The following is a personal essay that I wrote when I studied in Paris in the spring of 2016 and had vast access to resources RE: the beautiful, stimulating, sometimes non-existent world of art. The concept of there being emptiness and fullness in the same room has intrigued me ever since I came across the exhibition Voids: a Retrospective in 2010 – I can only hope it resonates with you, dear reader, as we at MG attempt to deconstruct several preconceived notions of art.
Living in the digital age, images (and the ability to visually perceive and challenge their meaning) clutter our lives – and this is no less true when it comes to the concept of art. Often one finds themselves asking, “what is art?” I have always had high belief in the idea that anything and everything can be art – even nothing. The rebellious notion that an artist can fill a room with nothing and still be called an artist is one that has haunted my thoughts ever since I learned about the classical painters who attended Raphael’s School of Athens to hone their craft, a time where it was crucial to create art under a specific set of rules. This is why I have decided to focus on Minimal art, primarily on the work of Yves Klein as well as three works of art/exhibitons – Work No.22: The Lights Going On and Off by Martin Creed; The Void by Yves Klein; and More Silent Than Ever by Roman Ondák. All of these have a common purpose in their creation, and it is to refute the Western world’s obsession with the visible and concrete. Nothingness can also exist within finite spaces and be perceived and understood for what it is.
In order to understand why the void and the world of art have blurred the lines separating the other for the past century, we must have a philosophical approach first. Nothingness has had it’s not-so-concrete terms defined by Existentialist writers of the late 19th- and 20th-century, ever since Jean-Paul Sartre penned the words, “Nothingness haunts being.” The fact that there is (or rather, has been, many many years ago before any of us came to exist) a space where ‘nothing is everything’ is a simultaneously difficult yet astonishing idea to wrap one’s head around. We define our surroundings, and thereby world, by the space we take up in it – it is human nature to do so. How is it, then, that we as artists feel an obligation to bend nothingness on our own terms – to fill a room with absolutely nothing and invite others to critique it as art? In an answer both simple and complex, Thomas Mann wrote in his novella Death in Venice: “There were profound reasons for his attachment to the sea: he loved it because as a hardworking artist he needed rest, needed to escape from the demanding complexity of phenomena and lie hidden on the bosom of the simple and tremendous; because of a forbidden longing deep within him that ran quite contrary to his life’s task and was for that very reason seductive, a longing for the unarticulated and immeasurable, for eternity, for nothingness. To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence; and is not nothingness a form of perfection?”
Yves Klein is a French artist who was a pioneer of Minimal and Pop art. His contributions to the art world are endless, and he is often cited as inspiration for works revolving around bare, minimal concepts. The Void exhibited in April 1958 at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris, with the original title being The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void. This exhibition, as shown in figure 1, showed nothing at all – in fact, he removed everything from the gallery and painted it all white. The only presence of color was a window painted blue as well as blue cocktails that were served continuously throughout the night. Due to the amount of hype and publicity this exhibit received, up to three thousand people queued to be let into the empty room. In allowing the empty space to speak for itself (and showing nothing whatsoever), Klein opened the door to a conversation that makes people uncomfortable – “is this art?” To this question, everyone had a different response, but Klein had this to say for himself: “Recently my work with color has led me, in spite of myself, to search little by little, with some assistance (from the observer, from the translator), for the realization of matter, and I have decided to end the battle. My paintings are now invisible and I would like to show them in a clear and positive manner, in my next Parisian exhibition at Iris Clert’s.” By presenting an exhibition solely by name and without anything to show, it allowed itself to be filled with raw emotion.
Martin Creed’s Work No.227: The Lights Going On and Off was inspired by the same notion that an empty room can still exist and have a presence (as seen in Figure 2). Shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 2000, it was composed of an empty space with bare walls as the light would flicker on and off at an interval of five seconds. Maurizio Cattelan wrote of this exhibition in 2004, stating: “Sometimes I feel so happy, sometimes I feel so sad. I always thought Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The lights going on and off had something to do with this simple truth. It has the ability to compress happiness and anxiety within one single gesture. Lights go on, lights go off – sunshine and rain, and then back to beginning to repeat endlessly.” Even though nothing is presented in the room and it is entirely empty, the light becomes it’s own presence. Some find it intrusive, and their reaction itself is what becomes the art piece – what is it about the light that causes one to feel this way?
More Silent Than Ever is a piece by Roman Ondák, shown at the GB Agency in Paris in 2006. It is an empty space with bare walls (as shown in Figure 3), yet the premise of the concept lies in the fact that the material composition lists ‘hidden listening devices’ in the room. This simple statement suddenly alters the perception of the room, as visitors are suddenly made to feel conscious about what they say. A small fact about the room has the power to alter how it represents itself and alludes to museum surveillance. Just like with Creed’s Work No.227, we find ourselves wondering: is this, in itself, art? Is art allowed to be as small as a fleeting reaction, feeling – since, after all, humanity is fleeting in itself? The piece poises existential questions that are not always meant to be answered, ranging from how much we are watched to how art defines itself.
The concept of nothingness in art is a form of anti-art that dates back to Dadaism, a movement led by the likes of Marcel Duchamp as early as 1913. Minimal art in itself was not a popular movement up until after World War II, around the 1960s and early 1970s. It was a belief that more was said with less, that in simplicity is where truth lies – as simple as earth, sky and sea. It is contradictory in the fact that, even though nothing has been created, ‘nothing’ is still something. It is a movement in the thralls of philosophy, combining the power of invention and thought to something entirely new. One of my favorite exhibitions titles Blankness Is Not A Void (featuring the works of Scott Campbell, among others), seems to capture this form of art perfectly. Blankness is not a void because we come from nothing, in the form of Big Bangs and stardust, and yet we have the power to be everything – sometimes art is the place to remember that.