Richard Artschwager, blps, 1968–2004. Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 2004.

Richard Artschwager, blps, 1968–2004. Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 2004.

“The Big Nothing”

“MAKE A SILHOUETTE, BUT FILL THE INSIDE, which is nominally empty, with something—something that should be as nothing as black, but something,” says Richard Artschwager of the blps he’s been making since the ’60s. Intermittently stuck on peripheral wall space at Philadelphia’s ICA, these black lozenge shapes—here, made of vinyl—succeeded in conjuring something out of nothing: Unobtrusive bordering on nonexistent, they punctuated the gallery architecture, highlighting the institutional infrastructure that confers artistic status on otherwise meaningless objects. “The Big Nothing,” curated by the ICA’s own Ingrid Schaffner, Bennett Simpson, and Tanya Leighton, presented an expansive survey of similar gestures by over sixty artists that intriguingly demonstrated the extraordinary resource that “nothing” has been for contemporary art over the last few decades.

Artschwager’s blps point to the now-venerable history of institutional critique, wherein the negation of the traditional artwork was meant to expose or to challenge the functions of the commercial gallery or museum. The show began with several vitrines containing documentation of such disappearing acts, from Ray Johnson’s announcements for fictitious exhibitions in the ’60s to Joachim Koester’s Boarded-up Gallery, 1994. In more recent interventions, negation has become a form of cultural sabotage, as in Radio Active, 2002, for which Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri invented a farcical “Homeland Security Cultural Bureau,” with simulated website, to fake the closure of Chelsea’s White Box gallery. Hilarious yet ominous, the charade parodied the actions of our increasingly repressive government, generating a lively cyberdebate on the value of mimetic artistic strategies. That the ICA itself largely escaped similar scrutiny suggested that the practice of institutional critique is now nearly exhausted, having been institutionalized in turn, its documents safely stored under glass or rendered decorative and nonthreatening, as in Artschwager’s case.

The shifting valence of the show’s theme was framed by two historic exhibitions. Yves Klein’s Le Vide (The Void) famously emptied Paris’s Galerie Iris Clert in 1958, creating a spectacle of aesthetic sensibility for crowds on opening night, abetted by cocktails tinted the artist’s signature blue. Klein’s association of the void with transcendentalism was canceled by Arman’s Le Plein (Full Up) two years later, which heaped the same gallery in garbage. Together, these two seminal events—the second only referenced in wall text—anticipated the theoretical range of contemporary art’s dealings with nothingness, stretched between Hegelian metaphysics and Bataillean base materialism, which “The Big Nothing” effectively mapped.

The most powerful works stunningly allowed the two extremes to touch, as in Gordon Matta-Clark’s video of the (un)making of Conical Intersect, 1975, an awesome creation-through-negation that evokes an architectural sublime even as it focalizes through its unruly transgression the controversies of urbanism surrounding the renovation of Paris’s Les Halles market. As if boring into historical time made spatial, the camera repeatedly zooms in and out of the funnel cut through the upper stories of two adjacent seventeenth-century buildings that, soon demolished and reduced from structure to unformed matter, stand contrasted next to the newly built Centre Pompidou. The weaker pieces were those that tended to portray nothingness as metaphorical, frequently drawing on Eastern religions, such as James Lee Byars’s Orientalist Scroll, ca. 1960, or Arlene Shechet’s MA, 1999, an amorphous sculpture of a Buddha that draws its title from the Japanese term for intervals of time and space. If the show called up John Cage’s astute realization that “nothing” is impossible to experience without the framework that it simultaneously evokes (as in his experiments with silence that inevitably staged the performance of atmospheric noise), then it also returned to his spiritualist tendencies, presenting artwork that sublimated “nothing” as new age—to mixed effect.

While the show’s dynamic arrangement of work outside the dictates of chronology, style, or medium sometimes felt haphazard—for instance, Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s video of their intentionally aimless foray into New Jersey’s Meadowlands, Swamp, 1971, was inscrutably positioned next to William Pope.L’s racially redolent, Ryman-referencing monochromes—one curatorial decision was telling: the installation of Jutta Koether’s Fresh Aufhebung, 2003, a series of angst-filled black paintings with rough x-ed-out compositions, completed one each day for half a year, which worked its way from floor to ceiling. The suggestive configuration indicated a way to connect the Minimalist and Conceptualist art on the ground floor to the projected-image works in the upper-level galleries. Enacting the sublation of modernism’s endgame, the arrangement brilliantly gave rise to the idea that the contemporary dominance of the virtual—in film and video—has logically emerged from an aesthetics of dematerialization practiced in painting and sculpture during the last fifty years.

While virtuality implies the quickened simultaneity of speculative markets and communications technology, the exhibition’s second-floor “black box” showed work that tried to “slow spectacle down,” as the wall text explained. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster presented a mesmerizing film, Plages, 2001, whose measured pans of a crowded Copacabana beach before dawn seek out an interval of indeterminacy, romantic if melancholy, underneath a sky exploding with fireworks. Similarly favoring the undramatic, yet politically committed, was Allan Sekula’s Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black], 1999–2000, a slide projection of eighty “anti-photojournalistic” shots of the Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization. Seeming to decelerate the frames of film to a two-second delay, the piece drew globalization to an agonistic standstill. These projections corroborated the show’s argument that today, in the face of mass-media stereotyping, “the big nothing” most potently acts within a cinema of unscripted existence, like blps in the system.

T.J. Demos teaches art history and criticism at the Maryland Institute College of Art.