Filling Empty Space

At the start of a new project every aspiring maker of marks must contemplate the empty space where the marks are to go. This space is to be filled.  The thought can be terrifying. Suddenly the possibilities that lie open may seem as vast and overwhelming as space itself and the poor mark-maker may find that not a mark will come!

This time, however, I’m in luck and all’s well, for the very thought of filling emptiness happens to offer an easy way in.

The Hayward Gallery in London recently showed an exhibition of Invisible Art. You went in as usual, paying an £8 entry fee, to look at….well, at what?  For example, at an invisible Supercar which, you were told, was placed on the floor where the starting line for a race was painted; or at an empty plinth above which, you were told, a professional witch had cursed the air; or at a dark room which, you were told, was haunted by the ghost of James Lee Byars.

What was the point of all this?  Well, Jonathan Jones, The Guardian art critic, has called it a ‘seriously brilliant jest’ and that is maybe justification enough, for there is a serious shortage of seriously brilliant jests. But he claims much more, as do the Hayward curators: they claim invisibility as a stimulus for the imagination.  The argument is that nothing demands something of us and the human mind responds by filling blanks with images and ideas.

Jonathan Jones is a seriously brilliant writer, but this is not the whole truth.  Alas, many minds much of the time stare at blankness blankly.  And even the most creative do this sometimes.  The blank sheet of paper is the classic symbol of writer’s block, and serves equally well for artists. Tom Friedman submitted to the Hayward exhibition a blank sheet of paper at which he said he had stared for 1,000 hours.  I wonder whether Friedman had a few images and ideas during those hours?  Perhaps if he had given material form to any that came to him we might have had another, visible, exhibition next door.  That would have been fun!

The fact is that the Hayward show wasn’t all that empty: there were visible starting lines and plinths and sheets of paper – and there were, most importantly, the stories told about these.  Would people have been afraid to put their hand into the blank space above the plinth if they had not heard of the witch’s curse?   Would this simple little bit of space, left truly empty, have stimulated images and ideas in many minds?  Surely not!

So what we have here is an extreme instance of a trend common in art today, especially if the art is still in the old conceptual tradition. This trend consists in a diminishing of the visual, even though we still ‘show’ the art in galleries.  It ‘s as if we are almost apologetic about images, as if we believe they are not fit to stand alone but need some kind of support, which in practice Is usually given in the form of language. It’s a strange trend.  How can we possibly have had a collective forgetting of the vast power that visual images, alone and unaided, can exert on the human mind?

Mercifully the amnesia is not universal.  Read Simon Schama’s book ‘The Power of Art’ if you need to be reminded.  Here’s a single striking quote from it:   ’….. he [Rothko] shared with Rembrandt and Turner the power to switch on in our eye the tap of bodily delight’.  I hope this will tempt you. Schama gives a rich justification of his title.

Let’s turn back now for a moment to human responses to emptiness, for there’s still a lot more to say on that huge topic.  It’s certainly true that often we treat emptiness as something to be got rid of by rapid filling.  But it’s worth noting that some ancient spiritual traditions consider emptiness of the mind not as something we should rush to fill but as a positive state, much valued, very hard to attain and even harder to maintain.

For now I just note this in passing.  My mind is far from such a state and its contents are shifting and drifting in the usual unpredictable ways.  So they’ve moved swiftly from thoughts of spiritual transcendence to distant memories of a poem about Peter, who was a painter, and Puggle, who was a witch.  Here’s how it begins:

Peter painted pictures, beautiful to see.

Puggle was a witch and she said: ‘Paint me!

Paint a pretty picture that I like a lot

Or I will turn you into a purple pepper pot.”

Peter took a paintbrush and began to paint

But he couldn’t make a mark, not ever so faint……

The next lines elude me but you can imagine Peter’s dismay at the thought of future purple-pepper-pot-dom.  However, he need not have feared, for when Puggle next flew in she looked at his canvas and called out in delight:

“What a lovely invisible picture of me!”

The fate of the invisible portrait of Puggle is not known, so search your attic in case it may be lying there, covered in dust.  And if you should find it, make for the Hayward with all speed.  Think what it must be worth now!

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