Hans Dieter Huber

The Absence of the Present


The Visibility of the Invisible

Ever since Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" we know that things can never be perceived in their entirety but only in fragments and gradations. The reason for this is the perspectivity of our experience and the limitedness of our existence. Every perceived object is thus fundamentally related to both the visible and the invisible. Its surfaces are congruent with the limits of its visibility and at the same time with the nothingness on which it abuts. Surfaces are all we see. We can only imagine, think or know, but not see, what lies behind them.

Andreas M. Kaufmann opens the surface of a wall by inserting a spyhole through which we see a distorted, dreamlike and totally unreal view of the compartmented space of the transformer station on the other side. There is however no way of verifying what the aperture reveals. We cannot go behind the wall to confirm the reliability of what we see, but must trust the construction and our eyes. We are completely at the mercy of our gaze and its purported presence.

In this manner visible phenomena are constantly surrounded by a corona of ideas, imaginings and myths with which we compensate our fear of the not being able to see absence, darkness, otherness or the alien. We supplement what we cannot see by what we imagine and know. But it is in our imagination that the systems of desire and deception actually lurk. By that token the Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden introduced to aesthetics the concept of the empty space or gap. In literature and art, he argued, numerous definitions are left open which can and must be filled in later by the observer's subjective concretizations.

The breaks and shifts in Sam Samore's fairy-tales interrupt the narrative logic of the plot and blur the situation, which has to be supplemented by the listener's subjective ideas. Filling the gaps is crucial to Sam Samore's tales. To the aural range they add an incalculable range of imagination or cognitive fantasy that is different for every listener. An identical presence thus encounters a different otherness which can only be conceived of as absence, as a gap.

In every work of art there is a perceptible difference which can be neither bridged nor reintegrated. It is the difference between what is there, on the surface of the work, and what is not there. This difference has to do with the reference of the work. As a system of symbols, a work of art can refer to something that is not there. The reference proceeds from the work into the world. In this function, art merely stands proxy for what is absent.

In that sense, Erwin Wurm's dust sculpture stands proxy for something else. First a rectangular, flat form, a piece of wood found by chance, is placed on the floor. House dust is then finely sieved over it and over the adjacent, uncovered areas of the floor. The piece of wood is then carefully removed. The resulting dust-form on the floor becomes progressively thicker towards the middle, ending abruptly where the piece of wood lay. The work's shape refers to the absent inner form as something not there, missing, unrepresentable, something whose existence can only be supplemented or imagined by the beholder.

Art can refer to something else, though, to something actually there. It can refer to itself. This is called self-reference. When works of art draw attention to themselves, they emphasize their autonomy, their self-referentiality, thereby reinforcing their claim to a radical, uncompromising freedom from any purpose whatsoever.

Heimo Zobernig's heated mirror physically draws attention to itself by making the observer feel warm and thus aware of its deviation from a normally functioning mirror. The cold reflection is artificially heated. The I and the Other, in Lacanian parlance the "Je" and the "Moi", meet in the mirror. The mirror-image is an important condition for the development of social identity. The I in the mirror is Another. The I alienated from Itself is warmed by a heating element behind the glass. The warmth can be felt in front of the mirror. The element heats the room, making the mirror too hot to touch. The image is rendered immaterial by its intangibility.

As representatives of what is absent, on the other hand, works of art draw attention to parts or domains of worlds extraneous to the work of art. They deflect the beholder's eye and attention towards something else and thus serve a purpose. Art is implemented as a means to an end, used as a medium of external references.

In the case of Anatolij Shuravlev, the deceptive surface of what we see verges so closely on invisibility that the two become almost identical. The tiny surfaces, each measuring only 7 by 9 millimetres, are merely condensed nuclei, but are no longer proxies or stand-ins. They are reproductions of drawings by 17th-century travellers to Brazil, and they exhibit a marked resemblance to their makers' native landscapes. Every cultural difference has been expunged from them. The proxy function is diluted to such an extent here that a lower threshold of perception is reached or fallen short of, shifting the visible into the realm of the invisible, of cultural projection. Like an inside-out tube, the invisible, as a re-entry of that which is distinguished (the visible), re-enters the distinction itself (visible/invisible), rendering the employed distinction itself visible.

When the beholder turns his attention to what is represented, he looks through the work at the world as if through a window, a transparent proxy or stand-in. When, however, he turns his attention to the actual work, he gazes at its material constitution, at its presence, its being, its here and now. A work's material constitution guarantees its identity and its originality and thus its historical authenticity.

At a first glance, Rirkrit Tiravanija's "Untitled (Schupfnudeln)" couldn't be simpler. One wonders what it has to do with art. A recipe for a regional German dish as a work of art? Tiravanija's idea is for the curator to prepare the dish as unpretentiously as possible and for the guests to eat it at the opening. On show for the duration of the exhibition are the remains of the meal and the cooking implements: the table, hobs, paper plates with the remains of the food. For weeks the exhibition space is pervaded with the smell of pickled cabbage. What is still present refers quite directly to something absent. It hints at the origins of a non-existent or no longer existing work. The people who cooked the meal with the aid of their culinary culture and their specific cultural tradition are missing. The displayed objects refer to this form of culture and to their users' common social make-up.

Both manners of reference - to oneself and to another - are, like the two fundamental possibilities of symbolization in art, always active. Like two sides of one and the same distinction, they only work in mutually exclusive difference. When we look at the work and its self-referential characteristics, we are unable to look simultaneously at what is absent, invisible. When we look at the external references of art, though, the work eludes the focus of our observation.

Simone Westerwinter's empty whisky bottle is merely a clue, a relic, a piece of evidence, a trace, a trigger for a story, a plot, a verbal context comprehensible to only a few.

Events and actions are ephemeral, existing solely at the moment of their performance, after which they vanish for ever. Actions can leave traces in the world, or they can be registered with the aid of various media. But no matter how perfect the registration, every trace, every memory, is simply a relic, a superficial stand-in, a representative for something that is not there, cannot be there, because it has long since decayed and disappeared.

What is the point of Westerwinter's action? Is it so that we can say afterwards that the curator of the exhibition was drunk at the opening, that we were there, that we caroused until the small hours? It might have something to do with artist lore, myths of authenticity in the sense of "being there". In that sense the empty whisky bottle acts as a relic, referring to a state of the world in which art events can only be conceived of as something absent, lost, instead of present, authentic.

How can we conceive of the world as something present? It was a question that preoccupied Sartre and Merleau-Ponty all their lives. Art compensates us for the loss by contriving for us an ingenious presence in which we believe, which we eagerly consume in aesthetic experience. Works of art would thus appear to be caught up in a paradox. On the one hand they are visible surfaces of forms, colours, materials or volumes. On the other hand they are transparent stand-ins. They are references to something that is not there, something that simply cannot be represented with the means of art.

Gerwald Rockenschaub's piece of perspex measuring 32 x 25 centimetres, with its polished edges, hangs from a square, anodized brass hook on the wall. The work is transparent. Through it, the beholder looks at the wall which it would normally cover. The work's greatly diminished visibility deflects our attention to its environment. The work thus transforms the usually invisible character of its surroundings into the visible presence of an all-determining background. By virtue of being a point of reference, a resource, an anchor, a frame, a background or a horizon for art, the work's direct surroundings become an object of perception, and the work itself a blind spot of aesthetic experience.

Every work of art presents this difference as a split in its surface, a bisection of its meaning. The one half of this meaning leads us back to the work, enabling us to discuss authenticity, credibility or originality of colour as colour, material as material, surface as surface, work as work.

At a first glance Vincent Shine's "Bilateral Dead Papyrus" seems to confront us with two real, faded and withered papyrus plants nailed to the wall. Closer scrutiny reveals it to be a total artefact, constructed down to the last detail. The work consists of two symmetrically arranged imitations of a plant incapable of achieving such perfect symmetry in nature. The surfaces that look so natural and real are made of plastics such as ethylene-vinyl-acetate, polyether-methacrylate and cyan-acrylic acid-ester.

The other half of the split meaning leads away from the work. It goes out into the world and does not return to art. It becomes imagination, a particular beholder's conceptional achievement. It refers to something which is not there, to something which cannot be present in the image because it cannot be produced with the medium of art but can only operate as a reference. It must be considered a total write-off. The presence of the surface is a trap. If we place too much faith in what we see, we are caught in the presence of the visible.

Seeing "Kleiner Kübel" (Small Bin) by Fischli/Weiss, even from close by, you'd swear it was real. But when you try to confirm your visual perception by groping for the object, you grasp, quite literally, that the surface is nothing but empty presence, a transparent stand-in for a real bin. But the moment you have grasped this, it is already too late. The present has been transformed into the absence of presence. You've already fallen into the trap. You have physically experienced the unfolding paradox of art as an experience of art. Sight, that reliable organ of perception for taking one's bearings, turns out to be deceptive, unreliable. Presence is corruptible, the presence of things deceptive and crumbling. Where is the world?

Every work of art is embedded in an unresolvable, intrinsic paradox. Only by developing in one of two directions, i.e. towards either the visible or the absent, can this intrinsic paradox be banished from perception. And so whatever there is to be observed in art, it is the development of a paradox that evades our observation. All we can do is observe forms instead of what cannot be observed, in the knowledge of doing so in the manner of developing a paradox.

designed by Hans Dieter Huber