This is the third, previously unpublished version of “an endlessly revised essay” that Amy Sillman started in 2009 during a residency at the American Academy in Berlin. The first version was published in the O.-G., v. 1, “Zum Gegenstand / Das Diagram” (2009), which Amy Sillman elaborated in parallel with her solo exhibition “Zum Gegenstand” at CarlierGebauer, Berlin, May 2–June 13, 2009. The second version appeared in the O.-G., v.1–2, “American Edition” (2009), published on the occasion of a presentation of drawings by Sillman at the Sikkema Jenkins booth, Art Basel Miami Beach, 2009.
In this sense, a subject is “a nothingness, a void, which exists.” (Lacan)
—Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies
A virtual particle is one that has borrowed energy from the vacuum, briefly shimmering into existence literally from nothing.
—David Kaiser, American Scientist magazine
The Higgs boson is apparently the most powerful particle on Earth, but it has never been seen.
—2009 Wikipedia article on the Higgs boson
Look who thinks he’s nothing.
—Punch line of a joke about a priest and a Jew
One paints when there is nothing else to do. After everything else is done, has been “taken care of,” one can take up the brush.
—Ad Reinhardt, “Routine Extremism”
I can swim like everyone else, only I have a better memory than them. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, my ability to swim is of no avail and in the end I cannot swim.
What happens next? Of course, I don’t know. It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.
—Donald Barthelme, “Not-Knowing”
In 2009, I got a grant to live in Berlin, arriving with barely any German language under my belt. An old friend, who seemed in the know, warned me: “German is a spatial language.” I have no sense of space, so it sounded ominous. I got what she meant fast at my first German lesson, when they said that in German you can’t just ask “where?”—you have to specify where to or where from. And German grammar went on from there, a thicket of specificities. And German history was a veritable morass. I was an American: I hadn’t read Hegel or Schlegel! But once I got into it, I went into an accelerating state of diagram fever, going a little crazy thinking about how everything in the world is a diagram. I took a seminar on diagrams at the Freie Universität with Danish diagram expert Frederik Stjernfelt; I got new diagram study-buddies, my mind stretched out with increasingly dizzying interconnectivity; everything started to make a weird kind of sense, and I got it: everything was related to everything else. The Enlightenment, Romanticism, Symbolism, modernism, Bad Painting, it was all locatable on one big map. I also sheepishly realized that I was probably the last person to figure this out—that this diagram thing had already been laboriously theorized by many others. But thinking about the diagram liberated my work. Abstraction itself suddenly seemed like one big diagram of moving time and space. The process of making something go away from “realness” to abstraction seemed like a big memory-diagram—things seen and then registered in the mind’s eye undergoing a process of being stripped clean, or becoming a bit tattered and distorted as they move off into your past. I was planning an art show at the time, and I also thought, if everything is everything, then why not hang things all together: satirical diagrams next to figure studies next to abstract paintings? I would just need some way to explain it all, a kind of translation device. And what is a zine if not a slapdash chance to present one’s own epiphanies? And what is a diagram but a way of holding disparate ideas together?
So I began planning my exhibition with everything in it, from abstract paintings to comical seating diagrams, to figure drawings to a zine on a table. Let jokes be paintings, paintings be memories, and memories be meaning. I decided to write an essay about diagrams for my first zine (and I’ve been slowly adding to it ever since). Read More