Staring at Nothing: ‘Invisible’ Expands Perceptions of Art

Guest Post by: Rafaella Lima

I imagine that walking into the current Invisible exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery is a little like what walking into French avant-garde artist Yves Klein’s Le Vide or “The Void” in Paris back in 1958 would have been. For that piece, officially titled The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, 3000 visitors were led into a white-walled room that, apart from a large cabinet, was totally empty. Knowing that the exhibition consisted of “Art about the Unseen,” I walked into Invisible wondering what it was I should be looking for, and whether a gallery full of “invisible” art would be worth the effort it seemed to imply.  As I entered the second room of the exhibition, a jaded gallery attendant joked that I should watch out for the invisible door. Humoring him by turning an invisible doorknob, I soon realized that I’d need to experience the art in much the same way—with a little bit of humor and patience. And that is the common thread running through Invisible: works that bring us to acknowledge our pre-conceived notions and limitations about what it means to experience art.

Klein throwing gold into the Seine.

The exhibition—in which pieces are presented chronologically in various rooms—begins with Yves Klein himself, whose art often revolved around a fascination with nothingness and the immaterial. In Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility), begun in 1959, Klein sold “empty spaces” throughout the city of Paris in exchange for gold. Upon receipt of the gold he gave the buyer a certificate of ownership of the space, though in a second part of the performance he threw half of the gold into the river Seine if the buyer agreed to set fire to the certificate. “Through this act,” states one description of the piece, “a perfect, definitive immaterialization is achieved, as well as the absolute inclusion of the buyer in the immaterial…. Klein presents capitalist trading strategies and illuminates his ideas about the indefinable, incalculable value of art.”* It is a ritual that at once allows the buyer to experience the “Void” that was showcased in his earlier exhibition, and that shows the ultimate impossibility of obtaining ownership over such a space. (Even with a highly valuable material such as gold.)

Other works are more obviously “invisible,” such as American artist Robert Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field (1968) in which an electromagnetic energy transmitter sends out invisible waves of energy. We can’t see the energy field, we may not be able to tell that it is there, and yet it unquestionably exists. Inevitably, it made me think of all the other forces in the universe which are invisible to humans, but which have a profound effect on our world regardless. Some are physical, like gravity; others are even less easily categorized, like human emotions. Similarly ambiguous, Tom Friedman’s 1000 hours of staring (medium: “Stare on paper”) appears to consist of a rather large, though utterly blank, white sheet of paper. Of course, seeing this framed and displayed on a museum wall can be a little frustrating. But the more I thought about it, the more the idea of using “stare” as a medium made complete and total sense. Many artists use bodily fluids or other unconventional materials to create works of art; just because you can’t see the effect on paper, why is a stare different? Staring at the paper, glimpsing my own reflection in the glass, immediately evoked the 1,000 hours of intent and focus the artist spent looking at this same sheet of paper, a sheet of paper that will in turn be stared at fleetingly by thousands of people. Love it or hate it—the concept is powerful.

A similar piece consisting of frustratingly-blank paper is by American artist Glenn Ligon. Though in this case, the emotion of frustration is probably central to understanding He tells me I am his own.  As the description notes, Ligon, whose work often reflects his experience as an African American gay man, tries to capture the white bias of literature and Hollywood with a photograph of “whiteness.” The blank piece of photo paper reflects the blinding whiteness that pervades the majority of American popular culture; the absent photograph simultaneously brings to mind all the other images that are absent from Hollywood, as the bias of the camera shuts out darker skin tones in favor of glossy all-encompassing whiteness. To me, it seemed staring at this piece was one way to access the complex emotion of being faced with this reality.

“Invisible” art, like any other art form, may evoke a vast array of emotions and concepts. Comments on consumption and the “value” of art, using unseen forces like electromagnetic energy as art media, and highlighting existing racist structures are only a few examples. Though certain aspects of the art in this exhibition are often invisible, they are by no means unperceivable. Quite the opposite, in fact, as exploring what is absent may have endlessly more possibilities for the human imagination than focusing on what is present.  As the artist Robert Barry stated in 1968, “Nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.”

Invisible is showing at the Hayward Gallery until August 5th.

* Berggruen, Olivier, Max Hollein, and Ingrid Pfeiffer (eds.) Yves Klein. Hatje Cantz, 2004.


Guest Post by: Rafaella Lima

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
-Italo Calvino

Reflections on urbanism, activism, solidarity, art. Brought to you by yet another disillusioned college graduate.
Cities Like Dreams

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8 Comments on “Staring at Nothing: ‘Invisible’ Expands Perceptions of Art”

  1. Friday, 22 June 2012 at 23:39 UTC #

    Rafaella! What a beautiful, thought provoking essay! And, WELCOME TO THE BLOG!

    I should offer a quick word of context for your post. As your wonderful piece demonstrates, this exhibition at the Hayward Gallery / London is more than worthy of a post all in its own right, and I’m thrilled that you’ve written it…

    Our original plan, just for everyone’s FYI was to have you cover both the exhibition itself, as you’ve done, and also the intervention by our friends over at MainfestAR:

    Unfortunately, they wound up not installing their uninvited Augmented Reality intervention when you were there at the opening on 12 June. Actually they’re scheduled now to install it tomorrow, 23 June, so perhaps Tamiko Thiel of ManifestAR will be able to write something about that.

    Anyway, they picked a great installation to have their invisible intervention invisible at, since it wound up producing this compelling set of thoughts from Rafaella.

    I love your description,

    As I entered the second room of the exhibition, a jaded gallery attendant joked that I should watch out for the invisible door. Humoring him by turning an invisible doorknob…

    It reminds me so much of the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup. The protagonist, a photographer played by David Hemmings, watches a group of mimes silently play tennis. At one point the immaterial tennis ball is hit over the fence and a mime gestures for Hemmings to go get it for them. He hesitates for a moment, perhaps at the silliness of fetching a non-existent ball, but relents, goes to the appropriate spot, and tosses the invisible ball back into the court.

    Once he does this… makes this commitment… he slowly begins to hear the sound of the tennis ball being volleyed back and forth…

    • Sunday, 24 June 2012 at 02:45 UTC #

      Hi Rafael…

      I have to admit, I was 100% skeptical about what I’d discover in a piece about Invisible art. But after reading your piece I’m much more comfortable with the notion.

      As Vanessa points out in “Blowup” you really do begin to experience that tennis play, but in the tennis game we have a context that we can fill in with our imagination.

      It occurred to me that if I was prepared and had a companion who was willing to immerse themselves, I think it could find enjoyment in the experience. However, by myself, alone with my thoughts in that white room, I would probably catch a ride on one of the many daydreams floating around in my head.

      Then there’s this, “Staring at the paper, glimpsing my own reflection in the glass, immediately evoked the 1,000 hours of intent and focus the artist spent looking at this same sheet of paper, a sheet of paper that will in turn be stared at fleetingly by thousands of people. Love it or hate it—the concept is powerful.” That is powerful, even for me.

  2. Saturday, 23 June 2012 at 11:46 UTC #

    Reblogged this on CITIES LIKE DREAMS.

  3. Aero Elizabeth Bowman
    Sunday, 24 June 2012 at 05:41 UTC #

    Hi Rafaella, welcome to the blog!! It’s so great to have you join us! I can’t wait to read more of your stuff! 🙂

    Wow, it seems like iRez has turned into a big Euro Blog!! 😛
    Documenta, Art Basel, Hayward Gallery London! And I’m stuck in another gloomy Vancouver “summer.” hahaha, actually I love it here, but I do wish I could see all the cool stuff happening over there.

    I really like what Yordie picked up on — oh, and HI YORDIE!! — about the 1,000 hours — that’s so interesting. You know in the pyramids down in the Yucatan they have the “red hands” where people dipped their hands in red and then made palm prints on the walls. I’m sure it didn’t take 1,000 hours, but I think it’s the same kind of connection, that you look at those hands, or even put your hand up against that hand, and you’re sort of touching this human presence, but one from so many generations ago.

    The other thing I thought, you know a bunch of us here play virtual worlds, and the Invisible Door or Invisible Tennis Ball are kind of the same thing, you can walk around and just say Oh, this is stupid, but if you open the door or pick up the tennis ball, you can discover the real people there who maybe you have something in common with. And then maybe you can even start to hear the tennis ball.

  4. Tuesday, 26 June 2012 at 00:18 UTC #

    Thanks everyone for your comments. It’s great to be able to contribute to this blog and I am already loving the exchange it involves! Learning about so many new things, like this ‘Blowup’ scene to art in the Yucatan to AR which is new to me in general.

    I will say that I was skeptical too but my appreciation for the exhibition really deepened once I let it sink in and had time to research some of the artists, who I found fascinating.

    Vaneesa, thanks for providing some important context. Manifest AR sounds like a really interesting group and I look forward to seeing how their intervention went, and what the new layer of invisibility was like.

    • Tuesday, 26 June 2012 at 22:10 UTC #

      Thank you Rafaella!

      And, yes, Tamiko is hoping to post something about the ManifestAR intervention sometime this week, so your and her posts should go together nicely.

      Perhaps you’ll visit a Paris gallery for us next month… Galerie des Galeries has an interesting show opening on 9 July:

      and their location behind Galliano, Gaultier and Westwood designs should be inspiring…



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