The single word emptiness describes a lack of something, a void, vacuousness, inanity, absence, an abyss, nothingness and chaos. Emptiness is at the beginning of creation, it includes the ambivalence of things and evokes a contradiction between what exists and what does not exist or what has not been born. As in the era of immediacy and of overuse of new technologies leading to an absence of communication, only a short time remains to address boredom and to tame solitude. Knowing how to do nothing may soon only be an obsolete skill that once gave us the chance to breathe and understand the world. Would we be scared to face the silence and listen to the ticking of our free-will?

Empty shape

Un mot pour décrire l’absence de quelque chose, le néant, la vacuité, l’inanité, le manque, l’abîme, le rien, le chaos. Le vide est à l’origine de la création, il contient l’ambivalence des choses et nous renvoie à la contradiction entre ce qui est et ce qui n’est pas ou ce qui ne naît pas. Car à l’ère de l’immédiateté et de la surconsommation de la non communication, il ne reste que très peu de temps pour appréhender l’ennui et apprivoiser la solitude. Savoir ne rien faire est un plaisir oublié. Eprouver la douceur de vivre ne sera peut-être bientôt plus qu’une aptitude qui nous laissait autrefois une respiration pour appréhender le monde. Aurait-on peur d’affronter le silence et d’écouter le métronome de notre libre-arbitre?

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Before the opening

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Nothingness, void, emptiness, vacuum, abyss, chaos: just one word can suffice to describe the absence of something. The multiplicity of words one can use to describe the notion of emptiness provides a good example of the extraordinary polysemy of the English language. It is a notion which has occupied an important place in diverse domains, ranging from science and psychology to art and philosophy. In ancient Greek mythology, the notion of emptiness was personified in the form of Nyx, goddess of the night, who pre-dated Creation. Nyx and her brother Erebus, god of darkness, were the first divinities born of primordial Chaos. Night is attributed the role of matrix of the world, and emptiness thus gives rise to the ambivalence of things. Emptiness makes us think carefully about the notion of space, or the philosophical contradiction between what is and what is not or which is not born, and through its complementarity with fullness calls to mind the rules applied in art. This complex polysemy became a focus of my work, awakening an interest which I explored from different angles and then re-interpreted through the prism of my emotions.

In the sciences, acceptance of the existence of the notion of vacuum was strongly contested in scholarly circles, eventually leading to this famous principle of Aristote who himself was denying the existence of vacuum: “natura abhorret vacuum”, nature abhors a vacuum and will immediately fill it. We have always tended to define the vacuum as what is left in the container after we have extracted everything from it. However, if the vacuum exists, it is not nothing but something, which must not be taken out, lest one risk reducing it to nothingness, which it cannot be because it is something. To create a vacuum, one must take out everything except the vacuum.

Einstein devoted a part of his book on relativity to the problem of space, in which he refutes the existence of nothingness, or rather the existence of an empty space field. Physical objects have a “spatial extent”. As such, the concept of “empty space” becomes less relevant. Recently we have learned that space-time – the very fabric of the world in which we live – can be understood as an elastic container which is subject to undulation. During their journey, gravitational waves shake space-time, briefly modifying the distance between two points in space and the notion of space itself.

In philosophy, the notion of nothingness is intimately linked to the notion of existence. Nothingness is the absence of existence. Parmenides stated that “existence is, non-existence is not”. In turn, Plato believed that nothingness could only exist outside that which exists, the latter being full. The theory developed by Sartre, explained in Being and Nothingness (L’Etre et le Néant), posits that “individual existence precedes individual essence”. “Being for itself” (L’être pour soi), understood as a human being conscious of his/her existence, liberty and conscience, remains nonetheless incomplete, a work in progress. And it is this incompleteness which defines a human being. Since the “Being for itself” has no pre-determined essence, he/she is forced to create him/herself from nothingness. Through consciousness of not being, a human being becomes what he/she is: a void, completely free in the world, a blank canvas on which everything is to be created.

In the process of creation, the work of homo faber takes root in this “full-empty” dichotomy. Before creating anything, human beings project what they want to create onto the materials they are using. They invent a material capable of rendering the intangibility of emptiness. Vases can be made of clay but their utility comes only in relation to the existence of empty space. And technically, without empty space, the plant pot would explode as it is fired in the kiln. Most art forms which involve working with materials are based on the full-empty dichotomy. It is therefore not the material but the form itself which becomes full or empty. Techniques can be used to transform an excess of material, of full, into a potential empty space able to accommodate the form. This condition is at the heart of all fine arts, architecture, graphics and textile arts, which are simultaneously arts of the empty and the full.

Of course, in the realm of psychology, emptiness evokes fear. We all have fears, including the fears of not being and of not existing. These fears often prevent us from saying no, for fear of displeasing the person requesting something of us, or push us to adopt pathetic or incoherent behaviours in order to exist vicariously in a virtual world. New technologies which were initially in the service of mankind have ended up determining human relations. Technology addiction, internet avatars, artificial intelligence and vocal recognition technologies all contribute to very new forms of solitude which reveal another ailment of modern life: the fear of being alone.

However, as a result of fleeing from our fears instead of confronting them, we also flee a whole range of emotions, searching for a perfection, a great Belezza which doesn’t exist. This rejection of emotions constitutes a sort of bad faith at the societal level which generates anxiety. The promotion of personal responsibility is probably one of the most common techniques used in modern psychology. We have choices, we are free, everything is the result of interpretation and the power of intention.

In fact, currents of oriental wisdom have known for a long time that emptiness is a key concept, a sort of regulating entity which breathes a living space into all things. Taking the words of the Indian Astika philosopher Nisargadatta Maharaj: “Free yourself from form, from name, from desire and the fear they create, and what are you left with? ‘A void’. Yes, nothingness. But nothingness is full to the brim. It’s eternal potentiality, just as consciousness is the eternal present.” And as with great depths, one can only get back up by pushing on one’s feet. While it can become a source of fear, nothingness – understood here as emptiness, boredom, silence, vacuity – is in fact only an incomplete or distorted perception, akin to an optical illusion. The other reality would be to see it as a realm of possibles.

In modern life we lack places to be alone, places where the sound of emptiness can be heard. Vast spaces which calm the spirit, abandoned spaces which generate their own unique poetry, crowded spaces from which one can only escape through the power of imagination. We also lack time to do nothing. Time for reflecting, to question our beliefs. To remember our traditions, our origins, the teachings of our ancestors. Time in which to mark the passage of time, to experience boredom and solitude. Knowing how to do nothing is a forgotten pleasure. Appreciating the pleasure of doing nothing might soon become no more than an aptitude, which once afforded us time to catch our breath and comprehend our surroundings. Could it be that we are afraid to contend with silence and to listen to the metronomic beat of our own free will?

TO SEE THE ORIGINAL VERSION IN FRENCH: http://altdel.net/empty-spaces-exhibitionalliance-francaise-of-dsm/