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From my windows

to outside

Windows: Part 3

He who walks down the street, over there, is immersed in the multiplicity of noises, murmurs, rhythms […] By contrast, from the window, the noises distinguish themselves, the flow separate out, rhythms respond to one another. Towards the right, below, a traffic light. On red, cars at a standstill, the pedestrians cross, feeble murmurings, footsteps, confused voices. Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis, 2004, p.38.

 

There comes a moment when orientations shift as it is not from outside that observation happens anymore, but from inside, from the immovable window. In paintings such as ‘Goethe at the Window’ (1787) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, ‘Woman at a Window’ (1822) by Caspar David Friedrich, or ‘Early Morning’ (1858) by Moritz von Schwind, subjects are seen from behind, gazing out of an open window while details of trees, mountains or buildings are barely visible through them, as the painters are more concerned with the interiors. In Gustave Caillebotte’s impressionist paintings, we begin to see details of Parisian streets from balconies, yet the entire spectacle seen by the subject is still not shown to us.

 

More recently, in the last decade, Canadian painter Shaun Downey depicted lonely, contemplative women in their apartments, some looking through windows in serene and elegant compositions either focused on specific elements happening outside, sometimes even using binoculars, or simply allowing their mind to wander freely, probably consumed by their own thoughts in this lonesome activity of introspective nature. Before Downey, American painter Edward Hopper captured remarkable urban scenes that convey the loneliness of his subjects. During the Covid-19 crisis, his painting ‘Cape Cod Morning’ (1950) was widely shared on social media, portraying a tense woman looking out a bay window, inciting the viewer to contemplate the uncertainties that might come in such isolated place—the fear of an unknown virus. When only half of a story is shown to us, suppositions grow stronger in the imaginative mind.

Beyond the subjects, their interiors and their internal experiences, we definitely want to know what people actually see from their windows, and it is with the advent of photography that the spectacle of the city was further unveiled.With a view on Washington Square Park from his 12th floor, photographer André Kertész captured fragments of city life from 1952 until his death in 1985, while from 1958 to 1985, photographer Ruth Orkin embarked on a comparable project from her 15th-floor apartment at 65 Central Park West in New York. They were both far enough from the ground to broaden their scope yet close enough to enter in people’s intimacy, capturing the parks and their near-by urban life. The unique vantage point offered by a window invites us to contemplate and engage with the view in a more attentive way, even more when this interaction happens every day.

By carrying this logic far beyond, one could capture mundanity with its cycles by choosing a static constant that would always be present, as Ukrainian photographer Yevgeniy Kotenko did by photographing a local park bench for a decade, from 2007 to 2017. The bench was visible from the kitchen window of his parent’s fourth floor apartment in Kiev, allowing him to document its encounters with people. Further, aside from capturing urban life, one must not overlook the window itself as a physical element with its own shape and materiality, which stands between the viewer and the outside world, as photographer Josef Sudek, for example, developed in a series of photographs taken of his studio window in Prague, from 1940 to 1954. The book titled ‘The window of my studio’ not only documents what happens through the window but also presents the changes in its appearance over time, from clear glass to frosted or water-dappled, depending on the days.

From all these references, I explored a series of observations from my windows, compiled into a fifteen-minute video. If I had to describe what I used to see from my north-facing windows, there was Chaoyang North Road, along with an ancient mosque behind, followed by a school and numerous buildings in all directions, with distant mountains visible only on clear days. From my west-facing windows, the residential buildings were on the left and front, then an animated resting area just below and the road on the right. For months, I have photographed the same drying racks of this communal space, capturing the subtle variations in colour as different people brought their bed sheets to dry.

 

Further, on May 22nd, I recorded the sights and sounds from that same window at three-hour intervals over twenty-four hours, capturing these visual and sensory fragments before seven o'clock for seven consecutive days. Exploring the area’s rhythms in such way allowed me to witness the movement of the sun and to hear different sounds appearing besides the cars. If I was asked about the moments that I enjoyed the most from my windows, it was between six and eight in the morning, when I could hear birds singing, people exercising and the megaphone of a man repairing electronic devices. Then, in summer evenings, between seven and eight, I used to enjoy hearing children playing and a group of women dancing, especially when it was the song ‘Standing Waiting For You For Three Thousand Years’ (站着等你三千年) by Wang Qi around quarter past eight.

Drying racks, benches and a playground area seen from my bathroom window

View from my living room window.

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Video making from my bathroom window.

While I appreciated the sounds from the western windows, I admired the views from the northern ones. From my hidden perspective, I have filmed the mountains, observed the end of the fasting month of Ramadan at the mosque as well as witnessed people walking and working on the street. If we were more individuals acting that way, we would become the street watchers defended by urban writer Jane Jacobs as the ‘eyes upon the street’ that may bring more safety to a city in being ‘the natural proprietors of the street’ (1961, p.35). As attentive citizens, we would provide a valuable understanding of a street or residence, yet we would need to debate on how these eyes are present and respond to what is observed.

If you are in China, you may have to activate your VPN to watch this video.

Lastly, inspired by the paintings described earlier, I photographed myself as the subject inside his room looking out through his four windows. These self-portraits constituted a sub-category, highlighting how interaction varied with different windows, as I was typically seated at my desk when outlooking from the living room window, whereas I would stand when observing through the other windows of my apartment. While this chapter focused more on what was seen outside, it did not omit the observer and the window from which such observation happened. Having said that, this exploration of the window in its physicality and impact on indoor surroundings was taken a step further in the next chapter.

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