I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death's note wants to climb over-
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling…
Rainer Maria Rilke
To become imperceptible oneself, to have dismantled love in order to become capable of loving. To have dismantled one's self in order finally to be alone and meet the true double at the other end of the line. A clandestine passenger on a motionless voyage. To become like everybody else; but this, precisely, is a becoming only for one who knows how to be nobody, to no longer be anybody. To paint oneself gray on gray.
I am fascinated by the concept of nothingness, and how this concept can be negotiated through art. When the picture plane is nearly empty, what little content remains takes on terrible significance. When I photograph, I am attracted to places where erosion has occurred, where something has been forcefully erased or covered over, making it hard to tell what was. I can further “erase” through the picture taking process, by what I leave in or out of the frame, by burning the image out with light, by obscuring it with darkness, by coming too close, or by getting too far away.
Jacques Derrida touched on the implications of nothingness with his term différance, a nebulous conflation of difference and deference. He proposed that this quality makes presence possible, while at the same time making it differ from itself. Différance is the “becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space.”[i] Gilles Deleuze also addressed nothing's relationship to becoming; at the moment an event occurs it is both non-existent and infinitely divisible, in the slot between the past and the present.[ii] Deleuze invokes “the circulation of the empty square in the structural series (the place of the dummy, the place of the king, the blind spot, the floating signifier, the value degree zero, the off stage or absent cause, etc.)”[iii]
Nothingness is elusive. Nothing requires something to exist. This paradox manifests in photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's long exposures of movie theater screens, which are “empty by accumulation.” Sugimoto’s intent was that “the movie projected might burn out into an overexpose, gleaming white screen... you know, like a religious experience, like Mother Mary making an appearance.”[iv] Mark Rothko's color field paintings contain a similar emptiness and aura of accumulation, and interestingly, have been described as resembling a cinema screen or theatrical proscenium,
“when seen, or more accurately remembered (given the prevailing haziness) at the instant just before or after an event has taken place within them. This is because there is a vacancy and effacement rather than manifestation and form... That drift from assurance to bafflement holds us in thrall, wondering.”[v]
The silence and space within these images hold their resonance.
Uta Barth is another contemporary photographer who engages ideas of nothingness. Her Ground, ...and of time, and nowhere near series don't center on a traditional subject or event. Rather than using the camera as “a pointing device” to make a picture of something, Barth uses the camera to bring attention to the act of looking itself.[vi] Where the object of focus would normally be seen the frame is empty or blurred. The picture occurs at its own peripheries.[vii]
The idea of nothingness is haunting. There was nothing before we were born and will be nothing when we die. And, or, yet – unfathomably - everything will continue to exist in its immensity and we will be nothing. In the face of deep time and space we are already nothing. Nothingness has qualities of potential, mystery and the infinite. It is the ultimate unknown, being almost impossible to conceive. Nothing occurs before, after and outside of the known universe, outside of time and space; it also occurs between particles, between the infinite divisions we make to understand the substance of the world.
My relationship with space has been shaped by living in the West. Here the human experience of space is visceral. The long mountain ranges, wide valleys, the open vistas and big sky, create an impression of boundlessness. The cities reflect this, sprawling in all directions, eating up space with new subdivisions. Environmental groups fight to conserve wildlife habitat, water and open range, but it is difficult when the land looks unlimited. Its emptiness depends on what you are looking for. In the city, the night sky is empty. Light pollution blocks any view. Like Sugimoto's movie screens, the city sky is rendered blank by an accumulation of light. In the desert, the night sky is full. By virtue of a lack, something comes to be.
[i] Nicholas Royle. Jacques Derrida. London: Routledge. 2003 pp 71-74
[ii] Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Columbia University Press. New York: 1990 (1969). p. 8
[iii] Ibid., 71-73
[iv] Sugimoto. Madrid: Fundacion “la Caixa,” 1998. p. 16
[v] Anfam,David. Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas. Yale University Press. London: 1998. p. 11
[vi] Lee, Pamela; Higgs, Matthew; and Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Uta Barth. Phaidon Press. New York: 2004. p. 11, 20
[vii] The theme of the peripheral warrants a thorough and separate investigation of its own, including a discussion of Derrida's “supplement,” the use of annotation by David Foster Wallace, and contemporary society's fascination with trivia and marginalia, as supported by the ease of Google.