In this latest incarnation of the nomadic Scaffold Gallery, nine artists responded to a paradoxical brief challenging them to create works void of any subject, content or meaning. Their responses varied in subject, content and meaning.
Most of the work seemed to blend very well into the white cube of the gallery itself, almost as if trying to avoid detection and interpretation. But what would this interpretation be? Are we to imagine that the artworks discuss nothing or rather that they don’t discuss anything?
Of course the interesting thing about this exhibition is this: if the works were to successfully meet the criterion then the whole thing would be a conceptual artwork and there would be no need to actually attend. The works themselves would be totally uninteresting except perhaps for the wonder of their very existence as it appears that the only occasion it is impossible to make completely empty, meaningless art is when one is earnestly trying to do so.
That is to say, any work of art which sets out to be meaningless is automatically shrouded in signification. Deliberate references are made to a lack of meaning, the work contains visual signs pointing to a lack of content and so on. This is the nature of the paradox which underpins Empty Vessels.
Exemplary of this is Martha Shaw’s ‘CaCO₃’ (2018). A blackboard which is not only blank but totally devoid of chalk residue as a pile of white chalk dust sits on the floor in front of it. It may take a moment to register these two objects as a single piece (taken as separate pieces they could perhaps even fulfil the criterion) but their relationship soon becomes apparent, and an interpretation arises. It appears that everything ever written on this chalk board, every little mark along with all the subject, content and meaning has been not only erased but somehow removed from the board. It is almost as if time has been turned backwards for this object but instead of the pure potentiality of neatly stacked chalks, we are faced with the pure nihilism of a pile of dust. The infinite variety of meanings which could have been contained within this chalk vanishes in the pile. History has been undone but it is not waiting to start again. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that this is the most apocalyptic work of art I have ever encountered.
Evaluating the other works in the show I begin to wonder whether the meanings I’m reading are not, in reality, just flying around my head waiting for a blank space on which to inscribe themselves. But are these works really blank spaces? Can they really be ‘empty vessels’? Any work of art truly devoid of subject, content and meaning would allow a unique kind of space for the viewer’s own thoughts and preoccupations to reveal themselves whilst eliminating the option to blame them on the art. And to an extent this is the overall effect of Empty Vessels but it must be stated that no work of art is ever a hundred percent void of meaning. Each piece in the show has an influence on the viewer’s thought process. However subtle that may be.
With this in mind, Empty Vessels is probably best understood as a kind of conceptual artwork partially comprised of non-conceptual artworks. An artistic experiment with the covert hypothesis that we, as humans, are incapable of creating anything totally void of meaning or signification. In any case the exhibition is a witty and highly intriguing exploration of both the artists’ and the viewer’s relationship to meaning and content.
Empty Vessels, Bankley Studios and Gallery, Manchester.
3, 4, 5, 11 August 2018.
Robbie di Vito is an artist and writer based in Lancashire.