Gavin Turk – The Blank Page


Everyone is familiar with the image of the writer or artist confronted with blank page or canvas. We see it on TV, at the movies, in comics or in magazines. When we read a description of the particularity of the experience, we might identify with it or we might not. Sometimes the emphasis is on a preconception and sometimes on a void: there’s a difference between having a clear image of exactly what one wants to create and being stuck at the moment of materialising it and just knowing one wants to create but not having any idea of what. Both of these suppose the encounter with the blank page, but isn’t this blankness itself something that involves a complex process of creation? Is a page with nothing on it a blank page from the start?


Blankness, like silence, needs to be created. You might enjoy the silence of your garden every morning until one day you notice that it isn’t silent in the same way anymore: the birds have suddenly stopped twittering. The silence you feel now has a weight to it, created by the absence of birdsong. In other words, it’s the noise that creates the silence, that frames it. To take another example, you might be pleased to spend the day at a spa where mobiles are banned and there’s only a vague background hum of New Age music. But what would happen if when you checked in, the receptionist just stared at you and said nothing? The absence of noise at the spa wouldn’t be silence, but the receptionist’s non-response would be. Isn’t the blankness of the blank page quite similar?


It only becomes blank at the moment we feel the weight of an expectation to fill it, to put something there. It’s the expectation that creates the blankness. This means that the same blank sheet of paper will only become a blank sheet of paper at a certain moment in one’s life. Perhaps it will then stay blank forever, perhaps not. But the moment that it becomes blank will be specific and unique to each of us. For some, the accent is perhaps less on expectation than on necessity. Paul Klee would find it impossible not to draw, covering any available surface from menus to newspaper borders with configurations of lines. Klee explained that he felt looked at from all sides: even on his trips to the country, he said, “it was not I who looked at the forest, since the trees were looking at me”. This feeling of being submerged, of being invaded, was why he had to make marks. They protected him from an intrusive and enigmatic presence. With such high stakes, the page, for Klee, could not stay blank.


We often make marks at moments when we feel overwhelmed. This goes beyond the idea that we make narratives to protect ourselves from trauma. It is less about making meaning than about making an inscription, less about making stories than about making marks. Something can be fixed or arrested by making a mark, as we see, for example, in the feeling of relief sometimes experienced by self-harmers after they have made a cut in their body surface. This could be seen as a form of discharge, but a better term might be barrier or limit. Isn’t the crucial moment in the act of inscription, after all, the moment when one ends a line or mark or brushstroke? This is less an art of representing than an art of stopping.


Sometimes, it can be the very blankness of a page that needs stopping. The page itself becomes a conduit for an anxiety that has its source somewhere else. The blankness calls us like a siren: say something, write something, do something. This solicitation requires us to represent ourselves, yet representing always involves a loss. We can never represent ourselves perfectly, only inadequately and incompletely, and this margin of loss can both bind us to the blank page and inhibit us to go further. Whatever we do will not be enough, so we remain at the edge of what seems like an abyss. Writers sometimes speak here of how they feel taunted by the blank page. And yet without this blankness, how can a creation emerge?


Gavin Turk’s blue plaque provided an elegant solution to this apparent impasse. Instead of displaying works that would necessarily fail to represent their maker, he simply indexed the fact that works had been made. That way, no one could judge whether the works had done their job or not. Naturally, this solution was a transitory one, as the association of the plaque with renown opened up a thread that the artist followed with some tenacity: his later works explored iconic images and what it would mean to inhabit them.


The parsimony of the RCA installation of course raised the question of the missing works. Where were they? How could the artist conjure himself out of representing himself? What was there to interpret? This coalescence of blankness and creation brings into focus nicely the main psychoanalytic approaches to making. Analysts tend to fall into two camps here. Those who believe that we create  from our phantasies, unconscious scenarios that mould and shape what we produce, and those who emphasise less such unconscious templates than their absence. For them, it is precisely the points at which our phantasies fail us from which the work of creation springs. Where we are unable to explain to ourselves key questions such as birth, death and sexuality, we create works in the place of the missing solutions. This would explain why classical psychoanalytic readings of literary and artistic works seem so reductive: they put the emphasis on phantasy and meaning rather than the experience of a hole.


Again, the stakes can be quite high at this point. Confronted with a hole, we can make something out of it or we can jump into it. And can’t the blank page be both the substance and the metaphor of these options?