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  • Lao-Tzu/ Peter VanderPoel


Thirty spokes share one hub.

Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart.

Knead clay in order to make a vessel.

Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel.

Cut out a door and windows in order to make a room.

Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.

Thus, what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.


Tao Te Ching

Penguin Books

I was introduced to this koan during my undergraduate studies in architecture. It's stuck with me as the most direct description of what the architect does and why it seems so difficult to quantify. All the actors have a technical role to play; the architect is responsible for weatherproofing the envelope, structural engineers create walls and roof to withstand natural forces; other engineers get water and conditioned air to the right places in the right quantities. But the highest calling of the architect is creation of the "nothing", the void in which a built space is experienced. Note in the lines above that this "nothing" is always paired with the verb "use".

An exercise that shows up frequently in introductory drawing texts is a focus on the "negative" space; drawing the nothing between and around the object, forcing it to appear by exclusion. It's a critical talent in watercolor where the transparent nature of the pigments requires washes be carefully separated, not simply painted over as can be done with opaque pigments. It can also be seen in graphic design where the empty space is just as carefully crafted as the content. Here, too, the "nothing" is given as much as attention as the "something".

In looking at the two side-by-side graphics shown above, the one on the left appears to be a series of black squares. The graphic on the right could be viewed as black shapes on a white background, or perhaps white shapes on a black background. It instantly has twice the value of that on the left, because the background is put to use. Looking back to an earlier post about an artist requiring something of the viewer, the graphic on the right comes with an assignment; which is predominant, black or white? On the left the background is visually discarded; it is void without form; no need for questions.

To describe the existence of the "negative" space, a teaching colleague of mine would hold his arms out to either side and, as he slowly brought them together, would ask the students to tell him when they "had a relationship" to each other. That moment occurred when the void between his hands became an emptiness that has a positive value . That critical point could be considered subjective, but was shared by a majority of students.

Jerry Seinfeld had introduced the same idea when he was pitching an idea for a show that was about "nothing". Miles Davis played what was between the notes. Graphic design has the same goals and methods as architecture which is the same as music; as much effort goes into the nothing as into the something. Handling the void is important in all art forms.

I just recently viewed a clip from Conan O'Brien's show of Paul Simon's Sound of Silence by a group called "Disturbed". It was a jaw-dropping, powerful, beautiful performance. Here's a link to the youtube video:

The lyrics are filled with seductive images of darkness, silence, narrow streets and halos of light. The combination of the poetry of the words and the force of the performance fills the mind with images. Disturbed also made a music video of their song. It is not included here. I'm sure there's some marketing reason for creating a video to accompany every song, but whatever they decide to create in front of the camera cannot compete with the production values of the imagination. This is the void that the lyrics exploit. Providing a vehicle for every sense cuts the viewer out of the process. The participation of the viewer is not required.

Italo Calvino wrote a slender volume entitled, Invisible Cities, It's a series of very short chapters that Marco Polo recounts to Kubla Khan, describing the many places he's seen. One chapter, "Esmerelda", describes a city in three dimensions with myriad paths that cross a city. It was described in a way that incites the imagination to create a landscape that only the reader knows. The picture that sprung up in my mind that I still remember is as potent as the story.

Art is a game that requires participation and a dialog between the artist and the viewer. There is no requirement or even a need to tell every aspect of a story using every sense. It is those empty spaces that share the page with the content or the other parts of the brain that are not engaged that add something to what was offered, providing a shared meaning between the artist and viewer.

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