There is something in nothing for everyone. Bereft of possibility or fecund with potential, sublimely inexplicable or provocatively null: whatever your agenda or mindset, the very fact that nothing is impossible to define or quantify renders it infinitely accommodating. Rather like the boundless black holes which punctuate the universe, endlessly collapsing in upon themselves while perpetually sucking in everything around them, the notion of nothing seems capable of simultaneously expanding and contracting to encompass all avenues of speculation and interpretation.
Artists are especially fond of nothing. Hand in hand with Modernism came an embracing of nothingness; and in our post-Post-Modernist times this artistic love affair shows no sign of losing momentum. We’ve had Suprematist monochromes, Nihilistic Dadaist protestations (“Dada alone does not smell; it is nothing, nothing, nothing...”) the benign holes of Henry Moore, the architectural borings of Gordon Matta-Clark and the cosmic voids of Yves Klein. The Sixties spawned a host of immaterial works of art made from microwaves, electromagnetic fields, ultrasonic sound, inert gases or just pure thought, and today’s artists continue to be obsessed with the existence of non-existence; whether it’s Tom Friedman exhibiting a cursed space, Keith Tyson casting a series of spells throughout last year’s British Art Show, or Martin Creed’s succinct summary of ground zero in his 1995 text piece “Work 141” which states, “from none/take one/add one/ make none”.
Much of the above and a whole lot more can be found in Nothing, edited by Graham Gussin and Ele Carpenter, which, although it accompanies a touring exhibition of the same name, stands in its own right as an entertaining and informative survey of what we cannot get to the bottom of. Now iconic no-things such as John Cage’s 1959 “Lecture on nothing”, complete with its gappy columns and floating punctuation; Hans Haacke’s 1965 “Condensation cube” (which is reproduced opposite Casper David Friedrich’s painting “Wanderer above the sea of fog”) and Yves Klein’s famous fabricated leap into the unknown, “Le saut dans le vide”, preside over more recent peerings into the abyss, including the ominous blackness of Sophie Rickett’s 1999 “Wested interchange”, a skyscape uncannily perforated by Fiona Banner’s “Black bunting” or Ceal Floyer’s 1996 black dustbin bag of air. The teeming termite nest of brokers in Andreas Gursky’s “Chicago Board of Trade” underlines the nugatory effect of repetitive overload, while Jeremy Millar proposes to deposit a bubble of vacuumed nothingness onto a Scottish hillside.
And it does not stop at art. From the blank, black page in Chapter 12 of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to a photograph of a black hole downloaded from a NASA internet site, Nothing’s editors have taken evident relish in compiling an eclectic array of attempts by writers, scientists, film makers and philosophers to explore and express the null and the void. In this realm of nothingness, disciplines mix, merge and cross-dress: artists can busy themselves melting ice, making steam, whipping up whirlpools or racking up infinite digital sequences while science shows itself capable of throwing up exquisite visual encapsulations of the infinite.
Fiction, science and science fiction mingle with works of art to their mutual benefit. It would be hard to find a more powerful evocation of nothingness than the double page spread that places Martin Creed’s “Work 141” opposite an mysteriously beautiful image of anti-matter, photographed spiralling into existent non-existence inside the CERN particle accelerator, and especially when the preceding pages contain a mind-boggling collapse of time and space conjured up by the infinitely expanding, replicating architectural phenomenon in J.G. Ballard’s short story “Report on an unidentified space station.”
The very nature of nothingness dictates an open-ended treatment, and in the choreographed serendipity of Nothing that is exactly what it gets. At the end of Nothing you are left with precisely that, but are richer for the experience. Almost as mind-boggling as the notion of nothingness itself, is the voraciousness with which it continues to be pursued, and is the way in which no one is capable of claiming it for their own. As Gilbert and George state, in the deliciously absurdist postal sculpture of 1969, which signs off this compact compilation of the null, “All my life I give you nothing and still you ask for more.”
There’s always whole lot of nothing in the work of voidmeister Anish Kapoor. He has become internationally known for his evermore ambitious conjuring up of the immaterial, but in the summer of 1999 he excelled himself with his most audacious and effective work to date. Like many of the most memorable works of art of recent years—Rachel Whiteread’s “House”, Mark Wallinger’s “Ecce homo”, Anya Gallaccio’s giant block of ice—Kapoor’s “Taratantara” was made for a specific location and had a limited lifespan. For just eight weeks, in the summer of 1999, this double trumpet of glowing red PVC stretched throughout the 51-metre-long gutted interior of the old Baltic Flour Mills on the banks of the Tyne in Gateshead, filling Baltic’s soon-to-be developed empty space with a tunnel of red flaring out to frame and fit the 45-metre-high spaces of the missing end walls.
If, according to Carl Andre, “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not”, then “Taratantara” was both thing and hole, simultaneously occupying and opening up a literally endless space.
But now this paradoxical piece is able to live on, not only in the imaginations of those who saw it, but also in the form of a book, covered in the very red plastic from which it was created. Contained within its own skin and captured from different written, photographed and drawn viewpoints, this book of the hole is the next best thing to being there and directly experiencing the clarion call of “Taratantara”.
Graham Gussin and Ele Carpenter (eds), Nothing (August, London and Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland, 2001), 208 pp, 40 b/w ills, 60 col. ills, £14.95 (hb) ISBN 1902854098
Anish Kapoor, Taratantara (Actar, Barcelona, 2001), 80 pp, 3 b/w ills, 46 col. ills, £20, $30 (hb) ISBN 8495273446
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Nothing doing'