{Empty Sets} - Ø
An exhibition about the parameters of emptiness
George Barber, Matthew Breen, Graham Hudson, Louie Rice, Jack Strange, Andrew Sunderland, Adam Watts, Sam Zealey
Jack Strange Bling Head
Jack Strange, Bling Head, 2008, courtesy 176 Zabludowicz Collection

Within the branch of mathematics known as set theory, the symbol ‘Ø’ represents what is called ‘The Empty Set’. A set is a group of objects. The Empty Set is a set that contains no objects.

There is a crucial difference between Ø and 0. 0 is zero; it represents nothing, a total lack. It is a signifier that attempts to signify that which is not. It is a tool of logic, and it can never escape the abstract language from which it comes. Its use in mathematics is pragmatic and without contradiction, but outside of mathematics it fails to make sense simply because in language, as in art: things exist, nothing doesn’t. Ø is different, it points to a tangible lack of a particular thing. It is an absence within certain parameters. The parameters are what give the absence meaning. The parameters are all that is left.

An artist erases, or removes, or stops, or blocks, or stays silent, or rearranges, or leaves out, or doesn’t act, or doesn’t make. These actions are an attempt at emptiness. But as actions, they are not empty. They are surrounded by contextual pressures, and this is where we can find the critical use of Ø. In all these actions, there is a pre-meditated decision to remove oneself from something, a sort of enforced akinesia. A moment of emptiness that gestures outward to what is still there and to what that might mean.

Exhibition curated by Andrew Sunderland and Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau

15 May – 20 June 2010
Private view: Friday 14 May 6.30-10pm

Artists in conversation

What is the power of removal and how does it become a creative action?

The curators and a selection of artists, including George Barber and Graham Hudson, will discuss the decision-making processes involved in making art that exists as negation.

Sunday 30 May, 3pm

Empty Sets
Text by Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau

I suppose the irony of the introduction is that it speaks in a rational language about the dead ends of rational thought. Logical conclusions are necessary truths - true by definition. They are tautologies and need no reference to the contingent, incoherent world. Artworks that aspire to this abstract idealism are self-contained and deny the layered, physical, irrationality of the world. The artworks in {Empty Sets} point outwards. They are full of contingent statements, rather than necessary truths. Each work attempts, in different ways, to tactically remove an element of a pre-existing structure in order to examine that structure more closely. This tangible lack at the centre of the work is physically present, understood by the artist and the viewer in a way that an abstract idea of emptiness can never be.

Matthew Breen
From and ongoing project on the American author Buddy J. Finowicz (1944-2009), 2010

Matthew Breen explores the aesthetics of Buddy J. Finowicz’s novels, without ever exposing the contents of the books themselves; in fact the text is extraneous to the understanding of the project. The pastiched and utterly believable covers compress all the styles of 20th century cover art within the output of a single writer. We even find a poster for the film adaptation of Buddy’s book, Syndicate 7, starring Nicolas Cage. But who remembers the book, or indeed, the film? The written component of Buddy’s work has been removed, or perhaps it never existed in the first place. Breen says that the work was inspired by his own attempt at writing a piece of pulp fiction, but to really understand how these fictions could be created, he had to immerse himself in the aesthetic and mythology that surrounded American counter culture. This archive, like Zoe Leonard’s Fae Richards Photo Archive, or Jamie Shovlin’s Lustfaust, will expand through Breen’s research. Perhaps the only parts of Buddy’s life we will never get to see are the stories themselves.

George Barber, Gibberish, 2010
video, 5'27"

By contrast, George Barber’s Gibberish is a film with a narrative at its heart, but one that replaces meaningful dialogue with a nonsensical mixture of English and improvised mouth-noises. The sounds emitted by the actors in the place of conversation make it almost impossible to decipher the storyline. Combined with its saturated colours and limited cast, the film has the appearance of a mediocre daytime drama. Gibberish throws you off balance as a viewer, ready and waiting for the sort of forward momentum that is the basis for many daytime television programs. Unlike these shows, however, Gibberish exists as a site not for the creation of a convoluted narrative, but to examine the breakdown of language when it is relieved of meaning. Your mind tries to square the occasional sentences in English with all the nonsense words spoken alongside them, an attempt at recognition of a linguistic structure that doesn’t actually exist. Contiguity and causality trip over themselves in an attempt to impose meaning on what you see and hear, yet fail to do so.

Adam Watts, The Two Beacons, 2010

Adam Watts’ The Two Beacons further exposes how communication does not necessitate a set of linguistic rules. The two wooden structures resemble aerials, and yet seem entirely alien. They have obviously been built for a purpose, and in fact are specific to this exhibition, but that purpose has been rendered unintelligible. The spinning structures appear to speak to each other, communicating through means we don’t understand: two sentinels simultaneously transmitting and receiving encoded messages.

Louie Rice, Variations for Tone Generation [Sine Wave / 16 - 22 000 Hz], 2010

By contrast, the transmission of sound waves in Louie Rice’s audio installation Variations for Tone Generation [Sine Wave / 16 - 22 000 Hz] is at times imperceptible and at times intensely distracting. Its sound is triggered by a movement sensor that rouses the piece from silence by the presence of a listener. The speakers pulse with a mixture of audible and inaudible sounds made up of infra/ultrasonic frequencies in a random sequence. These inaudible frequencies are a concrete representation of sound as a physical, rather than a perceptual, event; sound waves are emitted, and yet at a frequency that we cannot hear. The noises we do hear are not the original sounds produced: instead we hear harmonics, the resonances of the room and the vibrations of the equipment. The piece exposes the limitations of our physical bodies and the limits of our perception by defining what is impossible for us to experience. Rice’s installation phases in and out of being - between one thing and another, and sometimes between something and nothing at all.

Sam Zealey, Middle Ear, 2010

This phasing-between state that Rice’s work achieves results in a highly unstable existence, an existence that is shared amongst many of the works in {Empty Sets}. In the case of Sam Zealey’s Middle Ear, this instability manifests itself in the accumulation of potential energy; the release of this energy would result in the work literally collapsing to the floor. Like Chris Burden’s Samson (1985), where a jack suspended between the walls of the gallery expanded each time a visitor entered, this preconceived instability in the artwork creates a strained, tense relationship between the artist, the object and the viewer. Middle Ear thrusts you into a confrontational situation whereby the sculpture is uncomfortably invading your space as you descend into the gallery. The careful balance of the ladder and the weight from the copper pipe is confirmed as possible by our eyes, but completely thwarts our common sense. It is uncanny and absurd. Zealy presents us with an experiment in gravity with no discernible purpose other than to reinforce the most basic and well-understood theory of physics.

Andrew Sunderland, Cahir, 2010

Andrew Sunderland investigates purposeless activity with Cahir. Sunderland rearranges the components of an IKEA chair; it appears before us, in slide-show form, as a sort of pathetic Rubik’s Cube. Every permutation, every combination of elements is explored, but never the one that would allow the object to assume its intended purpose: to function as a chair. Each of the slides is a unique still life, but the compositional changes between them are often imperceptible and only serve to highlight Sunderland’s wilful, obstinate refusal to follow the instructions. The use of such a generic, and yet easily recognisable piece of IKEA furniture allows us to use the slide show to meditate on the specific historic and cultural meaning of IKEA’s ubiquity. The little pencils, the cheap hot dogs, and the sudden and total onset of boredom and panic in the kitchen section are missing from the gallery space; yet IKEA is such a present cultural force that to evoke this setting, you don’t have to be in the store.

Graham Hudson,
Sculpture LXI: Local Survey (wheelbarrow / performance documentation)
, 2010

While Sunderland very clearly induces the fear of an IKEA shop floor, Graham Hudson calls to mind a construction site. Sculpture LXI: Local Survey (wheelbarrow / performance documentation) also looks out of place in a gallery, as if the artist got lost on the way to the skip. The rubble and detritus that spews forth from the upturned wheelbarrow has been collected from the area surrounding Waterside Project Space. Although it has been carelessly dumped in the middle of the gallery, we are actually looking at a closely observed survey of the local area. With his previous use of scaffolding and his current residency at the site of the King’s Cross redevelopment, Hudson tends towards the idea of manual labour as artistic process.  Like Jorge Luis Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Hudson decided that the original object that inspired him to make this work - which was created by accident whilst working on another piece at the King’s Cross site - was so perfect, that to exhibit it as art, he would have to re-enact the situation which brought it in to being. Hudson is more method actor than builder, and this idea of re-enactment or re-interpretation complicates the authorship of the piece. This rejection of the philosophical naivety of direct representation is found in many of the works in {Empty Sets}, but instead of distortion or abstraction, the artists make pragmatic choices of how best to realise ideas that have been discovered elsewhere.

Jack Strange, Into A Puff of Virtual Smoke, 2008

The artistic process that so often involves the transferral of found objects into a new context (the context of art) is exposed for the transformative process that it really is in Jack Strange’s Bling Head. Unlike Hudson, however, Strange’s introduction of the found object into the gallery space is negated by the fact that he has taken the time to bedazzle the stick. Its stick-ness is denied by its bling-ness; it is all surface and no content. The crystals covering the stick christen it as an artwork, or a designer object, but in doing so they totally obliterate its original found state. Into A Puff of Virtual Smoke, also by Strange, is another found object - this time an animated object. The little puff of smoke produced on the screen of a Mac computer when you delete a file has been displaced from its home on a computer’s operating system and rendered as a useless animated curiosity on an otherwise empty screen. The piece is almost a hyper-reductive reversal of Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds. Strange’s manipulation of the cloud, however, is less nostalgic than Arcangel’s because a more fundamental and basic piece of computer programming has been re-contextualised. At first, the monitor on which it is displayed looks blank; possibly unplugged by a careless technician. Suddenly, the little graphic appears, out of context and with no file to delete. This puff of smoke is what Strange thinks of when he thinks of removal or erasure. The causal links that we create in our minds from using technology are simplistic, informed by contiguity rather than rational understanding. The graphic is no longer a symbol; it has become a stand in for the action it represents.

This little icon - a simple visual metaphor for a complex digital action - is a real-world device used to represent emptiness. In that sense it is ultimately pragmatic. It fulfils a role within a system, rather than answering an abstract question. {Empty Sets} is an exploration of pragmatic materialism as a response to the logical end points of abstract thought. Without rejecting logical and critical philosophies, these artists are seeking to evolve strategies to bypass the dead ends of abstract idealism, naive realism and correlationism. By stepping outside of the hyper-reflexive world of art and critical theory, the artists can explore pre-existing systems to use as flawed but meaningful ways of creating artwork. By removing elements and creating empty space within these systems, they open them up for critical evaluation and possible integration into an art practice. The core of these works may be absent, but the parameters are clearly defined and thoroughly understood.

George Barber
With past retrospectives at the ICA and the New York Film & Video Festival, and his films screened regularly at galleries and festivals worldwide, George Barber's seminal video work has influenced a whole generation of younger artists. He helped define the 'slacker' aesthetic with his low-tech deconstructions of television programmes and advertising. His two video works in {Empty Sets} explore the parameters of language and communication through his typical lo-fi aesthetic and nonsensical humour.

Matthew Breen
Matthew Breen’s work deals with the multifarious histories of western counter-culture, and his new body of work, a selection of which will be shown in {Empty Sets}, focuses on the American writer Buddy J. Finowicz. Breen is a regular contributor to various art websites and online magazines and has exhibited extensively since graduating from Wimbledon in 2008.

Graham Hudson
Graham Hudson works with found objects and discarded materials. Inspired by the informal arrangements of materials found on building sites and street corners, Hudson attempts to transpose these object-events in to an sculptural context with minimum artistic intervention. Hudson has exhibited internationally and is currently the artist in residence at the Kings Cross Central re-development.

Louie Rice
Louie Rice is a musician and visual artist who has recently exhibited and performed at the ICA, Cafe Oto and the Shunt Lounge, London. His installations are physically structured compositions of sound, specifically designed for the space in which they reside. For the exhibition, he has created an audio installation using inaudible frequencies engineered from an industrial tone generator.

Jack Strange
Jack Strange’s work is both intelligent and absurd; full of visual puns and reductive observations. Often concerned with creating unexpected relationships between objects and materials, in {Empty Sets} this is manifested in a juxtaposition between the mundane, and the extraordinary. Strange currently works with galleries in London and New York and is represented in collections worldwide.

Andrew Sunderland
Andrew Sunderland’s works takes the form of documentation relating to process and repetition, examining modes of production and display in art practice. His work frequently explores areas of disinterest for most: markings or mistakes often become points of interest. His work in the exhibition explores process through indecision, documenting an unfinished work.

Adam Watts
Adam Watts is a sculptor whose work takes the form of temporal, lo-fi installations built (and destroyed) within each new space it occupies. His work often appears pointless; questioning its own function and existence within the gallery. In {Empty Sets}, Watts will be creating a new work exploring functionality and purpose, drawing links between the aesthetics of D.I.Y. science and technology.

Sam Zealey
Sam Zealey’s highly kinetic, sculptural practice deals with what he calls, 'degenerate science' - formal experiments that draw upon physics and engineering for their inspiration, but exist without a scientific function. His work in the exhibition gestures towards movement and function, at the same time defying both.

Waterside Project Space is supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. We gratefully acknowledge the support of Mr James Ellery and Wonder. We would like to thank the artists and the curators, Rex Zealey, 176 Zabludowicz Collection, Ginie Morysse.
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