In the Eastern tradition, there is a form of kundalini meditation in which, using particular breathing techniques, one can open thin energy centers within the body in order to reach the total dissolution with the Great Void. The Buddhists call it śūnyatāe and it is rather an experience of an ineffable pureness, a complete spiritual freedom, and also an illuminating state of emptiness. Regarding this challenging spaciousness, the Occident developed instead a more nihilistic approach and isolated the concept in a pure theoretical capsule; from the ancient horror vacui and Pascal’s horrifying silence of infinite spaces to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and all forms of spatial anxieties, the Nothingness became the vanishing point of a self-reflexive folly. Void and Nothingness taste differently; one is experience and the other one pure theory; but in art, both of them become the spaces of all probabilities and possible movements.
Compared with the empty space of pure consciousness in the Oriental visual tradition, and the constant need of the Occidental artists to embellish every inch of the space or canvas, the antinomy between the syncopated visual rhythm of Chinese landscape in the Great Age (from the Five Dynasties to the Northern Song period) and the European florid medieval illuminated manuscripts becomes relevant. The survival of these visual cultural patterns was pointed out by the poet and critic Yoshiaki Tono in a memorable article translated also in Piero Manzoni’s Azimuth magazine: Give a box to a European or to contemporary Japanese. He will cram all his personal affects into it and then be satisfied. If you put the same small receptacle before an ancient Zen master, he will empty it, toss it into the air, and go on his way. Is this not a more modern attitude than the other?. It was 1959, the decade of the Void in art par excellence, with all the facets that the concept could assume – the infinite, the cosmos, the invisible – and the nonfigurative artists that chose to plunge into it – Yves Klein, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Saburo Murakami and so on.
But the very presence of the Absence in the 20th century art should not be isolated from some specific previous examples in the Western history of art, which tangentially involved the concept of the Void. The twin theme of macrocosm and microcosm itself, developed by ancient Greek philosophers and central for the humanistic Renaissance, is interrogating the Void, linking infinitesimal to immense. Robert Fludd’s whole visual and visionary approach to cosmology, in Utriusque Cosmi maioris salicet et minoris metaphysica… (1617-1619), dissolves and absolves a particular scientific and hermetical conception of immensity as an intimate dimension. Appropriating some biblical allusions, this kind of poetics of space is revisited in a narrative key by William Blake in his influential The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-1793): Down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way, till a void boundless as the nether sky appeared beneath us, and we held by the roots of trees and hung over this immensity; but I said: if you please we will commit ourselves to this void and see whether providence is here also. The perception of the Void as a creational emptiness could also take the form of a bitter state of contemplation, the Sublime: a pleasure mixed with horror, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes (The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog).