Staring at Nothing

[Originally published in I Rez Therefore I Am.]

I imagine that walking into the current Invisible exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery is a little like what walking into French avant-garde artist Yves Klein’s Le Vide or “The Void” in Paris back in 1958 would have been. For that piece, officially titled The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, 3000 visitors were led into a white-walled room that, apart from a large cabinet, was totally empty. Knowing that the exhibition consisted of “Art about the Unseen,” I walked into Invisible wondering what it was I should be looking for, and whether a gallery full of “invisible” art would be worth the effort it seemed to imply.  As I entered the second room of the exhibition, a jaded gallery attendant joked that I should watch out for the invisible door. Humoring him by turning an invisible doorknob, I soon realized that I’d need to experience the art in much the same way—with a little bit of humor and patience. And that is the common thread running through Invisible: works that bring us to acknowledge our pre-conceived notions and limitations about what it means to experience art.

Klein throwing gold into the Seine.

The exhibition—in which pieces are presented chronologically in various rooms—begins with Yves Klein himself, whose art often revolved around a fascination with nothingness and the immaterial. In Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility), begun in 1959, Klein sold “empty spaces” throughout the city of Paris in exchange for gold. Upon receipt of the gold he gave the buyer a certificate of ownership of the space, though in a second part of the performance he threw half of the gold into the river Seine if the buyer agreed to set fire to the certificate. “Through this act,” states one description of the piece, “a perfect, definitive immaterialization is achieved, as well as the absolute inclusion of the buyer in the immaterial…. Klein presents capitalist trading strategies and illuminates his ideas about the indefinable, incalculable value of art.”* It is a ritual that at once allows the buyer to experience the “Void” that was showcased in his earlier exhibition, and that shows the ultimate impossibility of obtaining ownership over such a space. (Even with a highly valuable material such as gold.)

Other works are more obviously “invisible,” such as American artist Robert Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field (1968) in which an electromagnetic energy transmitter sends out invisible waves of energy. We can’t see the energy field, we may not be able to tell that it is there, and yet it unquestionably exists. Inevitably, it made me think of all the other forces in the universe which are invisible to humans, but which have a profound effect on our world regardless. Some are physical, like gravity; others are even less easily categorized, like human emotions. Similarly ambiguous, Tom Friedman’s 1000 hours of staring (medium: “Stare on paper”) appears to consist of a rather large, though utterly blank, white sheet of paper. Of course, seeing this framed and displayed on a museum wall can be a little frustrating. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea of using “stare” as a medium made complete and total sense. Many artists use bodily fluids or other unconventional materials to create works of art; just because you can’t see the effect on paper, why is a stare different? Staring at the paper, glimpsing my own reflection in the glass, immediately evoked the 1,000 hours of intent and focus the artist spent looking at this same sheet of paper, a sheet of paper that will in turn be stared at fleetingly by thousands of people. Love it or hate it—the concept is powerful.

A similar piece consisting of frustratingly-blank paper is by American artist Glenn Ligon. Though in this case, the emotion of frustration is probably central to understanding He tells me I am his own.  As the description notes, Ligon, whose work often reflects his experience as an African American gay man, tries to capture the white bias of literature and Hollywood with a photograph of “whiteness.” The blank piece of photo paper reflects the blinding whiteness that pervades the majority of American popular culture; the absent photograph simultaneously brings to mind all the other images that are absent from Hollywood, as the bias of the camera shuts out darker skin tones in favor of glossy all-encompassing whiteness. To me, it seemed staring at this piece was one way to access the complex emotion of being faced with this reality.

“Invisible” art, like any other art form, may evoke a vast array of emotions and concepts. Comments on consumption and the “value” of art, using unseen forces like electromagnetic energy as art media, and highlighting existing racist structures are only a few examples. Though certain aspects of the art in this exhibition are often invisible, they are by no means unperceivable. Quite the opposite, in fact, as exploring what is absent may have endlessly more possibilities for the human imagination than focusing on what is present.  As the artist Robert Barry stated in 1968, “Nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.”

Invisible is showing at the Hayward Gallery until August 5th.

* Berggruen, Olivier, Max Hollein, and Ingrid Pfeiffer (eds.) Yves Klein. Hatje Cantz, 2004.

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