Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

8.3. Dialog und Lernen
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Heiner Benking (Berlin)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Museum. A Theater of Nothingness

Eckehart Siepmann (Berlin)


1 Ou-topos: no ground, bottomless


The propagandists of substance are like cows,
The followers of voidness even worse.

(Saraha, around 900 AC)(1)


Would it not come as a surprise to find out that the fate of Europe, the fate of the world was decided in a museum? Around 500 B.C., the Mouseion of Alexandria on the Nile Delta was a point of contact between two forms of thought: here, the shimmer of early Greek philosophy illuminated the East, while Eastern philosophy drifted over into the West.

Perhaps Parmenides' draconic refusal of Nothingness was already a significant turn away from the thought of the East, which cultivated Nothingness. At any event, despite the repeated emergence of contrary tendencies, from Augustine and Master Eckhart to Heidegger, the long Western tradition of suppressing Nothingness that began with the Eleatic philosophers would ultimately become mainstream Western philosophy.(2)

The West focused on the existent, on having, holding, and penetrating the objective [das Gegenständliche], on the relationship between subject and object. Ignoring the dimensions that preceded this relation was decisively instrumental in the development of the natural sciences, a rationalist worldview, and the technical superiority of the West that lasted well into the twentieth century.

Today, we are confronted with a significant turn: philosophy and the natural sciences are presently creating an intellectual condition on the verge of revoking Parmenides' verdict about Nothingness and preparing for a new situation in which a dimension beyond the relationship between subject and object returns to our field of vision.

Concepts like non-linearity, uncertainty, chaos, autopoiesis, and relationality, which in recent years have been establishing themselves across the disciplines, all dissolve the remains of substantialist thought. By returning to structures, networks, correlations, and systems, they approach concepts of non-presence, difference, and the void in various ways.

This process of convergence has been more pronounced and less obscured by fashionable clamor In Western philosophy than has been the case in the natural sciences. Heidegger put nothingness and an "engagement with Eastern thought" on the agenda. In his Elmau Lecture, Peter Sloterdijk, the author of Eurotaoism and a disciple of Bosho, pointed out the contemporary relevance of Heidegger's thinking. Most recently, Heidegger's disciple Ute Guzzoni published a book entitled Nothing. Images and Examples in which she explains haiku poetry and Zen painting.(3)

Things are more complicated in the case of Jacques Derrida. To the best of my knowledge, this master de-centerer of occidental thought, following in the footsteps of Heidegger and Saussure, has never made any explicit reference to Buddhism; nonetheless, his onto-semiology and his notion of différance come into close proximity with the philosophy of Nagarjuna.(4)

After centuries of the adaptive reception of Buddhism in the West, something new has emerged with this constellation: a gleam of the possibility of convergences. The twenty-first century seems to be preparing for the formation of a Western Buddhism that will emerge as a fusion of science, religion and art and perhaps even in the near future could become widely effective. As one Asian friend complains, "There is surely something perverse about Western capitalism's destruction of traditional Buddhist cultures such as that of Thailand, at the same time that Thai forest Buddhism is gaining increasing numbers of Western converts. In this transnational cultural exchange, why is it that the West gets religion but the East gets economics?"(5)

Nothingness is about to become a hit around the world, and the global star thinkers of nothingness are a Chinese man, an Indian, and a German: Lao-Tse, Nagarjuna, and Master Eckhart.

Those who tend to decry this reinterpretation of Utopia as groundlessness [Bodenlosigkeit] as yet another step towards depoliticization, private hedonism, and luxury in light of the misery of the world, might be mistaken. It is quite clear that at issue here is an approach to a utopia in the traditional sense of a projective perspective for improving the world. All the same, the emphases have shifted: the place for an image of a better world remains as good as empty, transformation applies to the structure of desires and the moment.

Groundlessness moves into the desires and moment, and in so doing sings the lines of the baroque poet Gerhard Tersteegen:

"O beautiful nothing -
you fullness of all light"(6)

The groundlessness of desires and the moment entails both their intensification and their demobilization at the same time. The desires are less directed towards objects than the expansion of alertness and compassion. While the intentionality of the moment is reduced, a multidimensional time also opens up in the moment.

Humanity's future prospects will perhaps depend on whether or not a worldwide change in the structure of desire is possible. Why then should a demobilizing expansion of desires and the moment, generated by a desire for the void, not be a possible Utopian option?


2 From the Presence of the Object to Relationality

Around 1980, the first personal computers appeared, and condensed a sensorium for the imminent expansion of reality though digitalization and virtualization, and for exhibition curators they increased the suspicion of the unproblematic display of objects. In this time, the first tender shoots of performative exhibition elements began to emerge in some museums of cultural history around the world.

In attempting to get away from the clumsy, unproblematized, somehow obscene way in which the objects "stand there," the curator has two things in mind: dematerialization and fluidization. While on the one hand he objects in terms of the way the objects "stand there" to a strongly claimed identity, on the other hand to an unproblematized presence. He objects to this less for intellectual reasons as almost for psychological reasons - a deep-rooted, unexamined uncanniness. If there were additional reasons, they would still not be intellectual, but rather moral, reasons tied in a tangled way with a kind of sensual truth. The way objects "stand there" produces the impression of untruth in a psychological way.

In the museum, performativity serves to subvert identity and presence. In traditional forms of exhibition, identity and presence have a status that agreeably reminds us of the "good old days." This is why museums are so popular, because many long for this state. To subvert identity and presence does not mean to make it disappear, but, in a word, to give it a timely status that mixes it with non-identity and non-presence.

The strong claim to identity is subverted in the new museum by shifting attention away from the individual object towards a relational construction between significant objects. Presence is subverted by the inclusion of the temporal arts like music or spoken texts, in transitory image/video projection, sounds etc. At the same time, they set relations in motion. In contrast to the pompous early attempts at staging in the museum, at issue is not an illustrative amplification, but more the construction of something which one might call - albeit inelegantly - the performative networking of signification. In the museum, signification, giving meaning, means inscribing elements of meaning spatially (on the part of the curators), synthesizing them in wandering, in movement (on the part of the visitor).

Art that is increasingly moving towards the performative is encountered best in motion. Now, new senses come to the foreground, like the sense of balance, the sense of spatial orientation, which is made up of many senses, the sense of taking in an atmosphere, again a composite, the skin - sensitive to climate and temperature, the flesh, on which impressions can be left, not least the balls of the feet and the tips of the fingers.

We are clearly in the midst of an explosive expansion of the senses comparable to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age; like that historical moment, the current shift is also linked to an extension of the dimensions of the symbolic world. In this symbolic world, art is an ordering factor. "Out of the chaos," as Friedrich von Hardenberg puts it, "[art] makes a reasonable chaos, a chaos to the second power, or the infinite power."(7)


3 From Presence to Performance

The Exhibition as Performance

The linguistic turn of the 1980s, which made everything in the world a text, was followed in the 1990s by the performative turn, which everywhere sees and creates process, execution, event. The concept emerged in the 1950s in American philosophy of language, in which the meaning of the speech act took on a more important role in relation to the contents of communication. Ten years ago, the performative spark sprang to all the cultural disciplines, which suddenly discovered that they had long neglected the investigation of cultural action and production in favor of cultural objects. This infection was not limited to the academic disciplines: currently the performative turn is preparing to set all spheres of the society in motion, and does not even shy away from the doors of the institution that over the centuries was the quintessential representative of a static world of things.(8)

If we ask how this all started, and if we avoid the temptation of interpreting even Eva's offer of the apple - if not the creation of the world itself- as the first performance, if we skip over all else, including the life of Jesus - itself rich in events: think only about the feeding of the 5000 or walking on water - in order to coming to a halt with the early romantics and Nietzsche, we land on December 11, 1896 in a flea-ridden Paris theatre space, where the curtain goes up and a small, fat, money-hungry king introduces the age of intensified performance by screaming "Merdre!" (Shrit!) at the top of his lungs.

In the tumult that followed among the spectators was a well-off, but not well-situated Italian, who in the same year would travel to Milan in order to spread the seeds of performative discord: Filipo Tommaso Marietti. In 1909, he published his Futurist manifesto; on January 12, 1915 the first Futurist performance took place in Trieste, in which attacks on the cult of tradition and the commercialization of art were linked to patriotic militarism and colonialism.

"A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" followed in 1912, a manifesto by the Russian Futurists Mayakovsky and Burlyuk; their first performances, which shared the anti-traditionalism, but not the chauvinism of the Italians, took place in a Petersburg café.(9) In the international Dada movement around 1920, weight was shifted across the world from the artwork to the event, from product to process. With Dadaism and the Surrealists, as in the case of the Futurists, one of the main addressees of the polemic linked to the fluidification of the artwork is the museum, the sanctuary of tradition and the scene of the crime - the reification and value assignment of art. While gestural artistic practices like action panting, Tachism, informal art could still be exhibited in the museum, concept art, land art or body art, as well as a great portion of the activities of Fluxus and other forms of happening and performance refuse any form of museumification.

An Early Attempt at Performative Exhibition: The Werkbundarchiv in Berlin

In order to clarify spatialization's implications in connection with the medium of the exhibitionon first look space seems to be the self-evident prerequisite for this medium let us look at a detail from the 1990 Benjamin exhibit of the Werkbundarchiv Museum der Dinge in Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau. In this author's writing, the Angel of History and the wizened hunchback dwarf are images for the eschatological play of redemption and catastrophe. One possibility for exhibiting this might have been to oppose photographs, paintings, and graphics of redemption and catastrophe with one another: this, however, was dismissed. Instead of using a tried and true method of visual presentation, a form of exhibition was chosen that was precisely perception with the entire body. The long narrow room was divided by six equal upright surfaces, one behind the other; these surfaces were both image bearers, and at the same time allowed the visitor to pass through the space.

For each direction, a motif was chosen that was repeated on all surfaces. A drawing by Gustave Doré for the Divine Comedy opens the space of redemption. The visitor finds himself constantly walking through new hosts of angles, who in Benjamin's theory of an apokatastasis bring God their Cantus and disappear into nothingness. The visitor is not faced with something at rest; instead, the passage through the openings hanging one behind the other effects a movement of the hosts of angels towards the visitor. The visitor thus becomes not only physically, but also semantically a part of the surroundings (in movement). A similar thing takes place on the way back: here, the image of a collapsing nave of a church, painted by the Spanish Mannerist Monsù Desiderio. The commencement of the catastrophe is experienced by walking through it.

The spatialization of exhibition means including space in the production of meaning. Space becomes a medium of suspending the rigid opposition between the visitor and the "object." the space provides the possibility of changing relations between visitors and objects, it makes possible a process that participates in the production of meaning. The performative exhibition thus makes time a function of space (space makes a temporal process possible): at the same time, temporalization opens on the one hand the process of the exhibition (caused by music and other transitory projections), on the other hand the process of passage opens spaces for productions of meaning, significations. Space and time are encapsulated within one another in an un-Cartesian way, seem to bring one another forth.

All the components of the Benjamin exhibit had this performative character, if not always so uncomplicated, and opened a new chapter in the literature exhibit: instead of cases full of documents, this was a translation, a transcoding of the read to the spatial: spatial images into which the visitor can enter.

In many museums, elements of the currently emerging performative museum can be traced back to the 1980s. The most important of these elements is certainly the borrowing from theatrical forms in the early (often quite primitive) attempts at staging: these were steps towards spatialization and the use of projections (multimedia) that prepared structures of temporalization.

From Observer to Participant

The performative exhibit refuses the traditional habitus of the museum visitor as irrevocably as a typing mistake in a digitalized text refuses the approaches of the White Out brush. The processuality of the exhibit corresponds to perception with the entire body. The focus of a pair of eyes on an object is replaced with a contact with all the senses of a body in movement with a processing environment that addresses all the senses. In the extreme case, this can mean a complete standstill, or the concentration on one single sense: but this would then be perceived as standstill, and the sense individually addressed would be experienced in its isolation. The concept of the performative museum is not a compromise offer to the society of the spectacle (Erlebnisgesellschaft) but opens up for potentials for the museum that it needs to face the growing tower of media of virtual memory, to keep awake and evoke a memory rooted in space and the relations of things.


4 A Theater of Nothingness

Petrograd 1913 - Black Mountain 1951 - Hagen 1988

Of all the tools that we need to rejuvenate the cultural codes around the world, the nothingness of the mystics may yet prove one of the most useful.

When in Petrograd 1913, the audience at the premiere of Victory Over the Sun, the "first Futurist opera," looked up at the stage curtain, it was adorned with a large black square that was torn in two when the curtain opened. Not only was this basic geometrical form destined to accompany the life of its creator Kazimir Malevich until his deathbed, but along with the bicycle wheel - also a geometric basic form - that Duchamp in the same year in New York raised to the status of the ready-made, it would become a fanfare for the art of the twentieth century.

In 1951, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage were hired to teach at Black Mountain College. This year also witnessed the first multimedia happening, Cage's Theatre Piece No. 1. At the time, Rauschenberg referred to Malevich in a series of "White Paintings." Cage was thrilled by this, and described these paintings as "airports for lights, shadows, and particles"; he even thought about a way to transfer them into his own medium, music. If the invisible was to become the site of the overlooked yet visible sights, then the inaudible might just as well function as the site of the overheard yet audible sounds. These ideas led to the composition of 4'33" in the summer of 1952 after Cage's return to New York City. It was written down in traditional notation and consisted of three movements, each of which was precisely timed so that the whole piece lasted a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Although there was no fixed instrumentation, the piece has mostly been performed on piano, just as its premiere performance by David Tudor in Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952.

Tudor sat down at the piano, opened the sheet music, started a stopwatch, and signalized the beginning of the first movement by closing the keyboard cover. After thirty seconds, in which the wind was audible, he opened the keyboard, showing the end of the first movement. He did the same with the following two movements. In the second movement, the sound of the rain on the roof became audible, in the third movement the whispering and grumbling of the audience.

Cage, who since the 1940s was intensively involved with East Asian philosophy, saw this composition, dedicated to silence and the sounds of silence, as one of the most important of his oeuvre.

In 1988 the silence that Malevich had inspired was transported back to the world of art by Michael Fehr. Initially he had asked Cage to produce a new version of his composition 4'33" for the Karl Ernst Osthaus-Museum in Hagen. This collaboration was never to take place, and so Fehr - "without the backing and support of the authority of an artist" - decided to take on role of the artist himself, showing a baffled audience a completely empty museum; the only reminder of the museum's usual function were the dangling wires and hooks from which paintings had hung.

The late John Cage repeatedly ventured into the medium of the Museum, applying chance operations to works of art and their traditional surroundings. In 1991, he developed his Mattress Factory Changing Installation for the Pittsburgh Museum of Art: here, inside an enormous assembly hall, fifteen artworks were set in positions determined by chance operations executed by a computer. In addition, the position and direction of the visitor's chairs were determined by another run of the chance operation.

The museum as theater of nothingness does not show us nothing; it is also not intent on creating epiphanies of Nothingness. It rather produces such epiphanies in passing, making us feel the presence of nothingness in each form of being, each process of becoming. It brings about a revision of our Western common sense, in which the world is a continuity of existences and nothingness is rather threatening.

© Eckehart Siepmann (Berlin)


(1) Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosh: Der mittlere Weg der Erkenntnis. Der Brückenschlag zwischen westlicher Theorie und menschlicher Erfahrung, Munich 1995, p. 7.

(2) "The one: that it is and it is impossible for it not to be. This is the path of Persuasion, for it accompanies Objective Truth. The other: that it is not and it necessarily must not be. That, I point out to you, is a path wholly unthinkable, for neither could you know what-is-not (for that is impossible), nor could you point it out." Parmenides, Trans. A. Randall Also Francisco J. Varela et als., op. cit., p. 42.

(3) See Hans-Peter Hempel, Heidegger und Zen, Frankfurt/M. 1992. See also: Ute Guzzoni, Nichts. Bilder und Beispiele, Düsseldorf 1999.

(4) See Jacques Derrida, "Différance", tr. Alan Bass. in: The Margins of Philosophy, 1982, pp. 1-28.

(5) See Mark C. Taylor, Erring. A Postmodern A/theology, Malden, Massachusetts, 1997; see also David R. Loy, "The Deconstruction of Buddhism", in Coward and Foshay (eds.), Derrida and Negative Theology, SUNY Press 1992, pp. 227-253.

(6) Gerhard Tersteegen, Geistliches Blumengärtlein, 15. Aufl. Berlin 1956, S. 23

(7) See Eckhard Siepmann (Hg.), Navigating Novalis, Frankfurt am Main 2001, S. 5

(8) See Eckhard Siepmann. Ein Raumverhältnis, das sich durch Bewegung herstellt. Museumsjournal Nr. 3, Berlin, 15 Jahrgang, Juli 2001, S. 7 - 10

(9) Eine Ohrfeige dem öffentlichen Geschmack. Russische Futuristen. Nautilus/Nemo Press, Hamburg Zürich 1988, S. 23f.

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