The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a dictionary of made-up words and expressions created by John Koenig to describe feelings that cannot be expressed using existing words in any language. One of these made-up words, kenopsia, describes the eerie atmosphere of a location that is typically bustling with people but is now abandoned. These spaces give feelings of discomfort that we can’t quite name, but are a common human experience. For example, an empty amusement park or an empty school hallway in the summer might invoke feelings of kenopsia.
Liminal spaces are other locations that invoke this specific feeling. These spaces are in between states of being or locations, such as an abandoned mall or an empty office building. These moments of physical or emotional transition have been incredibly popular on the internet. The corresponding aesthetic of liminality became popular on the internet in the mid-2010s, where users would post slideshows of images that invoke these emotions with somber music. These images typically featured decor and iconography from the late 20th century, appealing to those of us that grew up in the 90s and early 2000s. We are unable to name where the photo was taken exactly, but it reminds us of somewhere we were long ago, inviting feelings of nostalgia and sorrow for a place we have never visited. Soon, the liminal spaces became an aesthetic within themselves.
Liminality has had a profound effect on art. Though many artists in art history created works that could fit the definition today, others are directly inspired by liminal spaces and their surrounding aesthetic. Ferdinanda Florence creates eerie, captivating paintings of liminality. She explains,
“Almost all of my subjects are industrial or commercial areas, rather than private residences. They are ‘home’ to no one, but I am drawn to them, and find in them something strangely familiar. The lines between inside and outside are sometimes blurred. The architecture itself is difficult to place, both in time and spatially. These sites may suggest the nation's unresolved social and economic issues; they also represent for me a psychological space, a place for personal reconnaissance.”
Florence’s work features overwhelmingly nostalgic spaces, such as an empty gas station set against a sunset sky, a labyrinth of empty office spaces, or a completely barren street. These paintings have a profound effect on people, causing them to feel nostalgic for a space they might have only encountered in their distant memories.
Like many aesthetics, the liminal spaces aesthetic has gained even more popularity on TikTok. Users are able to create shorter videos featuring these eerie locations and dissonant music. The captions are usually alluding to childhood or lost memories, introducing viewers to places that feel oddly familiar yet unnameable. Many of these images are real-life abandoned locations, but some are AI-generated artworks.
AI-generated liminal spaces are created using programs like Artbreeder. This AI program creates a unique image of a liminal space from a script. These images typically draw inspiration from 80s and 90s neon aesthetics, furniture, and architecture trends to create a unique image that, despite not being a real place, feels oddly familiar and nostalgic.
Liminal spaces allow us to reflect upon the effects of memories and nostalgia in art. The ability to create an image that evokes emotions that cannot be described and identified with words is extremely powerful. We can picture ourselves walking through that empty hallway, or playing in the empty arcade. Liminality prioritizes collective nostalgia, which is why it is so popular in art and music.
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