Category: Absence or presence?

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.


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

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.

My favorite Russian photographer Evgeniy Kashirin loved to photograph ordinary village life – babushkas, clouds, puddles, communist meetings. This one is called “Boys and Ducks”. When I saw it, I was struck by absence of water over the boys’ feet. I was puzzled about why their feet aren’t submerged. I then realized that they are running on ice. So, there is a bit of a delay between the first experience of absence and the interpretation that makes sense of the experience. In fact, I wonder how to properly understand the initial reaction. Is there just a feeling that there’s something wrong with what the boys are running on, or is the first experience that of absence? If it is of absence, then of what?


This painting, regarded as the most important work by the German surrealist Richard Oelze, argues its subject – presence of expectation – by destroying our expectations about what we see. Fedoras turned toward ominous sky give us a clue: we think that there must be something important up there that everyone is seeing. Our observation of the sky, however, reveals nothing. This pushes us toward a different interpretation: that the people are expecting something. As a result, our initial impression of absence is replaced by a sense of foreboding.

I think that there is a marked difference between experiences of waiting and experiences of absence. Compare hearing the footsteps of someone who is about to enter the room (expectation without an experience of absence) and seeing that someone is missing from the room. But maybe the difference is not intrinsic, and sometimes, our anticipation of an object essentially involves experiences of its absence.