A Little Something On Nothing
by Jeff Benjamin
Written for the occasion of “Art, Archaeology and the Curious Activity of Digging Up Nothing,” an art piece by Matthias Neumann. January 16, 2016, 7 pm. Radiator Gallery. Long Island City, NY. Co-presenters: Scott Schwartz, Matthew Lange, Megan Hicks, Matthias Neumann.
Silence is better than nothing -- Curt Kirkwood
My first association when thinking about the topic of 'finding nothing' is an imaginary walk down the cobblestones of Crosby or Greene Street in search of a Ray Johnson performance, although this would be finding "A Nothing" as opposed to finding nothing. I remember seeing a film of Johnson in a gallery throwing a stack of papers into the air like a fountain, and then there's an image of him dumping a box full of wooden spools down a staircase. The artist in motion, doing things in a gallery space or studio, a living performing being, thinking of this reminds me of how truly hard it is to create nothing, to be silent in order to not speak of the nothing of which one knows so very little. I once heard that Poincare's definition of 'the possible' is that its value must be at least equal to one over the age of the universe, which is currently set at 13.82 billion years, so perhaps the chance of finding nothing is less than one in 13.82 billion. And alongside this no-thing there is the non-event, or to stay in the realm of the possible the 'least event' as conceived by John Latham, the smallest constitutive element of the universe. In an excavation unit, this is what an archaeologist looks for. In the studio practice, it is what an artist uses to assemble into a something that becomes undeniably present. A commonly related experience for artists is that the peripheral, forgotten zones of the studio, the little nothings ("oh, that's nothing") are, in the end, the pieces that get into the gallery. The work at the center of the room, the unfortunate masterpiece endeavor is over-worked and inevitably abandoned. Perhaps this is what Agnes Martin means when she says that that saddest thing for an artist -- and perhaps for an archaeologist -- is to have an idea.
What a gift it is to search for -- let alone find -- nothing. It is a release from the onerous legacy of treasure hunting or treasure making. To apprehend nothing is to somehow engage with the formlessness from which all images, all forms are derived. I am reminded of the field paintings of Ryman or Rothko evoking the source, like a reversal of fate, where emptiness or the void becomes a source rather than a sink. Forms emanate endlessly from nothing, and both painting and archaeological excavation delineate this nothing through the curious custom of the frame, the cosmic map.
Even more fortuitous than finding nothing is having nothing to find it with. Empty hands, empty pockets, no funding, no tools, means having no purchase for any behavioral fulcrum to pry or leverage, having nothing gives you the freedom to have your own thoughts. Excavation can happen visually: looking for paint lines on the sides of buildings, changes in materials, the air space between buildings, the vast negative spaces between things, forms made explicit by Rachel Whiteread in her enormous casts of the interior of rooms and houses.
The hydra-headed discipline of archaeology has long contended with the mass noun, the element, now reemerging in new garb as 'the hyperobject,' the spatial distribution of similar types. The archaeological matrix, dancing between field and form, shifting between horrore vacuee and horrore plentitudinous, is ideally a space of abandonment, a no-place utopia where no one goes, where nothing happens, a space of randomness and chaos. This is what connects archaeological site practice to studio practice, they are both forms of personal expression, and at least for me, both thrive only in spaces that have enjoyed as J.B. Jackson has termed, an "interval of neglect," existing outside of day to day norms and scrutiny. Nowhere -- in the middle of nothing -- is the place where archaeologists willingly place themselves. Far more often than finding nothing, archaeologists find themselves in the middle of nothing.
Finally, nothing, as the absence of something, anything at all, has an absolute nature. Nothing is -- as Rothko once observed of silence -- accurate. But this accuracy of nothing is an accuracy that does not differentiate - it is encompassing and accommodating. Like absence, nothing creates the open space for an affinity among different forms of being, interchanges between different potentialities: what could be, will be, might be, would be, was, could have been, but nothing is much older than absence. In fact, nothing predates absence by at least 13.82 billion years. "Being is said in many ways," according to Aristotle, and clearly, as its edges are delineated by the trowel of the archaeologist or the palette knife of the artist, so is nothing.