‘a curiosity of nothings’, for Andrew Kearney’s The Meaning of Nothing

a curiosity of nothings

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A nothing, [ ], may be experienced as not the thing, as the shadow of something, that is not of it but indicates its presence. We are aware of [ ] by some alteration in the environment, by some shift in the data we perceive. This is not [ ] itself I see or hear or feel, but an affect of [ ] that is conveyed to me via the air, the light. I don’t know [ ] directly, it is nothing to me except in and by these impressions.

In geometry, a gnomon is a two-dimensional shape, usually a parallelogram, from which an area of the same shape has been removed. A square with a missing square on one corner. The missing area is empty, there is nothing there. James Joyce uses the term in ‘The Sisters’, the opening story of Dubliners. It has been read as figuring absences that recur through the stories. Bernard Benstock describes it as “a nonappearance suggesting a presence made palpable only by the concept of its absence”. Like the missing part, this is a nothing that is however present to awareness, affecting without being here.

This nothing may be sensed as absent because there is a break or disruption to a pattern or rule, then our perception fills in the gap, it flickers at the edge of our awareness, as present and absent. The lilac chaser is an optical illusion developed by Jeremy Hinton. It involves a circle of magenta discs on a neutral background. One of the discs briefly disappears in sequence around the circle, creating a moving gap. Through a combination of optical responses including afterimage, the gap is filled with a greenish disc, and subsequently the background colour occupies the entire field except for the rotating greenish disc.


Oh! so the nothing may be an O, a gasp, an intake of breath, an expression of pleasure, of surprise. Context, tone of voice, pitch or volume determine, more or less well, the meaning of this exclamation. This Oh! is shaped by the lips in a round opening, paralleling shape and sound, matching written representation with physical expression, and audible inhalation. So, this O is a punctuation, a hole in speech or thought, and as sense is punctured by feeling, as emotion punches through reason, it means and is understood as not without meaning.

Or that other O, the hole in the doughnut, that missing bit, that was not and is not. This O is not some excess that has been cut away, not some part that could be slotted back to make the ring into a disc. This (empty) space determines that ring to some extent, being where the centre is, round which it is constructed.

A toroidal bubble is a bubble shaped as a torus or doughnut, they are created underwater by dolphins and whales. There is a bubble of air at the core, which is surrounded by a system of shifting and curving air in a ring form. Another example is a smoke ring. As the ‘hole’ in the torus influences the structure, so that which is not here, nothing, can have a shaping influence on present conditions.

And there is a the nothing that will come later, when the snowball melts, or the light shifts. This nothing offers evidence that something was here, something occurred, there has been a presence and now there is a memory or trace. This nothing is what is available to me now, after the event. At an exhibition, I am always in a situation of being after, of coming late to these things that have been brought here. They are here now, with nothings round them, absences that give them status, meaning. One absence is the artist, who has departed, leaving this arrangement of stuff for the visitor to come upon. In my encounter with these works, the artist is present in what he has made, chosen, or formed.

In grammar, the zero allomorph describes a form, which is absent, but is understood by analogy with morphological changes in equivalent cases. Nothing is visible in the spelling of the word, nothing audible in how it is pronounced, but in this context it indicates a plural or a past tense, and is no longer singular or in the present. The fact that fish or sheep are ‘the same’ in their plural and singular instances, is an example of this. There is an implied suffix, an ‘s’ or ‘es’, in the plural form, and the language user has learnt to ignore or overlook its absence.

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A nothing may imply a something that it is the opposite of, or a something that might have been here if this nothing was not. This presumes a binary model operating as an either / or, if not a then b. This limits possibility for the audience, for the relations among the objects, for the interrelations among the participants in the exhibition. If understood otherwise, then the nothing can be a field for undetermined, unexpected conjunctions and propositions.

The works in the exhibition can be sensed as interrelated elements, elements that are in part independent, and also a system of linked elements. Different roles are available within the interrelations, and the audience performs an equivalent function to the objects and the space.

Parts of the installation work to (re)present these interrelations, so as visitors we see ourselves on angled mirrors, moving in the space, becoming perceivers connecting the discrete spaces. The City Gallery holds the elements in relation, supporting the interaction of works and viewers and artist, with the parts shifting in their relations, and no certainty of priority or subsequence.


Being here, these things ‘are’ here in these spaces, encountered by visitors who come to them, who meet them in the building. Their being is experienced as the being of matter, of materials raw or processed or combined, and materials being affected by the immaterial. Relationships of being and knowing, of existence and knowledge are tested in the exhibition, as visitors are presented with materials in different states, with objects of various provenance, and are not given a clear map to locate these as entities with existence, or as objects of knowledge. There are nothings here, and there are meanings, and at the intersection of these is curiosity.

Mark Leahy

[a text to accompany Andrew Kearney’s installation ‘The Meaning of Nothing’, Limerick City Gallery of Art; 27th November 2014 to 8th January 2015]

other reading and references:

Bach, Michael (2014) ‘Hinton’s Lilac Chaser’, http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/col-lilacChaser/index.html

Barad, Karen (2012) ‘What Is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice’, 100 Notes — 100 Thoughts, No. 99, Ostfildern: documenta and Hatje Cantz Verlag

Bernard Benstock (1988) ‘The Gnomonics of Dubliners’, MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 34.4, 519-539

Gussin, Graham and Carpenter, Ele eds. (2001) Nothing, London: August and Sunderland: Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art

Lundgren T S and Mansour N N (1991) ‘Vortex ring bubbles’, Journal of Fluid Mechanics, 224:177-196, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0022112091001702

Null Allomorph (2014) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Null_allomorph

Ording, Philip (2014) ‘Round and Round and Round’, Bulletins of the Serving Library 7, http://www.servinglibrary.org/read.html?id=153335