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.

 

You would think that this beautiful young woman is looking directly at us. In fact, Erica is staring at an absence. The black chair in the front is where her father usually sits during family dinners, but Erica has fallen in disfavor and her father is not attending. She is frozen with apprehension and, in a way, she is not really present at the table either. This is the first film frame I have seen that perspectivally establishes an absence so prominently in the foreground. The absence couldn’t possibly get closer to us! The image also establishes Erica’s guilt through her gaze at an absence. Sartre linked absences to anxiety through a long chain of ontological arguments in Being and Nothingness. But we can bypass the ontology here, and stare directly (and anxiously) at the face of absence.

Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937). More Hitchcock absences coming soon.

 

Guilt

“Flowers fade,” writes Mija in her diary, and nothing could be more banal than that. Yet in the context of this Korean film, nothing could be more meaningful than that. Poetry is about lacks, restraints, and absences – of emotional expression, of action, and of poetic inspiration. This image shows parents who have gathered to discuss something terrible that their sons have done. Look outside the window, and you will see an old lady studying the flowers. This is Mija. She slipped away from the meeting. Look at the far right of the table, and you will see Mija’s absence next to her beer. We are presented with a beautiful, complex image of escape, where an observation of absence coexists with, and holds up to, an observation of presence. Why does the empty spot at the table still hold our attention? And what is definitive of Mija’s escape: the people she escapes from, or what she escapes to? The power of Chang-dong Lee’s film is not merely in the presences it shows, but in the absences: they are subdued, difficult, and ultimately destructive.

 

Escape

I usually resist posting really obvious cases of absences, especially if they concern abandoned buildings, empty space, missing body parts and so on. I think that contemporary art is oversaturated with images of that sort. This Moscow Metro shot by a Romanian photographer Cristian Movila is a bit in that line: stylistically impeccable but too plain in its message (though that may be the intent). However, I think that the picture is brilliant for other reasons. A first glance at the scene will reveal absence of a crowd on the escalator. This should answer the question of how many absences you can see at once – lots! Then, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the empty escalator is supposed to be going down. Does this affect your subsequent experience of absence, that is, do you now see absence of people who are supposed to be going down? My experience remains vague and does not ascribe orientation to this absence. There is only a general sense that the people are missing and I can’t train myself to see this absence more determinately. So why is vision deaf to cognition here?

 

Oriented Absences

American bread is like canvas – an essentially incomplete object. It’s light as air; its appearance nondescript, and its flavor, well, nonexistent. It exists only as a complement to something else. For a foreigner, tasting, seeing, or holding American bread is all about experiencing the various things it isn’t – absences. Individual preferences will flavor the absence. I, for example, think that the slice is missing butter and jam – and it may be peanut butter for you. The problem is that this is an art object, and modern art has been making conflicting claims about ordinary objects. One day we are to find wonder in the mundane. Then, wonder is declared pretentious and the ordinary is what it is – trite and ignored. Either way, as an art object, the seemingly incomplete bread is actually complete, and absence of jam or peanut butter is an erroneous projection of our minds. But my vision refuses to cooperate. I want the jam. Jasper Johns once said: “I’ve always considered myself a very literal artist.” Is absence of jam literal enough?

Jasper Johns “Bread”, 1969. Embossed lead relief.

 

Bread

Seeing absence of limbs is always a stark experience, and this image is no exception. But this very quality makes the image non-trivial. On one hand, what we know influences what we see, and this applies to absences. For example, your beliefs about how people ordinarily look activates certain concepts in your mind when you see this image (you see absence of arms). But there is something in your experience that cognition cannot penetrate. The photographer explains, “Peri was getting fed up with the cold, so she put her arms inside her shirt. It was a really great photographic moment, because it was visually confounding. People see the shot and think she doesn’t have any arms.” Eventually, you realize that Peri’s arms are merely hidden. Yet the experience persists: you still see the girl as if she is missing her arms. This shows that seeing absence, like ordinary seeing of objects, can be resilient to what we know or believe. (Contrast this with the image below, where the experience of absence dissolves once you understand what’s going on in the picture.)

Photograph: Amy Stein. Peri on Route 64, outside Lexington, Kentucky.

 

Route 64

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?

 

Water

“Physically, it’s not a very demanding job. The only thing that can get a bit trying up here during the winter is, uh, a tremendous sense of isolation.” We (together with Wendy) witness the product of Jack’s isolation – a pivotal point in Kubrick’s The Shining, when Wendy becomes convinced that her husband has gone insane. Picking up a baseball bat, she wanders into the large hall in the Overlook Hotel and finds Jack’s manuscript. She flips through hundreds of pages he has typed over the winter, only to discover absence of any coherent text. Interestingly, Wendy did not have specific expectations about the novel: she knew nothing about Jacks’ work and so was not imagining particular words or a plot. This shows that we often see absences without having concrete expectations (or detailed visualizations) of the things we are looking for. In this case, all Wendy expects is a kind of a meaningful variation in the text. Instead, she sees a horrifying absence.

 

Text

I always thought that puppeteers are supposed to be (or at least aim to be) invisible during the performance. Even though you may see their arms, or get a glimpse of their feet, they stay largely hidden behind the screen. They are out of sight in order to be out of mind. When I saw this picture, I was taken by surprise. My friend Vida, who is Chinese-Canadian, said that Chinese puppeteers are usually very obvious. She said that there isn’t the attempt to hide them like there is in some kinds of western puppeteering, so, “you just ignore them and it’s no big deal if you see them by accident.” This image is of Bunraku, Japanese puppet performance. While these puppeteers are noticeable, the guy on the right is less so. So, when I first glanced at the picture, I immediately saw absence of his face. Why is he nearly invisible? It turns out that visibility (i.e., exposing the face) is a form of honor to the skill of Master puppeteers, whose character is major in a play. Invisibility here is both literal and metaphorical. Absence is an indicator of insignificance.

 

Insignificant face

In ordinary life, virtually all objects we encounter are occluded. For example, I am in a cafe now and not a single chair I am observing is in full view. Moreover, a lot of large objects are cut off by my visual field. None of this, however, is particularly attention-grabbing. In art, occlusion and what is outside the field of view is confrontational, loaded with meaning. Sometimes, abrupt cut offs direct our eyes to what is in the field of view – what is truly salient. Sometimes, they offer an analysis of what is not seen, endorsing the invisible.

This picture does both. Much of Roy DeCarava’s work was driven by his sense of injustice that the black Americans “should go through life unseen.” However, his way of making them seen was not relying on references to stigma or trauma. He wanted to show “a life force that each of us has, a will to live and a will to be here.” Paradoxically, by letting the edge of the frame cut off human parts (bodies, heads) in this picture, DeCarava made that life force and humanity most visible.

PS The empirical prediction here is that most people will report seeing absence of the baby’s head and not absence of the body of the person who is holding the baby.

 

Bill and Son