The Void

by Helene Nguyen*

From February 25 through March 23, 2009, the entire north wing of the Centre Pompidou’s fourth floor was completely emptied for a conceptual exhibition titled Voids: A Retrospective. According to Pompidou curator Laurent Le Bon, “Far from being a practical joke, Voids in fact asks a series of simple yet radical questions about the nature of museums today. What does it mean to conserve, display, and collect works?”[1] Ironically, however, this retrospective did not include any works, at least in the way works are traditionally understood. Every exhibition room held – apparently – nothing. In fact, a good number of museum-goers were ignorant of the exhibition; some swooped in on unsuspecting staff members to complain that the collection that had once been there had now vanished, and others shuffled quietly out, mildly perplexed.

Conceptualized as a traveling exhibition, Voids: A Retrospective opened first at the Centre Pompidou before moving on to the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland. It was the culmination of a collaboration between the curators of the two institutions, in addition to a team of three artists,  a writer, and a curator.[2] The retrospective addressed nine past exhibitions that the curators felt had engaged or engendered some type of void in their projects. These nine exhibitions began chronologically with Yves Klein’s The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility from 1958 (later known as Le Vide) and ended with Maria Eichhorn’s Money at the Kunsthalle Bern and Roman Ondák’s More Silent Than Ever, both from 2001. Yet, none of these void exhibitions, with the exception of Klein’s, referred to themselves as a void or particularly identified with the word in any manner.

Additionally, the staged retrospective displayed no documentation aside from the obligatory wall labels, whereas the exhibition catalog contained almost excessive content, numbering nearly 500 pages and including essays with no evident link to the exhibition besides an appropriation of the term “void”. Although acknowledged in the press as daring and bold, many visitors didn’t know what to make of Voids, and were confounded both by its provocative gesture of collecting nine distinct and conceptually nuanced exhibitions and its attempt to place them under one general retrospective label.

Be that as it may, what I will attempt to do here is to re-examine the curatorial gestures employed in this exhibition in conjunction with professed statements from the catalogue, and propose that what appears discordant, confusing, and miscalculated was instead a strategically deployed commentary on museums and the way they constantly construct and authenticate meaning. The term “void” within this context doesn’t refer to the arbitrary term “void” within the exhibitions being recalled, but instead a type of void within the museum itself that is opened up through the act of reconstitution and reconstruction. It is a void where meaning, recalled from the past and constituted in the present, echoes and is endlessly deferred through a chain of signifiers operating linguistically, temporally and spatially. For the sake of clarity: the exhibition will be referred to as Voids, the smaller voids in the exhibition (both in present and past forms) as void or voids, the general concept signifying a lack or an emptiness as “void”, and finally the larger space of the museum (which simultaneously signifies the other definition of void, that which is all-inclusive and can enfold all other meanings) as ‘void’.

The most prevalent and straightforward impulse is to view Voids as a failed attempt at conceptual coherence. This is particularly tempting since the exhibition’s classification as a retrospective seems to demand that we see the constituent exhibitions as one long evolutionary project with an identifiable theme and lineage. There is an implied sequential order and progression in which Klein’s 1958 exhibition appears as the ‘first,’ and the subsequent voids as only a derivation of this initial project. This is further reinforced by the curatorial team’s emphasis on repetition in their exhibition catalogue introduction:

The empty space as an object of exhibition thus became a kind of classic of the radical mode, and was to be replayed in other contexts, other places, and other times by other artists with similar, or the contrary different, even opposite, intentions. Our shared fascination for the repetition of the extremist decision, leading formally to what appears to be the same exhibition by different authors, gave birth to the desire for this retrospective.[3]

Not only are the events repeatable, they can also be ‘replayed,’ recalled, and redeployed, even if nothing – context, intent, or pure physical materiality – holds them together. And yet, each constituent exhibition was conceived as a form of critique addressing very specific contexts and topics that differed greatly from one to the other – not to mention by distinctly different artists. The idea that such diverse acts of intervention on the artists’ parts could be collected and viewed as a series or set appears to pervert the initial conception of each act itself. For example, Robert Barry’s 1970 exhibition Some places to which we can come, and for awhile “be free to think about what we are going to do” was meant to push the conceptual and perceptual realm of art. The exhibition completely emptied the space of the gallery to create a space for thought. This space existed both  psychologically within the minds of the audience and physically within the space of the gallery. In a later statement about his projects Barry commented that for him: “What being an artist was about, and what conceptual art was about, was testing the limits of one’s perception, pushing it as far as possible to the point of invisibility.”[4]

Meanwhile, Maria Eichorn’s Money at the Kunsthalle Bern in 2001 operated within a very different context and objective. Her exhibition first began with a careful investigation into the institution’s history and financial network only after which Eichorn chose to rededicate the money allocated for her exhibition to the renovation of the building, attending to areas such as the leaky skylights, the uncomfortable reception area, and the cracked façade. The space of the gallery was not emptied, but instead transformed into a zone of construction, around which the audience would be forced to travel through storage rooms, back room archives, and other similarly atypical spaces, normally hidden from viewers. To be slightly reductive, Eichorn’s project was a commentary on institutional and financial structures and a different type of inscription of action, while Barry’s earlier project was an examination of and inquiry into audience perception and within the trajectory of his interest into the material and immaterial. Neither made any overt reference to the term “void”.

A similar peculiar line of thought which emerges from the curatorial team’s statement is the notion that Voids is, somehow, “the same exhibition by different authors.” How can exhibitions, on an even broader scale, be judged as the ‘same’ on a self-admitted formal basis (a gesture one cannot help reacting against and liken as an attempt to reduce contextually rich dimensions into one-note banal categorizations)? What does it mean if Voids is the ‘same’, yet different? In order to reconcile these questions, I recommend that we suspend any initial dismissal of esotericism and perhaps within these differing voids we should instead find the invocation of the Derridean concept différance.

Différance stems from Derrida’s love of orthographical swapping and plays on the French word difference, meaning either ‘to differ’ or ‘to defer’.[5] According to Derrida, différance is the “systematic play of difference, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other” that imparts meaning to the term/sign, not any general definitive signifier. This spacing between differences “is the simultaneously active and passive… production of the intervals without which the ‘full’ terms would not signify, would not function.”[6] Although Derrida essentially builds upon Saussure’s signified-signifier concept, he solidifies the idea of terms/signs working in constant relationship to one another where it is the ‘play’, ‘trace’, and ‘spacing’ of differences that impart meaning on a term or sign. He additionally attempts to use différance to subvert the part of Sassure’s argument that he feels priveleges speech over writing.[7]

Derrida also argues that the idea of the sign as a literal representation of an object as problematic, since signs will always refer to other signs endlessly. There is no such thing as an ultimate referent, since meaning is always attenuated through this chain of signifiers. It is continually deferred and can never be fully conceptualized. “Intuition, perception, consummation – in a word, the relationship to the present, the reference to present reality” is always deferred since “each element functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring to another past or future element in an economy of traces.”[8] Meaning is not only endlessly reconstructed through variations in signifiers; it also becomes contingent on temporal utterance and occurrence.[9] It echoes through each element in a complex play of traces, signs, and terms, dealing with past and future meanings and the slight variations and differences in between each. Confirming Sassure’s statement that “language [which consists only of differences] is not a function of the speaking subject,” Derrida finds that, “There is no subject who is agent, author, and master of différance, who eventually and empirically would be overtaken by différance.  Subjectivity – like objectivity – is an effect of différance, an effect inscribed in a system of différance.” The subject is only constituted in division and defferal, and doesn’t exist either before or above différence. It comes into being through différance, through differences.

To apply this idea within the context of Voids: A Retrospective, we must first acknowledge that the retrospective operates through two very distinct mediums: the textual, and the spatial. The former is underscored in the partial wall text within the exhibition. As Jian-Xing Too described in ArtForum:

It was hard to remember that the rooms represented nine different architectural, geographic, economic, political, and artistic contexts, not to mention different artistic goals.

What made each room something other than an empty space were its label and a large wall text in the central corridor describing the artist’s approach. Voids fully depended on these texts to conceptually reactivate specific exhibitions.[10]

Since each room was emptied of material artifacts, the only elements that differentiated spaces (room to room, corridor to room, etc.) were short labels and wall texts briefly describing each exhibition. The texts served to punctuate what would have otherwise seemed like an endless repetition of white rooms overflowing into one another. As can be seen from the image of the floor plan, the juxtapositions between rooms were not always consistent. Sometimes one void would flow into another in a continuous chain (voids #7, 8, and 9); other times it was difficult to tell where the corridor ended and the space of the exhibition began (void #5). Furthermore, each void within the retrospective was spatially different, whether it be in terms of floor space, exits, or even number of walls. The texts breached and imparted meaning upon what otherwise would have been a continuous cycle of endlessly modulating spatial forms.

Nevertheless, these texts also proved to be misleading and subject to doubt, avoiding reference to certain nuances of each particular void. For example, as pointed out by Too and others, in its original incarnation, Bethan Huws’s project included an abstract visual poem that was to be handed out and read while experiencing the space. Similarly, Maria Eichhorn’s project necessarily depended on the space’s constant transformation as construction took place inside, a fact left out of the wall text. Too put it bluntly: “Voids had gumption. It’s too bad it was short on rigor.”[11]

That could be true. However, to return to the earlier Derridean delineation of différance and deferrment, there appears to be a curious curatorial intent to give each void its new form, if not complete remnant of its past identity, then at the very least some other identity which takes on new meaning within the context of the exhibition. The voids seem to act as separate, individual entities whose definition and meaning appear to constantly be in flux. In the catalogue Copeland states that: “This collection of contributions proposes contemplating the nature of the void, how it changes in content and form according to our comprehension of it, and how each void defines itself by its own quality, so showing its inherent relationship to reality.”[12]

Voids, then, was not an attempt to address the past voids recalled through the text and asserted through the term “retrospective”, but instead an effort to allow each void (manifested in the present textually and spatially) to function as separate, delicately nuanced definitions of the term “void”. It was not about the voids as they were in the past, but the reconstruction of each void in the present, as well as the ways these separate reconstructions could feed and play off of one another. It is the ‘play’, ‘trace’, and ‘spacing’ of the differences between the voids that imparts meaning on the retrospective. To revisit Derrida: “each element functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring to another past or future element in an economy of traces.” The flow from one void to the other, delineated through text and space, thus becomes this ‘economy of traces’ through which the meaning of the retrospective is reconstructed. This economy of traces spanned both time and space.

As stated by Le Bon, each void was not a perfect reiteration of its precursor but the serial redeployment of a similar form. Spatially, he acknowledged that:

The project requires a vessel – the museum – to define the space of the retrospective and to demarcate a succession of enclosed spaces, in the form of rooms that visitors can wander through at their leisure with no predetermined constraints, even if the layout is chronological. Thresholds thus become significant in indicating where the updated works/rooms/historical exhibitions begin. The aim is to enfold the space in one single idea, expressed in different ways.[13]

Thus, space, thresholds, and texts became essential and unavoidable parts of the retrospective. The walls served as a form of territorial bookmark and the space in between was a vessel into which past meaning (re-constructed through wall text and labels) was poured. If the text served to demarcate and punctuate different spatial forms, then the spaces (delineated by the walls) similarly appeared to outline, contain, and differentiate textual meaning.

In Voids, each reconstructed void operates as a separate spatial entity, yet the passageways between each void are either non-existent (as between Bethan Huws’, Maria Eichhorn’s and Roman Ondak’s voids) or liminally operative (as between Robert Irwin’s void and void #6) causing the boundaries of the voids to seep curiously outwards and into one another, coalescing into a greater, singular void space. This singular void space begins to operate as the space of the museum itself; the separate meanings of each void are put to work towards the ‘void’ of the museum. If we re-address the knowledge that each of the rooms was a void, and that they were all somehow voids together, we find that each room appear to act as a separate signifier of a larger, combinative ‘void’. The walls then become the formal markers of Derridean ‘spacing’ through which differences in the meaning of each void are articulated.

For example, Robert Barry’s void at the Centre Pompidou has a spatial meaning that is formed solely through its physical juxtaposition within the museum, as well as a discursive meaning constructed textually. Both text and space in Barry’s void coalesce and play off other voids within the retrospective such that Barry’s void modulates the meaning of Bethan Huws’ void, and so forth. Each void acts as an element whose meaning is modulated through its spatial juxtaposition with other void elements, all coalescing to modulate the larger separate signifier of Voids: ‘void’, the ‘one single idea, expressed in different ways’.

The catalogue itself can also be seen as an extension and continuation of the attempt to overload the exhibition with an abundance of signifiers, each modulating the term “void”. For an exhibition on nothing, the catalogue meticulously collects everything, including essays that relate the void to everything from mathematics and number theory to East Asian philosophy. In his text, Copeland hints that such an intense proliferation of information is not mere happenstance, and that, “The void cannot be considered from just one point of view. Of both spiritual state and physical nature, it infiltrates all fields of the possible, and in fact allows the advent of the(se) possible(s)…. The word [void] itself is imprecise in qualifying its semantic multiplicity.”[14]

It appears that the acknowledged inability of the word “void” to convey a semantic multiplicity allowed the curators to saturate the exhibition and the catalogue with a vast proliferation of different voids, an overload of ‘deferred meaning’ created by and modulated between each particular void recalled. The layout and spacing of each room allowed for an interplay of deferment and differentiation which slowly seeped into the main room of the gallery such that the voids of the room could no longer be extracted from the overall ‘void’ of the gallery space and the museum. This overflow also occurs in the textual play between labels as well as (as pointed out by Too) in the falsification or suppression of historical details which helped construct past meanings of the voids.

In order to understand what the broader ‘void’ of the museum represents, perhaps it would be productive to remember what exactly it was that was being voided. It is no coincidence that at the Centre Pompidou, the Voids exhibition was housed on the fourth floor, which is usually reserved for its normal collection of modern and contemporary art, instead of the standard site for temporary exhibitions. The very nature of the title word “void” – to evacuate or empty – was set up in contrast to its opposing verb, to collect or add. As Laurent Le Bon notes in the catalog:

Voids is located in the museum and nowhere else. There would have been very little point in installing the retrospective in the spaces traditionally used for temporary exhibitions. On the contrary, the contrast with the space filled with collections that precedes it in the visitor’s experience is key to understanding the exhibition.[15]

Through the physical and spatial displacement of traditional modes of collecting, Voids was meant to challenge and contest the museum’s ideological framework, to put it in a state of flux. Voids appeared as a foil for the collection itself. Its existence both depended on its museal context while consciously subverting it. Rather than representing a refusal to collect, Voids explored the manner in which the past is re-presented within the context of the museum, wherein the ‘meanings’ of the past are brought into the present. It was the museum itself that was being voided.

Moreover, the retrospective denies any type of historical ‘authenticity’ in terms of the physical reappropriation of artifacts and accessories. Each constituent void was specifically chosen because of its independence from any such tangible components for the comprehension of its deployment. The curatorial team consciously featured “only the events where a totally empty space, museum or gallery was shown” and excluded “all the exhibitions where accessories, instruments or temporary architectural devices assist the presentation of emptiness, such as the modification of lighting systems, the closure of the access to the public, the construction of obliterating walls, the manifest removal of objects, or a special sound environment for example.”[16]

Specificity of any kind was denied, as there was “no intention to reconstitute the original sites of the works exhibited, no documentary endeavor, nor material authenticity in the presentation. In the same spirit, no period documents, invitation cards, or exhibition announcements, catalogues, or photographs are added to the display.”[17] By avoiding recollection or direct reference, the curatorial team sought to undermine the power of each exhibition’s original gesture. It was a commentary on, and a resolute denial of, the act of reconstruction itself, further evidenced by the overtly clipped wall text discussed earlier.

This rejection of the possibility of a tangible past leaves this exhibition at a curious crossroads: the idea of temporality is shifted, destabilized, and unearthed as perhaps never absolute at all. The concept of past, present and future is revealed to be not only an empty construction, but also one that exists only on the basis of discursive ‘authenticity.’ The context of the museum legitimates the objects within. It stabilizes their meaning and becomes the larger signifier inside of which objects create, modulate and construct meaning.

The subjectivity of the museum context is particularly important when one considers this exhibition as a series of reconstitutions. In the catalogue, Le Bon writes, “By clearly stating that a perfect repetition would be impossible, Voids adds to the current debate by undermining the desire for the purposeless reconstitutions, which are now flourishing – wrongly – in the historical monument milieu.”[18] The overreliance on contextual information provided by the museum is more acutely felt in the case of Voids due to its lack of materiality. The self-designated ‘retrospective’ revealed the construction of objective historicity as false by stripping away the comfortable trappings that aid in its formation. It reveals the ‘void’ within the museum, a void constantly deferred and displaced by the attempted reconstitution of meaning. After all, as Alan Seban, president of the Centre Pompidou, argues in the foreword: “From its onset, a museum always begins empty.”

“What does it mean to conserve, display, and collect?” On every level, it requires a confrontation with not only information but also temporality — the subjectivity of information in relation to temporality and the subjectivity of temporality in relation to information. What one believes to be true at any moment can be changed by a change in time, seen through the reappraisal of ethnographic museums in the self-conscious age of post-colonialism. How one conceives of time, the relationship between past, present, and future, can fluctuate through the manipulation of information – seen through the constant re-evaluations of past exhibitions or collections through new historical findings. To “conserve, display and collect” requires more than a kernel of cognizance that what is being represented, and the meaning behind such representation, can all too easily be subverted, diverted and unmade. It is to understand the gaping void, the nothingness, on which authenticity is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated, and that authenticity and meaning are constantly being modulated, differentiated and deferred.

By overtly manipulating information and creating gaps between what a viewer expects to see in an exhibition and how that viewer expects to understand it, Voids becomes an element in its own set. It exposes the chasm between the relative subjectivity of the museum and the space of artistic interpretation. Voids does not offer any particular explanation for its existence, nor for why the peculiarities of the art museum exist. It does not aim to. What it is content to do is show — show that even the act of showing nothing is a deft slight-of-hand trick; one such that if you blink twice, you might not even see it at all.

Voids. A Retrospective
Centre Pompidou Paris, 25.02 – 23.03 2009
Signage design: Corinne Zellweger and
Gavillet & Rust Geneva
© Centre Pompidou / Georges Meguerditchian

Voids. A Retrospective
Centre Pompidou Paris, 25.02 – 23.03 2009
Signage design: Corinne Zellweger and
Gavillet & Rust Geneva
© Centre Pompidou / Georges Meguerditchian

Floor plan of the exhibition

 


[1] Laurent Le Bon. “He Who Dares Nothing, Wins Nothing,” Voids: A Retrospective, ed. Matthieu Copeland et al. (Zurich: JRP Ringler, 2009), 163.

[2] The exhibition was initially conceived by the curatorial committee: John Armleder, Mathieu Copeland, Gustav Metzer, Mai-Thu Perret, Clive Phillpot. However. it was Laurent Le Bon, director of the Centre Pompidou and Philippe Pirotte director of the Kunsthalle Bern who acted as leading co-curators in its staging.

[3]John Armleder, Mathieu Copeland, Gustav Metzer, Mai-Thu Perret and Clive Phillpot. “Curatorial Committee: General Introduction,” Voids: A Retrospective, 29.

[4] Robert Barry. “Statement,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. (Cambridge: The MIT Press), 426.

[5] Différance also functions as a pun with difference; in French the substitution of the letter ‘e’ for ‘a’ goes by unnoticed, as both words are pronounced identically. Although the distinction between difference and différance may be apparent in written form, verbally it is hidden, hence the breach the written creates which the spoken cannot express. It operates in a “strange space…between speech and writing”. Jacques Derrida. “Différance,”  Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984) 5.

[6] Jacques Derrida. “Semiology and Grammatology: Interview with Julia Kristeva” Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981) 24.

[7] Ibid., 21.

[8]Ibid., 27. The complete passage from this paragraph is as follows: “The a of différance also recalls that spacing is temporization, the detour and postponement by means of which intuition, perception, consummation – in a word, the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being – are always deferred. Deferred by virtue of the very principle of difference which holds that an element functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring to another past or future element in an economy of traces.”

[9] This also connects with an aspect of Husserlian phenomenology dealing with perception which he finds problematic. To Derrida, perception will always be contingent on the present, and a general theory of the relationship between subject and consciousness therefore impossible. Derrida, “Semiology and Gramatology,” 24. For a longer discussion on Derrida and Edmund Husserl’s philosophy see Leonard Lawlor, Derrida and Husserl: The Basic Problem of Phenomenology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).

[10]Jian-Xing Too, “Voids: A Retrospective”, Artforum 47.10 (Summer 2009) :350

[11]Ibid.

[12] Mathieu Copeland, “Qualifying the Void,” Voids: A Retrospective, 167.

[13] Le Bon. “He Who Dares Nothing, Wins Nothing,” 163.

[14] Copeland. “Qualifying the Void,” 167.

[15] Le Bon. “He Who Dares Nothing, Wins Nothing,” 164.

[16] Armleder et al. “Curatorial Committee: General Introduction,” 29.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Le Bon. “He Who Dares Nothing, Wins Nothing,” 163.

*Helene Nguyen is a first year student in the MA Program in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia University.