Much Ado about Nothingness

A version of this reflection was delivered for the opening of Transept’s 2024 exhibition (a)void, hosted between 6–10 April in St Andrews. Transept is a student-led group of practising artists based in ITIA.

A man comes upon his friend apparently staring at a dark laptop screen. He asks, ‘What are you doing?’

His friend explains, ‘I am catching up on my study of poetry.’

‘But there’s nothing on the screen’, the first man objects.

‘That is not entirely correct’, replies his friend. ‘While it is true the display is currently blank, this… emptiness has poetic meaning. Therefore, it cannot be considered “nothing” as such.’

***

Fellow sci-fi enthusiasts might recognise this scene as an exchange between the android Data and his friend Geordie on the starship Enterprise, journeying through its own literal and existential void—the void of space—in the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. The irony underlying this scene is that it is the construct Data (rather than his ostensibly more emotionally attuned human friend) who is engaging with this potentially transformative aesthetic experience. Data’s willingness to contemplate emptiness is conveyed, paradoxically, as at once alien and compellingly humanising.

The insight that there is meaning to be found in nothingness echoes strands in certain religious and philosophical traditions, as well as aesthetic and cultural movements at different times in history. Simply put, to encounter the void is human. To avoid it is, perhaps, equally as human. But there are times, as the artworks in this exhibition attest, that contemplating the void—facing the emptiness and the darkness, reaching for what’s missing or what once was there, finding solace or cultivating hope or new life within the gaps—becomes a necessity.

In Christian theology, the via negativa—the negative way—is one path to spiritual truth, and a necessary corrective against our tendency to rely on human intellect and experience to pin down what is ultimately unknown and unknowable. In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, writer and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor observes the trend of what she calls ‘full solar spirituality’—the expectation that we are to cultivate a spiritual life that always make us feel that we are walking ‘in the light’.1 This kind of spiritual expectation disallows any space for the troubles and complexities of real life. If, and when, we encounter darkness—whether in the form of fear, pain, suffering, or doubt—these experiences would by nature seem to fall outside the paradigm of the good life we are seeking. This would imply a simple solution to our ills: just return to the light. Avoid the darkness and the unknown. Look away from it; deny it, or it will take you over. All the celebration and triumph of new life on Easter Sunday without the suffering and death of Good Friday.

Popular culture has its own name for this unremitting solar attitude: toxic positivity. Everything can be fixed with an unwavering positive attitude and self-help solutions. Chronic pain? Exercise, and feel better. Grief? Just remember the good times. Anxiety? Stop thinking negatively. Money troubles? Be grateful for what you have. Existential and ecological crises meaning you can’t sleep? Try herbal tea and a nice bubble bath. ‘Physician, heal thyself.’2

Our anxiety, especially in contemporary Western culture, about facing the void, let alone engaging with it, is one of the many reasons we need art. Specifically, we need art that gives us a way—a via negativa—into existential challenges and questions that, on a normal day, we might rather avoid. In that respect, this exhibition is doing something very important.

At the same time, the theme of the void presents a particular problem for the arts. It is difficult to create something and, in the something, not sweep away the nothingness of the nothing. Like hope and despair, light and dark, something and nothing make up a rather classic binary opposition. The artist’s act of creating makes something where before it was not. But a great deal of art’s power comes from its capacity to embrace the contradictions and juxtapositions that so often characterise our embodied human existences.

Similarly, the title of this exhibition suggests an engagement with avoidance—and this, too, takes on the flavour of a paradox. When we fully engage with its theme, the exhibition asks us to consider our relationship with these expressions of the void, a relationship which may or may not be shaped by avoidance. But even in that space of avoidance there is an opportunity to move deeper into the exhibition’s conceptual space. Taken together, the artworks exist in artistic tension with one another. The viewer’s transition between one artwork and another, and between one emotional range and the next, generates an aesthetic context in which the viewer has an opportunity to encounter the void, not only within the world of each work but also introspectively. Through the mediation of these different artworks, the exhibition seems to ask: is this a void you recognise? Is this an emptiness you share?

It is in this way that Transept’s exhibition presents multiple visions of, and responses to, the void. The artworks draw us in to explorations of grief and absence, mental and emotional crises, separation and longing, hiddenness, intellectual unknowing, narrative unfolding and simmering potentiality. That multiplicity is significant. There is no one experience of the void, and the void does not mean only one thing. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to say something about nothing. It’s difficult to know what to do with it. What can you do with emptiness? How do you understand what cannot be known?

These are not modern questions. On that last one, the medieval mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing has some advice, at least in a spiritual sense. Its anonymous author advises us that the way to draw closer to the unknowable divine is to imagine that we stand between two clouds. Behind us, a cloud of forgetting closes like a curtain across everything we thought we knew. For the text, this means setting aside everything we thought we knew about God or spirituality or the path to salvation and enlightenment. Before us, shrouding the way to the divine, is a cloud of unknowing. The author bids us to turn towards the unknown and apply not our years of experience or spiritual insights or theological learning, however valuable they may be in guiding us in our daily lives; in confronting the shrouded dark of the unknown, the medieval mystic urges us to pierce the cloud of unknowing with an ‘arrow of love and longing’.3

This strikes me as a fairly apt description of some of the artworks in Transept’s 2024 exhibition. They turn towards the void and—with their different techniques, media, and imagery—capture a concentrated moment of love and longing. Others are perhaps better described in another way: they do not seek to pierce the cloud of unknowing so much as to describe it, to feel out its edges, to reflect our experience of the void back to us. And, with great respect to the mystic, this is important work too.

***

Back in the void of space, Geordie responds to Data’s claim that emptiness has poetic meaning with a challenge of authority: ‘Says who?’

Data explains the insight comes to him from an ancient culture. Referring to the blank screen in front of him, he says,

‘Much of their poetry contains such lacunae, or empty spaces. Often these pauses measured several days in length, during which poet and audience were encouraged to fully acknowledge the emptiness of the experience. […] This particular poem has a lacuna of 47 minutes.’

And then, much like the artists of this exhibition, he extends an invitation: ‘You may experience the emptiness with me, if you wish.’4

Author

  • Dr Rebekah Dyer is a theologian and editor at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. Through research projects such as ‘TheoArtistry’, Rebekah’s work seeks to illuminate theological concepts and structures through creative methodologies grounded in critical academic thought. Rebekah is an academic editor for the St Andrews Encyclopaedia of Theology.

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 7.
2. Luke 4:23, KJV.
3. Elizabeth Ruth Obbard (trans.), The Cloud of Unknowing for Everyone (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008), 27.
4. Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 7, episode 3, “Interface,” originally aired October 4, 1993.
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