Magazine article Artforum International

"The Big Nothing": Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia

Magazine article Artforum International

"The Big Nothing": Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia

Article excerpt

"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.

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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. …

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