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On Being Present Where You Wish to Disappear

In 2009 the Centre Pompidou in Paris opened an exhibition called “Voids: A Retrospective.” Through works such as Yves Klein’s The Specialization of Sensibility in Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, it explored a tradition of radical curatorial and artistic interventions touching on the “art of nothing.” The exhibition consisted of empty spaces in which nothing was on display, apart from the white walls and wooden floors that constituted the architecture of the rooms. The decision to recreate the peak of minimal art and show nothing but emptiness or the absence of objects is intriguing. It can surely reignite discussions about the exhibition space as an artwork in itself, or, as in the example of Maria Eichhorn’s project Das Geld der Kunsthalle Bern, it can stress the economic dimension of institutions and the cultural practice of exhibiting.

The notion of nothing in art also inspired the Swiss conceptual artist Andreas Hausser to create the virtual No Show Museum in 2013. (The title of the show is borrowed from a work by John Barry.) No Show Museum is a museum of nothing with four hundred virtual pieces, a customized bus that works as a mobile exhibition space, and, most importantly, the framing of nothing as an aesthetic, which is a long-standing tradition in (Western) art. For Hausser, Barry, and the curators of “Voids,” nothing is universal. The claim of nothingness and the void as universal connects to the aesthetic gesture of an empty, often white-painted space, whilst the question of experience remains disconnected.

But does nothingness have to be empty, related to white, and, ultimately, be a shrouded representation of whiteness? Are empty spaces really, as John Barry claimed in his “No Show Museum” piece, quoting Marcuse, “places to which we can come, and for a while ‘be free to think about what we are going to do’”? Is there really such a thing as no-thingness when you encounter an empty exhibition space? Is nothingness an aesthetic, or can nothingness be foundational for a coming-into-being—a gesture of multiplicity rather than a gesture of absence? Who has access to this space of freedom to think about “what we are going to do”?

Nothingness can mean something very different when it comes to black experiences. David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blues (2001) allowed entry into a space of profound nothingness in which blackness didn’t serve as a means to a universal framing. Concerto in Black and Blues consisted of an empty exhibition space without light. Visitors were given blue flashlights to use in their efforts to traverse the space. Inevitably, this not only created an intrinsic relational dependency among the exhibition’s visitors, but also allowed a space characterized by the absence of installed things, sounds (despite the concerto in the title), and objects to be filled with a dense sociality. Silence—but also rhythm, as insinuated by the title, which draws on jazz and blues traditions—was present. Concerto in Black and Blues is an art piece intrinsically bound to black experience—an experience of the abyss, losses, emptiness, a different temporality, and voids. Or, as Édouard Glissant writes, it is an experience—emblematized by the belly of the boat that delivered so many bodies to the unknown—“pregnant with as many dead as living under the sentence of death.” Although these lives appear bound to social death, Concerto in Black and Blues brings blackness into being through an intrinsic sociality that is experienced in the dark as deeply relational. Hammonds creates this relationality through the aesthetic gesture of composing a concert of bodies that try to navigate the dark, caught between objectification and agency. Concerto in Black and Blues can be connected to the Middle Passage—foundational for modern thought and practices of colonization—through which enslaved human beings were placed within the realm of the particular. This installation produces an experience of particularity within multiplicity, which contrasts with the idea of a universal perception of nothingness, because it becomes a relational experience. Nothingness becomes foundational for black existence through the passage from singularity into multiplicity.

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