In Praise of Empty Space…

November, in many cultures, is the month designated to remembering those who are no longer there. With a strange synchronicity, everything I did, watched, read or listened to pointed towards ‘absence,’ that non-presence devoid of form that artists call ‘negative space.’ “Empty space is the silence between musical notes, the pauses in poetry, the stillness of a dancer. Therein often lies the meaning or drama of a piece.” (In My Grandfather’s Shadow, Ch 11, p.144)  

I have just returned from a week in St Ives, the Cornish place that boasts the highest concentration of blue light in the UK and challenges many an artist to capture its effect in paint. A kind author friend each year offers her house of clean white rooms overlooking the beach and cliffs as a form of writing retreat for three of her fellow writer friends. All four of us want to make the most of precious time out, so the interiors fall silent during the days that in turn empty of all structure, just as our minds declutter of chores. 

I spent my time reading the diaries of my intrepid, spinster great great aunt, who travelled alone to the Himalayas in 1939 to gather flowers for Kew Gardens. I followed her slow, awe-filled progress as she step-by-stepped her precarious way through lofty peaks and flower- or snow-filled valleys, pausing with her when she rested to stare at the perfectly choreographed performance of clouds and weather dancing in front of my window. Thoughts wafted through my mind, some being noted, others just fading in and out like rainbows. For a whole week, I simply was.

My time there, along with books and films I have recently ingested, have been making me realise just how much I miss and yearn to regain some of what I remember loving doing as a child… nothing. Being born a day-dreamer, the spaces between activity and connection were always filled with a rich, albeit invisible world that had the capacity to entertain, or indeed bore. Boredom… how rarely we have time for that potentially creative vacuum within today’s ubiquitous overload of information, social media and communications that interrupt our rhythms with an octave of pings. I don’t think this is just a grumpy, old-age thing. (Well it may be a bit.) This nostalgia is captured well in ‘The End of Absence’ by the considerably younger and hipper author, Michael Harris. He reminds us of what we are in danger of losing as generations, who have never known life without the internet, gradually overtake those of us who have. 

The recently released and highly acclaimed film ‘Living’ based on the book by Akira Krosawa, screen written by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Bill Nighy is set in 1950s London. Not a lot happens, and what does, happens incredibly slowly. The cinematography is stunning and emulates the subtle grace described in ‘In Praise of Shadows,’ a slim book by Junichiro Tanizaki that gently reveals traditional Japanese aesthetics and use of space. Unlike us in the west where the achievement of light is basically both goal and God, in Japan it was – and maybe still is in places – the creation of shadows that was the source of beauty and mystery. This quiet understatement is part of what I want to rediscover.

Another film I watched where even less happens but with still more potency and power, is The Banshees of Inisherin. Dark, sad, funny and impeccable in every way, including the acting of its two ‘In Bruges’ stars, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, it basically portrays the painful ending of an long-standing friendship caused by the simple declaration by one: ‘I don’t want to be friends with you anymore’. The extensive space the film allows each facial movement, scene, sentence… one can almost feel the multi-layered clutter of ones own world begging to be emptied into black bin bags, or deleted.

With this increasingly strong desire to create more space, I decided to have a big Studio Sale of my art. (All works available can be viewed here.) And to finally sort through my real and digital filing office and cabinets in order to establish more clarity and space for new shoots and fruits. 

So with the start of Advent this Sunday and the build-up to the crazy, all-consuming Christmas season, I would like to invite you to join me in seeking out and reclaiming some of those quiet spaces life used to offer in abundance, and still does if we just stop… feel… and dream our way into them.

Wishing you a very Happy and Meaningful Advent…

Related Links

To buy my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, as a Christmas present, please order from your local bookshop or online here

In My Grandfather’s Shadow’ is a brave, powerful, honest, thoughtful and meticulously researched book. I enjoyed it immensely. It has made me think very hard about intergenerational trauma transfer and explains so much about Germany, and perhaps, in the current context, Russia.General Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and author of ‘War with Russia’

To listen to the recent 5-part Interview with Chris Baxter on Radio West, please go to BBC iPlayer here

To look through and/or buy a piece of ART please go to my website: www.angelafindlay.com