True story: A student goes to his teacher for instruction. The guru, having observed him, says, “You are charming. This is an obstacle to your growth. From now on, when you are in a room of people do nothing, do not seduce them and do not charm them, but leave behind only a scent.” “What scent is that, teacher?” “Love.”
I’ve heard this story a couple of times from a friend (a friend of the student in the story, in fact) who brings it up when personal or social ambition is troubling someone. As I’ve understood it, the instruction of the guru is meant as an antidote to an hidden, ego-driven desire to possess people through charm. The lesson, to be generous and give (subtly, invisibly, almost) rather than take, without imposing oneself, seems an impossible instruction. I’ve sometimes wondered if it is a Zen koan meant to quiet the mind for meditation rather than a directive for actual application. I try to imagine what would occur if one truly attempted this as a way of moving through the world? Leaving only a slight impression of one’s presence, rather than an indelible mark. I’m not referring to the question of one’s legacy (that’s out of one’s control and indicative of too high-self regard, if not hubris), but to the simple, daily interactions with people. Conceiving of a convincing way in which one could leave people with an unnamable sense of love without being overbearing (missing the mark, therefore) at worst or wishy-washy (unconvincing) at least escapes me.
As impossible as it is for me to convince myself of this as a practical approach seems, I can understand it, at least a little, when I think of artists like Yves Klein, Lee Lozano, Robert Barry and Tino Sehgal, for example. Not that they achieved enlightenment, but that their artistic practices, at least in part, turn away from the art object in favor of something less immediate. This, of course, is not a new identification. Lucy Lippard noted it decades ago in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972.
I think of these artists and their attitude towards the art object as being one focused on an art of disappearing. In my mind, their work is a kind of inversion of Robert Morris’ A Box With The Sound of its Own Making, artworks that depict their own leaving, dispersal or intangibility. A few examples will hopefully illustrate what I have in mind.
Yves Klein sold Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, indicated by a receipt, to collectors for sums of gold. To fully complete the transaction, for the collector to truly receive the immaterial zone, the collector would have to submit to a ritual in which the receipt was torn up and half of the gold (in the form of gold leaf) was disposed of in the Seine.
Lee Lozano recorded events undertaken as art (getting high for a month, talking with other artists) in notebook pages distributed in the form of photocopies. These documents, far from providing clarity or details offer more absence than presence. Reading them underlines the fact that the moment is long gone, the conversation limited to the participants and the high felt only by the toker. She herself disappeared (in a sense) decamping from the New York art world in her Removal Piece, which lasted (at least) until her death in 1999.
Robert Barry released gasses into the atmosphere and documented these invisible acts with photographs and written descriptions.
Tino Sehgal, a contemporary artist, choreographs experiences, triggered by precise occurrences (entering a gallery, asking a question, engaging with an attendant) that have no physical presence outside of the performative moment. He has pushed the furthest in removing the object from his work. He produces no certificates of authenticity or documentary photographs and even prohibits wall labels to indicate works on exhibition.
It is clear that the works that I’ve described suggest that absence can be presence, but most (the exception is Sehgal) rely on documentation to refer back to the work and so are not completely disembodied. It is my contention, that this is not a failure, but an important element in the meaning of these works.
These works most clearly exist as vehicles for thought or consideration. Ultimately, they exist in the mind of the viewer, rather than in their fallible embodied forms. In this way the documentation acts like Proust’s madeleine, calling to mind important thoughts and events long gone. Furthermore, though the documentation can be sold as an artwork and, therefore held privately, the work itself is available to all who would hold it in their minds, carrying it in their memories for enjoyable or productive consideration.
As I’ve thought about these works, I’ve noticed that this is true for all art objects. I remember my experience seeing Massacio’s Trinity in Florence and can live in that memory, fully, knowing that my mind was changed by that encounter. The difference is that I then want to buy a plane ticket. When I think about, say, Klein’s zone of pictorial sensibility, I just want to think.
Finally, when I think about an art object that I love, Ruben’s Neptune Calming The Tempest, not only do I want to possess it, but I am possessed by it. When I think of a work of art, on the other hand, created with the intention of its not remaining in a fixed physical form, if it ever had any, then I am already in full possession of it, but still free.