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This research emerges from my deep curiosity about the Buddhist concept of emptiness (śūnyatā) and the ways in which select artworks can express some manner of voidness. How can artworks embody and explore emptiness, pointing beyond image and language? My study begins with Ad Reinhardt’s enigmatic Abstract Painting (1963) and the black void in art. My analysis of Reinhardt’s work draws primarily from the writings of Nāgārjuna and Heidegger. Nāgārjuna’s understanding of emptiness suggests a complete deconstruction of all possible entities, leaving “no-thing” in its wake. In Chapter Three I turn to a different account of emptiness as presented in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions of Dzogchen, or Great Perfection. With Agnes Martin’s The Islands I-XII (1979) asmy focus, I engage the Dzogchen idea of “other emptiness” (shentong) as distinct from the emptiness of self. In Chapter Four Itransition to an exploration of the emptiness of bodily perception in James Turrell’s installation Aten Reign (2013).This site-specific artwork is an impermanent, non-material work that is simultaneously indeterminate and incorporeal yet existent and perceivable, andhere I draw on the phenomenological philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. The fourth artwork that I explore in Chapter Five is The Century with Mushroom Clouds:Project for the 20th Century (1996) by Cai Guo-Qiang. With Cai’s art the focus shifts from conceptual arguments for emptiness (as one finds in the ideas of Nāgārjuna, Heidegger, and Dölpopa) and the phenomenal experience of emptiness (as one finds in the phenomenological philosophy of Merleau-Ponty) to a performative gesture that embodies the ephemeral, empty nature of reality as presented in East Asian traditions. I argue these four art-voids enable an aesthetic exploration of the experience and understanding of emptiness through reflective encounters with singular works of art.


Art Practice | Philosophy


Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts



Art-Voids: Contemplating Emptiness in Contemporary Art



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