Is it future, or is it past? Is this the fate of the plate at the end of today, when the customers are gone, and the shop stands empty for the night? Or are we witnesses to the plate’s troubled past? Have new people filled the shop, and has the absence been deleted by a new cycle of eclairs?

Chocolate eclairs cycle, and so does the absence. Desires get quenched and then relaunched with a greater burn. This would all be silly, if this was just chocolate. But it never is just chocolate. Eclairs graduate to something bigger. The absences they bring grow grand and bold, and we see it all through the windshield. After all, we are all just passengers, stranded on a lost highway, chasing after chocolate dreams which never satisfy.

 

A flash of absence

Every person, every human life, said Lana Wachowski in her HRC Visibility acceptance speech, represents a negotiation between public and private identity: what will be presented to the public, and what will be kept secret.

Every image, similarly, represents a negotiation between presence and absence: what will live in the frame, and what will be left out. The absence manifest below takes skill. It requires a kind of blindness to the world, that, given the way the world is, cannot come for free. In that sense, it is art, and it unflinchingly establishes itself even through the last image. For the surprising presence in the last image is by no means a redemption. Its compensatory function is no more meaningful than that of an Instagram filter. It does not add; it merely decorates what is already there.

What a way to negotiate. Bravo, Delta. Bravo, ad art.

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Delta ONE ad, released 2015.

 

Sky High absence

ATHENA PETRA TASIOPOULOS Fertility 2014 mixed media on paper

Imagine the moment of waking up after a vivid dream. The dream was just there, so bright, so alive. You are certain that the dream is yours. It is in your possession, ready to be recalled. The dream immediately slips. It retreats and teases, and you hover between two states. The dream is there, and it isn’t; it pales, looms, then abandons again. If experiences are like snapshots, then in the moment of awakening, they swing from one snapshot to another, like a perceptual pendulum. But if experiences are not snapshots – if they are episodes, micro-lives that grow and evolve, then there is a single experience that refuses to resolve itself into anything. The work above is remarkable because it shows, at the perceptual level, the slip between absence and presence. There is an experience of absence. The eyes aren’t there. No pupils, no irises, no lashes. Do check. But the eyes also seem to be there. You are being looked at. Theirs is a presence that’s hard to shake off. Is your experience a pendulum? Or is it an evolving life? It’s difficult to tell. But that much is clear. It is very hard to photograph absences. But it is virtually impossible to photograph an absence that’s at the tip of one’s tongue. Witness the impossibility.

Athena Petra Tasiopoulos. Fertility. 2014.

 

 

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I wonder what Zvyaginstev’s The Return is a return to. The plot is simple: two boys go an adventure with their father. The father comes home after a long absence, makes love to their mother, and takes the boys on a trip. The trip is his return. He comes back to an island, and there is treasure involved. The frame above is what happens after the island. Ivan looks at the ocean and we see him observe his loss. No doubt, a perfectly executed picture of absence. I wonder about the return, though. I wonder if it is actually the boys who return: from one state of absence to another. The ocean image is followed by a less glamorous series of frames, but they are louder than previous formalism. The boys start the car and drive away, and we see car tracks in the sand. We look at the tracks for some time. The tracks lead to an adventure and depart from it – a foreshadowing of an absence and its completion. How Zvyagintsev manages to layer one invisible thing on another, past on future, seems inscrutible to me. He does it though, and the emotions that the overlapping tracks elicit are out of this world. Without this frame, this film is nothing.

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The Return

A Bigger Splash

Here is an absence that has no spectators. The disappearance – the dunk, the splash, o pulo – grabs hold of us, then lets go, freeing our gaze to travel the space around. And it is just that – space. There are vacated surfaces: the chair, the patio area, the diving board. They confirm that there is no one around. But are we underappreciating what’s going on here? Perhaps we should be seeing this instead: here is the chair where the diver sat, here is the patio where he stood or walked, and here is the diving board that held him a second ago – each absence nailing a moment in time, now past. Thank God for Pop Art. Hockney’s painting isn’t a sentimental “remembrance of the things past.” It isn’t about memory or personal identity; we shouldn’t be trying to dig up symbolism in the vacated chair, or read into the contrast between pristine absences in the background and the violent splash. The disappearance nails a moment in time – but it is just that – a disappearance, a dive, and a happy one. Moritz Schlick thought that the meaning of life lies in the act of play, and this dive is a play. This raises a question: is showing play in an absence pop-art enough?

David Hockney. A Bigger Splash. 1967. Acrylic on canvas.

 

Pop & Splash

Experiences of absence are often disrupted by presences. Your friend didn’t come to the party, but your experience of her absence deteriorates the moment you spot an attractive face across the room. But presences may also emphasize absences: seeing new buildings in the old neighborhood can heighten the sense of absence of what they have replaced.

Rosemarie Trockel’s sculpture is about replacement. The table is missing a pair of legs, and there is a new set of legs added. Despite the obvious absence, the table does not seem incomplete. Addition of the “alien” legs, paradoxically, makes the table look stable and whole. As a result, the overall experience seems strange. How is that we can see that the table is missing something, yet at the same time, the table seems complete, not lacking in anything? Perhaps we do not actually see that the table misses something. The “alien” legs draw our attention, forestalling perception of absence. But we don’t have to go for this interpretation. For ordinary objects, something can be seen without commanding full attention. Absences might obey the same rule. In Trockel’s sculpture, the presence of the extraordinary may be more experientially striking than the absence of the ordinary. But perception of absence is still there. It is composed and precise, and perhaps this is its virtue.

Rosemarie Trockel. Table 2. 2006. Glazed ceramic, steel and wood

 

Leggy Absence

This fall, ‘Seeing Absence’ will be inaugurated with a post that is not on seeing absence.

The man in the photograph is about to enter his house, and as you may guess, he is looking for his house keys. But looking is a wrong word. His eyes have nothing to do with what he currently perceives. The absence of keys is perceived not by sight but by touch. Compare this image with Henry Grant’s photograph in the previous post. In Grant’s photograph, we, the viewers, see the absence which the children are not seeing – of images on TV. In the current image, the situation is reverse: we do not perceive the absence which the man in the photograph is perceiving. He feels no keys in his pockets, but we have no corresponding sensation of absence. We only glean the fact of absence from certain cues. But the two images are importantly similar. Grant’s image strips the act of watching from its objects (faces, TV images) in order to reveal watching in itself. This photograph does the same for searching. We don’t know who the man is, and even his hands are not shown – all we know that he is feeling an absence. We can see people hear sounds. We can also see people touch absences.

Man Looking For House Keys; Kunming, China. By TravelPod Member Marjorieandpaul.

 

Pocketed Absence

Objectively speaking, this Henry Grant photograph leaves out the most socially significant elements: faces and TV images. The children are looking away, and the object that holds them captive – the television show – is not visible. We see the children gaze at something, infer that they are watching a program, but we end up seeing what they are not seeing – the absence of images on the screen. Despite these social omissions, there is no sense that the photograph is missing something important, or that it is incomplete. It is an image of an activity: of an “uninterrupted flow of the moment” that Henry Grant always aimed to capture. You might find this result paradoxical: moments, events, or happenings are defined by the participating objects, and when we are not shown the objects, the event will get obscured. This image proves otherwise. It is by putting the significant elements of the event out of sight that the photographer enables the core of the event – the moment – to emerge most clearly .

Henry Grant. Children watching television. 1953.

 

Television

I was wrong about Melancholia on two counts. First, I thought that German Romanticism is about grandiosity and sentimentality. It is not. Second, I thought that all absence-related frames in Melancholia are trivial. My list contained five in-your-face absences: two having to do with empty chairs, one absence from a golf cart, one from a bottle of pills and one from a dish for collecting berries. Upon the second viewing of the film, I was glad to prove myself wrong. Melancholia has a complex visual language that gets buried under the obscene beauty of the film. There are some Antonioni-esque moves: like L’Eclisse, the movie begins with an end. Consider also absences. Showing a chair abandoned by Justine, who is the film’s main character, is seemingly plain in its message. We get it – she is not there. But things are not so simple. The camera anxiously hovers over her absence, zooms in and out, and jerks away. Justine’s absence is not calm, it is anxious, just as her presence is. Moreover, there are obvious formal parallels between the empty chair image and the preceding sequence. Justine’s absence is framed by two men sitting beside her. Immediately before this, we are shown two trees framing a part of the sky where planet Melancholia is present but not yet fully visible.

Because the image of invisible Melancholia structurally resembles the image of Justine’s absence, we are led to wonder if these characters are one and the same. Their images, when juxtaposed, impart meaning to one another. German Romanticism spoke of a sense of absence that always points beyond what appears, and absences in Melancholia likewise transcend their initial appearances.

 

At a first glance, this sculpture by Micha Ullman is textbook minimalism. It is sterile like a MacBook, and it references emptiness as has become compulsory in modern art. In fact, it represents a horrific and real absence. The panels are library shelves symbolizing the Nazi burning of 20000 books in 1933, which forecast the burning of the people. As we keep looking, our perception becomes more determinate and the absence, in Ullman’s words, “more palpable”. We shift from seeing a void in the ground, to seeing vacant panels and then a library emptied of the burned books. The shift is also moral. We move from an appreciation of an impeccably stylized void to the understanding of the terror it symbolizes. This move is what is so disturbing about this sculpture. Our knowledge of what the sculpture means is overruled by an impression of purity it invokes. There is a sense of being cheated into this inappropriate impression and an indignation that an absence so awful is represented by something so beautiful. Could it be that Ullman’s artistic freedom was too unconstrained?

Ullman remarked that his job as an artist is to frame questions. He says that “we expect [the books] but they are not there,” and it is this incongruity that makes the absence visually salient. But visual salience is not enough. Ullman makes the terror more real – and the absence emotionally salient – through a clash between the sculpture’s pristine looks and our knowledge of what actually happened. The sculpture succeeds as a memorial only through this double incongruity.

Micha Ullman’s Bibliotek Memorial in Bebelplatz Square in Berlin, 1995.