Originally published in the magazine of the Design Museum Holon, Israel, on the occasion of an exhibition by the Japanese designers Nendo.
In 1919, Marcel Duchamp presented his patron Walter Arensberg with a small quantity of air. It was contained inside a blown glass ampule, which he had purchased from a pharmacist, and was labeled: 50cc of Paris Air.
It is a bauble of an artwork, reminiscent of a Christmas ornament. Yet, as so often with Duchamp, the more one thinks about it, the more questions arise. Should we take it as a souvenir of the artist’s homeland, intended for a respected friend? Or on the contrary, is it a mockery of the whole idea of nostalgic remembrance? Might we imagine some emergency, artistic or otherwise, that would motivate one to break the glass and release the air inside, as if it were a quick-acting medicine? (If so, too late: the vial was accidentally broken in the 1940s, entirely accidentally, releasing the Parisian air into the American wild. The ampoule was carefully repaired.) Should we even believe that the contents are (or were) as advertised? Duchamp, that master of gamesmanship, was after all fascinated by misdirection. There is no way to verify that this is indeed Paris air. We must take it on faith.
While less well-known and influential than the artist’s found objects, or Readymades, 50 cc of Paris Air nonetheless inaugurates a certain tendency within twentieth century art: call it the tradition of the objet manquant. Within this current we can locate a wide range of artworks. There is Robert Rauschenberg’s notorious erasure of a drawing by Willem DeKooning (1953), the quintessential Oedipal act, cool as you like in its blank disregard for the vitality and vigor of Abstract Expressionism. There is the absurdist pomp of Yves Klein’s The Void (1958), an empty gallery watched over by Republican guards in full regalia, the art world equivalent of the folk tale about the “emperor’s new clothes.” The American conceptualist Robert Barry created a whole range of invisible works in the 1960s using radio waves, radioactivity and wind currents, which he situated both in galleries and outdoor sites. His colleague Lawrence Weiner created a piece called 36” x 36” Removal To The Lathing Or Support Wall Of Plaster Or Wallboard From A Wall, which yields a result that looks a lot like a painting, a geometry of exposed studs and boards. Yoko Ono’s searing Cut Piece (1964) is entirely about removal – in this case, of her own clothing by members of an audience – while her poetic language-works expand the conception of sculpture to impossible but evocative dimensions, as in her 1963 Earth Piece: “listen to the sound of the earth turning.”
In more recent years, absence has been central to the practices of a diverse range of artists: Martin Creed (lights turned on and off in a gallery); Rachel Whiteread (who has made her career materializing interior voids); Ryan Gander (whose Alchemy Boxes are accompanied by extensive lists of unseen contents); Charles Ray (who in 1989 made a white disk continually and very rapidly spinning in a white wall, its motion undetectable to the eye); and Tom Friedman, whose hilarious and thought-provoking projects have included a blank piece of paper entitled 1000 Hours of Staring (on a gallery label, the materials line reads simply “stare on paper”) and the wonderful Curse, an empty pedestal above which is a space cursed by a witch. As this list suggests – and it could be much longer – absence is unexpectedly rich terrain for artists. (1) As both technique and subject matter, it can produce effects ranging from the crisply intellectual to the gut-wrenchingly emotional. Absence in art can be humorous. It can be elegant. It can even be aesthetically satisfying, as in works by Agnes Martin, Piero Manzoni, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Ryman.
How to account for the vitality and range of the tradition of the objet manquant? One’s initial instinct might be to liken it to the concept of negative space, which is indeed a pervasive and crucial concept in art-making. Every painterly gesture takes place against a non-gestural background, much as a musical note is surrounded by silence. Composition in art – one color played against another, a form against a ground – often relies on such a binary structure. Temporally, too, art works operate against a field of absence. It is often said that the hardest part of making an artwork is knowing when to stop, and indeed, every work is defined not only by its visual, spatial and material qualities, but as an interval in time. Just as a rectangular painting is delimited by its four edges, an artwork comes into being, into its own presentness, in the duration between before and after.
So absence is foundational to the understanding of art, as something that is worked out over time, in space, through materials. But the objet manquant should not be understood simply as an intensification of negative space. In all the examples given above, indeed in any art work that engages thoroughly with absence (rather than simply using it for compositional purposes), the question seems to be posed: why make art at all? What is the value of putting a work into the world where none was before? When artists create without actually creating some thing – or, as in the cases of Rauschenberg, Weiner, and Ono, by removing something that was already there – they nudge art in the direction of philosophy. The implication is that the artist’s true contribution lies in the realm of ideas and intention.
Notice, however, how precisely designed an art object must be in order to communicate this idea. From Duchamp’s curious glass to the exactness of Ono’s poetic language to the ingenious engineering of Charles Ray’s spinning disk, artists tinkering with absence must fully master the means at their disposal. That is the only way make nothing resonate, to make it more than just nothing. We might consider the objet manquant a limit case, then, and a revealing one at that. When artists tiptoe right up to the precipice of nonbeing, right up to the point when they’ve done nearly nothing at all, they must exert their formal intelligence to the utmost.
Recall the point about 50cc of Paris Air, which does nothing to prove itself. It is a claim floating free in the world, which we are free to accept or dismiss. The conceptual dimension of art operates just in this way. It may remind us of other ways of thinking and knowing – religion, science, comedy – but it brings us closer to the fundamental value of human creativity than any of these do. Look through a glass windowpane, and it might seem like nothing at all is there, but a gentle breath, the proximity of a human body, will make it visible. Just that delicate is the work of artistic absence. It stares right into the question of art’s reason for being, and gives us a new way to say yes.
- At least two exhibitions have been devoted to the topic of absence in art: Ralph Rugoff’s Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012 at the Hayward Gallery, London; and Ingrid Schaffner’s The Big Nothing at the ICA Philadelphia in 1994.