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From my windows

to outside

Windows: Part 3

When one looks at paintings such as ‘Goethe at the Window of His Room in Rome’ (1787) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, ‘Woman at a Window’ (1822) by Caspar David Friedrich, or ‘Early Morning’ (1858) by Moritz von Schwind, one sees three subjects from the back looking out an open window. Details of trees, mountains or buildings are barely seen through the windows as the painters are more interested in the subjects’ rooms. More recently, the Canadian painter Shaun Downey depicted contemporary women in their apartments, lonely, some of them looking through the window in calm and elegant compositions. They may look outside in a contemplative or introspective way as in ‘Behind the Curtain’ (2015), ‘In the Glass’ (2017), or ‘Writer at the Window’ (2018), looking consciously at specific elements or wandering time and space by letting the mind going blank, without looking at anything in particular. They may also be seen in a voyeuristic attitude, probably spying on their neighbours, with their binoculars as in ‘Into the Distance’ (2014) or ‘Binoculars’ (2018). Before Shaun Downey, the American painter Edward Hopper represented remarkable urban scenes capturing the lonely mood of his subjects. During the Covid-19 crisis, the painting ‘Cape Cod Morning’ (1950) was massively shared on social medias, as a self-image of confined people’s daily reality over months, as the woman looks out a bay window in a tense rather than relaxed pose, letting the viewer imagine what might come in such isolated place. All these painters show that looking out the window may first be a lonesome activity of introspective nature.

Beyond the subjects and their interiors, what is also captivating is what people may actually see from their windows. For Henri Lefebvre, ‘the window overlooking the street is not a mental place, where the inner gaze follows abstract perspectives: a practical space, private and concrete, the window offers views that are more than spectacles; mentally prolonged spaces’ (2004: 36). In Gustave Caillebotte’s painting ‘Young man at his window’ (1876), we begin to see, from an elevated viewpoint, what the Parisian street may look like in its details, as a woman and a horse drawn carriage are seen by the painter’s brother from his window. However, it is with the apparition of photography that the spectacle of the city is further unveiled. From the privacy of his home, the photographer André Kertész captured fragments of city life from 1952 until his death in 1985. With a view on Washington Square Park from his 12th floor, he was far enough from the ground to expand his scope and close enough to enter in people’s intimacy. He could capture light, time, people, as shown in ‘Children and shadows in the Park’ (1951) or ‘Washington Square Park at Day and Night’ (1954). In the same period, from 1958 to 1985, the American photographer Ruth Orkin did a similar work from her 15th-floor apartment at 65 Central Park West in New York. By carrying this logic far beyond, one could capture mundanity with its cycles by choosing a static constant that would always be there as did the Ukrainian photographer Yevgeniy Kotenko by shooting a local park bench for a decade, from 2007 to 2017. The bench was outside the window of his parent’s fourth floor kitchen window in Kiev and from this vantage point he could document the bench’s lively encounters. Somehow this project looks like Alper Yesiltas’ window project, mentioned before in the second chapter. At last, besides catching urban life, one may not forget the window as a physical element with its own shape and material that stands between the viewer and the outside world, as when Josef Sudek developed a series of photographs of or through his studio window in Prague, from 1940 to 1954. The project and book ‘The window of my studio’ show what happens through that window but also present the changes of its glass, transparent, coated with frost or water droplets, over the time.

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In this chapter, I have explored a series of basic exercises from my western and northern windows, with my observations represented and gathered in a fifteen minutes video. From my windows with west orientation, we can see the residence buildings on the left and front, an animated resting area of the residence just downstairs and Chaoyang north road on the right. From my windows with north orientation, we still see the same road from left to right, an ancient mosque just behind, followed by a school, lots of buildings all around and in the back, with mountains far beyond to be only seen in clear days. From my bathroom window, oriented west, I have photographed the same pipe drying racks for months to see bits of colour varying as different people bring their bed sheets to dry in that communal area. The 22nd of May, I captured sounds and lights seen and heard from the same window at three hours interval during twenty-four hours. The same point of view was kept to capture these visual and sensory fragments before seven o’clock for seven consecutive days. Exploring the rhythms of the area in such way allows us to see the movement of the sun, to hear different sounds along with those produced by the cars. For instance, at the beginning of the video, I have added the voice of a man in a megaphone that says to repair all sort of electronic devices. I have always heard him on his vehicle between eight and nine in the morning, and it makes me think of the glaziers or the sellers of gas canisters who could also be heard from afar, the sound being associated to a service. Otherwise, the moments I enjoy the most are, first of all, in the early morning between six and eight as I hear birds singing and people doing their exercises, and then at night between seven and eight as I hear children playing and a group of women dancing. I particularly like to listen to the song ‘Standing Waiting For You For Three Thousand Years’ (站着等你三千年) by Wang Qi and to see them dancing around quarter past eight. While I enjoy the western windows for their sounds, I enjoy the northern ones for their view. I have filmed the mountains, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan at the mosque, people working on the street, among others. In this practice, I act as a complete observer looking at buildings, activities and people unobtrusively from my windows, from a hidden perspective. Further, inspired by the paintings described before, I also wanted to see how it would be to be taken in picture looking out my four windows. These self-portraits define a sub-category, looking from inside to the subject who is in turn looking outside. My posture may change depending on the window as I am usually sitting at my desk when looking out the living room window and standing when looking out the other windows.

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

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