On gaps - Ezra Rubenstein


By Ezra Rubenstein

August 2014


Gaps are something of a preoccupation for philosophy. Wherever philosophers turn their attention, they tend to find gaps. The gaps which philosophers deal with are conceptual, a priori – they do not have distances which can be measured. This is one of the things which make them so troubling. No bridge seems long enough to cross the divide. Nothing is large enough to avoid falling in.

Take, for instance, the gap between subject and object. Worrying about this gap has been described as a kind of philosophical neurosis, like constantly checking whether you have locked the front door. Bergson warns against leaving this door unlocked when he writes: “As soon as we try to conceptualise what we have grasped in “intuition” we turn the complex flow of experience into a sequence of distinct units, into pluralities of states of objects at locations that engender Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, and we transform our entangled being with the world into the ever puzzling opposition of a subject and an object.”

When philosophers are confronted with such gaps, two strategies in particular have proved popular. The first, and perhaps most natural, is to invoke God. Gaps are something to be revered rather than worried about. The mysterious is equated with the divine. The emptiness is held to be sacred, untouchable. The second strategy is more radical. Instead of attempting to bridge the gaps, we dissolve them. We question the assumptions which led us to create them in the first place. We attempt to uncreate the void.

The ‘secular’ strategy founders on the gap between something and nothing. This is a kind of second order gap, or meta-gap: it exists between the objects and the gaps themselves. As such it is more deeply embedded in abstraction, more difficult to get at. This is where the God-concept comes into its own. In God we find the Origin that physicists move excruciatingly backwards into, nanosecond by nanosecond. It lies there waiting for us like dreams in daytime. In our most primal discourse, God answers the fundamental why-question: why is there anything at all? But what happens when an unquestionable answer meets an unanswerable question? What happens when an infinite bridge meets an unbridgeable gap?

Philosophical gaps, and the strategies for responding to them, have their counterparts in art – or rather, since art and philosophy are fundamentally the same enterprise, the questions and answers expressed by artists stand as proxy for those considered by philosophers. The gap between subject and object becomes the gap between artwork and audience (or between artwork and artist), and the gap between something and nothing becomes the gap between what ‘counts’ as art and what doesn’t, between what is inside the frame and what’s outside of it.

Chris Millar’s GAP is most obviously a response to the second of these questions. Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ and Duchamp’s ready-mades implement the strategy of artist-as-God, where the artist is the one who performs the magical act of transforming non-art into art: sculpting the void, or, in Malevich’s case, simply framing it. However, GAP can be seen as implementing another strategy, more akin to dissolution. From this perspective, making the gap itself an artwork is not a wilful exhibition of the miraculous power of the artist-God, but rather a bowing of the artist to the void. Exhibiting the empty space for a painting – or perhaps the space from which a painting has been removed - thus points to the ultimate futility of maintaining any sort of gap between art and non-art, the absurdity of constraining art to a frame or to a gallery space. ‘Being art’ is no inherent quality that separates the artwork itself from its environment, but neither is it some property breathed into it by an artist-God, nor is it some more mundane relation to the institutions and ideologies which mediate the public’s interactions with culture. Rather ‘being art’ belongs to the place as such, the location in space and time, as the inherent potential which artwork realises. Being art is metaphysical. It is a priori. Silence becomes music, and stillness becomes dance, (and back again:

Since 1915, when Malevich’s empty ikon was first displayed, its pristine surface of black paint has become cracked to reveal the white ground below. What Philip Shaw calls “its stark distinction between the void of creation [the white background/surface] and the material object [the dark, material stain of the square]” has already begun to erode… The void is reclaiming its own, recreating itself, peering out through itself. The void is a mirror; both transparent and reflective, neither dark nor light.)

This dissolution may also go a step further. Quantum mechanics tells us that the void is in fact reeling with the quantum ghosts of virtual particles. The void is pregnant. The birth of something from nothing is not a conceptual impossibility but merely a highly improbable quantum fluctuation, a possibility that is written into the canvas of the universe. It also tells us that we cannot know both a particle’s exact position and exact momentum at any given time – or rather, that there is no such thing as a particle with a well-defined position and momentum at a given time. Objects are more ‘spread out’ than we conceptualise them as being. Their boundaries are more ‘blurry’.

From these ideas, the possibility emerges that GAP does not seek only to blur the gap between something and nothing, but to blur also the gap between subject and object. Since determinacy arises only from the interactions between processes, our perspective as viewer is itself entangled with what is viewed, and what is viewed is itself imbued with an indeterminate ‘perspective’. By playing with notions of emptiness and determinacy, the act of ‘creating’ a gap between two paintings (and in doing so, uncreating it) carries in its wake a more startling dissolution: that of the gap between artwork and observer. The void looks back at us.