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The Dissolution of the Body Image

Crossley_Yayoi Kusama infinity(photo tak

Yayoi Kusama, The Passing Winter, Tate Modern, London, Photo taken by Tatjana Crossley

PhD Dissertation: 



This thesis attempts to provide a reading of the body image in immersive space. Since this is a subject that has not been explored in architectural discourse, it is important to examine the implications of the architectural immersion on the body image.


The research first analyzes the term ‘body image’ and uses the theories by Sartre, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty and Schilder to produce an understanding of its formation and development. The body image appears in tandem with subjectivity and this occurs through the identification of what constitutes the self and what is outside the self. Lacan describes the initial formation of the body image with his ‘Mirror Stage Theory.’ This understanding of subject-self and object-other is ultimately a result of sensory perception. The thesis focuses on visual perception identifying 2 modes of seeing, the scopic and the immersive. Both of these modes are present in ‘mirror stage’ and continue to work in tandem throughout the life of an individual. The scopic mode of visual perception relates to Freud’s notions of the voyeur while the immersive relate to the narcissist. These can also be considered in the context of Sartre’s ontological dimensions of the body: body for self, body for other, body for self as seen by the other.[1] Specifically Sartre’s first ontological dimension, the body for self, is the subject self that objectifies. This can be related to the voyeur. The 2nd ontological dimension, body for other, is the object body or that which is objectified by the other’s gaze. And the 3rd dimension, the body for self as seen by the other, is the subject self that recognizes itself as an object within the world. This 3rd dimension provides the subject a way of objectifying the self, as the other would, in order to understand subjectivity and can be related to Freud’s narcissist.[2]  Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenology of Perception” provides continued study on the importance of perception on the body image, which constantly evolves with new sensory experience and can expand and contract based on this. Finally the psychologist Paul Schilder provides a thorough study of the body image through the examination of several patient case studies. Schilder’s text also emphasizes the importance of sensory perception in the development of the body image but also suggests that it is a stubborn formation that does not necessarily change easily. He illustrates this with the various cases of psychosis that are elaborated upon with the patient studies. Synthesizing these theories, the thesis places the body image in the context of the immersive environment arguing that any space that manipulates sensory perception to some degree is immersive- hence the importance and relevance to architecture. The immersive environment, through the affectation of the senses, causes a disorientation and re-orientation of the body image. It is a cyclical process of subjective experience influencing perception and the new perception influencing the subject resulting in a continual evolution of the body image. Ultimately the body image is a formulation that arises from the entire experiential history of its development.[3] 


These concepts are then examined through a range of art and architectural case studies that span history and media originating from 2-dimensional immersions, progressing to 3-dimensional ones. In the thesis I discuss regimes of immersion, which are different stylistic ways of achieving the immersion.[4]  My main case studies are the fresco room in the Villa Dei Misteri [5]  and the Las Meninas [6]  painting by Diego Velázquez, which allow me to illustrate the theoretical concepts. Other important case studies are the panorama rotundas of the late 1700s, Monet’s Water Lilies at the Orangerie, Yayoi Kusama’s infinity art object “The Passing Winter,” the VR interpretation of Zaha Hadid’s Leicester Square drawing by Zaha Hadid Virtual Reality Group and Google Arts and Culture, and Diller and Scofidio’s ‘Blur’. There has been little evolution in the way that architects take advantage of something that is inherently architectural. Consequently, the precedents expose a lack of development in understanding the implications of immersivity in architecture culminating with the ‘Blur’ project, which is pure spectacle. The immersive has been and is still being used in ways that harbor on the gimmicky and illusionistic instead of assessing, with subtle nuances, the sensory effects of their spaces on the subjectivity of their users. The thesis provides a critique of architecture’s use of immersion and intends to begin a larger architectural discourse on the body image in the immersive environment examining different forms of technology in order to better understand the sensorial experience of space. 

[1]    From “Being and Nothingness”

[2]    I also apply the scopic and immersive/voyeur and narcissist to Kant and Husserl’s transcendental and empirical subjects respectively. Husserl writes about the paradox of subjectivity, being a subject of the world but also an object in the world.

[3]    In order to understand a space we need a body from which to perceive it. This is a thesis that was first introduced by Heinrich Wölfflin but he was unable to develop it further. So starting with his sentiment, I construct an understanding of the body image and human subjectivity within space using the aforementioned theoretical texts.

[4]    We can include atmospheric perspective (ancient Rome), linear perspective (Renaissance), impressionism, digital virtual reality, etc. as different regimes of immersion.

[5]    For this, I examine the cult initiation that has been depicted in the 360-degree panorama room and consider its purpose in the context of the ancient Roman cult of Dionysus. The fresco serves the thesis in 2 ways. First, it shows the evolution of the initiate in its 7 depictions of her, each different and evolved after new sensory experience. Second, the theoretical use of the room, that it was used by the cult of Dionysus as a bridal preparations immersion room, provides an interesting interpretation of the frescos as intended to immerse their viewers within the ritual process of becoming bride to Dionysus. 

[6]    This painting is written about extensively by Foucault amongst others. Foucault text examines this painting’s immersive qualities (due to the multiple gazes). It is a painting about the sovereignty without actually depicting them. The sovereign couple’s gaze that is reflected back at us ‘subjectivizes’ us, as viewers of the painting.

Crossley_Villa Dei Misteri Diagram.jpg
Crossley_Las Meninas Diagram.jpg
Crossley_Water Lilies Diagram.jpg


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