“Absence of Presence in the every day”

In our day to day lives Absence of Presence is all around us, such as the coffee stain cup in the cupboard, the scuffs against the corridor where one has knocked their bag and bike one too many times. It is fair to say it is all too much of a common occurrence, so why is it that poets, artists, song writers, scientists, philosophers and ordinary people feel the need to document something that really is just a trace of what was. Through this essay I want to explore what Absence of Presence is, how and why we document it, and also why it is important to carry on documenting.

Absence of presence seems to resemble a spiritual assertion, perhaps for somebody who is going through a traumatic time in their life, and is all too aware of the absence of the presence of God or a higher being. Possibly even someone who has recently lost a loved one, and is all too aware of their absence of presence in their life. Despite these both being evidence, I see absence of presence as the old beloved childhood toy that sits disregarded and long forgotten, in a box, along with the happy memories associated with it which we ourselves have disregarded and stored away in the box in the corner of our minds. The place where we abandon information that we have retained but no longer have the use for. Although the childhood toy exists and subconsciously we know it exists but is no longer obvious to us. Without the toy in function or even the memories of the toy being reminisced, the beloved childhood toy is all but Present.
There is one artist who I feel encompasses Absence of Presence in all of her work, and that is Rachel Whiteread. “Whiteread’s choice of subject-matter reflects an awareness of the intrinsically human-scaled design of the objects with which we surround ourselves and exploits the severing of this connection, by removal of the object’s function, to express absence and loss”(Tate bio OCTAVIA NICHOLSON 10 December 2001
Article provided by Grove Art Online www.groveart.com
Copyright material reproduced courtesy of Oxford University Press, New York)

I think what the quote is saying is that Rachel Whiteread uses an industrial material to cast the structure in such a way as if she was rebuilding the soul of the structure from the inside out, the fact that the rooms structure is made from such an industrial material it makes sense to use the same material to replicate and pick out the imprints. By the casting being solid with no way of getting in to the structure it takes away its function and purpose leaving it Absent of Presences.

I think it is almost poetic the way she translates the Absence of Presence and loss in not only the room but our lives. Probably one of her most famous pieces of work being “Ghost” is an excellent representation of exactly that.

Rachel Whiteread's sculpture Ghost at the Gagosian gallery

“Ghost” is a cast of a Victorian living room. In a video on The National Gallery website, Rachel Whiteread talks about her piece “Ghost” she talks about the process of casting the room, and why that room was perfect for the project because it had everything she wanted, a door, a window, a fire place ect. What was most interesting was listening to her talk about the context of the work, the fact that we as the viewer become part of the work, we become the walls of the structure looking into heart of the room. The fact that she choose to cast the room was interesting instead of using another medium to do so.
“it was the only way to capture the fragility of the form” (This National Gallery video was released august 4th 2009)



By casting the room she picked up all the information that we would not normally see like cracks and dents. To me it is almost a documentation of a life, much like a body that has been lived in, we may break or dent a few things and this is recorded on our body. The fact that the living room not only contains the physical scars of what years of being lived in has done but it also seems to have capture the memories. You can almost imagine the family that would have lived here, gathering round the fire place on cold nights, opening their presents on Christmas morning. With this in mind the absence of presence is all too present to the viewer.
From seeing Rachel Whiteread’s interpretation of Absence of Presence it is hard to envision a more creative way to deduce the same amount of interaction between the viewer and the artwork. Yet Neha Choksi’s film the “Iceboat” would beg to differ. Neha Choksi rows a boat crafted completely from ice until the entire structure has melted. With Neha Choksi’’s work in the medium of film it is able to achieve completely diverse results in comparison to that of the format of installation. With film being a recording of something that previously happened but has now passed i.e. the Absence of Presence, making an ideal medium that also represents the concept as much as the content of the film.

neha choksi

We all understand the same pain of seeing the horizon but struggling to get there. And this is clearly felt when watching the film, we as the viewer want the subject reach the shore but slowly but surely we feel hope melting away much like the Ice boat.

In Neha’s film the “Iceboat”
she is clothed in white garments to represent innocence. She gets inside a boat crafted completely from ice and row’s until the boat completely melts leaving her stranded in the waters. In an article called “The Art of Collecting- Indian Artist Explores Absence through Presence” it talks about the melting of the boat as the representation of loss, that we all feel in life at one point or another, we know it will happen we know that we cannot prevent it but all we can do is keep rowing towards the shore in hope that we reach it before we are consumed by the waters. The fact that the boat was made from the same element as the very thing she was trying to cross is again an interesting concept, the very thing that was against her was with her. Perhaps the Absence of Presence in not as obvious as that of Rachel Whiteread’s work but does it have to be? The journey in itself is absent of presence in the sense that the evidence of the journey i.e. the boat no longer exist in a physical form but has diluted and become at one with the very element that it was protecting the passenger from.
Although both Rachel Whiteread and Neha Choksi’s work requires the presence of a viewer to experience their work, there is an artist that very much requires the presence of a viewer for his work to in many ways to truly exist, and that is Anish Kapoor. In the artist’s biography on the Tate website talks about the constant themes in his works look at
“presence and absence, being and non-being, existence of filled space versus the empty void”. (Anish Kapoor vertigo 2006 polished stainless steel)

anish kapoor 2

In my opinion his mirrored pieces reflect these themes most, the fact that the reflection of the viewer in these pieces are often distorted and occasionally unidentifiable confirm the themes. These reflection are merely temporal distorted footprints, and in the same way the tide washes the footprints in the sand away, as the viewer retreats leaving the sight of the mirror their mark is no longer present, the piece is once again absent of presence. All though it seems like a simple concept it really is rather a subtle yet powerful way of interpreting absence of presence.
These were merely a couple of examples of artists that explore the concept of absence of presence, but the art is not the only form in which this concept has been explored and documented.
These were merely a couple of examples of artists that explore the concept of absence of presence; however art is not the only form in which this concept has been explored, translated and documented.
Science has particularly contributed to documenting Absence of Presences, with many scientists theory’s focusing on this specifically. One theory that I fined embodies this is the theory of Schrödinger’s Cat. Schrödinger’s theory looks at the idea if we cannot see it does it really exist, thus rendering it Absent of Presence. A cat is placed in a box which is then sealed off, until the box is opened the outside world is unaware of the cats condition i.e. weather it is alive or departed. Although a simple concept I think it really does embody Absence of Presence in a very subtle way.


Schrödinger’s cat is merely one theory in the whole field of science, but one particular form of natural documentation which without science we ourselves would not fully understand. And as soon as it turns dark everyone in the world is able to see them, and they are stars. So simple yet we don’t really give them much thought. When we look up at the night sky and see stars, we are not actually looking up at a star, but what was a star and more to the point is a mark of what was but no longer is. Rendering the stars Absent of Presence. The Distances from the earth to the stars are measured in light years which is the distance that light travels in one year and Light travels 186,000 miles per second so light travels very far in one year. The closest stars are about four light years away and there are several stars that are less than 20 light years away. To put into perspective our galaxy is roughly 80,000 light years wide so the stars in our galaxy must be thousands of light years away. Thus by the time a star is visible to the naked eye it has already died and no longer exists, we are only seeing its absence or presence left behind much like a grave marking what once was.


Much like the night sky is a mass graveyard full of lifeless marks (stars) which mark something that once was, we as humans dating back to the beginning of time have felt the need to mark the departing of those we loved, this can be seen all over the world in graveyards in the forms of gravestones. A grave stone really is the most common form of absence of presence that effects us all, it is a personalised mark that is left in remberance of us once we have departed.

Jewish_Graveyard_I_by_FrederikM 11

Through this investigation of Absence of Presence although only brief, I have looked into different forms, approaches and ways in which Absence of Presence has been documented weather that be various artistic interpretation, scientific theory’s or human rituals they all show very different sides to the meaning Absence of Presence. At the beginning I stated that “Through this essay I want to explore what Absence of Presence is, how and why people document it, and also why it is important to carry on documenting”. Well when it comes to how Absence of Presence is interoperated there is no one definitive way in which it can be interpreted as you can see through the works of Rachel Whiteread, Neha Choksi And Anish Kapoor’s, three different artists and three completely different conclusions to the theme Absence of Presence. Much like no two people are the same, the three artist’s representations are not the same in any way.
As for why we document Absence of Presence it has become apparent to me especially looking at correlation between the works of Rachel Whitereads and grave stones, is that of the preservation of memories. Rachel Whiteread looks meticulously at the preserving of memories and that of memories imbedded in objects that either provoke or recall memories such as her piece “Ghost”, I realise that a gravestone in more ways than one is completely different to that or Rachel Whitreads work yet they both intend on preserving something that is no longer there physically but in sprit.
The need to document the Absence of Presence for scientific purposes is to as important, as it is the documenting by scientist that help us better over the years understand what has been before and what is to come. Like stars, without the scientific evidence we would all still believe that it is just a star shining in the night sky, when actually it has been proven that what we see is not all it is made out to be.
By Charlotte-Emily

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