“The cave man or sacro-man emerges from the audio world of simultaneous resonances into the profane world of daylight.”
Marshall McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy.
Where are the holes in art? A brief search through the history of art up to the present reveals a paucity of holes either depicted in pictures or actually created by artists. Why is this so? One may speculate that the lack of hole imagery in art may be due to their symbolic and mythical status as entrances to worlds associated with death, or at least counter-worlds to socially defined spaces.
In Christian traditions burial is the most obvious and relevant example. The grave-digger is a somewhat marginal figure, a gate-keeper, between the living social world and that of the dead. Once breath has ceased in a person, they are returned to the earth to literally become one again with its micro-organisms. Many artists have depicted burial scenes, notably of Christ, but almost without exception these pictures focus upon the deceased corpse or the ritual gathering which goes on around it.
In largely Buddhist cultures such as Japan, death is allied with fire, with cremation, and thus in a sense with the sky into which smoke rises. Cremation differs most significantly from burial in the speed with which the body is transformed. A corpse takes two hours or less to burn, whereas bodies take months or years to decay. Mummification is the most contrary method to cremation, seeking to conserve the body rather than destroy it. We have an unusual example of a ‘cremation painting’ in Nicolas Poussin’s 1648 picture titled ‘Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion’ which shows the widow of a famous Athenian general gathering the cremated ashes of her husband. Poussin paints the woman as if she is tending vegetables in a garden, the ashes have become one with the earth. Maybe this is an inverse rendering of a hole where the human body has become dust and thus close to the materiality of soil.
Gustave Courbet’s great painting ‘Burial at Ornans’ (1849-50) is perhaps the most explicit and most complex work which depicts a hole. Courbet spoke about this painting as an analogy for the fall of the Second Republic in 1851 and as a symbol for the burial of Romanticism and its themes of transcendental pathos and suffering. However, I cannot help but see the gaping hole as its principle subject. We the viewers are in fact watching the scene from within the hole, which stretches out of the bottom of the canvas into our space. I find it intriguing that all of the people present seem intently aware of the hole, as if it has captured their awareness. The only being which looks away is non-human, the dog in the foreground which gazes off to the right. Christ on the cross held aloft in the rear, symbolically rises upwards to the sky, the only one free from the oppressing pull of gravity. The hole is painted so that it functions almost like a bath plug, down into which all things eventually must pass. The white cliffs in the far background act as a kind of symmetrical mirror of the hole space, and in between these two natural domains gather humans, enacting rituals. The picture is also a depiction of the routines and order of society with its hierarchies, authorities, symbols and small everyday incidents. The hole contrasts with this world of culture, a metaphor for an Ur-space of dreams and imagination.
I suppose that there is an important distinction to be drawn between naturally occurring holes or caves, and human-made holes. The former occupies a vast history that extends back to the very earliest human made images. Cave art, scratchings, the carving of bone. David Lewis-Williams suggests a parallel between cave depth and different altered states of consciousness in his excellent book ‘The Mind in the Cave’. The further in one goes, the further ‘out’ one was. Journey’s into the centre of the earth are also invariably trips into the nether regions of the mind, remote from the known geographies of social spaces.
Chris Burden dug a hole in 1979 and called it ‘Honest Labour’. Burden’s hole suggests graft, hard work, and seems to reference the peasant pictures of Millet. In 1986 he dug three holes inside a museum, calling it ‘Exposing the Foundation of the Museum’, a critical comment on the institution. This literal digging of holes to make art continues through the nineteen sixties and seventies, in different scales. The massive earth works of Michael Heizer are immense bulldozed events while Claes Oldenberg’s Placid Civic Monument, Central Park, 1967, Sol LeWitt’s Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value, 1968 or Stuart Brisley’s Survival in Alien Cirsumstances, Documenta 1977 reference the human body more directly through acts of burial and excavation.
In terms of painters painting holes, this avenue seems to become super literal in the post-war period, with Lucio Fontana breaking through the surface of the canvas in the late 1940s with his Spatial concept works (which admittedly point to metaphysical spaces of transcendence) and artists as diverse as the Gutai artist Shozo Shimamoto making a series of two dimensional works titled ‘Holes’ in the early to mid 1950s and the Milanese Dadamaino making large holes on canvas in the late 1950s. Contrary to Courbet’s Burial painting, these works seem to be critical attacks on the physicality of painting, transgressing its essential surface.
Gordon Matta-Clark made what is one of the most poignant and interesting hole-works called ‘Descending Steps for Batan’ at the Yvon Lambert Gallery Paris in 1977, after the death of his brother in 1975. He dug daily down from the gallery space into the earth, a negative monument and an act of moving closer to where his brother perhaps was. This is a work which extends Rodin’s sculptural logic to its extremes, turning away from Light and motion upwards, to slowly and physically enter an underground domain of catacombs, dust and worms. I relate this work to Kurt Schwitters Merzbau spaces, which also attempted an escape from shared social space into the constructed cave chambers of grottoes. Both artists interestingly attempt to slide into domains of unpredictability, where animals (guinea-pigs in Schwitters case), micro-organisms and dust particles play. Both artists managed to create lesions or scars in the fabric of everyday space. Gordon Matta-Clark slowly falls down the hole, like Alice, whose fall takes her farther from known quantities into a psychedelic hyper-space, populated by entities.
Works which have returned in some way to the soil, to the underground resonant spaces which McLuhan spoke of, can be understood as attempts to re-occupy the echo-chamber where simultaneous cultural modes and practices are experienced. Not to be fixed into a single cultural mode or time-frame, but always journeying out into complex, contradictory realms which echo with the voices of many identities.
In this regard the art museum is singularly rooted in specific cultural modes - of collecting, preserving, studying, displaying - from which it today is trying to find some distance. Interestingly, unlike the soil, once something enters a museum it dies, and continues to die. Or at least the myth of the museum is that things never change. After all the museum is an institution which has privileged precisely its distance from bare earth and soil in order to render history visible. Everything must be encased, from the outer-most layers of concrete and glass to display cases, frames and preservation chambers. Even the way we look at art is wrapped in vocabularies of curatorial scholarship and guidance.
My first exhibition making effort in 1998 was an exhibition made in a hole in a forest in Japan. I found myself vexed by the question of how to show the difference between artists works as an exhibition, which by its nature imposes a degree of unity. My answer was to dig a large hole, ask the artists to produce works which would be buried in it, and excavate the objects as a daily ‘performance’ during the exhibition period. I concluded that by once returning art to the earth, it temporarily leaves our space-time and enters into another contract with the soil. Or, to put it another way, the works find another context which exists beyond the horizon of the curator or the artists. Ideas about chance and time enter into the curatorial matrix.
Over a decade later, this experience remains the most lasting for me. I have imagined another kind of institution which buries art, removing it from the primacy of sight into the microbial domain of the soil. Perhaps to ‘see’ art in this institution means to commit oneself to the physical and mental effort of digging and excavation. The visitor scrapes dirt from something, wondering what it is and imagining it in a hundred million ways, only to return it once again to the soil for others to discover.