The art of emptiness – Itzhak Goldberg (ed, 2017)

After a rather long break from writing due to health reasons, I’m trying to embark on finally writing something about that book I bought last year, which intrigued me with its title. My avid readers might remember just how keen I am to link painting (or static art in general) to Slow Cinema. Not because I think that they’re the same. They cannot be. They each have their individual characteristics that sets them apart from the other. But there is this use of empty frames, of static frames, of little to no dialogue in slow films that has always reminded me of standing in a gallery in front of a painting, contemplating the scenery I see in my own time.

Like almost all French books I have so far bought for reviewing on this blog, L’art du vide (2017) is the result of a colloqium on the subject which united scholars and artists alike. The book contains chapters on paintings, drawings, even animation films and one chapter that I really enjoyed titled “The dimension of absence in contemporary art”, written by Nadia Barrientos. Some of you might know the works by Jean-Luc Nancy, French philosopher, who also wrote a preface to the book, in which he states that we cannot penetrate emptiness. It is emptiness that penetrates us, pierces through us, and it’s not so much that it leaves emptiness behind. Emptiness means, in fact, fullness. It’s this Chinese adage, which I had read about during my PhD research: emptiness and fullness complement one another. One cannot exist without the other.

This is, as Nancy demonstrates with several examples, clearer in the French language than in English. I was quite baffled when I read that section, and was then glad that I could speak French. Indeed, nothingness in French doesn’t come without fullness. Nancy points out that the French word rien (nothing) comes from Latin res, whose accusative rem became rien in French. In fact, res means thing. It doesn’t mean nothing. It means thing. In French, rien therefore only becomes nothingness if you negate it: “Il n’y a rien à dire” (there is nothing to say). If you don’t negate rien, it remains a positive word.

In his introduction to the book, editor Itzhak Goldberg points out that (as I have previously argued in the context of Slow Cinema) the larger visibility of emptiness as a subject is, as such, not a recent phenomenon. Rather, emptiness has always been there, but external circumstances, such as the increased speed of our lives, make us more aware of the opposite: of slowness, of nothingness, emptiness. It’s like you searching for something to do when you’re bored. Nothingness gives way to fullness, and the other way around. In his online article about emptiness in art, André Rouillé argues – to me quite convincingly – that art has the opportunity to set itself apart from all other mediated images in a world full of images by putting emptiness (or nothingness) at their centre. According to Rouillé, the media are condemned to be fast all the time. It is about grabbing the spectator, about reporting first about an important event. It is, as he says, all about the spectacle, which makes me think of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and his own comments on it. In any case, Rouillé suggests that art can function as the antidote of this ever-increasing speed, which is being normalised by the (spectacle of the) media.

I think what resonates strongly with Slow Cinema and my work on it, is a quote by Norman McLaren Goldberg uses in order to strengthen his own arguments of emptiness being a central part of art. McLaren famously said that it’s not the image that is important, but what can be found between the images. It’s not so much about showing, but about suggesting, and in order to suggest something on a screen, you have to use nothingness. you have to use the off, something that isn’t there, something that isn’t easy to grasp at first. A great deal of slow film directors use this strategy in order to engage the viewer in their films’ stories. If I speak about the use of absence, as I have called it throughout my work, I inevitably think of Lav Diaz and his magnificent use of the off in order to suggest trauma and create an almost slo-mo progression of narrative. But, Goldberg argues correctly, the use of nothingness (or absence) confronts the viewer with problems. Goldberg does not go into detail here. Yet, I have argued elsewhere that the problem really comes from the fact that the viewer is conditioned. S/he is used to getting everything served on a silver platter, so that s/he can enjoy a film rather than have to work in order to “get it”. This conditioning is also the reason of slow films or “empty” artworks being rejected because they do not conform to what one is used to. In the end, Goldberg argues, this is a very Western attitude: seeing is believing. Something invisible doesn’t count, isn’t worth mentioning.

I could go on about the introduction of the book, which is genuinely interesting and contains a lot of good points. But I would like to draw your attention to one chapter at least, which I found particularly fascinating. I have mentioned on this blog before that slowness/emptiness can be an antidote to anxiety induced by external factors. The hectic 24/7 we-are-always-live news is one example, but by far not the only one. What struck me in L’art du vide was the chapter on the American artist Jacques Brown, who was absolutely afraid of emptiness. He suffered from severe anxiety when he just saw an empty canvas. At one point, he wrote in his personal notes: “I died 36 times in this canvas.” He coudn’t deal with or handle a white page, an empty canvas, anything that was empty. It prevented him from creating something. If it created something, then it was utter fear and debilitating anxiety. So what did Brown do? He used old account books of his wife to draw on. Those pages were not white, not empty. He could draw freely on it without being inhibited by “the fear of emptiness”.

In her superb chapter on the aesthetics of absence in contemporary art, Nadia Barrientos writes that absence forces us to shift our attention to something that had previously escaped us. Absence functions as a reminder of something previously forgotten, and to show us this something in a new light. Absence works like silence, which is often used to enhance what has been or what should be said. I have been fascinated by something I’d perhaps call “temporary art”; a work of art that disappears after a while. In some ways, those are wonderful examples of the interaction between fullness and emptiness, combining both to generate a powerful message. Barrientos mentions 2017 by Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong, for instance, which is a sort of mural painting written with a special ink that slowly but surely disappears the longer it is exposed to daylight. This is not only about fullness and emptiness. It is, to me, a statement about forgetting, something that happens very slowly, almost invisible until one day a certain memory is gone. As Barrientos correctly points out, Phinthong’s artwork goes against the famous adage “the medium is the message”. Here, it is the process – of change, of forgetting – that is the message, and that stands above all and invites the viewers to reflect upon this.

Nothingness, or emptiness, has, as this book shows, wide-ranging meaning. What stands out in all chapter is the idea that nothing doesn’t mean nothing. On the contrary, nothing always stands for something, and helps highlighting this particular something. The use of emptiness/absence is a way to engage a viewer, to reflect about major themes as large (but important) as humanity. Nothingness can be anxiety-inducing or soothing. It can be the centre of an artwork, or it can be one of many characteristics. Nothingness can be there from the start, or an artwork can disappear in front of a viewer’s eyes. This “nothing” is multi-facetted and more than just “nothing”. I think this is the easiest, and quickest (oh, the irony) way to describe this collection of essays!

The Red Turtle – Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016)

I believe this is the first animation film that I’m mentioning on this blog. I haven’t heard a lot about slow animation before, nor am I really a fan of animation. But it’s different with Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle. One could easily argue that the film doesn’t fit the Slow Cinema categories I have established on this site in the last five years. That was my very first thought, too, when the film had started. A lot of movement, comparatively quick cuts – there was something that made me wonder why some people have described this film as being slow or contemplative in the past. Just over an hour later, I agreed with those people and it is, funnily enough, the aspect of movement that, in parts, contributed to my change in thinking.

On the surface, The Red Turtle does not take its time with anything. In effect, the film tells the story of life in under seventy minutes. A man is caught up in a storm, is stranded on an island, tries to escape but a red turtle prevents him from doing so. In subsequent scenes, he falls in love, has a son, the son grows up pretty fast, leaves the island and he himself dies. So basically, it’s the natural circle of life told in a short time frame. In case you’ve been following my work for a long time, you probably know that I would always advocate for length in order to allow for an in-depth depiction of whatever is on screen. For The Red Turtle, this is slightly different and even though the sudden speed with which the story developed was startling at times, the film didn’t lose any of its smoothness.

And this is the key of the film that makes it so wonderfully slow and contemplative: its smoothness, its beauty. The Red Turtle is a magnificent, poetic piece that, despite looking like a speedy story-telling rollercoaster on the surface, takes its time. This sounds contradictory, I agree. And yet, apart from one sequence towards the end of the film, all scenes give the impression that life moves slowly, that it progresses in its own time. I mentioned the aspect of movement before. Especially character movement is not necessarily a major thing in traditional Slow Cinema. It’s there, but it’s limited. What struck me in The Red Turtle is the perfectly smooth, sort of zen movements. The film’s characters swim a lot, for example, and they do it, in parts, to enjoy the very act of swimming, to swim with turtles and imitate their slow and graceful movements, to become one with the still sea that surrounds them (up to a point, one should say).

Then there is the aspect of isolation and loneliness. The story is focused, first of all, on a single man only. He looks for food and for drinking water. He builds a raft in order to escape, but there is only so much you can do on your own on an island. So what the film does show is limited, is repetitive, is the daily survival of a man stranded in the middle of nowhere on an unnamed island. Curiously, once he gave up trying to escape, the film becomes very peaceful. It was his anger that gave the impression of a speedy story development, his rage against natural forces. But after that there is a real shift in tone in the film that, once established, made me sink into my seat and observe the images. I didn’t actually watch the film, I observed it. I wasn’t even distracted by the music. On the contrary, they helped me to feel the sort of isolated, limited life which, at the same time, is a life of complete freedom.

There is something mystic, something metaphorical about The Red Turtle. I felt that the film spoke about a million things, and yet only about one essential thing: life. In some ways, just like with major slow films spoken about on this blog in the past, the film’s utter simplicity, also in its drawing, highlights the beauty of it; of the film itself, of the story, of nature. I often thought about Chinese painting (I can’t let it go!), and was reminded of how often slow films focus on nature. Crucially, there is no dialogue in the film. Thoughts and feelings are expressed by actions only. Body language is the centre of the film, and aligns itself, once more, with other, more known and popular slow films. So maybe you begin to see the contradictory nature of The Red Turtle. Nevertheless, or maybe despite this, this animation film deserves being on this blog. It’s an interesting hybrid that made me rethink the framework I have established for myself. At the same time, it fits almost perfectly, and I’m absolutely delighted that it’s this film that has become the first animation mentioned on this blog. The year starts off well…