In praise of emptiness

Unlike writing, painting makes a distinction between pattern and meaning. The physical content (i.e., the pattern one plots on the canvas) is distinct from the mental content (what the artwork tells us). For the painter, only a dissociation (or even a divorce) between these two content types (physical content and mental content) allows one to put the former at the service of the latter.

Taking possession of space to express oneself may well be natural, but creating an artwork can hardly be reduced to the action of filling. Attempting to fill the entire space amounts to regarding it as a uniform commodity that one is required to consume, rather than as a place dedicated to nurturing our art, one itself also made up of deficiencies.

Filling space at any cost is a natural, rather than an artistic approach (think of vegetal growth dynamics, which only abate once all the available space is exhausted). Adopting this logic risks producing nothing more than a frilly pattern, a ‘gratuitous’ structure, justified only by a determination to fill a void, yet quite devoid of meaning. A frilly, meaningless pattern, disconnecting the two types of content, whose only remaining content is physical. The message will have gained a foothold, but not its content. Fullness is empty, or rather ‘shape is empty’, as a Buddhist proverb says, and can be presumed devoid of meaning.

I obstinately seek the exact opposite of this: to dissociate the two content types, with their meaning prevailing over an utterly separate pattern, indeed one that can, in due course, be entirely dispensed with (there is no end of empty, yet highly significant artworks, from Malevich to Klein). In other words, the paradox within which the divorce between physical and mental content is consummated.

Contemporaneously to Malevich, Duchamp’s ‘everything is art’ takes this divorce between artwork and meaning yet further—like an annunciation: that of an art form that is no longer subordinate to its pattern, one which fills our daily lives, bodies and environment. Will it eventually become a key to understanding the present period? One artist inserted an artwork into a bacteria’s genetic code. Another wishes to put one in a blockchain. Yet another is placed in orbit.

This, then, is a second paradox that never ceases to astound me: by taking possession of an ever greater space, by occupying ever more numerous dimensions, contemporary creation seems to deprive itself of the ability to convey meaning. With its message and intention taken away, it is in imminent danger of becoming an all-invasive frilly pattern, it colonises space, intrudes everywhere rather like an invasive weed. The more it fears becoming meaningless, the more it attempts to colonise space (‘in an intractable, completely void clogging impulse, showcasing emptiness,’ as Barthes might put it). Art is a plant.