“Nothing” to see at ICA's new exhibit

Institute of Contemporary Art Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner once put on a show in New York about people who want everything—those who collect material possessions to try to fill their lives.

Now, she’s launched a show about nothing.

With the help of Associate Curator Bennett Simpson and Whitney-Lauder Curator Tanya Leighton, Schaffner and the ICA are leading “The Big Nothing,” a citywide celebration of, well, nothing, that opened this month and runs through August 1.

A still from Bas Jan Ader’s video

A still from Bas Jan Ader’s video, “I’m Too Sad to Tell You,” part of the ICA show, “The Big Nothing.”

The subject of nothingness is full of possibilities, according to Leighton. “When we started to think about it, it’s absolutely everywhere,” she said, adding that it’s nearly impossible to turn anywhere in the art world of the 1960s and ’70s without bumping into the subject. “It’s so rich on so many levels.”

It may seem oxymoronic that “nothing” and “nothingness” can be such fertile ground, but when you think of it the way the ICA curators did—that is, with no boundaries—the possibilities begin to seem endless. “It’s not that everything you see is empty,” said Leighton. “It goes much further intellectually.” Nothingness becomes active, and the idea expands to include negation, anonymity, the vacancy of pop culture, refusal, and the empty gallery space, a common theme in the art of Yves Klein and Robert Barry, whose pictures and memorabilia are included in the show. In all, more than 60 artists have their work on display at the ICA.

Video and slide images explore the theme of the unutterable, through Jan Bas Ader’s “I’m Too Sad to Tell You,” a video about a man who is unable to articulate the root of his suffering, and Allan Sekula’s “Waiting for Tear Gas,” which documents the waiting and lulls between demonstrations from the 1999 World Trade Organization protests. Drawings and a video of a performance by Matt Mullican explore the process of how we create, and a series of paintings by Jutta Koether—who makes a new painting every day—addresses the idea of “doing away” with the old. Works by Andy Warhol and Roe Ethridge comment on the vacuousness of consumer culture.

Once Schaffer and others went public with the idea of creating a show about nothingness, 35 other art, music, dance, theater and science venues decided to run with the idea, making “The Big Nothing” a true regional collaboration. Throughout the summer—a lean time for the arts, traditionally—a full range of nothing-based activities will take place, including “The Empty House Tour,” led by English lecturer Tom Devaney at the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, two nights of film at International House and “9 Mütter XX04” at the Mütter Museum, in which artists explore nothingness through the loss of limbs and senses.
Said Leighton, “You can think about [nothing] in so many different ways.”

For a complete list of participating venues and events, go to www.icaphila.org.

Originally published on May 13, 2004