Nothingness in Art was the title of a course run by Simon Morley at Tate Modern last year. Some of the the words used to elicit its meaning included absense, blackness, zero and void. It might also, in the territory of modern art, suggest a negating of the past, where nothing is new and nothing matters. In a culture without belief it has become a static and negative concept, standing for the annihilation of the self, the division of being from non-being, the nothing behind something.
But in the Japanese zen tradition, out of which Suzuki and Nishitani wrote, it is richly suggestive. Silence is the sound of one hand clapping; it is not a dark void but an empty space of continual possibility. A metaphor for a spiritual vision which lies outside the traditional symbols and iconography of belief. And which also lies outside the self - where the self, lacking permanence or substance, becomes an empty concept and where the fundamental nature of all phenomena inclines towards emptiness.
While it has banished belief from art, the theory and language of contemporary art has had little to say about faith (for what can be said?). During a discussion with Arthur Danto at the Tate, Thierry de Duve could only say that the problem of the role of faith in art is unfathomable.
Nevertheless the meditative space of emptiness is still possible in painting.
In january this year I was in Barcelona where I spent some time in the Fundacio Antoni Tapies gazing at, or more accurately looking into, a painting from 1988 called INFINIT (here on the right), which reminded me of this 18th century image from Rajasthan of 'pure conciousness'. And more recently I found myself in the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London contemplating some small paintings by Vija Celmins: images in which she somehow makes present the emptiness of space in a night sky, or the intangibility, in her drawings at least, of the water beneath the waves.
I thought of these things again during Simon Morley's current show of small paintings at Art First, a series of minimalist monochromes suggestive both of a collective loss of faith, and, perhaps paradoxically, its continuing and haunting resonance.