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Enter The Void: On Kode9 & A Brief History Of Nothing In Art
Robert Barry , November 17th, 2015 11:31

As Hyperdub head honcho, Kode9 (aka Steve Goodman), announces his new album named, about, and inspired by nothing, we take a look through some of the artistic precedents for Goodman’s minimalist inspiration, from sculpture to painting and performance

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One of Ad Reinhardt’s Black Paintings… or one of Malevich’s…

In the Spring of 2014, Marina Abramovic was interviewed by the BBC about the origins of her new piece for the Serpentine Gallery. “I called [Serpentine co-director] Hans-Ulrich [Obrist] and I said, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to take this, but this is what I want to do: nothing … there’s nothing.’ There’s now work, just me, and the public is my live material, and that’s the most radical, the most pure I can do.” But pretty soon Abramovic was accused of failing to give credit where it’s due.

While the Serpentine was busy calling her show “unprecedented”, a group of curators and art historians wrote to insist that there were indeed precedents – notably the work of Texan performance artist Mary Ellen Carroll, who had made nothingness a central part of her work since 1996.

“Hybrid-minimalism,” wrote Carroll in a text called ‘Nothing’ describing her work, “do nothin – Don’t explain – Don’t modify behavior – Make a performance: Nothing.” In 2006 she set off to live in Argentina for six weeks with no possessions beyond the clothes on her back and her passport. “I am not prepared to say Marina Abramovic is involved in plagiarising or anything like that,” art historian David Joselit said to The Guardian, “Mary Ellen’s work, when she left for Argentine, is in many ways more extreme. I just think there should be a conversation.”

But what about Carroll herself? How original is her own nothing? Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun. Worse. Maybe even that nothing isn’t original.

In 2009, the Pompidou Centre in Paris celebrated a half century of empty exhibition spaces with a show entitled Vides: une rétrospective. The curators removed the works from nine of the galleries which usually host the museum’s permanent collection in order to pay tribute to historical works by Robert Irwin, Stanley Brouwn, Art & Language, Maria Eichorn, and others.

True to the conceptual nature of the projects they celebrated, the Pompidou made no structural alterations to its rooms, nor any attempt to reconstruct their empty spaces to resemble those they paid tribute to. In fact, pretty much the only thing that distinguished one room from the next were the accompanying wall texts providing historical context and explanation. Void, wrote Vivian Rehberg, in Frieze at the time, “is a zero-sum game: nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

The oldest work in the Pompidou’s retrospective was Yves Klein’s The Specialisation of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void. In 1958, Klein, a mystically inclined nouveau réaliste and occasional Rosicrucianist, had emptied out the Iris Clert Gallery in Saint-Germain-des-Près.

Some 3,000 people queued up to gain admittance to an empty room with just a cupboard in the corner to show for itself. Cocktails in Klein’s signature blue were served to the bemused guests. “My paintings are now invisible,” the artist declared, “and I would like to show them in a clear and positive manner.”

Nothingness, empty space, has fascinated artists since the beginning of modernism. Kazimir Malevich had described his Black Square in terms of the contrast between the “feeling of non-objectivity” embodied in the square itself and the “void” of the white space around it.

In a similar way, Alberto Giacometti’s Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) represents nothingness by contrast. It presents a stylised human form perched on very slender chair whose hands are positioned as if holding something – but, like a mime artist articulating some obscure treasure, there is nothing between the figure’s fingers.

Following Malevich, Ad Reinhardt had spent much of the 1950s and 60s painting black monochromes. But unlike his Suprematist predecessor, Reinhardt did so out of a fascination with the blank spaces in Chinese landscape painting. He would set his canvas down flat before him, thin his oils down with turpentine, and cover the entire frame, from edge to edge, with an almost seamless wash of blackness, with barely a trace of manual gesture. Only after extended viewing does an underlying structure reveal itself behind the layers of paint on these canvases: a slight reddish tone in one corner, a hint of blue in another, distributed according to a strict programme.

The artist himself, a former newspaper cartoonist who along with Brice Marden and Sol LeWitt was a member of the American Abstract Artists group, would define these works in almost entirely negative terms: as “shapeless”, “sizeless”, “directionless”, “lightless”, “colourless”, “a pure, abstract, non-objective, timeless, spaceless, changeless, relationless, disinterested painting”. He called them his “ultimate paintings” and, indeed, he would die in 1967 having painted little else for over a decade. “He walked off into his picture,” an old school friend, Thomas Merton, would say.

For Anish Kapoor, the void “is a state within”. For his exhibit in the British Pavilion at 1990’s Venice Biennale, he presented Void Field, a room full of misshapen sandstone blocks each bearing a hole in the top, painted to black so as to appear bottomless. It’s a figure that recurs in much of the artist’s work. His Descent into Limbo from 1992, for instance, consisted of a circular hole cut into the gallery floor, again painted black, offering a vertiginous sense of some endless cavity. In an essay available on Kapoor’s website, the theorist Homi K. Bhabha, writes “the presence of an object can render a space more empty than mere vacancy could ever envisage.”

One of the curators of the Pompidou’s Vides was the artist Gustav Metzger. He evidently became quite taken with the subject, because in 2012 he was still thinking about nothing. In 2012, he produced Null Object with London Fieldworks and cyberneticists from MIT. The creation of the sculpture involved Metzger thinking about nothing – or at least trying jolly hard to do so – while taking an electroencephalogram reading of his brain waves. The results were used to provide instructions for a robot to drill a big hole in a 50cm cube of fossilised Portland stone.

So when Steve Goodman announces that his new Kode9 is to be called Nothing and is inspired by nothingness, he steps into a venerable tradition. The dubstep producer and Hyperdub label boss recently told Sukhdev Sandhu, writing in The Guardian, that in preparing the record he had been “reading about mathematics and the history of zeros” when he came across a chapter in Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism book about Project Zero, “where production costs are reduced to zero.”

Goodman immediately realised that this “is one of the most important engines in the transformation of the music industry. We don’t know where it’s heading. ‘Nothing’ was like a little encryption key that enabled me to finish the album.” We can only hope that a team of enraged Mary Ellen Carroll fans don’t write in demanding due acknowledgement of her precedence.

Nothing by Kode9 is out now on Hyperdub

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Katarzina R'Lyeh
Nov 17, 2015 12:47pm

Thing is, you can't know whether you are using nothing in you act or not, because it cannot register it's presence. Nor can it be used, as it doesn't have convenient handles by which to steer it - because it's a void, and you can't attach handles to a void. Indeed a void having no dimensions or solidity cannot take part in spacetime at all. It cannot be said to be present in one art work, and not present in another, because it has no location. In fact a true void can't even be a referent for a noun, and cannot truly be spoken of. Except I just spoke of it. But that's arty bollocks for you. The important point to consider is whether people will offer you money and sex for it. In which case, I've got an infinite nothing for you right here.

"In 2006 she set off to live in Argentina for six weeks with no possessions beyond the clothes on her back and her passport."

But she had a fanny, a void into which endless money can be poured. Why would a woman need money when she's built around a void ?

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Nov 17, 2015 1:24pm

I have nothing to add to this.

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Johnny Nothing
Nov 17, 2015 8:44pm

Aachen is a small town in West Germany.

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Taun Aengus
Nov 18, 2015 6:25pm

Life is art-art is life. (Now thinking about what I might have just read.)

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Enzo Mansueto
Dec 8, 2015 9:56am

Shakespeare plays on the word "nothing" and the idea of nothingness or emptiness throughout King Lear. (Psst: that's one of the reasons this play is so insanely bleak.)

Here are a few significant moments from the play: In Act 1, when Lear stages his love test and asks Cordelia "What can you say to draw a third [of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters?", Cordelia replies, "Nothing." Lear can't believe what he's hearing. "Nothing will come of nothing," he tells her. "Speak again." (In other words, you'll get absolutely nothing from me unless you speak up about how much you love me.)

By the way, the phrase "Nothing can come of nothing" is a variation on the famous phrase "ex nihilo nihil fit"— that's Latin for "from nothing, nothing comes," which is an ancient Greek philosophical and scientific expression. It's the opposite of the biblical notion that God created the world (which is a whole lot of something) out of nothing (Genesis 1:1).

The word "nothing" shows up again in the play when the Fool tells Lear he is nothing without his crown and power: "now thou art an O / without a figure. I am better than thou art now. I / am a Fool, thou art nothing" (1.4.197-199).

According to the Fool, King Lear is a zero and is no better than a "shealed peascod" (an empty peapod). The Fool also calls the retired king "Lear's shadow," which suggests that Lear, without his crown, is merely a shadow of his former self. The idea is that Lear, (whose status has changed since retirement) is nothing without his former power and title. Check out our discussion of the theme of "Power" for more on this.

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