as together or separated in space much less as a function of past visual enregistrations of their proximity or separation than from past action of placing objects together and separating them.”