The Decline of Nothingness

Every something is an echo of nothing.
John Cage, Silence

A series of artistic events (just to call them something) over the last few years have made us think about the current state of art and why not, of humanity in general. In July 2021, Salvatore Garau, an Italian ex-drummer turned postmodern crackpot, sold what he called an “invisible sculpture” at auction for $18,300, leaving a trail of news articles, comments, and even parodies around the world. But the damage had already been done, the trick of social engineering had been performed: Garau managed, and in the 21st century, to make a Milan collector believe that he had created an invisible sculpture when in reality what he had done was to make art history invisible. Another memorable character, Tom Miller, immediately came out to complain that he and not Garau had been the inventor of the invisible sculpture, based on the fact that in 2016 he had “installed” in a community plaza in Florida his work appropriately titled “Nothing”. Miller went so far as to initiate legal action. In an interview on ArtNews, he stated that it is in the state of Florida and not in Italy that “Nothingness” originally occurred. Let us suspend all disbelief for a second.

To make matters worse, a few months later, in September of 2021, a Danish artist, Jen Haanings, delivered two completely blank paintings to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, presenting it as an artwork, titled “Take the money and run.” The museum had advanced $84,000 for that commission. Haanings said that while he had not actually delivered anything, it was a comment on capitalism. “The work is that I have taken their money,” he said. (I open this parenthesis just so that you can insert your own comment).

Throughout these last decades we have witnessed a renaissance of nothingness as a trope in the art world, to the point that offering an exhaustive list of every work that has resorted to this gimmick would be excessive. As an illustrative sample, however, we could mention the empty rooms of the Caraffa Museum in Córdoba, Argentina, where Dolores Cáceres exhibited #sinlimite567 in 2015; The Museum of Invisible Art in the United States (MONA: Museum of Non-visible Art), which since 2011 has been selling, for thousands of dollars, works that do not exist, or the empty San Pablo Biennial that Ivo Mesquita conceived at the meager price tag of 6 million dollars for the 2008 edition of the “show”.

All these con artists and charmers may build stylish conceptual frameworks around their brand new, well-lit nothings, but they will not be able to hide the fact that they literally invented nothing. Before contextualizing these anti-works in relation to the avant-gardes of the 1920s and the experimentalism of the 1950s, a lexical stop should be made for a simple correction: this is not about “invisible sculptures” but about “non-existent sculptures”. Invisibility is not a merit of non-existence. If we talk about authentic “Invisible Sculptures”, we must give credit to the Argentine artist Jorge Iglesias who, since 1991, without resorting to any rhetorical or mechanical device and simply painting the negative of shadows on real objects, has managed to make faucets, bottles, even an obelisk disappear. Iglesias, internationally known as the “Creator of the invisible”, could well add his work to the list of great Argentine inventions such as the autorotation helicopter, the dactyloscopic system or the barbed wire.

“Escultura invisible”, Jorge Iglesias, 1991.

If these non-existent installations that have sprung up like mushrooms in the 21st century intend to participate in the game of art (as suggested by the museums, galleries and auctions where they are presented), they cannot be abstracted from the historical genealogies that make them possible and imbue them with meaning. If there is anything clear in these projects, it is how much they owe to Dadaism. The mockery of capitalist modernity that characterized Dadaism opened the doors to this form of provocation according to which the aesthetic is secondary to the idea itself. That anti-art spirit was clearly expressed, more than 100 years ago, by Hugo Ball: “For us, art is not an end in itself […] but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”[1] With this radical shift, Dadaism has forced us to rethink our criteria to distinguish what is significant from what is insignificant, what is art from what is not, what is something from what is nothing.

In fact, the first non-existent exhibition, “The Void”, organized by Yves Klein in 1958, was immediately received as a neo-Dada gesture. 3,000 people thronged the Iris Clert gallery in Paris to see the white-painted room, completely empty except for an equally empty display case. Among all those people was Albert Camus who wrote in the guest book: “With the void, total power”. Camus recognized that the absurd and radical gesture of a stripped-out gallery coincided in Klein with a transcendental search that, in his case, had to do with the belief in the end of the material age and the beginning of a spiritual one. Klein’s mysticism came directly from Max Heindel and his theosophical cosmology.

That anti-show by Klein spurred a string of empty exhibits in subsequent decades, such as Claes Oldenburg’s 1968 “Invisible Sculpture,” for which he simply dug a hole and then filled it back in at the back of the New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Or Robert Barry’s idea of exhibiting a closed gallery in Los Angeles in 1970. To these we should add the “Invisible Sculpture” by Andy Warhol, in the “Area” nightclub in New York. Warhol stood on a pedestal inside a display case and then walked away, leaving only a sign that read: Andy Warhol, USA, Invisible Sculpture, Mixed Media, 1985. Considering the omnivorous nature of the art market, it is not surprising that the Whitney Museum’s shop is selling a miniature replica of that performance today for $225 ($180 for members) along with Edward Hopper-style hats, Sol LeWitt-designed plates and Jeff Koons-patterned T-shirts.

Replica of Andy Warhol’s “Invisible Sculpture” from 1985.

As opposed to Garau, who kept the $18,300, or Haanings, who packed away the $84,000, Yves Klein sold his empty pieces for gold bars, which he then threw into the Seine. John Cage, who already in 1952 had flirted with the trope of nothingness in his composition 4’33 (four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence), wrote: “Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing.”[2] In contrast to the experimental art of Klein or Cage, whose practice was a celebration of dispossession and detachment, these new technocrats of nothingness have stripped anti-art of all poetry and invested all their energies in the mechanisms of transaction. Klein and Cage would be horrified at the sterility of their own projects as well as at the capacity of capitalist modernity to absorb the supposedly lethal attack mounted by Dadaism.

Both Klein’s and Cage’s work are charged with a mystical and esoteric spirit on the verge of epiphany. This metaphysical calling is perfectly illustrated in Klein’s performance Leap into the Void. In the photographic records of that already mythical act, Klein is seen launching himself from a second floor as if he were launching himself into paradise. But despite that romantic sensibility that connects Klein and Cage with the 19th century, and despite the radical experimentalism that connects them with the 20th, their works manage to transcend the historical moment. Referring to Klein, Thomas McEvilley writes: “So preposterous was his ambition, and so aware was he of its absurdity, that he contrived to carry the weight of history with the Chaplinesque whimsy of the clown.”[3] And Kyle Gann, writing of Cage, says: “He thought his way out of the twentieth century’s artistic neuroses and discovered a more vibrant, less uptight world that we didn’t even realize was there.”[4]

Yves Klein and Dino Buzatti throwing gold to the Sein and burning the receipt. Cession d’une Zone de sensibilité picturale immatérielle. (1962) © Harry Shunk and Janos Kender J.Paul Getty Trust. The Estate of Yves Klein c/o ADAGP, Paris.

Our new pontiffs of nothingness, however, seem even today puzzled by the ability of Yves Klein or John Cage to parody the messianism of their own ambitions with that self-refuting ironic stance. Presumed artists like Garau, Miller, Cáceres, or Haanings are still very much inside history, unable to transcend the cultural matrix within which they exhibit and defend their installations, too confident that postmodern irony will redeem them from these charades, from their conceit, from their lack of imagination.

Apparently, nothingness was better in the good old days. In 1958, nothingness was pregnant with ambiguity, uncertainty, heresy, throbbing irony. Today’s nothingness, contaminated by the vanity of Pop art and the shrewdness of a decadent deconstructionism, is loaded with certainty, platitudes, terminal and dogmatic irony. From the great heights that we had reached with those leaps into the void by Klein or Cage, we have ended up crashing against the bottom of this institutionalized nothingness. But the true nothingness always lurks, and this is what, as Heidegger would say, provokes the strangeness of what exists. Let us hope then that in the next ups and downs, at least one artist will emerge capable of confronting strangeness and of resuscitating wonder. If that ever happens, that artist will surely propose the same thing Klein did in his poem Invitation to a trip. Even without words, that artist will tell us: Come with me towards the void…

Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, October 19, 1960 shunk-kender © J. Paul Getty Trust.

Notes:

[1] Hugo Ball: Flight out of Time: A Dada Diary, UC Press, Berkeley, 1996, p. 58. Ball’s personal diaries were written between 1910 and 1921 and originally published in 1927.

[2] John Cage: Silence, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, CT, 2011, p. 110.

[3] Thomas McEvilley: Yves The Provocateur, McPherson & Company, New York, 2010, p. 17.

[4] John Cage: Silence, XXVI.

PABLO BALER
PABLO BALER
Pablo Baler (b. Buenos Aires, 1967) is a novelist, critic and professor of Latin American literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of the novel Circa (Galerna, 1999, awarded with the Fondo Nacional de las Artes [National Endowment for the Arts] and the Premio Cultura de la Nación [National Culture Award] in Argentina) and the essay Latin-American Neo-Baroque: Senses of Distortion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Baler has edited the international anthology The Next Thing: Art in the Twenty-First Century (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013), eleven essays on the aesthetic sensibility that will define thees 21st century. His short story collection La burocracia mandarina [The Mandarin Bureaucracy] was published first in Spanish in 2013 and then in Portuguese in 2017 by Lumme Ed., São Paulo, Brazil. A graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stanford University and the University of Berkeley, Baler is also an International Research Fellow of the Centre for Fine Art Research at Birmingham City University, United Kingdom. His next novel, Chabrancán, will be published in 2020 by Ediciones del Camino.

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