The art of nothing: Pompidou Centre celebrates half a century of minimalism

Art exhibitions without exhibits are nothing new. Nothing has been a recognised art form for half a century. But the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris can claim a cultural first this week: a retrospective exhibition of 51 years of exhibitions without exhibits by nine different artists. How can a museum retrospectively exhibit nothing? With great care. The 500-page catalogue costs €39 (£34).

The exhibition, Voids, a Retrospective, fills, or fails to fill, five rooms in the French national museum of modern art on the fourth floor of the Pompidou building. All the rooms are entirely empty. The walls are white. The floors are bare. The lighting has been arranged just as carefully as for any other temporary exhibition. The gardiens (guards) watch suspiciously to make sure that the visitors do not touch anything, or in this case that they do not touch nothing.

The aim of the retrospective exhibition – refused by several other leading museums in other countries – is to celebrate and explore a movement begun in Paris by the minimalist artist, Yves Klein. Klein, influenced by Zen Buddhism, was the first artist to present an exhibition of blank walls at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris in 1958.

Klein's exhibition of nothing has been revived for the Pompidou show (which can be seen, or rather not seen, until 23 March). In theory, the Pompidou is not presenting the same nothing because these are not actually the same blank walls. There are, explanatory panels with the same explanations.

Klein's blank walls are a "specialisation of sensibility to raw materials through stabilised pictorial sensibility". In other words, by seeing nothing, you are encouraged to see everything more clearly.

The Pompidou retrospective also revives the celebrated (briefly) Air Conditioning Show assembled (or rather not assembled) in 1967 by Art and Language, a British artists' collective. The show exhibits air-conditioned air in an empty gallery with white walls. Five curators have worked on the Pompidou's retrospective of nothing art, which includes works – or non-works – by seven other artists: Robert Barry, Stanley Brouwn, Maria Eichhorn, Bethan Huws, Robert Irwin, Roman Ondak and Laurie Parsons.

One curator, Mathieu Copeland, says the exhibition is partly an exploration of art as the rejection of art: a refusal to add to a world already too cluttered with images. "But it is not just a kind of radical, conceptual art. You are also invited to explore, in a very physical way, each different space, all of which have a different texture. It is a true experience."

One of the five spaces is devoted to a work by Roman Ondak, More Silent Than Ever, first shown in Paris three years ago. The room is empty, just like all the others, but a panel tells the visitor that, somewhere in the room, there may be a concealed listening device. The aim seems to be to encourage visitors to examine nothingness very carefully.

A group of 20 teenagers were being shown around the Pompidou retrospective yesterday by their teacher. All, or almost all of them, including the teacher, were dressed in black. Against the white walls, they resembled pieces from a chess set. The teacher, rather convincingly, praised the exhibition while the teenagers tried to stand on one another's feet or trip each other up.

Tom Lubbock: A critic's view

Empty? It depends what you mean. The earliest case was not a room but a piece of music – John Cage's 4'33", where the pianist sits for four minutes and 33 seconds without playing a key. Many say there's plenty to hear in the silence.

The winner of the 2001 Turner Prize, Martin Creed, exhibited an empty room at Tate Britain. Or was it? The lights switched on and off every five seconds. That made it a pretty full, eventful room, no?

These works follow a typical trajectory of modern art. Step by step, from reduction to reduction, we make a clean sweep, from figuration to abstraction, to a uniform canvas, to a blank canvas, and then to a blank wall.

Having arrived at emptiness, fill her up again – with meanings. Sometimes the emphasis is on absence, on contemplating nothingness. Sometimes it's on noticing what you might have overlooked.

Perhaps you should notice all the gallery background noises you ignore. Perhaps you should see that art has its environment, which crucially conditions our experience of it. Or perhaps you should be looking at the only exhibits that remain in your empty gallery – yourselves.

The empties are always going to be full of something. The art consists of working out what.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence