Absences Present: Emergent Naught

by Paul D'Agostino

It was in the liminal period suturing late winter 2010 to early spring that a friend and fellow artist, Tim Kent, was beginning to conceive and assemble work for an exhibit that was to be called, at one point, Dark Matter. He asked me to help him think through a few things and envision a few others, and those thoughts and visions led to a number of conversations. Those conversations then led me to write an essay, which soon became a font of ideas for some of the artists, myself included, making work for the show. Before long the same essay — expanded to incorporate something of a raison d’être related to our co-curated effort — became part of the exhibit as well. No longer called Dark Matter, the exhibit was titled Among Darkened Woods, and it was on view at Factory Fresh Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in July 2010. The essay below is in the same expanded form it took on for the exhibit, and it features a new coda extracted from a recently read book by Michael Francis Gibson, The Mill and the Cross.

Dust grain or IDP (Interstellar Dust Particle). Photo UWSTL, NASA Hubble.

Nature and her eventual objects – Divisions, artifice – Cognition of presence and absence – Representations thereof – Reflections therein – What dust becomes – Elusion.

A conversation prompt in three parts, with two exhibit-specific interventions for
Among Darkened Woods.

To be discussed in the presence of objects, preferably, and
in the present tense, per force.

Historians of literature and of art know that there is a secret affinity between the archaic and the modern, not so much because the archaic forms seem to exercise a particular charm on the present, but rather because the key to the modern is hidden in the immemorial and the prehistoric. […] It is in this sense that the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archaeology; an archaeology that does not, however, regress to a historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living.   – Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus?

An act proper is not just a strategic intervention into a situation, bound by its conditions – it retroactively creates its conditions.  
– Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times

*        *        *

There may well be nothing remotely novel in stating that the broadly delineable physical sphere we inhabit consists of nature and her eventual objects, and nothing else.  Our manners and modes of imagination might seem to complicate this matter, yet there is no such thing as an idea that does not have a particulate basis, no form of thought or emotion that obviates the circuitry of neurons and synapses, no means of storing or conveying information, itself ultimately physical, without departing from, navigating through and arriving at something material.  Just as the collective heft of our planet’s presumably unplanned amendments, blemishes and appendages – all the world’s structures and infrastructures, that is – might be considered somewhat less natural than a lake or forest yet is ultimately a product of nature as well, so might our cerebrally resident capacities of imagination, creation, invention and fancy be considered somewhat less than palpably real, though they too are part of this material continuum.

There do exist, nonetheless, divides.  Interventions, of course, must take place. To permutate a notion of some form of materiality into more substantial materiality itself, to bring anything imagined into more corporeally material form requires, invariably, to say the least, something.

Call it effort.  Call it an event.  Call it need or call it want.  Call it an accident.

Or call it, if you will, as completed act, artifice.  Should it seem applicable, you might call it art.  For the products of materiality’s self-interpolative modes of productivity can be considered, if only occasionally, that.

Wherefrom, then, this thing one might call art?  Or if that answer seems too evasive, wherefore?

Surely that answer, too, is too evasive.

One might do well to focus, then, on evasion.

On presences becoming absent.

And absences present.

*        *        *

Dark matter; matters dark; material forms visible in obscurity, of scant tangibility; material bonds threadbare, precarious, diaphanous; fused concatenations verged upon coming undone: such was the substantive nature of initial thematic and aesthetic considerations as this exhibit, Among Darkened Woods, emerged.  Our discussions were informed by common curiosities about how something as essentially, as yet, ill-understood as dark matter – something somehow detectable yet not quite identifiable or visible, something somehow ultimately physical yet fundamentally, if only semantically, ethereal – can be nonetheless comprehended, for now, as that which constitutes the greater thrust of materiality.  If matter as we see and experience it, in other words, and as we can define it in particulate terms, is out-mattered several times over by an invisible, mysterious greater substance of sorts whose constituent particles are all about us yet evade our investigatory grasp, what around us, then, is present or presence, absent or absence?  Should one of these apparently opposed polarities somehow matter, so to speak, more?  Is differentiating between them ultimately unimportant?

To be sure, neither the artists nor the artworks in Among Darkened Woods purport, nor pretend, to directly represent cosmological constants, formulaic quintessences, or formalized fabrics of variably dimensionable universes.  Showing how or why certain realms of materiality and others of ostensible immateriality are somewhere convergent was never, in fact, the point.  What was retained from those initial discussions, however – disparate and tenuous though they sometimes were – was the representative potential of dualities perhaps only apparent, of differences at best presumed.  This led, subsequently, to talk of darkness and light, which led soon thereafter, and quite fittingly, to Dante.  Hence our title, hence our aesthetic and theme.  Among Darkened Woods is imagined as a quest whose outset is darkness, whose destination is light, and whose artistic documentation takes place at observed instants, captured moments, occurring somewhere within that umbrageous midst.

*        *        *

By way of contemplative abstractions such as questions, curiosities, reflections, recollections or observations, the ponderous transcending of what we might call our tangible sphere permits access to the ostensibly less-than-real sphere of thought, that nebulous realm of internal dwelling, itself just another finitely immemorial abode of nature and her eventual objects – the very locus of our notions, of our potentiate perceptions of something, or nothing, else.

It is thus here where we endeavor, where we dare to derive meaning, here where we enact processes of consciousness and cognizance to incorporate our external, abstracting, already eventuated selves within this internal eventuality as well. Hence extrapolations and interpretations, both visual and verbal; hence recognitions and recastings, reproductions and reworkings that interrogate, that interpolate these worlds.  And hence, therefrom, the rendering variably tactile of all these things – the re-rendering through materials, as new material, of ultimately confluent internal and external realms.

Such translational procedures, in the context of the plastic arts, might be mediated by graphite or ink, clay or paint, emulsions or metals, chemicals or lights, and their instruments of marking might be hands or sticks, brushes or knives, molds or rollers or myriad other fundamentally manually forged contrivances that enable the transmutation and reprojection of internalized outsides as newly visible, externalized forms.  There is in all this, to be sure, something very deeply anthropocentric, perhaps direfully anthropomorphic – a matter of ineluctable divide, of conceptual flaw.  Conversely, one might intuit this possible flaw as something intrinsically sly, for we hold these terms and forms to be ours to define, consider, refine, reconsider and redefine.

Yet flawed or not, self-reflexive or not, selfish or not, effective or not, there is also, in all this, an apparent absence: the absence of the apparent certainty of presence.

Thus among the potential products of this reappropriated absence is what one must call artifice, what one might call art.

*        *        *

Appropriating an image from the second verse of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno – “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura” / “I found myself within a darkened forest” – as visual and thematic source material for the exhibit, the artists in Among Darkened Woods present works that seek to portray the derivative potential of darkness, to probe the obscure, to lend plasticity to shadows and other forms evanescent, to perceive presences and apparitions in that which seems to have disappeared.  Though the lenses through which these artists envision such penumbral considerations might differ as readily as the tools and formal approaches they employ in representing them, their creative aims and interests in general display a range of conceptual affinities: the realization of unconstrained, unforced possibilities; the narrative potential of artifacts and their concomitant histories; evocations of anxiety and unease resulting from shifting identities; the unpredictable outcomes of catalyzed, though not fully controlled, experiments, processes and interferences; and the static charge of subjects, animate or not, as they are objectified, gazed upon, frozen in loaded intervals in medias res.

Whereas Dante’s infernal quest leads him from the “selva oscura” of life’s proper path gone astray – his “dritta via” that has gone “smarrita” – to visions of the most profound reaches of physical suffering, punishment and ceaseless decay, the works in Among Darkened Woods suggest an earlier stopping point, a less hellish locus, a place perhaps only subtly subterranean where forms have not yet dropped into the abyss of a falling apart, evoking instead the ordered calm of a falling away.

*        *        *

Just as the lush sunlight of noontide pours into the darkness of rooms to illumine thick swaths of otherwise quite invisibly suspended dust, creating of it a spectacle both material and curiously ethereal, so too can creative representation make of apparent absence a striking presence.

This illumination, this enlightening of nature’s prodigious and ostensible, sometimes discernible and sometimes palpable domain of apparent nothings-else, of presences veiled, nourishes the visible lexicon, as it were, of our perceptions of anything, of our understanding of our omnipresent somethings.

How and why absence relates and underlies herein are elusive questions we should hope ever persist and evade.

*        *        *


The dizziness we feel is that of the great turning points of time. And so we remain on the lookout for the reformulated myth — the necessary fiction — signifying, as always, that undefined, unutterable and desirable fulfillment which endlessly, out of the depths of nothingness, produces being.   – Michael Francis Gibson, The Mill and the Cross.

Dust clouds and interstellar medium around blue nebula NGC1999. Photo Nasa Hubble.

Equine Nebula. Photo NASA Hubble.