In Your Absence


1. [uncountable] Space that can be occupied or where something can be done, especially viewed in terms of whether there is enough. 1.1. [uncountable] Opportunity or scope for something to happen or be done, especially without causing trouble or damage. 2. [countable] A part or division of a building enclosed by walls, floor, and ceiling.
– Oxford Dictionary

Interior of the Harvard Art Museum.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the word room has several meanings. In a singular, uncountable sense, the word can refer to a space for which there is an intended use or purpose, or where there is a possibility or opportunity for something to exist or happen. In its plural form, the word refers to an accommodation, well-defined by the rigid, physical structures of a floor, a ceiling, and walls. The presence in a room is not fixed: a person can enter or leave, or the purpose or intended use can change. However, one common denominator of all of these definitions is the expectation that something should exist within the room.

Consider the rooms you occupy over the course of your day. You might wake up in your bedroom, brush your teeth in the bathroom, prepare breakfast in the kitchen. You might then walk into your office or classroom, a room that might be used solely by you, or shared with a dozen others. At some point at the end of the day, you probably re-enter your bedroom to go to sleep. A record of the time you spend in a room might look as follows:

07:30AM – 08:30AM, occupied.
08:30 AM – 09:00 AM, unoccupied.
09:00 AM – 09:05 AM, occupied.
09:05 AM – 21:15 PM, unoccupied.
21:15 PM – 22:00 PM, occupied.
20:00 PM – 02:30 AM, unoccupied.
02:30 AM – 02:32 AM, occupied.
02:32 AM – 07:30 AM, unoccupied.

Total occupancy time: 1 hour and 52 minutes.
Total unoccupied time: 22 hours and 8 minutes.
Fraction of the day occupied: 77.8%
Fraction of the day unoccupied: 22.2%

If you perform a quick calculation of the amount of time you spend in any given room, you will probably realize that for most of the twenty-four hour day, you’re not in that room. In fact, you might realize that many of these rooms are vacant and uninhabited by any other person for hours at a time.

Interior of the Harvard Art Museum.

The concept of a vacant room is a strange one, considering that the purpose of a room is to house a person or an event, and yet that purpose is only fulfilled for a fraction of the time that it exists. Picture the busiest cities in the world, and it feels like every room should be filled with customers, or diners, or students, or families. How can there possibly be empty space, when there are over seven billion people in the world? If every single person on earth were to occupy a room, any room, and only one person was allowed in each room, would there be more people, or more rooms? And if there are more rooms than there are people, how many are there? Two times more? Ten times more?

The phenomenon of a completely empty room is a consequence, in part, of the specialized functions each room is meant to perform, and the schedules human beings follow that dictate when they execute a particular task in a specific room. The average person eats three meals a day. The average person uses the toilet ten times a day. The average person sleeps in their bed once a day. As all three activities are mutually exclusive (for the most part), you only spend a certain amount of time in the kitchen or bathroom or bedroom. Outside of that time, you are somewhere else, doing something else, and the room is empty.

Does anything happens in a room when there is no one there to observe it? Is the room enclosed in a vacuum, unaffected by the passing time, if no one is there to move anything, or shed skin cells and lint, or breathe the air?

Such philosophical questions are not new. The vacant room has served as a canvas for artists and authors and imaginative thinkers, on which to compose a story of what might have been or what could have been. The vacant room is particularly amenable as a subject for the camera, which can record hours or days of footage in the absence of a human presence. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, the description for an exhibit, While You Were Out, ponders, “What happens when architecture is left unattended? From children’s literature to popular film, creative minds have long dreamed up what might happen when lights go off, doors are locked, and people depart various spaces. […They] expose what does (or could) happen while we are out, seizing upon fantasy, curiosity, and the video camera’s ability to serve as remote eyes when our own cannot see.” In one of the exhibit’s films, titled Dwelling (Hiraki Sawa, 2002), the artist imagines that in his absence, his apartment is transformed into a busy sky of airplanes. They take off from tabletops, land on washing machines, and float through partially open doors in calm, buzzing, droning schools.

Interior of the Harvard Art Museum.

The potential of an empty room or house is also the basis for the modern ghost story. Boarded up windows, strings of cobwebs catching dust, and dark corners elicit feelings of neglect and emptiness. In these settings, the room is not completely uninhabited, of course, because a spectre, perhaps feeling lonely or thirsting for revenge, haunts from the shadows. Such mind-wanderings and figments of the imagination could be a consequence of our being unable to let a room lie vacant. Something in our minds wishes that the room still held an occupant, and so if one does not exist, we make one up. If a room is meant to be occupied, we create a ghost, or a monster in the closet. If a room is meant to be a place where something can happen, we envision that floorboards creak and doors swing open and lights flicker.

Tales of empty rooms are less frightening if we imagine that they are inhabited by more friendly beings. In a house where the human residents have left for the day, the country mouse and the town mouse might emerge to sample the crumbs and pieces from last night’s meal, clothed in hats and tunics as they collect delicious morsels. Or, after the boy has left his room to go to school, the toys come to life and take part in cinematic adventures, with potato heads and plastic soldiers and slinky dogs accompanying them on their way. In our minds, the room is not barren and still in our absence. Occupants of a different sort emerge, making use of the room when we leave. Furthermore,

these occupants have the capability to pass the time and remember what happens, as if to take the room out of a vacuum devoid of time and actuality and place it firmly back in the scope of existence.

As a consequence of all of the things that happened while we were away, we can explain changes that occurred between the time we left the room and the time that we returned. If a pair of socks loses a mate, then maybe there was a domestic dispute in the clothes dryer that resulted in the equivalent of a break-up. If the dust bunnies are discovered in a fluffy mound under the bead, then maybe the neighborhood association of dust bunnies was congregating to discuss how to defend themselves against the injustices and indignities of brooms and Swiffer mops. If a hair tie or pin disappears from the tabletop, then perhaps the fairies and gnomes that hide in overturned flowerpots in the closet took it to build an airship. When the last dregs of milk disappear from the now-empty plastic jug in the refrigerator, and you could have sworn that there was just enough for the morning’s cereal when you used it yesterday morning, perhaps the insatiable kitchen ghost raided your food stores again before slipping the empty jug back into place on the refrigerator shelf. These existences are exasperating, if not slightly amusing, and prevent you from having to rationalize that you might have misplaced an item or forgotten to buy more milk.

Interior of the Harvard Art Museum.

Maybe this is all part of a human condition or instinct to fill up empty holes and seek company. This urge does not just apply to people, but also to inanimate objects. On a bookshelf, we see a single book and imagine that it yearns for the company of another, straight spines stacked one against another to fill out the expanse of the long, flat shelf. After all, what use is a shelf if it holds nothing? The empty space looks unsatisfying and unfulfilled, as if someone forgot about it and couldn’t be bothered to use it to its full value. As if it were another person, we sympathize with the feelings we project upon it, like neglect and uselessness. In a world where people constantly argue over the usefulness of an item or a concept, and where people strive to be as productive as possible, it can seem slightly dubious to have a room that remains unoccupied for so much of its lifetime.

If we share a room with an imaginary existence, then an empty room is no longer an uncertain, purposeless definition of space. We humans might not be using it, but something else is, going about its tasks and routines the same way you or I might. From this point of view, a room is never truly vacant, and a room fulfills its potential as a place where something should happen or be done. We appreciate the room, not just for our own utility, but for all the possibilities of its use when we cannot be there to occupy it.

Images were taken at the Harvard Art Museums (Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum), in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The images depict the following galleries: East Asian Painting and Decorative Arts; The Efflorescence of East Asian and Buddhist Art; South Asia in the Medieval and Modern Eras; African Art: The Art of Assemblage; and the Courtyard.

Interior of the Harvard Art Museum.

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