241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Most of us would reach for the dictionary to find a description for “nothing”, so here goes nothing:

1

Nothing is: nothing (pronoun) is not anything, not a thing: nothing. But is there more to it? The term nothing makes its appearance in the works of many great thinkers and philosophers. Like Socrates, for example who said, “I only know one thing: I know nothing.” In this context, nothing refers to knowledge, in other words, that which is not tangible. But isn’t nothing the intangible immaterial?

2

Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Nothing has no centre and it borders on the nothing”. He situates the “nothing” as an endless given. What would I do with absolutely nothing? Before “something” exists there must first be “nothing”. Could you describe this as a cause and effect reaction? In today’s society, one must be sure to do “something” to stand out. But doesn’t this great collective desire for “something” not simply heighten our desire for the “nothing”? “Although one can profit from something, we can only find that which is useful in nothing”, according to Lao-Tse3.

Tom Friedman, Erased Playboy Centrefold

Let’s get this straight. At this point, I’m convinced that “nothing” indeed, is intangible. But I do think that “nothing” becomes tangible when it is the starting point for an idea. The absence of “something”, or in other words, “nothing”, acts as a foundation, and creates the urgency to fill the space of that which is lacking substance. Does “nothing” really exist?

When I look around me, I see many concrete things, but I don’t see a sign of “nothing”. Is “nothing” not just a term that humans have devised? Maybe we created the “nothing” so that we have a word for the incomprehensible and the unfathomable, an idea translated into vocabulary. Is “nothing” simply a made-up thing that we’ve grown accustomed to?

The Nothing

The villain from the film The NeverEnding Story: a dark cloud that engulfs all.

4

Artistotles said that everything that exists within the mind has first existed within the senses. Haven’t we just talked each other into the concept of “nothing”?

For example, when I look at the sky, I ask myself if this is “nothing”. No. The air is made of particles, molecules, and these are made of atoms. Has science, then, spoiled our mystical idea of “nothing”?

The thought of a complete vacuum is exciting. But science has rationalised this concept and to told us that this is impossible.

Martin Creed, Work No. 227 The lights going on and off

So if an external “nothing” is impossible, what does this say about an internal nothing? Is it possible to not think or feel anything? These are questions that I still struggle with.

But I can share my own experience. I can’t think of “nothing”. There is always something going on in my head. If I tell myself to sit quietly and think of “nothing”, I’ll only think of the word “nothing”. Feeling “nothing” seems like even less of a possibility. “Nothing” must then also be impossible internally. But what, then, remains of “nothing”?

“Nothing” is intangible. “Nothing” can be the start of “something”. “Nothing” can become “something”. “Nothing” could be just a man made word. “Nothing” can be a thought or a feeling. “Nothing” does not really exist: simultaneously the meaning of the word itself. In the end, this text is much ado about nothing.

When I was a child, my father used to ask me “What are you thinking about?” . And when there was just a rush of thoughts, or nothing special, or something too embarrassing, I just said, “nothing”. To this he would also reply in a very sarcastic tone: “Nothing? How is that possible? Is your head totally empty? Is there a vacuum inside?” Of course that was not the case, and although I replied “Yes, kind of”, my head was always full of thoughts, but it was an easy way to end this awkward conversation.

Void particles

Then, when I became a teenager, my head got filled with too many thoughts, so I started to think about cleaning it up, and I came across the Buddhist philosophies. According to these, the goal of life is to get rid of these thoughts, get rid of the Ego, and be one with the “nothing”. This would be the key to end the suffering of daily life. This is called “Nirvana”. In fact, I tried very hard, but apparently this was the key to not succeed, because the more you want the nothing, the less you get there. And actually I never experienced or saw nothing until I reached the point when I didn’t want or expect it to happen. I did not even realise it was happening, it was just there. And it was there in several forms.

Last year I was working in fashion retail. Sometimes I had to watch the top floor of the store, and greet all the people coming up. As greeting is a starting point of the communication, I had to look into the face of every customer. I believe, when you look into someone’s face, you can normally see what is inside. And there it was: nothing. It is hard to describe, although I tried to explain it to myself so many times, that I could really see that emptiness, that vacuum, or not even that. Just nothing. No expressions, no real goals, no sign or inner processes, but also no sign of interpreting the information of the surroundings. It was there. At this time I always asked myself, what could have possibly happened on the floors under me that washed away the content of their cranium so efficiently. And I was also wondering if it could happen to me as well, me, who spends more hours in that building than any of them.

Dawn of the Dead, 1978

Zombies in the shopping mall

And yes. Afterwards I went home, and I was sitting on the couch, staring at the wall in front of me, and there was nothing inside. Nothing to say, nothing to feel, no urge to eat or do something, but no thoughts either. It was even more shocking that I often tried to think, and I could not. I just could not grab an idea and stick to it, because it floated away, like when someone tries to grasp the water in a river. So this was the state the Buddhists wanted to reach? This is annoying! Actually there was still something that is not perfectly nothing, namely the longing for something, the willingness to do, to think, to be. The last cry-for-helps of the ego, who was not ready to disappear, but not cared about enough to function in a meaningful way.

The Value of Void, Navid Nuur

Luckily this period ended before any tragic consequences could have happened. Now, as a fresh art student, I was free to think again, and do, and create. And then it really happened. I was travelling across Europe in a bus. During all the days of the journey I was overwhelmed by impressions, I was realising how many opportunities there are, how many artists there are to learn about, how many ways exist to place letters on a sheet of paper, how many relationships… On the last day I was extremely tired. I was walking around an unknown city for days, I was drinking too much beer, smoking too many cigarettes, and had not really slept. Instead of sleeping this night we decided to travel back. I decided to lay down on the floor between the chairs and try to sleep. It failed. As it was useless to complain about it, I started to accept the situation, just as I accepted the dirt around myself, the chewing gum stuck into my stockings, the random objects falling on my head… As I was lying there, I realised that my feelings and memories were vanishing away, and I welcomed the open emptiness in their place. I stopped thinking. My motivations and intentions were no longer there. I did not want. I did not want to sleep or eat anymore, but I also did not want to not sleep or not eat.

The Neverending Story, The Nothing

Just the same was true for everything. I did not think, and I did not want to think, thoughts just “were”. My ego was gone. It stopped working. There was the “nothing”. The nothing inside me, lying on the bus floor, among the falling-down jackets, scarves, cigarettes and who knows what else, staring at the cloudy sky or a science fiction movie, feeling the waviness of the German highway in my whole body. There was an unexpected, inglorious moment of Nirvana.

This morning, Marina Abramović stands at the entrance to the Serpentine Gallery to welcome the first visitors of the day to her performance piece, 512 hours. ‘Most artists do not say good morning but I do! Good morning!’ she says, and looks deeply into our eyes as we each enter. Once inside, we’re asked to leave our phones and belongings in lockers before stepping into the exhibition.

I’m handed a black strip of cloth to tie over my eyes and coaxed into the white room filled with more than a dozen other blindfolded visitors slowly shuffling around, many with their hands tracing along the side of the walls to keep themselves in check. Muffled noises reverberate through the large gallery space where the bodies of the others are the only obstacles for sound to bounce off of. Robbed of my vision, I am reminded of diving to the bottom of the ocean where the blue extends into an infinity that is endless as well as stifling and claustrophobic.

The invigilator who blindfolded me gently spins me around and I, disorientated, rely on my hearing in a bid to understand my position but can make little of the dull acoustic. My hands, too, find a wall and follow the contours of the room. Every so often I brush against another body and we both erupt in muted giggles. The touch of warmth, the physicality of life and energy within the other is a striking contrast to the cool of the wall. As I move through the space I find myself looking forward to these physical encounters, these intimate meetings that, devoid of eye contact, are based on senses that I’m usually far less aware of.

Suddenly, a soft hand reaches out to mine—it’s been a while since I’ve held a hand and this unexpected contact spreads like the warmth of an enveloping embrace. A calm, hushed voice begins to speak: ‘Walk very slowly, in slow motion. Pay attention to each of your movements’. His soothing voice echoes a semblance of love. Silently, we walk together, hand in hand.

This stranger’s words stirs a feeling deeply nestled within: I am taken care of while I am in a state of near helplessness. For an instant I am in love, that home-coming type of love, perhaps the greatest kind of love! Minutes later, he releases my hand: ‘Carry on without me’. And I continue, gliding through a sightless world and floating on the remnants of the briefest infatuation I’ve ever known.

Rolf Nowotny, Deaf Parent, 2013

Relieved of my blindfold, I walk into the next room where a kind faced girl, another invigilator, leads me to a space where row upon row of cots are laid out. Most of the cots are occupied by visitors wearing ear defenders. They seem to be asleep. She gestures to an empty bed and I lie down. She pulls a thin purple cotton sheet over me and her face floats above me as I close my eyes. Once again, I am pulled into a worriless childlike world, where the maternal figure moves me to a long forgotten state of surrender. Like the shepherd was my lover during my minutes of blindness, the girl momentarily becomes mother.

After my session, I visit the toilet. The girl whose face lingered in the darkness of my closed eyes exits a stall as I await my turn. When our eyes meet, I smile at her and she returns the gesture, although the tenderness of our previous exchange has disappeared. Strangers once again, indeed, and the gallery, too, has reverted to just that: the white cube.

And I realise that I have just fallen for the Marina method despite numberless reasons to be wary: Marina’s embrac of celebrity status and that odd goddess-like persona she strives towards, how my ‘authentic’ experience is induced by paid invigilators repeating the same gestures daily, and how the performance is basically a series of new age mindfulness exercise. And yet, despite this awareness, I’ve gladly given in.

Less is better, less is more. This principle has held the last century's art in a tight grip. Even now, the elimination of frills and the absence of the anecdote remain praised and encouraged by the majority of art critics and art tutors.

Fred. Sandback

A lengthy history precedes the art of omission. Remarkably, the roots to this aesthetic approach lie in the Baroque; age of decorum, extravagance, excess, and the ornament. But this same seventeenth century period also gave way to a break in the tradition of following a narrative and by representing it scene after scene, like in a comic strip. The Baroque celebrates the climax and the apotheosis; that one instant in which an entire story is condensed into an ultimate moment of theatricality, frozen in time.

In 1793, the art of omission encountered a curious development in the form of the French painter Jacques-Louis David. His ‘Death of Marat’ is a world famous masterpiece, an icon of the French Revolution, an unequivocal image of devotion inspired by the events that instigated the uproar in Paris on July 13th, 1793 when a young woman of twenty-four named Charlotte Corday from Normandy murdered the Jacobin revolutionary leader, Marat. David’s idiosyncratic depiction of this scene might be considered religious and engaged rather than factual or pragmatic.

Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David

What is most unusual about this work is that both the murder and the perpetrator are absent from the image. David’s Marat is dying. His head hangs limply on his right shoulder, arm dangling over the edge of the bath, his left hand still clutching Corday’s letter of announcement. Through a beam of light entering from above, as though cast from the heavens, Marat makes his departure from his earthly existence as a true hero and martyr for the people of France.

Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ inspired David’s brilliant depiction of Marat’s dangling arm. His ability to isolate this motif was genius. No painter before him had brought an arm to light in the same dramatic way.

Less is more? Although there is nothing wrong with minimalism in design and leaving out unnecessary elements, the power of magnitude shouldn't be denied.

A bunch of bits is needed to make just one single byte (let alone the number of bits needed for one terabyte) and a mass of drops to form an ocean. The video ‘Kwaliteit van Kwantiteit’ (Quality of Quantity) by Dutch designer/artist Pierre Derks is based on the principle that volume or amount do matter. Recurrent theme in his work is the use of found footage and in this video shows the inexhaustibility of the online available imagery. By using worldwide stereotypes in photography, the video reflects the lack of ingenuity or imagination when it comes to making pictures.

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Pierre Derks - Kwaliteit van Kwantiteit

The video 'Kwaliteit van Kwantiteit' (Quality of Quantity) is by Dutch designer/artist Pierre Derks and is based on the principle that volume or amount do matter.