PRINT April 1990


Human Absence and Art
Whether we are concerned with my body, the natural world, the past, birth or death, the question is always how I can be open to phenomena which transcend me, and which nevertheless exist only to the extent that I take them up and live them.
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945)

AROUND 820 A.D., the former Constantinople patriarch Saint Nicephorus, fighting the iconoclastic movement in Byzantine society that aimed to ban the use of sacred images, wrote, “If one suppresses the image, not only Christ disappears but the whole universe as well.”1 Yet the recent events in Eastern Europe, as they touch upon the field of visual culture, remind us that the demand for the absence of certain images, objects, ornaments, and colors as symbols of a particular model of reality appears constantly throughout history. First, of course, there is the beginning of the disappearance of the Berlin Wall, an absence felt both at high political levels and at the “molecular” level, in the lived experience of individual human beings. Here, a solid object is slowly losing its physical completeness and fragmenting into smaller (low cost!) objects, which, through a change of context, acquire the status not of objet trouvé but of objet cherché. More generally, we are familiar in the East with the sudden disappearance of images of important people, whose painted or photographic portraits are removed from the streets and from the walls of public offices when they fall into disfavor. (The absence is made visual, however, by the lighter patch that remains on the wall—a common image in films dealing with revolutions or sudden political changes.) Today, this kind of absence has a new significance, indicating the sudden leap from socialist iconophilia to free-socialist iconomachia. The disappearance of the Communist insignia on the Romanian national flag enabled an in fact incredible reading of Adolf Loos’ statement that “the evolution of civilization is synonymous with the elimination of ornament from utilitarian objects”:2 the cutting out of the ornament or emblem from the middle of the flag resulted in a square or oval void, which, flying, for example, on military tanks, became an empty screen on which could be seen the full scope of Romania’s negation of its long postwar reality.

The meaning of such absences becomes our “lived experience” only to the extent that we feel ourselves part of the concrete social reality, or of the historical moment, in which we live. Other absences, however, touch us more intimately, as “lived experiences” in our immediate relationships with other people. A rupture in such relationships—whether final (someone’s death), temporary (someone’s travel), or illusionary (someone is asleep)—usually provokes not absence of sensations but a sensation of absence as a very strong sensation, to paraphrase William James.3 Paradoxically, absence is in fact a constant presence in our lives, and in our art.

How can one at least approximately define the basic notion of absence? That would demand a multivolume work, including a collage of quotations and commentaries from the whole history of philosophy’s discussions of death, nothingness, irreality, void, distance, isolation, abstraction, incompleteness, insufficiency, abstinence, immobility, indifference, muteness, invisibility, immateriality, unpresentability, atheism, and so on. In tandem, moreover, one would also have to discuss existence, time and space, matter, death, freedom, nature, memory, and finally the notion of God. For any reflection on the notion of absence must recognize that it is part of an indivisible duo: absence can be determined only in relation to something else, something related to presence. In her essay “The Aesthetics of Silence” Susan Sontag remarks such a duo: “In order to perceive fullness one must retain an acute sense of emptiness which marks it off; conversely, in order to perceive emptiness, one must apprehend other zones of the world as full . . . . (Thus, much of the beauty of Harpo Marx’s muteness derives from his being surrounded by manic talkers.)”4 Reflecting upon solitude and God in his “Key of Heaven” essay, Leszek Kolakowski writes,

Even the remotest human solitude is always solitude in relation to something that had existed . . . it is the privation of a previously existing and known reality; but the solitude of God before the creation of the world did not even have remembrance. It could not, therefore, find consolation in imagination, in recollection . . . nor in the very feeling of loneliness, which still demands an awareness of one’s own opposition or distance vis-à-vis the world. If the world does not exist and never did exist, then there can be no such distance; in fact there is no solitude, because there is nothing with respect to which one can be alone.5

Were we to ask, then, what absence is, we would also be asking, What is absence not? What is presence? Only through addressing the whole of the duo in which absence and presence are alter egos can we come close to understanding either part of it. When we realize that something is absent, we realize it only in relation to the whole. When philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce, Henri Bergson, and especially Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and, closer to us, Jacques Derrida and Mikel Dufrenne have confronted the notion of presence (this text makes no attempt to examine the important distinctions between “being” and “being present” on which much new philosophical thought is built), they have necessarily reflected upon the notion of absence, as have phenomenological thinkers questioning the relation between self and world, and Gestalt theorists dealing with the relation between the whole and the part. Absence is a sine qua non in the various post-Modern theories whose vocabularies are inconceivable without the “de-” terms that signify the unfinished and unfinishable process of fragmentation of the “full subject”: “deconstruction, decentering, disappearance, dissemination, demystification, discontinuity, différance, dispersion, etc.”6 And any debate on absence begins with presence, with the object, with the world, with the Romanian flag, with that from which something is missing. We cannot perceive it, it fails to appear, it is not there.

The question of the temporal dimension of absence is unavoidable here. To be absent, something generally must once have been present. It is inappropriate to say, for example, that stained glass is absent from the Parthenon, or that typewriters are absent from Baroque paintings, or that oil paint is absent from Coptic icons. In the same way, we cannot say that the “dictionary approach” of Joseph Kosuth’s art is present in the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, where instead of the one word of the movie’s title, its dictionary entry is screened. Clearly the notion of absence is linked to memory: where there is absence, there is usually a remembrance of a former presence. But absence should not be understood as a “negative” category. Here it seems appropriate to quote Roland Barthes’ definition of the principle of photography as “Ça-a-été” (It has been): “La photographie ne dit pas (forcément) ce qui n’est plus, mais seulement et a coup sur, ce qui a été” (Photography does not say [necessarily] what is no more, but only, and unquestionably, what has been).7

Time is responsible for some important absences in the art of the past, such as original colors in old paintings. But such absences have also led to new presences: the sculptural genre of the torso, for example, derives from classical statuary that has lost its limbs and heads. Perhaps the emergence—the presence—of a constellation of art governed by the “esthetics of incompleteness,” its variations traceable from the Renaissance and neoclassicism to Dada, Marcel Duchamp, Bruce Nauman, and arte povera, stems from those fragmentations. A similar example of absence proclaimed presence, again conditioned by the passing of time, is the loss of color in Greek temples and sculptures, a loss that led to neoclassicism’s euphoric “esthetics of whiteness,” later developed in the architecture of the Modern movement.

Another dimension of absence has to do with space. The Latin etymology of the word—abesse, “being away,” from esse, to be, and ab, away—already suggests a “there,” a place, world, reality, from which one has gone missing. (The place must exist in order for one to be away from it.) Absence, then, is determined by distance, separateness, the breaking of space. When a body is not in its expected locus, as in the banal example of a boy being absent from school, absence occurs. The idea of distance, the space between places that are never linked or between people who can never meet, can never become fully present to each other, is the basis of Marcel Proust’s whole oeuvre. The space of À la recherche du temps perdu is a “negative space,” in Georges Poulet’s words, a place split up among places, and the loved one, as in Swann’s Way, is always at “a place of pleasure where we never are.”8 Romantic literature, poetry, and movies, with or without happy endings, deal often with the absence of the other-who-is-not-here-now, with the impossibility of lover and loved being in the same spot. As Barthes writes of Goethe’s Young Werther, “Je, toujours present, ne me constitue qu’en face de toi, sans cesse absent” (An always present I is constituted only by confrontation with an always absent you).9 And when the one we love is here, there is always the fear of losing his or her love. Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) deals with this fear, but doubles it with the fear of a person who is absent—a man’s dead wife, who becomes the obsession of his present wife. Actually, Hitchcock accentuates absence further by negating the identity of the present wife: she has no name of her own in the film, being only “Mrs. de Winter.”

The voyage may be understood as a symbol of absence, for the voyager is not only absent to those left behind, but, being in many places, is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The theme of the wanderer has a long history, from Homer’s Odyssey to James Joyce’s Ulysses to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to any road movie or novel. The vehicles used to cover distance—flying machines, say, from Leonardo’s to Vladimir Tatlin’s, or cars, from the Futurists’ to those in the films of Jean-Luc Godard—are images not only of promise and speed but of potential absence. Also, the accessories essential to travel—luggage—can be traced in art from the Romanesque portable altars of the 11th century, a chapel in a box, up to Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, 1941.

Absence and Art

It’s easier to draw an angel than take a photo of one.
—Matt Mullican

In that the tradition of Western art strongly reflects Protagoras’ doctrine that “man is the measure of all things,” art is one of the places where there is the least possibility for the human to be absent. It’s not necessarily that the human figure must be recognizable in art, but that even the most radical figureless art finds it difficult to exclude a notion of human measure. Where the Old Testament emphasized hearing among the human senses (God is revealed in the audible word, and Moses’ Second Commandment prohibits the making of images), in the New Testament tradition the image is the evidence of God’s existence. As Pavel Florenskij writes, “[Andrei] Rublev’s Trinity exists, therefore God exists.”10 In the aspect in which God is “visible”—in His human nature—He can be represented by an image of man. Through the ages, art has confirmed humanistic doctrine by making the human visible.

But from its beginnings, art has also dealt with absence, has been dedicated to absence, has glorified and honored absence. Prehistoric art’s negative handprints, Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples (“dwellings for gods”), Roman imperial tombs erected as abodes in which the imago of the emperor could acquire divine power,11 the “house of God” that is the Christian church, statues of the dead and of the gods,12 tombstones, steles, memorial statues, obituary masks, reliefs, casts—all these objects are dedicated in the end to absence. According to Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, it was absence that initiated painting: Pliny tells the story of a girl who spends a last night with her beloved before he is to leave on a voyage, and who “fixes” his image in the room by outlining his shadow on the wall. Philippe Dubois cites this example of “representation through contact” as the basis of photography, a “writing by light” that predated mimetic representation.13 A shadow, like a mirror reflection, is always evidence of something present, in fact of the parallel presence of original and double (Narcissus and his image in the water), but the drawing of a shadow—the outline of what was there and is there no longer—becomes the trace of absence. Thus all the techniques of outlining a body that will later be removed—from prehistory (Pech-Merle, for example, where dust is fixed around the human hand) to Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” (People Begin to Fly, 1961) to the chalk outlines of criminology, and to such products of casting techniques as the cast-plaster figures of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz—all of these reflect human absence. The space-appropriation technique of “marking by walking,” which results in maps, diagrams, and photographs of terrain in the Conceptual work of such artists as Hamish Fulton, are in the same way traces of absence.

The essence of the idea of representation is the relationship between present and absent.14 During the Enlightenment, which concluded culture’s slow process of secularization, the artist began to understand nature as something outside and apart from the self. Until then, “representation guaranteed just that balance, the parallelism of subject and object”;15 if the two were no longer seen as parallel, as in some way reflections of each other, then it is not surprising that representation came to a crisis. The sensorily perceived world no longer conditioned the work of art. A century later, Paul Valéry, with others in the Symbolist movement (which had its inspiration in 16th-century Mannerism), would have no more need for the world, and would adopt the word as concrete experience. One can trace the beginnings of this moving away, this absence, from the world in the intervening romantic period, for example in the Comte de Vigny’s loud cry that he wished to be silent.16

Absence as Attitude

The most beautiful is not to be present.

For Valéry, absence is inspiration (creative absence) but also an attitude toward the world: “Presence, the most ordinary state.”17 For Édouard Vuillard, the artist must become “Monsieur rien-du-tout” (Mr. nothing-at-all), liberated through impersonality from the world’s “vulgar preoccupation with originality” in order to attain the “grand classic style.”18 According to Dada, the world is not only banal but also absurd, and Dada is a forceful presence in a society in which the human is withdrawing into invisibility: Dada annuls the world’s “medieval spirit limited to the validity of the individual,”19 and opts for “Non—seul plaisir” (Nothing—only pleasure).20 The Futurists’ accentuated “otherness,” their gnostic desire for separation from the world (by flight), and their “liquidation of objects”21 all point to the final breakup in the relation between subject and object, as does the “anti-humanist drive” implicit in the absence of the human being as subject in Metaphysical art (or, if the figure is present, its reification as a manikin or statue).22 Kurt Schwitters chose absence from the world (which orthodox Dadaists never forgave him), or rather substituted the world he built himself (Merzbau) for the world outside, and informel painting reduced the human presence to the experience of action, action directed not toward the world but toward the painting-as-world. All these can be seen as indications of an absence implicitly or explicitly opposed to the “metaphysics of subjectivity” formulated in the Cartesian age.

The “leaps” from the world as a rational object undertaken by Arthur Rimbaud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Duchamp, Howard Hughes, Nikola Tesla, and Greta Garbo are hard to reduce to a common denominator except in one thing: all are decisions, self-imposed positions. Sontag sees the decision of an artist to be silent (a decision in which she includes suicide) as, among other things, a renunciation of vocation after the artist has engaged in his or her profession—a Modernist approach in that the artist progresses to the “zero degree” of a silence from which there is no return. (In Modern art, similarly, the image of the figure, once lost from an artist’s work, is often lost forever, for figureless art is considered the most progressive—an illusion from which Kasimir Malevich wisely escaped.) What I am interested in here, however, is not silence as vocational renunciation but the opposite. The artist’s decision not to be where he or she is expected to be, whether in the social reality of the world or in the world of art (in either case, since the romantic period the artist’s role or public persona has been that of the socially “other”), means taking a stance on absence.

For some, this stance is a transitional attitude in the artist’s relationship to the world, something on which to speak, write manifestos, or, like Duchamp, make declarations of one’s own nonposition. This is in no way an absence of attitude but, explicitly, an absence as attitude. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s desire never to be photographed, “because he wanted to be able to roam the street freely and shoot freely without someone knowing who he was”23—a stance Annie Leibovitz honored by taking his photograph (a photograph of his attitude) with a hat covering his face—suggests an absence in the name of the oeuvre. Henri Michaux’s distance from the world is clear from his vision of his own life as “la vie dans les plis,” life in the folds;24 this too is an attitude concerning absence.

Other artists systematically apply a program of absence in their work,25 using such strategies as, for example, a diminishment of the subjectivity manifest in the work’s creation—a rejection of traces of the hand, say, or the introduction of chance, the realization of the work by another person or by a process in which the artist does not participate, the appropriation rather than the creation of works, or simply the idea that the work of art does not even have to be realized. The replacement of the human image with an image of a machine, whether an anthropomorphized machine or a mechanized human, is also a sign of absence, and this technological dream or nightmare is a recurring theme in 20th-century art, from the estheticization of the machine in Futurism through the love-hate relationship to machinery in Dada, the mechanization of movement in Oskar Schlemmer’s ballets, and the “biomechanical” actor in Vsevold Meyerhold to the “bachelor machines” of Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, Francis Picabia, Duchamp, and Marcel Carrouges,26 not to forget the cybernetic protagonists of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. One also finds the concealment of identity as a strategy in work with masks, in work that obscures individuality by an emphasis on the stereotype, in the use of pseudonyms, in the reduction of identity to a letter (Kafka’s K, or examples in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Jürgen Partenheimer’s drawings), and, in extreme cases, in the annulment of one’s own existence through the foreseeing of one’s own death (Klein, Timm Ulrichs, Duane Michals).

In discussing absence as attitude, I’m not thinking of those artists who have chosen a final exit from the world (suicide), nor of those coercive forms of absence applied as a social penalty, whether the individual is sent extra muros (ostracized) or intra muros (put in jail, or in an asylum). Although at first glance it may seem so, absence as attitude is never totally a via negativa, simply because the existence of the work of art compels the artist willy-nilly to some kind of via positiva. Cartier-Bresson’s decision never to be photographed, like Proust’s retreat from the world into his cork-lined room, is an absence deliberately chosen out of professional or, rather, creative need. Also, to characterize the absentee artists as passive idealists, as opposed to the “realistic” artists whose active presence in the world is crucial to their works, is to set up a false dichotomy. Joseph Beuys’ presence is no less idealist than Duchamp’s absence; and Duchamp’s negation of the artist-as-martyr stereotype can be seen, paradoxically, as no less active than Beuys’ affirmation of the artist’s role as self-sacrificing reformer. Absence as attitude is not a nihilism demanding the elimination of the human from art, nor is it an openly antihumanist position. It is best seen as a disappearance of the human from those basic areas that presuppose human presence, or a disappearance of that basic link between humanity and the world: the human body.

Spaces without Men

Man is but earth. ’Tis true but earth is the center.
—John Donne

The past few decades have seen a lot of art dealing with humanity’s sojourn in nature, with nature either the condition for art, as in the earthwork, or introduced in art “in the first person,” as in arte povera. Among these works, it is the desert that is most relevant to the discussion of absence. (Whether or not the desert is actually unpeopled, it is described as such in this art.) Walter de Maria’s film Hard Core, 1969, a “Minimal-Land-Mystery-Historical-Western,” interposes the action of a duel between seven slow shots of a desert. The number seven symbolizes, among other things, the finitude of the world. Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana, 1968–70, a “docufiction” in which action is reduced to a minimum, also uses seven, nearly identical shots. Herzog seems to have wanted to conceive of nature as the German Expressionists did, as a primal state untouched by civilization; he wanted, he has said, to make a film about the “creation of nature.”27 The film was made in the Sahara. An airplane is landing, impossible to see clearly in the haze; where Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot, suggests constantly that “it is cold,” a recurring sentence in the play,28 Herzog repeatedly asserts the unbearable heat of the desert. The place is inimical to human beings. They appear occasionally, but they are always marginal. In most films in which people confront the elements—water, air, desert heat, from disaster films to Jacques Cousteau documentaries —one sees people more than one sees their environment. Fata Morgana, however, deals not with the border of the desert, the space where human life is possible, but with the essence of the desert—the desertness of the desert, in which humanity is absent.

Godfrey Reggio’s and Philip Glass’ film Koyaanisqatsi, 1983, expresses a clearly critical attitude toward humanity, which is destroying nature. Following a musical structure, bird’s-eye-view shots of different landscapes succeed each other, while scenes of urban life are so speeded up that the rivers of people flowing in the can-yonlike streets seem like puppets that have lost their “measure of man.” After several combinations of underwater explosions with close-ups of people staring emptily, the film ends with didactic shots of cavern paintings. The final credits explain the title Koyaanisqatsi: it is the Hopi word for “crazy life, life in turmoil, disintegrating life, life out of balance, a state of life that calls for another way of living.” Here we see quite clearly, then, the use of a negative model of absence to provoke a vision of another, utopian—present—way of life.

Room with Closed Doors

When I awoke, not knowing where I was, I could not be sure at first who I was.
—Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu

The first indoor “space,” the room, not only marked the birth of architecture but determined the human: “To inhabit is a way for mortals to be on the earth.”29 And a room would not imply human presence were it not for the two voids, the door and the window, that give architecture its human measure. It is the door that creates the division between interior and exterior on which the mythical (coming/going, static/moving, waiting/leaving) and religious (profane/sacred) connotations of the indoor space depend. (Without the door, the interior would be hollow but impenetrable—as good as solid.) The window allows the crucial entry of light and the exit of the human gaze. The room—and its mobile variation in the boat, train, car, spaceship—allows human presence only by its doors and windows.

For Der Transsiberien-Prospekt (The trans-Siberian prospect), realized for the Documenta 6 exhibition in Kassel, West Germany, in 1977, Jochen Gerz spent 16 days and 16 nights on the Trans-Siberian Express, going from Moscow to Khabarovsk and back (10,000 miles in all) in a train compartment whose blinds were shut. This absenting of self from exterior and of exterior from self annulled the basic idea of travel as acquiring new experience. Gerz’s work is a programmatic address of absence, which he confronts in performances, video works, texts (written in reverse, from right to left), self-portraits (in which the face is hidden behind some semitransparent membrane), and combinations of photography (the mimetic image) and text (the mental image). His frequent themes are the voyage, the departure, the separation, the remembrance, the absence of love. Gerz consistently negates the human ability to remember images, including images from our travels. “Whatever you do, you are always working with a model,” he says, “which really means with memory”;30 but when we try to remember an image—of the pleasure we experienced in a landscape, for example——we are confronted with our inability to bring the experience back. The experience is absent; we remember the image only as a thought about the image. Thus the Documenta 6 installation consisted of 12 chairs placed facing each other in a square. In front of each chair was a board holding a pile of ashes—burned notes taken during the trip. Thus even the last materializations of a memory as a thought about image were destroyed.

Jannis Kounellis has based many installations (often senza titolo, without title) on a Heideggerian openness to that which is absent but awaited, on the one hand, and on the artist’s Odysseus-like capacity to make fertile every new situation in which he finds himself, on the other. The work’s dependence on a given or chosen space, and its temporariness (the installations cease to exist at the end of the show), speak of the artist as “everywhere and nowhere.” In a sense, the subjects of these works are the rooms in which they are installed, which condition their form. Kounellis may paint the walls (a 1974 piece was a series of five rooms all painted in different colors), or may make doors or windows into walls by packing them with stones and cast-plaster fragments of antique sculptures. A window may be sealed by a relief in lead, while a door is covered in lead but left half open (1975); or a wall is covered in gold leaf. This latter piece, realized at the Lucio Amelio gallery, Naples, in 1975, and at Documenta 7 in 1982, also featured a coat stand with a man’s hat and coat, and on a neighboring wall, a lit gas lamp. Whereas Georges Brecht’s Clothes Tree, 1969—a coat stand with coat, hats, and two umbrellas—seems to imply someone’s imminent appearance, Kounellis’ installation suggests a situation of eternal awaiting, like that in Rainer Maria Rilke, Kafka, and Beckett. This waiting may be a proof of God’s existence ex absentia: “He does not come, therefore He is.”31

In the Kienholzes’ work, and in Ed Kienholz’s work on his own before 1980, the human figure undergoes a program of absence through such techniques as the cast, taped voices, bodies made partly of machines, and bodies altogether missing from their context. What is absent here is not so much the individual as the human condition. Both male and female are implicated, the female through themes of prostitution and voyeurism as well as the solitude and death that are contingent to all. The door, often half open, appears frequently in this work; it is an invitation to look at the damaged human condition behind it. The Pedicord Apartments environment, 1982–83, is made up of materials from the now-demolished Pedicord Hotel in Berkeley. It consists of a lobby and hallway with six doors; all the doors are sealed shut, but if we approach them, obeying some urge to voyeurism, we hear from behind them the sounds of solitude (a lonely dog scrabbling at the door’s other side), of unhappiness (a woman sobbing), of the distanced contact with the world provided by a television set. The sounds have the tinniness of the tape recorder; no attempt is made to make them seem authentic— another effect of absence.

Closed doors and closed windows are only one of the strategies of Duchamp’s attitude of absence.32 In The Brawl at Austerlitz, 1921, and in Fresh Widow, 1920, the basic function of the window’s void—the view—is denied by covering the glass respectively with oil paint and with black leather.33 The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915–1923, is a door to be looked at, or, rather, to be looked through rather than passed through, but since it is displaced from the normal context of the wall, what is “behind” becomes what is “in front” as we move around it. Thus the function of the door as the boundary between inside and outside (and the crossing from one state to another is to suggest the rite of passage) is frustrated. In 1937, for André Breton’s Gradiva gallery in Paris, Duchamp designed a glass doorway in the outline of a pair of lovers; passing through it, the visitor was passing through a drawing of a shadow—a method, as we have seen, of repairing a human absence.

Bodiless stage

The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment.
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

In theater or performance, fields in which the human presence is customarily obligatory, the absence or disembodiment of the body appears as early as the Futurist period, with its esthetics of surprise. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Le Basi (Bases, 1915) consists of seven plotless scenes in which only the actors’ feet are visible. The same happens in Marcel Fabre’s seven-minute film Amor pedestre (Pedestrian love, 1914), though here there is a dramatic plot based on the confusion of a lovers’ triangle. Francesco Cangiullo actually created a theater without actors, without bodies, in a series of scripts published in 1915. In Detonazione (Detonation), for example, the only “character” is a bullet, and in Non c’e un cane (There isn’t even a dog) the “character” is “HE WHO IS NOT THERE.”34

The characters in Beckett’s theater are destined to passivity, waiting, stillness, states also reflected in the way the human body is present on the stage. Often it is in decay, having lost its completeness. In The Unnameable, 1958, the body is only a torso; in Endgame, 1957 (inspired by Beckett’s chess games with Duchamp35), and Happy Days, 1961, it is confined respectively to a trash can and to burial in a hillock. In Not I, 1968, it is a disembodied mouth. Yet though the characters in Beckett are static, they make contact with the world (and the audience) by language. In certain of Andy Warhol’s films, on the other hand, the body is not only static but silent. In the six-hour Sleep, 1963, Warhol uses a fixed camera and one long shot (or the appearance of one) to film John Giorno sleeping. There is no trace here of Apollinaire’s active conception of sleep as the “artist’s work”; asleep, Giorno loses his idiosyncratic vividness, becoming an object deployed in Warhol’s ideology of passivity. In Daniel Buren’s Manifestations (Paris, 1967, and Belgrade, 1971), a striped canvas stands alone in the middle of a classical Italian stage for about 40 minutes, untouched by human presence.

When an artist’s face is absent from a self-portrait, where it would ordinarily appear of necessity, the issue is clearly absence. Bill Seaman’s video piece S.he, 1983, is a self-portrait (Seaman/He) offering only images of nature or of industrial cities seen from a train. On the soundtrack, to music of his own composition, Seaman recites a poem in which every verse begins “S.he”:36 “S.he is the energy that remains constant / S.he is made of he and she / S.he is a perfect window,” and so on. The work’s eleven-minute length is determined by the length of the poem, which, over 145 verses, identifies S.he with energy, movement, heat, travel, but only twice with human beings, once where the author puns on his name, Seaman: “S.he is a seaman singing songs about the sea.” On the poetical and musical level as well as on the level of images, Seaman has made a self-portrait in which his face is absent but not his being.

The human absence from nature, from a room, from a stage, and even from a self-portrait all suggest the necessary question of whether these strategies are an artist’s ultimate demand for a breaking of ties with the world. Yet even the artist’s most radical insistence on his or her absence—Duchamp’s Wanted /$2,000 Reward, 1923, for example, or On Kawara’s declaration, “I am still alive”—is not so much a nonwork as a statement of the lowest possible degree of presence, of being there. The artist’s only true option of absence is not to make work at all, and even Duchamp, who went through long phases of apparent inactivity, always returned eventually to the production of art. Many photographs document Duchamp’s attitude of absence, registering his willingness to be a passive object of the camera and his awareness that he was being photographed. We see him sitting, walking, disguising himself, talking to friends, playing chess, posing. But we never see him working—or almost never. Duchamp did in fact work, though the photographs conceal it. He hid his own activity, was silent about it. (The existence of Etant donnés. . . , 1946–66, which he worked on for 20 years, was only revealed after his death.) In one image from 1937, however, we see the artist, dressed in a T-shirt, kneeling outside the Gradiva gallery and working on his doorway. This photograph of Duchamp at work does not call into question his attitude of absence; but the “human error” of his presence here does suggest that just as presence is never “full” presence, there is no “full” human absence, only degrees of it.

Bojana Pejic is a curator at the Student Cultural Center, in Belgrade, and an editor of Moment magazine.

Translated from the Serbo-Croatian, and, in the quotations, from other languages, by Ivan Vejvoda.

1. Nicephorus, “Antirrhetic I,” quoted in Marie-José Baudinet, “Similitude et éconornie dans I’icône byzantine durant la crise de I’iconoclasme,” Revue d’esthétique (nouvelle série) no. 7, Paris, 1984, p. 51.

2. Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime, 1908.

3. William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890. Quoted in Dictionnaire de la longue philosophique, ed. P. Fouliquié and R. Saint-Jean, Paris: PUF, 1969, p. 2.

4. Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” 1967, in A Susan Sontag Reader, New York: Penguin Books, 1983, pp. 186–87.

5. Leszek Kolakowski, Ključ neheski, Zagreb: GZH, 1981, p. 7.

6. Ihab Hassan, “The Critic as Tnnovator: The Tutzing Statement in X Frames,” Amerikastudien 22 no. 1, 1977, p. 55.

7. Roland Bathes, La Chambre claire: Note sue la photographie, Paris: Éditions de l’Étoile, Gallimard, Le Seuil, 1980, pp. 120 and 133.

8. Georges Poulel , L’Espace proustien, Paris: Gallimard, 1963.

9. Barthes, “The Absent One,” in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1978, p. 13.

10. Pavei Florenskij, “Iconostasis,” 1919–1922, in Teoloski nogledi XII nos. 1–2, Belgrade, 1979, p. 99.

11. The imago is the wax mask. “A general characterization of the imago would be the following. First, no aesthetic elaboration or idealization can come between the deceased and the death mask, between the seal and the signature it leaves. That is why they could be used to mark an identity. Second, from a certain point of view the form left in wax is not distinct from the object to which the form belongs.” Florence Dupont, “The Emperor-God’s Other Body,” in Zone 5, Fragments for a History of the Human Body: Part Three, ed. Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, New York, 1989, p. 408.

12. “Figure of gods, figure of deceased. Tn both cases, it is a question of presenting powers that arc invisible and that do not belong to the space that is down here, while at the same time localizing them in a precise form and in a determined space. To make the invisible visible, to assign a place in our world to entities from the beyond: one can say that in such an enterprise of figuration from the outstart there is a paradoxical attempt to inscribe the other, the beyond, into our own universe.” Jean-Pierre Vernant, “De la présentification de l’invisible à l’imitation de l’apparence,” Revue d’esthétique (nouvelle série) no. 7, pp. 42–43. And, “The incarnation of an absence, the flesh of the image, is as supernatural as Christ’s flesh after His Resurrection. . . . The image of Christ is empty of His presence and full of His absence. What could be more faithful to the Incarnation, which the Greek Fathers also called kenosis, evacuation or emptying? To incarnate. To empty.” Baudinet, “The Face of Christ, The Form of the Church,” in Zone 3, Fragments for a History of the Human Body: Part One, pp. 150–151.

13. Philippe Dubois, “L’Ombre, le miroir, I’index: A l’origine de la peinture: la photo, la vidéo,” Parachute no. 26, Montreal, Spring 1982, pp. 16–28.

14. “We find in Furetière’s Dictionnaire at the end of the XVII century in the definition of the verb ’represent’ a fruitful tension that permeates its meaning: ‘to represent’ means first of all to substitute something present by something absent (which, in passing, is the most general structure of the sign). This substitution is, as we know, regulated by a mimetic economy—the similarity postulated between present and absent authorizes such a substitution.” Louis Marin, “Le cadre de la représentation et quelques-unes de ses figures,” in Les Canhiers du Musée national d’art moderne 24, Paris, Summer 1988, p. 63.

15. See Giulio Carlo Argan, “La crisi della rappresentazione,” Arte del ventesimo secolo,” Enciclopedia del novecento, Rome: Tstituto dell’ Enciclopedia Italiana, 1976, pp. 247–71.

16. “From romanticism on, the task of the artist will not only be to create a world, nor to exalt beauty for itself, but also to define an attitude. The artist then becomes a model, he proposes himself as an example: art is his morality.” Albert Camus, L’Homme révolté, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1951, p. 73.

17. Paul Valéry, “London Bridge.” Quoted in Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Basel and Stuttgart: Schwabe & Co. Verlag, 1977, 1:71.

18. Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Carnet, 24 November 1840. Quoted in Émile Daniel, “L’objective du subjectif: Vuillard photographe,” in Les Cahiers du Musée nationale d’art moderne 23, Paris, Spring 1988, p. 83.

19. Raoul Haussmann, Manifeste du présentisme, 1921, quoted in Georges Hugnet, Dietionnaire du dadaïsme 1916–1922, Paris: Jean-Claude Simoën, 1976, p. 225.

20. Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, 391 no. 11. February 1920, reprint ed. Pierre Belfond and Eric Losfeld, Paris: Michel Sanouillet, 1976, p. 76.

21. Massimo Cacciari, “Filosofia” and “Religione,” entries in “Dizionario del Futurismo,” in Futurismo & Futurismi, exhibition catalogue, Milan: Bompiani, 1986, pp. 477–78 and 554–55 respectively.

22. See Mario Perniola, “Philosophy and Italian Painting between the Wars,” in Italian Art 1900–1945, exhibition catalogue, Milan: Bompiani, 1989, pp. 171–80.

23. David Felton. “A Conversation with Annie Leibowitz,” in Annie Leibovitz Photographs, New York: Pantheon/Rolling Stone Press, 1983, n.p.

24. Henri Michaux, quoted in Jürgen Partenheimer, “Über das Abstrakte in der Kunst,” in Alles trod noch viel mehr—Das poetische A B C, exhibition catalogue, Bern: Kunstmuseum and Kunsthalle, 1985, p. 375.

25. This program should be differentiated from the “program of absence” on which Paul Virilio bases his “aesthetics of disappearance”: “With the coming of photography, followed by cinematography and video, we entered the realm of an aesthetics of disappearance: the persistence is now only retinal. Despite the film used in photography and cinema, there is no longer real ‘support .’ . . . The real in an aesthetics of appearance consists of being solid, durable, hard, real—hard in both senses of the word, i.e., hard and aggressive.” Quoted in Chris Dercon, “Spread-Space: An Interview with Paul Virilio,” Impulse 12 no. 4, Toronto, Summer 1986, p. 36. See also Virilio, Esthétique de la disparition, Paris: Editions Balland, 1980.

26. See Harald Szeemann, Le macchine celibi/The Bachelor Machines, Venice Biennale exhibition catalogue, Venice: Alfieri Editore, 1975.

27. Werner Herzog, quoted in “Silke i vizije,” Film nos. 16-17, Zagreb, 1978–79, p. 76.

28. See Curtis M. Brooks, “The Mythic Pattern in Waiting for Godot,” Modern Drama 9 no. 3, Lawrence, Kans., December 1966, p. 293.

29. Martin Heidegger, “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” Vorträge and Aufsätze, Pfullingen: Neske, 1978, pp. 142 and 155.

30. Jochen Gerz, quoted in Patrick Le Nouëne, “Interview with Jochen Gerz,” in Gerz-Oeuvres sur papier photographique, 1983–86, exhibition catalogue, Calais: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Calais, 1986, and Chartres: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres, 1987, p. 14.

31. Günther Anders, “Being without Time: On Beckett’s Waiting for Godot,” in Samuel Beckett, ed. Martin Esslin, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1965.

32. On Duchamp’s preoccupation with windows and doors, see Anne d’Harnoncourt and Walter Hopps, “Etant Donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage_: Reflections on a New Work by Marcel Duchamp,” The Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin LXIV nos. 299 and 300, April–September 1969, reprint ed. 1972, pp. 30–33.

33. “I used the idea of the window to take a point of departure, as. . .I used a brush, or T used a form, a specific form of expression, the way oil paint is, a very specific term, specific conception. See, in other words, I could have made twenty windows with a different idea in each one, the windows being called ‘my windows’ the way you say ‘my etchings.’” Marcel Duchamp, 1953, interviewed by Harriet Janis in Marcel Duchamp, ed. Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, and Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Prestel, 1989, p. 295.

34. See Michael Kirby and Victoria Nes Kirby, Futurist Performance, New York: PAJ Publications, 1986, pp. 247 and 252.

35. Predrag Todorovič, “Biografija Samuel Beckett,” Treji Program 4 no. 67, Belgrade, 1985, p. 398.

36. The poem is published in Awards in the Visual Arts 6, Winston-Salem, N.C.: Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 1987, pp. 84–86.