Full Void - a collaboration between David Edgar and Dr Mary Scott

Bond Store Basement, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.

Curated by Dr Eliza Burke

2017 10 Days on the Island international arts festival

17 March - 8 April 2017

Fall, charcoal and pastel on flat metallic black paint on gesso on paper, 1.45 x 1.45m, 2017 Deep, charcoal and pastel on chalk board paint on gesso on paper, 2.15 x 2.15m, 2017 Psychosomatic, charcoal and pastel on chalkboard paint on gesso on paper, 2.15 x 2.80m, 2017 Ghost, charcoal and pastel on chalk board paint on gesso on paper, 2.15 x 2.15m, 2017
Chasm, charcoal and pastel on chalk board paint on gesso on paper, 2.15 x 2.15m, 2017

Full Void by Dr Eliza Burke (essay from the exhibition catalogue)

‘If only because the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence.’ Susan Sontag, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ (1969)

In 2014, the UK technology company Surrey NanoSystems announced that it had developed the darkest material ever known – ‘Vantablack’, a carbon product whose black tubular structure enables it to absorb 99.96% of any light that touches it. Initially developed for space technologies to absorb stray light in telescopic devices, Vantablack quickly became coveted by artists for its ability to create the appearance of a void when applied to 3D objects, essentially transforming any object into a hole in space, an optical illusion, an absence. Highly protective of its expensive and complex technical product, Surrey NanoSystems responded to the artistic community by licensing its use to only one artist in the world - sculptor and void-maker Anish Kapoor – unleashing a controversy of epic proportions that seemed as much about the accessibility of Vantablack as a new visual material as it was about artistic access to the enigma of the void itself.

Whilst it is tempting to align the dramatic appeal of Vantablack with a pre-occupation with dark times in our present era, the history of the void as a spatial and philosophical construct spans many centuries of representation and thought connecting questions of materiality and space to concepts of measurement and movement. The early physical scientists Aristotle and Epicurus placed the void at the heart of their inquiries into the nature of matter and the structure of the universe seeing it as a profoundly productive space that embodied the continuity of all substances, a medium for the propagation of light waves and electric fields and a space in which the fluidity of atomic movement could be observed. The void’s productivity is also found in many creation images where it marks the primeval scene of emergence and chaos preceding the beginning of the universe perhaps more eloquently rendered in Renaissance philosopher Robert Fludd’s extraordinary 1617 ‘Et sic in infinitum’. An image of ‘un-creation prior to all creation’ (Thacker 2014) Fludd’s simple but infinitely expanding black square recalls the earth ‘without form and void’ of Genesis, the darkness resolved only by God’s divine force that brings all things to light.

In more recent art-historical contexts, the void and its extended metaphors of darkness have served a symbolic role in explorations of psychological space, unconscious forces and the sublime in Odilon Redon’s ‘Noirs’ for example, or the realms of political uncertainty and amnesia in Gregor Schneider’s Cube (2005), and the traumatic darkness of Miroslav Balka’s architectural chamber How It Is (2010). In its more abstract forms, the black void has been seen as liberating, a differentiating field that could free art from the constraints of history and objectivity in Kazimir Malevich’s famous Black Square (1915) or the later black paintings of Ad Reinhardt such as Abstract Painting (1963). Its generative force has been further explored by Richard Serra through the spatial effects of his wall-sized black drawings and by Anish Kapoor in the more contained ‘Void’ (1989) both instating the human body at the forefront of perceiving its form, gravity and mass. In all these explorations, the void offers a unique negativity against which artists have defined space and presence, a ‘non-space’ against which we might perceive the abstract power of art and our place in the world.

Mary Scott’s and David Edgar’s charcoal drawings emerge from and connect us to these histories, responding to the differentiating power of the void, its separations and contradictions. Full Void explores the idea that rather than signifying a vast emptiness, the void is a productive spatial arena, a place where forces, energies and objects jostle for position and are revealed through the interplay of darkness and light. Through engaging with the uncertain parameters of depth and blackness, Scott and Edgar invite us to observe the scene of drawing as a space where this emergence and revelation can take place. The physical qualities of the void in their works are attributable to the approach both artists take to working with the flatness of paper and the densities of charcoal to enact drawing as a process of both seeing and structuring space. Each artist exploits the void as a space of potentiality and a metaphor for exploring the nature of visibility itself, inviting us to see beyond black surfaces to perceive new relationships between form and formlessness, interior and exterior space, fullness and emptiness.

Full Void is framed as a series of layered spatial concerns, from Edgar’s architectural and geological works exploring the voids of buildings, rooms and doorways and the crevices of the earth, to Scott’s abstract drawings depicting the destruction of the earth by water, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Deluge’ drawings (c.1515-18). Throughout the exhibition, the material qualities of the drawings evoke a series of textural and spatial relationships between surface and depth, and the primordial elements of earth, air and water. Within the Bond Store Basement at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Scott’s and Edgar’s works sit in a world already ‘furnished with many other things’ producing a dialectic not only between two artists but also between the works and the institution of the Museum, enriching the relationships between space and history and the idea of the void as a place.

In Edgar’s architectural drawings, Ghost, Psychosomatic, Deep and Fall shadow and form mingle to create an ambiguity of place and presence. The doorways, walls and cavities all suggest dislocation, a degree of separation from the original where we must rely on our perception to ascertain new boundaries. Edgar’s forms reference the architectural spaces of the Museum but do not adhere to them, evoking unfixed states and the movement of elements through a void. Such effects foreground the interplay of darkness and light as a process that mediates our psychological and physiological response to space as we perceive its shadows and depths. Edgar foregrounds the act of drawing as a spatial exercise, a way of perceiving ‘through the constant process of thinking and rethinking, acting and reacting, which constitutes involvement with the world as we find it from moment to moment’ (Schneider 2008:40).

Edgar extends his concern with spatial depth in his geological drawing Chasm, inviting us to inhabit a subterranean void in the earth’s crust. Unsettling in its claustrophobic contours, Chasm locates us physically within the earth, glimpsing the light above in an echo of the separation of earth from sky that resolved primeval chaos. Such a gap marks the boundaries ‘between two already existing things (e.g. earth and sky) and an opening between them (i.e. that which brings about the differentiation of these two things…)’ (Casey 2013: 9), evoking the void as a medium between material and immaterial worlds. From within Edgar’s chasm, the light from the sky above reveals the separation of new interior and exterior spaces born of the earth’s tectonic movements and the passage of time.

Taking us further into the elemental void, Mary Scott’s Deluge drawings recall the continuity of all things and the void as a space of chaos and potent force. Responding to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Deluge’ series, Scott’s works explore the idea of a total and absolute disruption of natural order through the apocalyptic vision of the flood. Transforming the flatness of paper through the material and tonal densities of charcoal, Scott evokes a dark fluidity where water is an incompressible void defining our fears of unfathomable depth and an all encompassing force.

Most of Leonardo’s Deluge drawings are thought to have been completed in the last decade of his life, representing a lasting pre-occupation with the forces of nature and a culmination of his enduring interest in hydrodynamics. Despite the catastrophic force they depict, there is a delicacy of line and formal arrangement in da Vinci’s drawings that Scott retains in her illuminated surfaces, a gesture towards the fragility of life and the filaments and forms made visible through destruction. Like Edgar’s works, the contained surface area of her drawings is threatened by the omnipotence of the void as she explores the material qualities of depth, volume and pressure through the tonal reaches of darkness. As a fluid space in which no fissures, cracks or gaps are possible, the engulfing deluge threatens to return the world to a void, evoking the fears of dissolution that drives our resistance to emptiness, the horror vacui that haunts our existential domain and that we seek to fill at all costs. Scott’s works reveal glimpses of the chaotic void in action, a dark lens onto the turbulence of a world unraveling, posing our present relationship to the forces of nature as a deep and troubling question.

In Scott’s and Edgar’s drawings we find the energy and contradictions of the bounded spaces of representation and the shifting energies of the void. Tempted by darkness to see the void as empty, we are challenged by their works to perceive its fullness and respond to its forces and boundaries with new levels of spatial and material perception. If, as Susan Sontag suggests, ‘there is no such thing as empty space. As long as a human eye is looking, there is always something to see’, (1994:10) Scott and Edgar present the void as a space within which we might perceive new parameters of the worlds we inhabit, find new methods of measurement and forge new visions from darkness.

Casey, E. 2013 The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. University of California Press: Berkley and Los Angeles.
Schneider, E (ed.) 2008 Richard Serra. Drawings – Work comes out of work (exh. cat.), Kunsthaus Bregenz (June 14 – September 14, 2008), Bregenz.
Sontag, S. 1969 [1994] ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ in Styles of Radical Will, Vintage
Thacker, E 2014 ‘Black on Black’ The Public Domain Review Accessed 02/02/17 at https://publicdomainreview.org/2015/04/09/black-on-black/