239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

I think the essence of life reveals itself in traces, in all the mistakes, the broken pieces we touch, the evidence of usage of things and surfaces, more so than in the successes we encounter in life. But what is the essence of the trace (if it has such a thing)?

For me, Barthes clarifies this through writing about the essence of a pair of pants: ‘What is the essence of a pair of pants (if it has such a thing)? Certainly not that crisp and well-pressed object to be found on department-store racks; rather, that clump of fabric on the floor, negligently dropped there when the boy stepped out of them, careless lazy, indifferent. The essence of an object has some relation with its destruction: not necessarily what remains after it has been used up, but what is thrown away as being of no use’[1]

gerlach en koop, Opschuiven

The void comes to you as a revelation, it surprises, it amazes, sends you adrift into your own imagination. The void appears over time, through the accumulation of dust on a surface where a thing or an object is hanging, standing, lying. The trace appears only after taking the thing away. It is usually not made intentionally because it just appears on the spot where you hang your paintings, clocks, and shelves; place your furniture etc. The more time, dust, and light particles alter the surface area in terms of colour or appearance, the more the trace reveals itself.

Wolfram Scheible
The void trace has the ability to surprise, because it only shows itself after removing an object, an action that can give the person the idea that he or she has discovered something in their domestic space that was covered before. It is a revelation of a literal nothing, a piece of surface that has not been covered with the layer of dust that the rest of the surface embraced, because it was covered already by something else.

The theft of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in 1911 attracted an immense crowd of people from all over Europe, to visit and see the void in the place where the painting had hung before, [2] but not the thing itself since it was stolen. Thus the theft of the painting elevated its status even more. But what is the power, the driving force for wanting to visit the place, only to see the void? The void becomes the protagonist in the piece, but only because there once was a painting with a certain status. With the example of the Mona Lisa, it is obviously the status of the painting and the mental memory of the image that constitutes the status of the void.

Peter Wu

The spatter is a joyful trace. It is like confetti on the surface. It shows itself mostly in the shape of little drops like little points on the surface. Sometimes they are gathered around a big central blot. Sometimes spatters looks like stars with a thicker centre part where thin lines depart from and stretch outwards. It can be created by throwing a glass of wine on the floor: where the wine will hit the ground, most of the liquid will strike, but around this centre there are tiny drops bouncing up again and falling a bit further off centre or touching a vertical other surface like a table leg or a wall. It resembles the fun of water, of playing. It is also joyful because it describes an instant, a moment that doesn’t last more than a second.

The waterfall, which only spatters at the bottom, is purely energy. The clashing of the water on the surface, the uncontrolled way the drops shoot through the air and land until they merge with the flat water’s surface. The same energy is visualized in the spatter trace, but then fixed on a ground. One moment of action is frozen and never able to repeat itself. Just as photography is the freezing of a moment, the death of the object, the still image where all the energy has been drained from, so the spatter a singular event: a moment fixed for just one time.

Wolfram Scheible

The smudge is the touch. It is distinctive because of its physicality. The smudge is, in essence, something you would make with your finger, hand or elbow or another piece of limb, together with some medium that makes it appear. This medium can be grains of powder, greasy substances, or anything that stands out on the surface that is being smudged.

Smudges are made by people; people with dirty hands, or dirty working clothes that fall on the floor. The smudge is always a human thing, the result of a directional action, like smudge traces you find on doors that are always touched on a certain spot near the edge of their surface on a height between approximately one and one and a half meters from the ground.

There is no trace without a past. It tells you that something has happened that took place at a moment in time before you see the trace itself. A trace can tell what has been on a surface, or for how long the surface has existed. A trace can reveal the inner layers of a surface, or show the most used places in a space. A trace can be made in an instant, like a coffee stain, or it can take years for a trace to develop, like the expansion of a wooden door.A trace shows time in itself.

This text is an excerpt from a full essay, to be read here.

[1]Barthes, Roland. The responsibility of forms, page 158, University of California Press, 1991

[2] Leader, Darian. Stealing the Mona Lisa – What art stops us from seeing, Faber & Faber, London, 2002.
This occurrence is the starting point for Darian Leader’s about why empty gallery spaces are attractive and why we like to look at art.

Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951
Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951

‘There was nothing, nothing at all to see.’ This line, which would become famous, was spoken by a visitor to a Barnett Newman exhibit on January 1950 in New York. Newman presented the monumental monochrome paintings, cut through by a vertical line, for which he would be well renowned later. Paintings without a title, without a motif. In a certain sense, Newman did not want to ‘show’, at least not to show any subject, no image referring to the history of fine art. That was the discovery he had made shortly before: he no longer needed a subject. He advised the viewer to look at his paintings from up close, and not from afar, which one tends to do because of their large sizes. ‘Paintings need to be felt, not to be read,’ was his adagio.

Titian, St Margaret and the Drago


Four centuries before, around 1550, a similar discussion took place. The incentive was the paintings of Titian. At an older age, the master from Venice started to paint ‘invisible’ scenes. No longer did he bind colour to matter and shape, his palette had the figures dissolve in a kind of fog or haze. He built his composition with broad, bold brushstrokes and colour fields. Moreover, he left parts of the canvas unpainted, so that, as his contemporary Vasari put it, ‘one does not see much from up close, whereas from afar the paintings appear to be perfect.’ With ‘perfect’, Vasari meant that Titian’s paintings gave the impression of being alive.

The revolution that is born with Titian and comes to an end with Newman, is that of a category of painting that thrives on invisibility and shapelessness. It is an art of painting that shows the process of the métier, the dynamics of the brush, the use of colour, the texture. But most of all, it is a way of painting that involves the viewer in the work. For it is his position, his place, close to the painting’s skin or from a distance, that determines what can be seen. This form of painting creates the illusion of the viewer as a (co-)creator, an artist, who has to finish the work.
Ironically, this suggestion is raised most strongly by remaining at a distance from Newman’s work, yet by almost pressing one’s nose against the canvas in the case of Titian.

Detail, Titian, St Margaret and the Dragon, c.1559