We put thirty spokes together and
call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is
nothing that the usefulness of the
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is
nothing that the usefulness of the
We pierce doors and windows to
make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there
is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage
of what is, we should recognize the
usefulness of what is not.
(Lao Tse: The Tao Teh King, chap. 11, trans. Waley)
One of the central themes of Eastern Wisdom is “nothingness”, about which Lao Tse, the Chinese sage who perhaps never even existed (his name simply means: “Old Master”), wrote the lines above. The short verse might serve as a written emblem of the Taoism hallmarked by the name of Lao Tse, as it expresses in words that which the often depicted Yin and Yang symbol relays: the real and the spiritual world, negative and positive forms, the unit linking the “is” and “is not” with each other, postulating each other’s existence.
Before I begin with lengthy explanations of my own Absence-pictures, and of the inverted world that I try to portray, I will write about a few boring technical details. The bulk of works reproduced here is printed graphic, and within that, a special genre: with photogravure, a reproduced picture. Among others, such procedures include: etching, engraving, dry-point, mezzotint, photogravure, and their common feature is that the graphic artist rubs paint into the actual absences, the eroded grooves carved from the printing-block, which are then lifted out from the negative form of the moistened paper stuffed into the grooves. The positive lines appearing in the artwork are the filling-ins of the negative arcs created by the graphic artist, in actual fact the images of absence made visible, the embodiments of nothingness.
Much has been written on the significance of absent things, and the role played in the arts by silence, often referring first precisely to Taoism, then from intervals in music, through the obscurity of ballads based on intermissions, all the way through to the great Nothing appearing in Malevich’s Suprematism and symbolising wholeness. I watched the cult film of my high school years, Antonioni’s Blow-Up, so many times that I believed that I myself saw the secret between the silver granules of the photos enlarged to infinity, that hairline void extending over the border between nothing and something, which was perhaps the visual representation of the uncertainty above the cognizability of the world, and I listened together with David Hemmings at the end of the film to the sputtering of nothings flung as a tennis ball. Oh, how many times had different sorts of absence-visions excited me – and sometimes disturbed me? The arc of the elastic of a sock above an ankle, two red crescents on the bridge of the nose marking the place of eyeglasses, or the absence that remains white on a suntanned body when a bra is removed.
Practising artists know, or they should know, that with every artwork that they produce, they also lose something from the created world. Builders of a football stadium carve out a large piece of it, like the jewellers who chisel fine necklaces, but does even one of them actually notice that which disappears in the course of their work? Does the robust grandstand reach the calm landscape, which it conceals from the window of someone disabled, or the strand of pearls decorated with diamonds, if it covers the small indentation between the two collarbones, the small concave formation (can we call this an absence?) that my gallant male predecessors once dubbed the “salt-cellar”?
Upon excavating the volcano-stricken Pompeii, the archaeologists found absences in the form of people of petrified ash. Empty impressions of the disintegrated victims of the catastrophe. As the negative form is the warning presence of loss, it is always more tragic than the positive, and the excavators could not even bear to look for long, filling the anthropomorphic cavities with plaster, thus resurrecting the Pompeiian inhabitants as lifelike sculptures. Did they even ruminate on what these citizens beaten by fate might have desired more? To remain spiritual forms of absence as mementos, or to afford solace to the tourists in a sculpture park exposed to the public: death is that which always happens to others.
“Upon a branch of nothingness my heart sits trembling voicelessly” – we read in the most tragic lines of Attila József, and how unusual is the force of the poetic image: we can see, or at least we believe we see the evidently invisible. Upon reading another poem, Consciousness, the notions of existing and non-existing are likewise fixed in the imagination as an objectified, sensory vision: “Only unbeing can branch and feather, / only becoming blooms at all; / what is must break, or fade, or wither.” When I began to draw my Absence pictures, I thought of just this emptiness, virtual nothingness appearing in the imagination, and I wanted to depict the negative moulds of reality, the Void that invisibly embraced them.
I chose edifices and architectural details with which, alongside their responses to the negative-positive form, I could draw the viewer with me into some past epoch, into the historical network of the association of ideas. The embeddedness of cultural history, and the artificial break that occurs from there, their characteristic components of content, and the associative relations of the formal-geometric gesture can shade the image in such manifold ways, that even I would not be able to follow every thread. And of course, I would not even like to. If I could have one wish in connection with my own visual artwork, then first and foremost I would ask for my pictures to begin to live an autonomous life, and for content to be found in them that I never would have even thought of. Each of them should meet in the zone concealed behind the frame and the pass-partout, they should respond to one another, and I should not understand their dialogues better than anyone else.
Ancient Rome appears in many of my pictures, with the first pieces of my Absence-series also reflecting the Eternal City. A triumphal arch, an aqueduct, a colonnade headed with tympanum, and of course, the cupola of the Pantheon. More precisely, in all these edifices, absence is drafted, elaborated and rendered visible. Spectacular nothingness. The yawning, enormous aperture on the summit of the cupola, in the place of the oculus the suspended massive stone disk. Worn down, decayed, a thousand years old. Would it be possible to find a more sensory form – an elevator – toward the descent into the past? Or to the break from dimensions? How could I have experienced the paradox of the black hole, if I had not stood there day after day, my vertebrae stiffening, beneath the disk of the falling night, imagining, perhaps even awaiting the embrace of inverted gravitation of accentuated times. I learned that the material density of the celestial bodies called black holes approaches infinity, expanding toward the zero. That is the point at which absolute Nothingness reigns. I learned this, but I can only imagine Nothingness if I can depict it. I draw the negative of nothing. I say, this is something, this is – the inverse of – nothing.
Ágnes Nemes Nagy, in analysing the emptinesses in Attila József’s string of verse, Consciousness, employs a surprising architectural comparison to explain the absences between the words, lines and stanzas. “The poet… extends the pauses between the stanzas to be as airy as possible, like a broad colonnade. But who would be able to recite the spaces between verse of colonnade proportions? In order to use the space between the columns, we must still carve out the columns. While the poem is written more or less for the spaces between the lines, the lines themselves must be written as well.” When this analysis of poetry found its way to me, I had already completed my work, had already printed my engravings, and still I had the feeling that Nemes Nagy had wanted to come to my aid, or rather as if she had designated a task beyond time – and death – for me. And I thank her. With the exception of a brief conversation, I never had a relationship to her, and I barely knew her personally; nevertheless, that geometric attitude elevated to poetry, which stands closest in connection with her name, was extremely determining for me. “Art is one projection of the comprehension of the world, and it is just perhaps especially an geometric projection.” I learned also this sentence from her, from her essay entitled The Geometry of Verse. And from whom else could she have taken this?: even now, she strolls at the side of Plato, this inscription above their heads: “No one should enter, who is not familiar with geometry.”