How do contemporary works of art engage the concept of ‘nothingness’?




The question pertaining to this essay is ‘how do contemporary works of art engage the concept of “nothingness”?’ This paper investigates the works of Miroslaw Balka, Xu Bing, and Anish Kapoor, and their employment of the concept of ‘nothingness’ through the use of associative concepts like ‘darkness’ and ’emptiness’, with the theoretical framework on the idea of nothingness that is primarily informed through the literature of ‘Being and Time’ by Martin Heidegger and ‘The Classic of the Way and Virtue’ (Tao Te Jing) by Lao Zi. The two existentially phenomenological bodies of text negotiate the many aspects of the expanded relations between being and existence, but for the purpose of this essay, I strive to focus upon the concept of ‘nothingness’ as a tool employed in contemporary works of art, therefore inquiring into the functions, effects, and conceptual relevance of ‘the nothing’, as opposed to diving into depths of philosophical survey between the Dasein and its contradictory in agreement or disagreement with the views of the two thinkers. Although written in different historical moments and cultural contexts, Heidegger’s metaphysics and that of Lao Zi’s find great similarities with each other; the former’s idea on ‘the nothing’ and the latter’s concept of ‘tao (the way) are both described as a universal and fundamental composite of all things that is non apprehensible in entirety, as well as behaves like a background against which all existence is put forth (Harman, 2002). In such perspective, this primary substance can be regarded as a metaphysical unity that at once transcends all entities but remained hidden from practical reality. This concept is however not confined solely to the thoughts of Lao Zi and Heidegger, regardless to what extent the work of the Eastern thinker influenced the Western philosopher, similar ideas of a transcendental entity are evidenced in Plato’s form of beauty, Renaissance’s monotheistic beliefs, and Enlightenment’s retreat to unwavering reason (Zhang, 2009; Scruton, 2009). The concept of this ‘oneness’ that is the backbone of all existence can be seen as inseparable with its wider literary references. Upon such stance, I will proceed to discuss how the works of these three artists employ the concept of nothingness in relevancy to the experiences effected upon the viewer through a phenomenological lens.

Fig. 1 Description: 'How It Is', Miroslaw Balka Source: (Accessed: 26/04/2016)
1 Description: ‘How It Is’, Miroslaw Balka

How It Is

Polish artist Miroslaw Balka’s commission in 2009 for Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, titled ‘How It Is’ (figs. 1 and 2), is an enormous metal structure resembling that of an architectural variant of a cargo container, elevating 2 metres off the gallery ground through stilts, measures at 13 metres in height and 30 metres in length, and includes a ramp positioned at the open-ended side of the sculpture, inviting the audience to walk into this space within the massive structure, which consists of nothing but darkness. Prior to entrance of this sculptural space, the viewer first identifies a sense of uneasiness arising in themselves upon confrontation of emptiness and darkness. Upon entering, step by step, the viewer loses the reliability of their senses, and losing grip of their apprehension of sight, they disappear into the depths of this dark space. Balka’s work employs the conceptual relevance between nothingness and darkness, affecting the experience of the audience phenomenologically, through the privation of light as a negation to the moments of certainty in the apprehension of physical spaces with the visual sense (Burke, 2008). Heidegger asserted that the proposition of ‘nothing is something’ was arrived through the premise ‘if nothing is (to be) nothing’, then ‘nothing is something’ (Sadler, 2012). He argued that there must first be an absolute ‘nothingness’ before any ‘negatives’ or any forms of negation can take place, and it is through encountering the negative that the contrasted positive is affirmed (Harman, 2002). Similarly in Balka’s work, against this background canvas of ‘nothingness’ that is being presented in the phenomenon of darkness, the sight of the viewer becomes impaired, and consequently their sense of space becomes confused and lost amidst the emptiness that surrounds . What is left for the viewer is their memory; the narratives in their lives that affirm their individuality and subjective personhood. Such play with dualism is very heavily emphasised in Taoist thoughts, which includes the most lucid example of the contraries ying (negative energy) and yang (positive energy) coming together as a totality, since each cannot be separated from the other. Heidegger’s question regarding the existence of being is poetically resolved in Lao Zi’s proposition of the ‘is’ being described by the ‘is not’ and vice versa (Addiss and Lombardo, 1993).

2. ‘How It Is’, Miroslaw Balka

In Balka’s work, however, it is not simply an event of the non-being affirming the being. There is also a psychological threshold in each of Balka’s audiences, with each step they take further increasingly burdened by the dilemma of one’s willingness and capacity to endure. Such terror becomes an important experience of the work, and the pain that the viewer endures is one of ontological species. The existential distress is an essential constituent of the aesthetics of the work, and considered in such perspective, the experience is congruous with that of the sublime. I find it important to not disregard the philosophical inquiries of Edmund Burke on the context of darkness as an effective component of the sublime, in which he wrote on the contraries of light and darkness as a spectrum with either end possessing the capacity towards the sublime, and tended towards the phenomenon of darkness as more competent in the production of such experience (Burke, 2008). In Balka’s work however, the sublimity does not merely lie in the discomfort of the lost of sight, since its darkness is unlike a darkness of familiarity; it is coupled with the phenomenon of the unknown, which threatens the space and time apprehension of the viewer, resulting in them getting lost in the vast emptiness. In such regard, Balka’s work employs two qualities unified in the one concept of nothingness towards the production of the sublime, functioning to affirm the viewer by allowing the being to encounter the negative that is beyond its threshold.

3. ‘Book from the Sky’, Xu Bing
'Book from the Sky', Xu Bing
4. ‘Book from the Sky’, Xu Bing

Book from the Sky

‘Book from the Sky’ is an installation by Chinese artist Xu Bing in 1991, consisting of calligraphic block prints on books and scrolls (figs. 3 and 4). From a distance, what looks like an installation of scrolls containing Chinese calligraphic characters, actually mean nothing up close. These words resembling those pictographic Chinese characters are fabrications of the artist, who took a span of four years deconstructing traditional Chinese characters and permuting their fundamental composites to create a total of 4000 new characters that cannot be read. The display of Xu Bing’s installation is astonishing; upon entrance into the space, the viewer immediately notices the overwhelming amount of characters filling up the wall spaces, hanging from the ceiling, occupying the floor with volumes of open books which he hand bound with a traditional book binding method in Chinese literary arts, reverberating a great sense of reverence. When the work was first presented in the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, it was met with harsh criticism by the old masters of esteemed status in China (Gao, 1993). They found Xu Bing’s work insulting to the Chinese literary tradition, which should be treasured instead of deconstructed and damaged. The experience of the Chinese viewer quickly changes from admiration to a sense of discomfort as they move bit by bit closer to the block prints, only to acknowledge the familiar is coupled simultaneously with the alien. Such paradoxical experience is the result of a disproportioning act between the significances of meaning and form in Chinese language, emptying the former to fill the latter. Linguistics is an important aspect of Chinese culture, with the practice of calligraphy as one of the four scholarly arts in Chinese tradition, and since Chinese languages are monosyllabic, each character is a logogram consisting of an individual meaning that are constructed through a compound of symbols. While the Chinese audience confronts the ‘nothingness’ in these characters, their identity is being put to threat as if the literary significance in their tradition has been abruptly erased away. However, to the eyes of a person who has no understanding of the Chinese language, these characters appear as unfamiliar calligraphic strokes regardless of their possession of meanings, and since they all appear to be alien at once, their meanings are rhetorical altogether. For this reason, the work only threatens the individuality of the Chinese viewer, and this peril can only be effective if it proceeds from the presence of the Chinese identity. The concept is identifiable to Heidegger’s works, in which he described how the Dasein is constantly in contact with its contrary, the ‘nothingness’, in order to predicate its own existence on an ontologically fundamental level (Sadler, 2012). The negative cannot do without the positive, and in the face of literary nothingness, the identity of the Chinese viewer is put forth and affirmed in the state of existential dilemma. However, the work does not intend to segregate its experiences between those who are literate of the Chinese language and those are not. By emptying the meanings of these characters, the particularities are withdrawn to the background of wholeness where the forms of the Chinese language can shimmer free of associations. What this body of textual work achieved is the condition of totality, which consequently produces a universal language that can be read and appreciated by audiences of all cultures and languages, and yet visually retaining the stylistic identity of the Chinese calligraphic tradition. One’s background and tradition is regarded by Xu Bing as the constituents of their identity, and in the ‘nothingness’ of his work, the artist presents to the viewer with not only an aesthetic purity of the Chinese language but also the revelation of his personhood (Bloomberg, 2015).

5. Descension’, Anish Kapoor


‘Descension’ is a work by British artist Anish Kapoor in 2015, consisting an installation of a whirlpool of water perpetually spinning into a void of darkness (figs. 5 and 6). To Kapoor, the void represents an entity that unifies certain fundamental questions that we find ourselves asking repetitively throughout the history of human civilisation (Galleriacontinua, 2015). These questions belong to an ontological nature, and revolve around topics such as space and time, subject and object relation, being and existence et cetera. Each period in human history has attempted to answer these questions, and yet, these questions persisted as though each intellectual period is always unsatisfied with the previous one, which perhaps indicates that we will never find the answers to these puzzles. It is as though our finite capacity can never apprehend the infinite (Moderna Museet, 2015), even if we encounter it through daily phenomena. This is akin to Heidegger’s concept of the universal background where positive experiences happen against a canvas of the negative; ‘Infinity’, ‘non-being’, ‘the negative’, ‘nothingness’ are all synonyms to the artist’s expression of the void as a representation of the unknowable answers to these questions (Heidegger, 2010). The large construction of this whirlpool of water sinking into depths of the floor upon which the viewer stands, is to be considered to be an embodiment of the architectural space where it is housed, providing a channel where the positive dimension gets drawn within a vortex into the negative. The experience is one of immensity, with the contrary emotions of fear and admiration occurring within the viewer at the same time. Although Kapoor acknowledges the scale of the work contributing to the experience of the Kantian concept of the sublime, the experience of fear that is effected within the viewer is also attributed to a more ontological phenomenon as opposed to an aesthetic one (Galleriacontinua, 2015). This metaphysical fear stems from the confrontation of dark water draining into nothingness, which is analogous to the existential void that is deep within the foundation of our being. Two-fold concepts are being presented phenomenologically in the experience of the work, such as, physical fear in contrary to metaphysical fear, pain and pleasure, the knowable and the unknowable, as well as the being as opposed to the non-being. The prominence of such oppositional ideas in Lao Zi’s writings is also witnessed in its influence in the aesthetics of Chinese landscape ink paintings, where the negative spaces engage in a role as significant as the positive spaces. As the literal translation of the Chinese Mandarin terms for ‘landscape painting’ is ‘drawing of mountains and rivers’, the positive spaces described by the ink strokes is used to represent the former, and the latter, also frequently appearing in alternate forms such as mist or lakes, is suggested through the use of the negative spaces, which often connects the foreground through to the background (Cahill, 1977). Water, being one of the five basic elements according to ancient Chinese intellectualism which developed concurrently with the philosophy of Taoism, subsequently becomes a rich representation for the movement of the ‘qi(energy) (Addiss and Lombardo, 1993). Taoist thoughts indicate that only through a balance of the positive and the negative can the ‘energy’ flow smoothly, a condition that precedes the state of harmony. More importantly, Taoism regards water as having the capacity to define the negative form of that which contains it, thus becoming a symbol that unifies the positive and negative (Maeda, 1971). A certain proportion of pleasure that is experienced through looking at Kapoor’s work, is attributed to the phenomenon of repetitive circular motion of the water, flowing consistently into a suction of emptiness. The duty of the water performs such meditative function in Kapoor’s ‘Descension’, leading the eyes of the viewer from the edge of the flooring to observe the contemplative movement of the circular flow, only to find themselves sinking into a introspective confrontation with the ‘nothingness’ that exist synchronously with their being.

6. Descension’, Anish Kapoor


I have thus proceeded to discuss the concept of ‘nothingness’ and its applicability in contemporary art through the analyses of three specific works of art by Balka, Xu Bing, and Kapoor. I described Balka’s work as a massive container that consists of emptiness and darkness, and provided an account of the viewer’s experiences, which include discomfort from the suspension of the visual function by darkness, lost of directional sense by emptiness, and affirmation of individual subjectivity through encounter with its contrary. Additionally, I related my examination of Balka’s work to Heidegger’s idea of the metaphysical background unit, binary oppositional concepts of Taoism, as well as to Burke’s idea of the sublime. Proceeding to Xu Bing’s work, I attributed the phenomenon of reverence to the installation of the block prints, related his process of deconstruction of Chinese language characters as a fragmentation of culture, which threatens the identity of the language speaker, but yet simultaneously ascertains such cultural identity known a prior. I further associated the experiences drawn from the work of art to Heidegger’s idea of the being and non-being, and dualistic concepts that the work engages with, including form and material, background and foreground, as well as particularity and universality. I concluded my analysis on Xu Bing’s work by considering it as an invention of a universal language, expressing everything through the use of ‘nothing’. Lastly, I described Kapoor’s installation of whirlpool and void, with the latter being a representation of existential doubts about which answers we will reach. Next, I equated the concepts of nothingness and other forms of negations to Kapoor’s symbol of the void, and further described the experience of the work as a combination of fear and admiration. I carried on to associate such fear to that of an ontological cause. Finally, I described the symbol of water and its function of movement as effective contribution to the experience of the void that contains ‘nothing’. In regard to the question ‘how do contemporary works of art engage the concept of nothingness’, the analyses of these three works of art derive that the idea of ‘nothingness’ is being utilised through the association of related concepts such like ‘void’, ’emptiness’, ‘non-being’, as well as ‘infinity’, with the intent of an intriguing introspective dialogue between the viewer and their ontological self. The extensive scales of the three works comparatively raise the consciousness of the viewer’s physicality and their surroundings, which consequently develop an awareness of their being. The scale is needed to give confinement to the negative that is engaged through phenomena, resulting in the astounding experience of both pain and pleasure. Through such immensity in their works, these three artists seek to present to their audiences a confrontation with the negative to effect an embrace of the positive, their ontological selves, in order to reach towards the state of transcendence beyond the material world.




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Fig. 1 Description: ‘How It Is’, Miroslaw Balka Source: (Accessed: 26/04/2016)

Fig. 2 Description: ‘How It Is’, Miroslaw Balka Source: (Accessed: 26/04/2016)

Fig. 3 Description: ‘Book from the Sky’, Xu Bing Source: (Accessed: 26/04/2016)

Fig. 4 Description: ‘Book from the Sky’, Xu Bing Source: (Accessed: 26/04/2016)

Fig. 5 Description: ‘Descension’, Anish Kapoor Source: (Accessed: 26/04/2016)

Fig. 6 Description: ‘Descension’, Anish Kapoor Source: (Accessed: 26/04/2016)