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Negative space a conditio sine qua non

Jain Thirtankara 'Englightened being' (© Max Carocci, personal collection)

Negative space in art is, by definition, the space not filled by any perceivable visual element. In most cases, it is not considered relevant, perhaps just a filler between images, yet it is the binding element that ties together two or more forms. It is what enables the positive space to be intelligible. As such, it is a poignant and pregnant reminder that even what we perceive as emptiness is, in fact, fullness. This is negative space’s paradox: to be void of meaning, and yet to play an essential role in interpretation. Empty spaces, void, absence, Tabula rasa. Emptiness in art, like pauses in oral narratives and literature, is a necessity. It is the condition without which no meaning can be understood, and at times, it is the very message contained within the boundaries of its representation.

Apophatic icons of Jain saints (the enlightened ones, or men made entirely of light) clearly convey the centrality of negative space in art, but examples abound also outside the great religious traditions of India. In the Native arts of North America, elusive negative spaces reveal their own character and identity. Tattoo traditions from the Great Plains, for example, use positive space to frame the existence of Thunder beings squashed between carefully designed arrows, and figures carved on deer antler combs from the Great Lakes can only be seen against the light.

Many traditional arts employed these rhetorical visual strategies to deliver important messages and carry with them reflections on the nature of reality, so visible and yet so deceiving. Seeing is about knowing what to look for and where. Looking is as much about what is visible as much as what it is not. These are probably the most important lessons derived from even the simplest glimpse of negative spaces in art.


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