Its okay, were on fairly solid ground, Robert Smithson assures Nancy Holt midway through their 1971 film Swamp, presented near the entrance of The Big Nothing, an ambitious group exhibition about Seinfelds favorite topic, now on view at the ICA Philadelphia.
Co-curated by Ingrid Schaffner, Bennett Simpson, and Tanya Leighton, the show starts with a bang: a cut-to-the-chase survey of the empty or closed gallery as an artistic gesture, with ephemera documenting Yves Kleins 1958 Le Vide and Robert Barrys Closed Gallery through Gareth James wReconstruction and Santiago Serras Spanish pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. From there, however, like Smithson and Holt wandering more or less blindly through the reeds and tall grass of exurban New Jersey, the show meanders in too many directions at once. Moving through the first-floor galleries, nothing is found as an apex of spiritual aspiration, in Minimalism, in memorial gesture, in consumer vacuity, and elsewhere.
Granted, nothing is a big topic (as the curators readily admit in their catalogue essays, which are at times oddly confessional), and tracking down the subject may be akin to wandering through one of Borges labyrinths. Simpson relates in his text that during the early planning of the show, the curators thought of nothing in terms of nounsabstractions like the ineffable, the sublime, and the invisibleand verbsactions like blacking out, blanking, emptying, closing.
Schaffner, after laying out an art historical groundwork for the show, writes about the ground floor almost nothing of Mies van der Rohes Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and its below-grade gallery-as-archive presentation of its collection. With the conceptual noun-verb split and two floors to work with in their own building, it seems some kind of rudimentary binary order could have been devised. In the galleries, one longs for a little more structure.
The show is packed with work, and strong individual pieces abound. James Lee Byars early Scroll (1960) presents an infinitely ink-black void on a ten-foot long roll of paper; Larry Bells untitled coated-glass cube, from 1969, offers nothing as the perfection of empty Minimalist form; and Gordon Matta Clarks 1975 film Conical Intersect, shown here transferred to video, presents historical amnesia, forced upon us by the progress of urban renewal, as the ultimate nothingness. In darkened second-floor galleries given over to film, video, and slide works, Bas Jan Aders Im Too Sad to Tell You (1971), a seminal work in the artists tiny oeuvre (that nonetheless exerts a big influence and is garnering much-deserved attention of late), unfortunately fights a losing battle against the loud Art Blakey drum solo soundtrack of YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES Dakota (2002).
Connections between works are possible, of course: Roe Etheridges resolutely blank photographs (shots of the moon and of Harry & David advertisements are included in this show), whose conceptual appeal Ive found incomprehensible to date, sang out with clarity of meaning by virtue of their proximity to Richard Princes rephotographed advertisements from 1980.
The best piece in the show may very well be Andy Warhols Invisible Sculpture, 1985, for which the artist posed next to a pedestal at the nightclub Area and later wandered off, leaving only a wall label to clue in visitors who saw the empty pedestal. The work turns Warhol into an object, or perhaps into the artist-as-site, a status he cultivated and an idea that, looking backward, chimes with Smithsons non-sites and, looking forward, prefigures the mobility and international ubiquity of contemporary artists like Dominique Gonzalez-Forster, Philippe Parreno, and Pierre Huyghe, all of whom are included in The Big Nothing.
Huyghes video Two Minutes Out of Time (2000), which presented the now-infamous Annlee characters debut performance, undermines its own presence by the last word of its monologue soundtrack: nothing. It allows the viewer to say Oh, thats why this was included, which also happens with Smithson and Holts Swampeffacing other potentially rich interpretations. (We critics have certainly spent a lot of time interpreting Huyghe and Smithson in recent years.)
With its tight focus that hints at a wider set of activities, this shows art historical recapitulation of the closed gallery gesture calls to mind Gloria, Schaffners scintillating survey of 1970s feminist art presented at White Columns in 2002. That exhibition was a tightly coiled spring that later expanded exponentially in the viewers mind; The Big Nothing instead works from the top down, and the post-visit mental winnowing is not as rewarding. Leighton quotes Robert Barry in her catalogue essay, and his words are surprisingly prescient of the difficulties this exhibition presents: of course the only way to make something meaningless is to present it in all of its possible meanings. Its a totally open entity, which makes it an elusive thing.
BRIAN SHOLIS is a Brooklyn-based writer.