Between “Presence” and “Nothingness” (2005)


When I make my work, regardless of whether I like it or not, I think about the notion of “order.” When one starts combining things to make a surface or a sculpture, simply having all the materials ready and knowing how to express something with them does not necessarily mean that the end result will be a colorful painted surface or an astute object. While I might have a certain concept or creative intention in mind, usually I contemplate what is before me in silence.

As I begin, I look at the materials and then I look for a space of “nothingness” in which to ground them. This allows me to sense a kind of order that is inherent to those materials and the space. Perhaps that order is necessary for the artwork, and it derives from the places the materials belonged to before I gathered them together. All things and all spaces belong to a particular world of their own before someone picks them up, and in those worlds they all have an order assigned to them by nature or people. In this case, “order” is a hierarchical condition—a categorization in terms of their role, value, desirability, quality or quantity. One can say that the things or spatialities that have been amassed from a certain site exhibit the nuances and traits of that site. This is the order one senses when faced with the elements of existence.

For people who make things, it is important to know how to handle this experience - how to eliminate preconceptions and functionalities. This is the first thing an artist must do, because an artwork should stand outside of any preconditioned order. Otherwise it will not have the capacity to contain the full spectrum of concepts the artist wishes to introduce. The artist’s concepts are an order in their own right.

In that sense, making an artwork is about applying orders to things and an artwork is a product of abandoning preconditions and organizing new orders. To do this, artists have to maintain absolute concentration when considering material and spaces.

When artists are in that state, their perception of things and spaces empty out into nothingness and just exist there in the mind. In my view, this state of being is akin to chaos.

While the artist’s perception of things and spaces is completely empty, at the same time it maintains just enough sense of existence, and the artist must consider what kind of order could transform this sense of existence. This process is much more difficult than it sounds. Our perceptions and values are shaped by the places we grew up and the people who were around us; our thoughts are tied to these standards, and there is nothing simple about deconstructing preconditioned orders. The creator of an artwork can easily get caught up in it, and in those situations one must not expect much of the result. Viewers who continue to rely on preconditioned orders might be satisfied with such an artwork, but those who think about new orders will likely be uninspired.

This issue is not limited to viewers alone. There are artists who still base their standards on mundane orders such as harmony, balance and rhythm.

It is crucial to keep searching for new orders of existence without fearing the destruction of old ones.

I constantly think about how to confuse or distort the typical order of things. This is akin to inserting an unfamiliar or incomprehensible word or sign into the middle of an otherwise ordinary sentence. Viewers would be rendered speechless before an artwork of this kind. In a matter of seconds or minutes, their thoughts would shift from established orders to new ones. Some viewers would complete the shift while others would not.

In most cases I use elements and structures that transform the order of the artworks I make. Sometimes I think about how to introduce a completely different order that would stimulate the viewer’s ways of looking and thinking about things to the point where they perceive another world altogether. In these cases, there is no need to use materials and spaces with strange shapes or anything extreme about them. I give the work a typical appearance but add some external elements. It is like altering a key so that it no longer fits the keyhole. At the same time, I also make works in which the order is clearly distorted. In any case, I make artworks so that people can see and learn about things, so they can perceive an existing space differently and thereby experience a new kind of order. If they can apply their experience with art into their daily lives, the new order may find settlement there. There would be no turning back. I want to induce new ways of responding to situations in all viewers.


This essay was first published in Kishio Suga’s Work from a Zen Perspective (ltamuro: Kishio Suga Souko Museum, 2008). It was originally translated by Naoto Katou and Ashley Rawlings, and titled Between “Existence” and “Nothingness.” Ashley Rawlings revised the translation for its publication in the catalogue, Karla Black and Kishio Suga: A New Order (National Galleries of Scotland, 2016).