By Emily Irwin
Liminality refers to the space in-between. It is experienced as a sensory threshold, barely perceptible because of its ephemeral nature and conditionally intermediate state. Liminality is characterized by three stages: separation, marginalization, and reaggregation. Originally coined as an anthropological term, liminality referred to the quality of ambiguity or disorientation experienced in the middle stage of rituals. During this passing stage, participants no longer identify with their pre-ritual status but have not yet fully transitioned to version of their self realized upon the completion of their ritual. During the ritual's liminal stage, the participant “stands at the threshold” between their previous identity, community, and time, and a new way established by the ritual. This term has broadened to encompass periods of change in political and cultural climates beyond rituals. Additionally, the term applies to dimensions of time, space, and narrative.
Liminality as a temporal dimension relates to the passing of time. Liminal time can refer to any amplitude, from sudden moments to expansive epochs, because of the nature of a given threshold or transition. The most common motif of liminal time is the concept of twilight- the threshold between day and night. Twilight serves as a middle ground between light and shadow, and the known and unknown, among many other dualities. During this time, these dualities meet and intermingle becoming one another, and forming a spectrum. On a larger scale, biannual equinoxes and solstices are also viewed as liminal times in the same sense. Cultures that participate in quarter days also view them as transitioning periods between the seasons. New Year's Day celebrations are also associated with the liminal state in many cultures as a time for personal growth, fortune telling, establishing luck, and supernatural visitations from liminal beings, (beings neither here nor lost) such as spirits.
Like time, liminality as a spacial dimension can also refer to many different scales, from a specific place, to entire countries or even larger regions. Common motifs with liminal space include borders, frontiers, no man's lands, disputed territories, appropriated territories, crossroads, bridges, airports or hotels, which people pass through but do not live in. The difference between space- spatial areas without culture, significance, humanity, or contextual importance ascribed to it- and place- spatial areas with cultural context and ascribed precedent and importance- can engage liminality due to the transitional nature of culture and human life. Liminal spaces characteristically have a transitional nature to them, such as the previous examples of hotels and airports. Multiplicity can also enact liminal spaces because they are “non-places.” The liminal multiplicity of identical, interchangeable landscapes can range from gas station chains, to shopping centers, to metropolises. These non-places exist simultaneously across the country, perhaps around the world in identical limbo, never lived in, but existing for what seems eternally. Their sterile, manufactured neutrality creates a juxtaposed tension between arbitrary existence and ascribed importance. In mythology, religion, and esoteric lore, liminal spaces include realms such as Purgatory. In conventionally naturalistic settings, springs, marshes, caves, shores, rivers, volcanic craters represent other forms of transcendence. In these spaces, major transformations occur due to instability which invites a participant to access esoteric knowledge or understanding from both sides. Because of this, liminality is often sacred, alluring, and dangerous.
In narrative, liminality refers to the period of growth a character endures during their monomyth- the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed (otherwise known as “The Hero's Journey,” coined by Joseph Campbell). Its often a period of discomfort and waiting. The period of liminality in the narrative is destructive, chaotic, and transforming. Transformation requires the death of an old self. This causes the tension experienced when entering the liminal space, as a character attempts to resolve their disorientation and find a new self. This process is full of discomfort and tumult. When the character finally resolves to live with the tension they are experiencing, the threshold to development and transformation can be passed and contentment is found.
Liminality can be achieved visually through both conceptual and formal elements. Formally by removing or blurring the barriers between real and perceived worlds and between the painted world and real world. A liminal space can be engaged between the viewer and an artwork when the artist is aware of these boundaries and actively manipulates or removes them. Liminality can be accessed through intermedia by breaking down medium specific barriers with earth art, body art, performance, installation art, among many others. Early intermedia advocate and instructor, Hans Breder, believes that because intermedia is collaborative, conceptually grounded, performative ritualistic, and site-specific, it “exists in liminal space where the interplay of two or more media propagate new ideas, new forms, new ways of seeing and being.” Conceptually, liminal space can be created with juxtaposition by challenging binary dichotomies and dualities, such as gender, good and evil, real and illusory, beginning and end (the space between), archaic and modern, etc. Liminal space can also be conceptualized through narratives that are neither linear and realistic, nor completely fantastical or surreal, but somewhere in between. Utilization of time, conceptually or formally, can also create disambiguation, sensation, and new space occupied by the sense of transition. Multiplicity as a formal or conceptual element can also engage this theme due to the connotations of multiplicity discussed above.
Liminality can be read through much of Claude Cahun's photography. In many pieces of her work, ideas about gender roles and nonlinear narratives are explored, giving her work an ambiguous and dissociative quality. There is an element of liminality applied to both the idea of femininity and the overarching narrative of reality throughout her work.
Breder, Hans. “Intermedia: Enacting the Liminal.” Performing Arts Journal; vol. 17, no 2/3, 1995, pp. 112-120. www.jstor.org/stable/3245784.
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