Invisible Mazes—Visible Perceptions

Pamela Bianchi


Oh king of time and substance, and cipher of the century! In Babylon didst thou attempt to make me lose my way in a labyrinth of brass with many stairways, doors and walls. Now the Powerful One has seen fit to allow me to show thee mine, which has no stairways to climb, no doors to force, nor wearying galleries to wander through, nor walls to impede thy passage.” Then he untied the bonds of the king of Babylonia and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst.[1]

Contrary to perspective space, where the viewer, through a monocular stare, experiences an apparent mastery of the visible world, labyrinth space cannot be understood in a single gaze. It must be comprehended through the haptic experience of the journey, which spreads through a phenomenological and memory-based perception of space, intrinsically mingled with that of time. To the walker who strolls the labyrinth, the overall framework remains out of reach: in a place made up of intricate passageways and blind alleys, one recognizes “regularity and fantasy, relationships and oppositions, and casual, unexpected elements that vary the scene; great order in the details, confusion uproar and tumult in the whole.”[2] Within a labyrinth, the walker, deprived of an overview, has to trust in his/her spatial consciousness and the fragmented topography of the space he/she is in. Therefore, just as the labyrinth is an archetypal space that generates fragmented time, a likewise fragmented physical experience occurs and defines a specific aesthetic posture evoking, firstly, partial blindness on the part of the perceiver and, secondly, his/her haptic awareness.

The contemporary idea of exhibition space opens up to a similar disjointed mode of perceiving which, nowadays, is finding momentum in digital, virtual, and sometimes performance environments that, using invisible exhibition devices, insert the experiencer inside a space recalling the concept of the labyrinth or, even more so, that of the maze, conceived as a place not for monotone wandering, but rather multifocal perception.[3]

Starting from these considerations, and going through a series of contemporary case studies of curating and artistic creation, this article focuses on the idea of the “invisible maze,” studied as both an exhibition device for spatial display logic and as allegory for a new spectator perception of spatiality. In particular, having the concepts of “maze” and “unseen” as underlying ideas of reflection, the article will deepen the concept of aesthetic experience in exhibitions and installations where the absence of a perceptible structure or organization fragments the flow of the experience, unsettling the spectator’s relationship to space and time. Further, it will examine both the way in which the invisibility of the device steers visitor behavior, and how the ambiguous status of the device, depending on curatorial situations or intentions, is understood in contrasting terms, as an exhibition, an exhibition device, or a work of art.

The Trap of Visibility[4]

In 2005, four years before visitors to the Centre Pompidou wandered through the empty spaces of the exhibition Vides. Une retrospective,[5] the Danish artist Jeppe Hein exhibited Invisible Labyrinth at the Espace 315 of Beaubourg.[6] Hein’s work was an invisible installation, a labyrinth without physical walls, directing the movement of visitors thanks to an infrared architecture. In an empty space, infrared emitters were hung from the ceiling, equidistant from one another, forming an invisible grid; to access the installation and meander the labyrinth, each visitor was equipped with a transmitter headset that sent back a signal in the form of vibrations when he/she struck one of the virtual walls of the labyrinthine structure. Through the perception of the vibration, the spectator was thus able to experience the path of the labyrinth without, however, seeing it. This meant that, seen from the outside, Invisible Labyrinth was a totally empty space, randomly filled with individuals who, following invisible trajectories, would be wandering around the room, changing direction without any apparent logic.

A new labyrinth was staged each day during the exhibition; while the empty space remained unchanged, the labyrinthine dance, created by the hesitant movements of the visitors, was progressively changing.[7] By drawing different labyrinths in the same space, the bodies of those in the labyrinth thus became the visual exteriorization of the invisible structure, a sort of interface device recalling Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on the heuristic potential of the gesture. “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such. It allows the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings and thus it opens the ethical dimension for them.”[8] This medial condition of those roaming the labyrinth, together with the spatial and temporal overlap of the various labyrinths, not only expands the exhibition space, but also lends theatricality to the participants’ movements, thus questioning the limits of both participant behavior and the aesthetic experience. In fact, the participants reciprocally enter into corporal and visual communication, their respective paths crossing, following, jarring one another, with participants often ending up face to face and, above all, face to face with their dual condition as actor and spectator.

As an “allover” space generated by the superposition of several labyrinths, Hein’s work situates the individual as a dynamic node in a rhizomatic space, thus transforming him/her into a midpoint of an architectural intrigue. In this perspective the idea of labyrinth transforms, becoming the “home of the hesitant.”[9] It is a maze, a meandering path where the individual simultaneously becomes the subject of the exhibition and an object for the spectators outside of it.[10] From the outside, the spectator looking in at Hein’s device for the first time would see the movements of the participants not so much in the image of a mono-directional labyrinth, but in that of a maze with several possible paths. Like hesitant people wandering in a space devoid of structural references, the participants in Hein’s work become dancers.

Finally, by choosing to exhibit a participatory installation whose exhibition device is in some ways invisible, the bodily and spatial dynamics become the subject of the exhibition. In this way, according to the artist, “the work isn’t anything on its own, it is only what the public informs it with.”[11]

Fig. 1. Jeppe Hein, Invisible Labyrinth, 2005, headset, infrared sensors, infrared emitters, control board, charging board, dimensions variable. Photo: Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy KÖNIG GALLERY, Berlin, 303 Gallery, New York, and Gallery Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen.

A few years later, in 2009, Invisible Labyrinth was exhibited in Paris at the Théâtre National de Chaillot, but in this case the work was used as an exhibition device to spatialize a selection of works from the Frac Île-de-France collection. At each corner of the chosen labyrinthine pattern, the artist placed a work, which literally punctuated and spatialized a precise exhibition “timescape.” The invisible labyrinth was thus used as a scenographic tool to structure the spatial organization of the exhibition; in other words, the enjoyment of the labyrinth, no longer a self-referential event, served to lead the public to discover the various works of art. This is even clearer given that, at first sight, the works were all visible, and their spatialization in a way revealed and suggested the structure of the labyrinth, thus questioning the ontological nature of the labyrinth. Instead of emphasizing the individual’s relationship to space, on this occasion Hein’s work was experimented as a means to create moments of encounter and interrelation between artwork and viewers, while fostering a new spatial and bodily engagement. More recently, in 2012, the same work was exhibited during Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957–2012, a group show at the Hayward Gallery in London, curated by Ralph Rugoff. Unlike the two aforementioned exhibitions, here Hein’s work was included among other works—as part of curatorial research aiming neither to discuss the work’s invisibility as a heuristic element of focus nor the scenographic potential of the device, but rather to define a historical continuity, begun with Marcel Duchamp, regarding the concept of “The Unseen.”

If we analyze the role played by the work in these three different creative processes, one immediately distinguishes three different statuses. In the first case, at the Centre Pompidou, the dynamic of the exhibition (Invisible Labyrinth was the sole exhibited work), by insisting on the performative nature of the installation, made this work a true event, a show taking place in a specific space and time, which also transformed the meanderings of the visitors into choreography to be contemplated. In the case of the exhibition at the Théâtre National in Paris, on the contrary, the work disappeared as an experience, to become rather the logic underlying the spatialization of the featured works (i.e., a scenography tool allowing the visitor to access the experience of the objects). In the final case, inserted in a collective exhibition on “The Unseen,” Hein’s work has become a means to rethink the relation with the visible. Indeed, in the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, the selected works emphasized the limits of visual perception, structures, and relationships, exploring the invisibility as another possibility of representation and communication where the individual’s body becomes an apparatus of representation. In addition, beyond the active role of the viewer, and according to Rugoff, the director of the London gallery, by emphasizing the lack of visual representation, invisible works of art divert our focus from the physical and tend to increase the visibility of the artist’s own role.[12] As a kind of paradox, this last consideration evokes, among other things, Peggy Phelan’s reflections, then taken up by Rugoff and, in other contexts, by Robert Muslin or Andrea Pinotti (among others), for whom the lack of visibility would paradoxically increase the ideas of ​​presence and visibility.[13]

In any case, to return to Hein’s work, since boundaries generally become visible when they are infringed, the spectator, in his/her wandering, constructs a new topological space based on dynamic edges; in doing so, he/she not only updates the architectural structure of the labyrinth through his/her body but also reveals the invisible device. This work thus engenders a transfiguration of perception from sensorial to visual: first, the visitor treats the haptic information to recreate the labyrinth in his/her own imagination; then, he/she translates this spatial imagining into physical movements. In this sense, Hein’s work objectifies the body of the spectator while also rendering the exhibition space and the very act of observing theatrical. Finally, in its various iterations, this work proposes different experiences that depend on the degree of involvement of the viewer, and in the process one uses and interprets the work.

However, in an invisible labyrinth the desire to escape from it and perceive the whole diminishes because of the invisibility of the structure. As a new form of dynamic architecture, this invisible labyrinth is not only an empty, soundless space where the visitor ends up performing a kind of contemporary dance but also a visual rendition of the contemporary aesthetic experience where the viewer experiences his/her own visit through haptic interactivity which, in turn, induces a form of sensorial disorientation.

Be Like the Fox

Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.[14]

“A game, an artwork, an environment to be played, viewed, populated.”[15] This quote could be a definition of Hein’s work; namely, an abstract atmosphere that requires active participation on the part of the viewer to be activated and achieved. Instead, the quote dates back to 1957 and describes an Exhibit, the exhibition designed by Richard Hamilton, Lawrence Alloway, and Victor Pasmore at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London.

Composed only of translucent panels, in a variety of formats and colors, this exhibition seems to visually materialize the image of the maze, the random and possible path, which leaves the spectator free to be transported by chance and currents, arbitrarily choosing directions between a multitude of possible routes. A variety of paths were proposed in an Exhibit through the arrangement of Perspex panels which, being hung on the walls, placed on the floor, or suspended from the ceiling, structured the space into portions of voids, filling it irregularly, without apparent logic. These panels were “hung variously on a rectangular grid so as to make a sort of maze to walk about it, and at the same time, a visual maze of open, closed, half-open, half-opaque views, and any number of combinations thereof, changing all the time as you walked about it.”[16]

In particular, the material of the panels played an important role in defining a troubling atmosphere; the games of transparency and superimposition confused the viewer’s vision by recreating an immersive environment that not only expanded the space, “counteracting the rigidity of the orthogonal structure,” but also caused a temporary loss of spatial landmarks.[17]

These forms thus organized the space, creating a maze where the spectator had to rethink his/her position in relation to the object, being brought to undergo a haptic, meta-object experience. Indeed, if the maze is in this case visible (and not merely suggested by the movements of the spectators, as in Hein’s work), it is, on the contrary, the art object which disappears as an autonomous unit, reappearing in the form of a scenographic device arranged into a spatial structure through a holistic approach. Faced with the disappearance of the object as a work, the exhibition is simultaneously “experienced as an object inserted into a dynamic relationship encompassing motion and the onlooker’s spatial engagement; [and] understood as an event taking place in space and time and depending on contingent variables.”[18] At the same time, alongside this ambiguous condition of the exhibition, the exhibition space becomes a meta-theatrical space which, by playing with the variability of the points of view and the conditions of phenomenological apprehension, structures the spectator’s experience of the maze.

Finally, understood as an exhibition about the concept of ​​exhibition, an Exhibit questioned the dialectic between the public and the spatialization of works in an exhibition context. As a kind of tautological implosion, this exhibition proposed a superpositioning that was both spatial (the many experiential paths that could be explored) and conditional (the various roles played by the panels and the installation itself). By proposing several hypotheses of spatial enjoyment, an Exhibit, unlike Hein’s Invisible Labyrinth, left the viewer free to choose his/her trajectories and to meander along paths, finally leading him/her to encounter the “drama of space.”[19]

As a visible maze where the public encounters the loss of the object due to an aesthetic experience, this historic exhibition allows us to emphasize the potential to convey meaning through the spatial organization in the creative process. Moreover, it suggests that, with the disappearance of the work as object, a confrontation with the ideas of emptiness and space prevails over any other aesthetic relationship, by highlighting the idea of aesthetic experience as a work of art in itself, able to propose a new configuration in the relationship between subject, object, and space.

Indeed, according to Noël Carroll, the spectator’s aesthetic experience would no longer simply be a mechanism of perception limited to the object, but would instead be “self-rewarding”[20] (i.e., a bodily relationship that someone maintains with the environment[21]), and actually become the main objective of the exhibition. This consideration, on the one hand, modifies the idea of artistic device by seeing it as an experiential tool and, on the other hand, opens a reconsideration of the role and place of the spectator in the exhibition contexts concerned. However, from a contemporary perspective of exhibition design, this is even clearer if one refers to certain artistic proposals that exploit virtual spaces or augmented realities as exhibition devices, and for which the spectator experiences and experiments with new bodily awareness by playing, as we have seen in the case of Hein, the role of medial device. Seen as “potential places of action,”[22] “oriented towards the elimination of the distance between the spectator and the work,”[23] these environments shift attention to the visitor’s perception and his/her aesthetic experience.

The image of the maze then returns, as in the case of Invisible Labyrinth, not so much in the form of a recognizable structure, but in the form of representation recreated by the behavior and attitude of the spectator who, choreographed by the multidirectional and multisensory device, goes to meet the work and the space, thus becoming a “seafarer inside the materialization of an imaginary space which serves as an envelope to what it encounters.”[24]

Some contemporary exhibition dynamics update these considerations, as in the case of the meta-virtual Walks by the artist couple Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and especially Alter Bahnhof Video Walk, which they conceived for the spaces of the old train station in Kassel during the 13th edition of dOCUMENTA in 2012.

Fig. 2. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Alter Bahnhof Video Walk, 2012, video walk, 26 min. Produced for dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany. © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; Courtesy of the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York.

With a media player that could be rented on-site and a pair of headphones, the public followed a sequence of images on the device screen. Vintage clichés, pre-recorded scenes, commentaries, music, sound effects, and a voice-over led the viewer along a narrative path that unfolded spatially and temporally. The peculiarity of the device lies in the correspondence between the two spaces: the real one of the spectators and the one represented on the screen. By following the directions indicated by the video, the beholder would see on the screen the very places where he/she actually was. As described by the artists, “The participants watch things unfold on the small screen but feel the presence of those events deeply because of being situated in the exact location where the footage was shot.”[25]

Hesitant with the changes of direction suggested by the screen, all the while trying to spatially superimpose the real point of view to the virtual one, to make the two spatial levels coincide, the spectator would seem to start a choreographic dance, making uncommon movements, stopping at unusual points in the space, and suddenly changing direction.

In fact, beyond the space-time gap engendered by the work, here one can find the attitude and gestures of the spectator of Hein’s work: an individual hesitating in front of unknown and temporarily invisible trajectories. Although here the idea of maze is not exploited as a conceptual substratum, the image resulting from the activation of Cardiff and Miller’s work, however, evokes the spectators of Invisible Labyrinth, suggesting the idea of a maze-like experience. The viewer is in fact confronted with the literal invisibility of the exhibition path and, beyond that, steered by the device through a trajectory that cannot be grasped in advance.

At the same time, we find the objectification of the spectator’s body which, in this case, also thanks to it being in a public place, is deeply theatricalized, since the situation becomes an object of contemplation for passersby. Once again the understanding of the work and the device depends on the extent of integration of the individual into the work. Outside of an institutional exhibition context, the lack of structural boundaries further accentuates the maze-like image of the temporary loss of habitual points of reference, making public space an implicit generator for spontaneous mazes.

Given the impossibility of grasping the global framework of the artistic environment, because of its progressive and temporal unveiling, the spectator ends up experiencing a new form of aesthetic knowledge focused on personal and phenomenological perception. Then, considering the invisibility as a creative condition giving rise to a network of structured forces and relationships within a space of encounter in which the visitor is called upon to play an active role, the idea of the maze-like experience reappears once more.

Performing the Maze

Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. […] Then, signboard and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest…. Paris taught me this art of straying; it fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books.[26]

The example of Cardiff and Miller’s work extends the question of the maze to the urban context by generating a displacement on the architectural scale, which reciprocally makes the city and the external architecture a field of experience and a structural device. Let us therefore consider the city as the physical and literary place of aimless wandering, and the maze as a metaphor for urban and personal disorientation. Indeed, if the architecture, as considered by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, is a consequence of a labyrinthine thought, then the city is, as Walter Benjamin suggests, a real labyrinth in which “the flâneur goes botanizing on the asphalt.”[27]

Without insisting on the ontological difference between labyrinth and maze, both Piranesi and Benjamin seem to refer to the labyrinth while thinking of the phenomenological condition evoked by the idea of the maze, a puzzle where one finds “a trick in which there are many choices to be made, many incorrect possibilities and dead ends to avoid before reaching the goal.”[28] As metaphor for the city, the labyrinth, therefore, must be understood as Umberto Eco defined it, namely as a “third labyrinth… a network where each point can be connected with any other point.” [29] This consideration, if it recalls the image of the Deleuzian rhizome, also evokes the ideas of “The Unseen” and “The Unperceived,” which in turn points to the impossibility of grasping the whole of the structure of the maze (and labyrinth). Indeed, in its own ontology, the city has a labyrinthine dimension that, even if it does not formally materialize, suggests the idea. In this sense the concept of “invisible maze” appears, no longer considered as a complex architectonic structure, but as a real experience; the labyrinth would thus not only be the accomplice to the journey, but the result of it. Further, while one could associate the image of the maze with that of the city, understanding them as the archetypes of a set of dynamic structures in continual renewal, one could likewise recognize in the wandering inside the maze the allegory of the spatial perception of the flaneur (and the spectator) within deserted or unknown spaces.

With regard to the artistic tradition that draws its content from numerous sources, from the Dada “visits-excursions” of the 1920s, the holistic approach of the various Situationist drifts of the 1960s, the experiments of Gruppo T in Milan or GRAV (Visual Art Research Group) in Paris, and Yona Friedman’s mobile architectures, to Francis Alÿs’s meandering walks (Fairy Tales, 1995/1998), today one could talk about a form of “labyrinthine dramaturgy” for which the labyrinth disappears as architecture, to return, on the contrary, in the form of a real perceptive experience.[30] Through the “dramaturgy of space,” several artists have not only staged total experiences based on the creation of mechanism designed to encourage the participation and the sensorial activation of spectators, but have also gone beyond the city, investing the territory and transforming the idea of the labyrinth into a positive metaphor for the discovery, the experimentation, and the emancipation of the viewer.[31] Thus, while the space becomes a lived place, the act of walking turns into the metaphor for strolling the invisible maze. Further, wandering inside an unknown space becomes a “practice dedicated to restoring the undecidable and radically anarchistic aspect of the spatial experience.”[32] In this context, contrary to the previously discussed examples, the wandering is to be seen not as the result of an artistic device, staged by the behavior of the spectator who experiences it through his/her body, but rather as the device itself being a true artistic practice charged with heuristic power.

To mention one of the most emblematic contemporary cases, the Italian group Stalker insists on the creative potential of wandering, seen as the remedy to the labyrinthine nature of the city.[33] For this group of architects, artists, and researchers who, since 1995, have carried out collective walks in the urban peripheries of some cities, especially Rome, “the wander could be considered something of value rather than as a mistake.”[34]

Fig. 3. Stalker/Osservatorio Nomade, Immaginare Corviale, Rome, 2004–2006. Photographer unknown.

The wanderings of the group in places on the margins of society—indefinable places, without a very stylistic identity, and border sites that are difficult to apprehend—particularly highlights the paradoxes of contemporary society, from the question of immigration to the problem of stifling or abandoned architecture, to sociopolitical problems. However, beyond the social and political implications of their actions, Stalker considers walking and wandering as instruments capable of setting the urban context in motion, awakening the participants’ attention through an urban experience.

Following the first walk in 1995, Stalker attraverso i territori attuali (Stalker through actual territories),[35] a four-day and three-night walk on the outskirts of Rome, spread over 70 km, the group has realized other actions in Rome as well as abroad, such as Sortir de Paris (Coming out of Paris, 1997), and Milano attraverso Stalker (Milan through Stalker, 1998). These walks, open to public participation, generate a hierarchical disruption for which artists and the public reciprocally become the participants and actors of a collective and simultaneously personal experience. By discovering the vague landscapes in empty and forgotten areas without roads or borders, the group not only defines new, maze-like paths but also meets “The Unseen” and “The Unperceived” by proposing a first form of representation of these places. Indeed, their bodies draw dynamic boundaries and define invisible boundaries, suggesting their possible representation—it is a kind of spatial activation staged through the collective participation of the action. The experience of walking as an aesthetic practice, together with the sensation of disorientation resulting from random changes in direction, thus generates an occasional exploration that reactivates the territory. According to Thierry Davila, through the critical reading they make of the territory, one could even talk of the “invention of a new territory,”[36] a versatile and polymorphic territory, an empirical space where the mind can freely stroll and roam, enjoying the state of disorientation.[37]

Finally, for Stalker, the act of walking is a device that, as Francesco Careri, one of the founders of the group, suggests, is a tool for both reading and writing that leads to rethinking unknown spaces. Thus, while the individual is once again a medial image of a representation, the landscape in turn, as an empty terrain on which to draw an infinite number of trajectories and boundaries, would thus be seen as the theater of an infinite series of mazes. In brief, what emerges from this example is a kind of invisible maze understood as a new form of perceptive and dynamic architecture; no longer a visible or tangible object, but a work of the imagination, the maze finally appears as the result of the interactivity between the individual and a specific aesthetic dynamic, based on mobility.


As was briefly mentioned during the development of this article, over the years the disappearance of the work as an object has been counterbalanced by the emergence of invisibility as a possible exhibition paradigm, often emphasizing the direct involvement of spectators in their relationship with the space. The result is sometimes a “labyrinthine aesthetic” that, as concerns the dialectic between the spatial experience and the beholder, evokes the metaphorical image of a maze.[38]

In particular, as a perceptual dynamic engendered by a series of experiences focused on the activation of the spectator’s body within an aesthetic environment, the maze disappears as an architectural dimension, to end up being perceived as an action space. It is from this view that we examine a maze as an experience. Like a type of displacement from a figurative dimension of space to a perceptual idea of space, these dynamics open up discontinuous modes of aesthetic awareness. This shift infers a transition from the traditional, monofocal perspective space, based on a synthetic reading of space, to a multifocal space which evokes the parallax phenomenon. While allowing us to center the question around the individual and his/her perceptual modes and spatial enjoyment, it also reiterates the appearance of a new idea of space. According to Anne Cauquelin, it would indeed be an “an-optic” space—one that can only be perceived through grouping the temporal and spatial perceptions of its partial actualizations.[39] In this way the avant-garde ideas of incognito, random choice, or unexpected experience reappear, reread in a contemporary perspective that reenacts “that continuous and liberated relationship of the most varied techniques and expressive forms in renewed and sacrilegious action.”[40] Finally, a maze-like experience is one that does not reject error or dead ends, but rather aspires to awaken a type of disorientation as a form of heuristic device.