Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Void

Still from process and perception

Keywords: The void / Being and non-being / Sublime / Threshold / Immanence / Liminality / Ritual

In my most recent work 'Process and Perception' the final screen burns away to reveal nothing but blackness, the void. One of my primary module aims was to explore how aspects of a contemporary Sublime centred on obscurity and the void manifest in my work? With my recent experiments I feel I am starting to more directly question this relationship.

The concept of the void is one that has been with us for thousands of years, creation theories in many world religions have at their heart the paradox of creation from the void, non-being and then being.

"The non-existent was not; the existent was not
Darkness was hidden by darkness
That which became was enveloped by The Void"
(Rigveda creation hymn, 1700 BC)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said "let there be light" and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he seperated light from the darkness. God called the light "day" and the darkness he called "night". And there was evening, and there was morning-the first day.
(Old Testament - Genesis)

The concept of the void doesn't just exist in a religious context. The scientific discovery of atoms and therefore the space between atoms, as well as the vacuum of space means the void or emptiness is found to pervade or occupy most of the universe. Modern physics now proposes that everything came from nothing, therefore it is possible that the universe emerged out of the vacuum - out of nothingness.

Within us the void manifests as the feeling that there is something bigger than us, this could be something vast, terriffyning, heavenly, benevolent. A feeling very much tied to the concept of the sublime. 

The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human – God or the gods, the daemon or Nature – is matter for great disagreement” (Weiskel, 2010, p.12).

This feeling of something other, vast, beyond ourselves has been used by religion as evidence God or Gods. But how in a western society which has largely regected the Christian narrative can we explain the persistence of this feeling within us?

In 'Civilization and its Discontents' Sigmund Freud discusses this particular feeling. An acquaintance wrote to Freud in-response to Freud's 'The Illusion of Religion'. This acquaintance talks of having:

 "a Particular feeling of which he himself was never free, which he had found confirmed by many others and which he assumed was shared by millions, a feeling that he was inclined to call a sense of 'eternity', a feeling of something limitless, unbounded - as it were 'oceanic'. This feeling was a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; no assurance of of personal immortality attached to it, but it was the source of the religious energy that was seized upon by the various churches and religious systems, directed into particular channels and certainly consumed by them. On the basis of this oceanic feeling alone one was entitled to call oneself religious, even if one rejected every belief and every illusion" 
(Freud - Civilization and its Discontents - 1930)

In his seminal text 'The Sublime is Now'  Barnett Newman builds on this idea of our inbuilt feeling of something greater, for him it is no longer a signifier of something exterior, by moving its focus from religion (God) and onto ourselves (Man)  he internalises the sublime. It is not God at the centre of the universe but ourselves, the sublime is within us. The religious space of mysticism or theology is flattened, otherness is now within ourselves, owned and understood by us individually.

'We are reasserting man's natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images who's reality is self evident... We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or 'life,' we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.' Barnett Newman - (The Sublime is Now - 1948)

The void is emptiness but what does this emptiness signify? is it the end, the beginning? or a transitional space, the potential to be? And how does it manifest itself in the context of contemporary art practice?

"The void is not silent. I have always thought of it more and more as a transitional space, an in-between space. It's very much to do with time. I have always been interested as an artist in how one can somehow look again for that very first moment of creativity where everything is possible and nothing has actually happened. It's a space of becoming... 'something' that dwells in the presence of the work... that allows it or forces it not to be what it states it is in the fist instance" (Anish Kapoor - Bhabha, p11-41 - 1998)

Here Kapoor is describing the void as a transitional space, the distance or time between two states, being and non-being, its loaded with potential, be it for creation or destruction. In this relationship between being and non-being the void becomes a temporal threshold not a destination.

Reading the void as a transitional or liminal space the burning transitions In 'Process and Perception' as well as 'Chronos' could be seen evoking a sense of the void. However this liminality is fleeting, it is mere moments before the threshold is crossed and a new state of being is revealed. With each burning screen first there is a moment of destruction, being becomes non-being. This is quickly followed by the realisation that the destruction is new beginning, non-being quickly becomes being again. With the final transition to black in 'Process and Perception' the void returns, but it is loaded with what has come before, asking the question of what is to come? The potential that Kapoor speaks of.

Being and non-being are therefore interdependent, non-being can only exist in relation to being. In Satre's 'Being and Nothingness' Sartre sets out this relationship.

'Nothingness is the putting into question of being by being; that is, precisely consciousness or for-self. ... Nothingness is the peculiar possibility of being and its unique possibility. Since nothingness is nothingness of being, it can come to being only through being itself'
Sartre - Being and Nothingness - 1958 - p.79

The two states are therefore interrelated one cannot exist without the other, this reciprocal or symbiotic relationship between being and non being has been much explored in relation to our mortality.

'Dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.'
Genesis 3:19

'We begin to die as soon as we are born, and the end is linked to the beginning'.
Minilius Astronomic

You will not die because you are ill, but because you are alive'

The annihilation and rebirth in Process and Perception or Chronos could be read ecologically, the destruction of our natural environment; or as a personal one, linked to our own mortality.


Liminality refers to the act of being on a threshold, crossing between two states, it is a period of change charged with ambiguity.

"A limen in Latin is a threshold. While its current usage is principally behavioural with respect to the threshold of a physiological or psychological response, in fact, liminal or borderline states are anywhere that something is about to undergo a phase transition or turn into something else."
(George Quasha and Charles Stein - HanD HearD, Liminal Objects - 2000)

However is it possible to make liminal art? Does the very act of looking/focussing on a liminal passage fix it in time as an event, the transition has now become another destination, it is no longer in-between but an event in itself.

Immanence refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence in which the divine encompasses or is manifested in the material world. Immanence is usually applied in monotheistic, pantheistic, pandeistic, or panentheistic faiths to suggest that the spiritual world permeates the mundane.

Bill Viola - 5 Angels for the Millennium
Bill Viola is an artist who's work explores the non-demonstrable. Focussing on the human condition and our relationship with otherness, that which is beyond comprehension, the cycle of life and the impossibility of death.

Bill Viola - Still from 'Ascension' 

In his Work '5 Angels for the Millennium' Viola create 5 separate pieces which all in some way involve a figure in relationship to water; Ascending Angel, Creation Angel, Fire Angel, Birth Angel and Departing Angel. All involve; submerging, ascending, sinking etc... of a single figure. The theme of water brings with it the dualistic positions of rebirth and drowning, ascending and decending, being and non-being. The mind-map below explores concepts and texts which form a contextual framework around '5 Angels'.

Each video is projected life sized in a totally dark room immersing the viewer and controlling their field of vision. In each work the relatively simple actions, sinking, floating etc are defamiliarised, time is slowed down, reversed, sounds are abstracted and do not run in time with the action. The disorientation created by this along with the immersive nature of the work combine to allude to an experience of otherness, of being overwhelmed, the Sublime.

The religious titling of the works as well as Viola's use of water creates an  obvious link to Christian baptism. In a baptism water acts as a threshold. After being immersed we re-imerge reborn, absolved of our sins and ready for a new life. It could be regarded as a positive affirming act. however here the outcome of each interaction with water is much more ambiguous and unsettling, rebirth or death, exhilaration or despair. The water is the boundary creating a before and after, the exact nature of each transformation is unclear, is this a biblical awakening of annihilation?, are we seeing someone come into being or returning to the void. Baptism is a form of ritual and ritual could be seen as a key term in this work.

'A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.'

Rituals are commonly associated with religious practice and are used to bind a community together. People gathering to celebrate a event such as marriage, harvest, birth, coming of age, etc...They are routinely performed and become familiar to those taking part. This familiarity brings comfort and stability, it also functions to create collective social identities. Viola's editing of each passage, slowing down, speeding up, off setting sound, destabilises the familiarity or ingrained cultural knowledge of such rituals. We are aware of its immense and transformative nature but can't decode through our existing cultural knowledge what we are seeing. However the association with religious ritual gives us clues enough that we are open to feel a preverbal resonance. Viola's interest in religion has clearly influenced his work throughout his career but we cannot read his work clearly as relating to a specific sect or faith, Zen Buddism, Islamic Sufism, or Christianity. But these references seem to provide Viola with a recognisable framework to draw the viewer into an altogether more ambiguous space.

I am interested in how Viola controls the visual domain of the viewer in these works. Light is strictly administered, when Viola wants there to be an absence of light it will be pitch dark. This is a total kind of artwork in which the viewer is 'encased' during the performance. However here the viewer is not an active participant but a spectator, like a guest arriving at a rite of passage they know little about they are not expected to take part. There remains a physical and phycological distance between the viewer and the work. In my own work I want to more actively engage the viewer, linking the agency of the work more closely with their decisions or response. I admire the raw power and honesty of these works (there are no post-modern, ironic, knowing, in-jokes here) Viola is tackling big issues, life, transformation, transcendence, death, being and non-being. This approach is powerful but ultimately not a path I see myself taking. In the same way I have recently scaled back the size of my projections I want the actual experience of the work to be more subtle or personal. In a group tutorial it was discussed how 'quieter' or more mundane works can outlast 'louder' instant works by allowing us time to think or live with them. We are more likely to stay with or consider something the experience of which does not physically or physiologically overwhelm us.

However when I speak of the last black screen in 'Process and Perception' as a void would a viewer really existentially make that connection without slight fear of their own annihilation? Watching Viola's 'Asending Angel' or standing at the edge of Kapoor's  'Descention' whirlpool one is more directly aware of ones mortality.

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