The idea of nothingness is one of the most confounding mysteries thinkers face. For millennia, the greatest minds in philosophy, religion, mathematics, and astrophysics have attempted to explain this concept. Yet here we are in the twenty-first century and we still do not seem to know anything certain on this subject, even though it appears to be key to understanding, for example, both the beginning and the end of the Universe.
Since I am an artist, and not a philosopher or scientist, I can take the liberty to write on how nothingness influences me and my work. But I am not the only artist who has reflected on this concept. Many artists, including my favourites, such as Kazimir Malevich, Richard Poussette-Dart, Mark Tobey, Mark Rothko, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Burnett Newman, Yayoi Kusama, Richard Serra, and Fabienne Verdier, have engaged with, and presented, the concepts of the void, emptiness, or nothingness in their work. We know their art but I do not think most of us realize that these, and many other, artists have been inspired by, or dealt with, these themes over the years.
Nothingness is at the very core of my creative practice. I will limit my discussion here to two aspects of how I work and how they are related to nothingness. In the first instance, there are times when I approach a canvas not having any idea what I would like to paint. Then there are times when I have both a clear vision and an imperative to paint, but this vision continues to evolve as I deepen my exploration of the idea behind it. The painting changes as my vision further clarifies.
Before actually painting, my body and mind must be prepared for a journey that can take weeks or months. For this, I need to be equipped with an energy that is difficult to describe; it’s more about quality than quantity. And it’s more about mental and emotional than physical energy, the kind of energy that will allow me to carry on through all sorts of adventures in the mind field, as well as during the technical execution of the painting. I need the kind of energy that will keep me from quitting in the middle of the process. If I stop a painting before completing it, it’s very difficult to return to it and actually finish it.
So how do I acquire this kind of energy and reach this special creative state? When I have the desire to work but I do not yet have a vision, or even an intention to explore a specific idea, I go to my studio and simply sit down in front of a blank canvas. Then, relaxed, but attentive, I look at the canvas. I breathe, I close my eyes, and then do nothing. Usually after a few minutes of breathing, I can feel some gentle vibrational change in my electrical system, something like a slight shivering passing through my body. Then my mind shifts, elevates, and I arrive at a sense of great clarity. Everything is sharp and crisp. I find myself in an endless, luminous space. I feel a lightness, as if I have shed my body. This is my zone of nothingness. I can be in this state for a few minutes or a few hours; it feels like time has ceased to exist.
When this state naturally comes to an end and I open my eyes, I need a moment to adjust to reality, as if I have returned from a long voyage. For me, the zone of nothingness is a sacred space, a kind of pre-creative state that is essential to my work. From here, I can head off in many directions. At this point, most of the time I look at the canvas and I know exactly what I want to do; the vision is clear. Sometimes, though, there is only a burst of an idea and then I must slowly build a vision of a painting around this kernel.
And finally there is the execution of a painting. I work with two techniques: pouring and splattering. But sometimes I combine the two methods. A painting emerges only when the conditions are right, when everything is synchronized – the ambient temperature, air currents, humidity, consistency of the oil paints, the appropriate granulation of the pigments, the weave of the canvas, as well as my complete focus.
Everything cumulates in one moment, one painterly gesture. I then step back, observe as gravity takes over, and see golden paths growing like trees before my eyes. This particular method is characteristic of two of my series, Resonance and Frequencies. Depending on the painting, I apply dots of paint, thousands splattered from a brush or added by hand, one by one, as one can see in my series Elements, Field, and Particles. Applying many layers of oil paint can take weeks, or even months, depending on the scale of the painting. Each stage of the process is subtle because it responds to the environment, as well as my psychological and physical states.
At some point I began to perceive my paintings as an extension of my consciousness, as a part of a feedback loop between me and my surroundings, an idea that has been explained by Tam Hunt and Jonathan Schooler in their resonance theory of consciousness.
The image above was inspired by the notion of nothingness. It is one of my favourite paintings but it was one of the most difficult I have worked on and I think the story behind it is worth telling.
Six years ago, Swiss artist and curator Andreas Heusser came to Warsaw, Poland, in order to transform an old Swiss postal van into his No Show Museum, a mobile platform that presented artists whose practices dealt with the concepts of nothing in the broadest senses of this term. Our conversations transported me back to when I was writing my doctoral dissertation about Catharism and medieval dualism. Understanding nihil is fundamental to comprehending the Cathars’ entire cosmology. There are not a lot of extant Cathar sources. Catholic treatises against these heretics, as well as Inquisitional records, do, however, allow us to reconstruct myths that, in a simplistic way, give us a glimpse of how the Cathars understood both the origin and construction of the world.
I remember twenty years ago, while at Oxford as a research fellow, I met the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. Because of his interest in religious dissident movements, we spent a lot of time debating nothingness. In fact, we were both obsessed with it, but each of us from a different perspective. He talked about the origin of evil and the existence and non-existence of God. I was more interested in a scientific perspective, in nothingness before the Big Bang and creation of the Universe. I imagined that black holes could play a role in the creation of different universes and that we live in a multidimensional, multiversal, reality. I miss these conversations, when we would wander through time and space and, in the end, admit that we do not really know anything about nothing.
After my conversations with Andreas Heusser about nothingness, the vision of a painting emerged. I started to work with white oil paint mixed with pearl pigments to create the background of the painting. I could think of nothing else but nothingness. I again found myself investigating it, while at the same time dropping thousands of white and transparent dots onto the picture plain, creating a nearly monochromatic white painting.
I meditated on nothingness with the intention to fully understand it. I read about different philosophical theories but none of them really resonated with my own ideas. After three weeks of extensive work and research, I stopped working and I hung the white painting on a white wall. Then, in my mind, two words appeared: absolute nothingness. I could not really make sense of them and then I came across an article by Robert E. Carter about Meister Eckhart and Nishida Kitarō. I was excited to come back to Eckhart’s writings, but most of all I was happy to discover a Japanese philosopher that inspired me to read more about nothingness and then consciousness.
At this point, since none of what I had read resolved the questions I still had about nothingness, I took the painting off the wall and painted a field of blue and silver dots on the bottom of the canvas. I have called the painting “Nothingness”, but in my mind I have failed to understand this concept. And the painting remains as my attempt to grasp this notion.
My inspiration comes from many sources but the greatest one is Nature, which I understand as everything that is, from the molecular to the cosmic, with all its forces and processes. I consider my art as the result of a partnership with Nature in which I translate the invisible into the visible. I am greatly influenced by philosophy and science. Even though I am not always fully conscious of it, my entire life’s experience, sometimes little things or moments shared with people, ideas that I have exchanged, play an important role in my art. Nothingness, however, has a special place in my mind and its different aspects are crucial to my creative process. For me, each painting is a mystery that contains an otherworldly seed of luminosity, a reverberation from the sacred zone of nothingness that contains a coded message, a secret story, that I, and the viewers, are left to decode.
Joanna Borkowska is an abstract painter who lives and works in New York and Warsaw. She holds a doctorate in political science from the Jagiellonian University. In 2006, she published a book titled Catharism: A Dispute Over Medieval Dualism. In 2007, she left her academic position in order to develop her artistic work. Since 2009, she has exhibited internationally. Her work is held in numerous private and institutional collections. Her last solo exhibition, In the Realm of Slow Painting, closed in January of 2020 at the National Museum in Szczecin, Poland. She will have a duo show with Sandi Slone in New York at the Kosciuszko Foundation, opening September 9, 2021.
From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 1 ('Nothing').