Ever since I read about "Voids" I’ve been excited: a retrospective of empty exhibitions. This suitably ridiculous and heady undertaking plays to my taste for ideas that are either really stupid or really smart. Ideas that go back and forth, and sometimes are both at once are possibly the best. A mixture of artists and curators, John Armleder, Mathieu Copeland, Laurent Le Bon, Gustav Metzger, Mai-Thu Perret and Clive Phillpot and Philippe Pirotte, planned this exhibition. It has traveled from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, to the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland, where I picked up the catalog, and finally Centre Pompidou- Metz.
I was disappointed to learn that the exhibition would open just after I left Bern. I know it’s kind of dumb to be disappointed about missing a show where there will be nothing there. Luckily they had the catalogue, which functions not only as the most tangible object related to the show, but also disperses the project to anywhere the book travels.
It is a thick, floppy volume with a brown cardboard cover, on which is screened a barely discernable halftone image in silver ink. It is a photograph of the street Yves Klein famously leapt out of a window into in Leap Into the Void, 1960. This tome represents the exhaustive and yet still incomplete efforts of the seven curators’ project. In the opening texts they admit that not everything is covered, but this book that clocks in at nearly 500 pages is lacking very little.
The book is separated into different parts: The usual formality of introductions are set off by co-curator and director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz Laurent Le Bon’s contribution: nothing. A blank page aside from his name and the heading “Foreword.” The first section is “Catalogue,” which discusses the exhibitions in the exhibition along with essays interviews and analyses of the artists. Next is “Anthology,” which collects relevant texts and works related to the subject, some are reprinted, such as Brian O’Doherty’s “The Gallery as a Gesture” while others are newly commissioned, like “Making Nothing out of Something,” by Lucy Lippard. Following this is “Artists’ Pages” one-page contributions by artists invited to respond to the project. The result is mixed and is the weakest.
Here is another strange thing that makes me love this book and the project as a whole: in the “General Introduction,” the curatorial committee states that the idea was to “select only the events where a totally empty space, museum or gallery was shown. This excludes all exhibitions where accessories, instruments or temporary architectural devices assist the presentation of emptiness [.]” Two exhibitions were ultimately not included in the show after conferring with the authors of those shows. Michael Asher is included in the “Catalogue” section of the book, but his empty show is not in the actual exhibition. Conversely Stanley Brouwn is included in the show, but not in the catalogue, aside from fleeting references. This is great because Michael Asher, were he to be included in the exhibition, would have just had a label on the wall, like the others, and an empty room in the venue representing the empty show. Brouwn has an empty room and nothing in the book. This is all just wonderfully absurd.
The book also painstakingly investigates the practice of presenting an empty exhibition. As a pretentious conceptual gesture par excellence, it is very deserving of an in-depth investigation. Indeed, because so many artists over the years have done such a thing for so many reasons: withdrawal, refusal, as a gesture of aesthetics or politics. And as it happens it is something as varied as any other trope of art making. Yves Klein in 1958, in the first recorded instance, presented an empty white gallery surrounded by pomp and circumstance accessible only through a blue curtain. This is very different from Laurie Parsons who presented, as her last exhibition before withdrawing from the art world entirely, an empty gallery announced by a postcard devoid of her name and exhibition title. And that is very from different Maria Eichhorn using the entire budget for her show at the Kunsthalle Bern in 2001 to pay for renovations of the building while leaving the exhibition spaces empty.
Then you have to think about how this relates to any traveling exhibition, particularly one you don’t see–you only know it through external means like books, magazines and word of mouth. Here “Voids” is making such things explicit and flipping them around. The catalogue itself is more “there” than the exhibition, an exhibition where there was nothing to see anyway yet was also completely different at each of its venues. And yet I still wish I had been able to see it. So there is aura, which like silence or light can certainly fill a void.