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Towards a Theory of Everything | David M. Thomas

In the twentieth century where Nothing comes ubiquitously into its all too sayable own, where moral, intellectual, theological, artistic, and cultural vacuums have each spawned their own insistent nihilisms, such a unified and particular image for emptiness and nothing seems no longer possible. (Rotman B. 1987, pp. 87)

Jean Luc Goddard once observed that ‘When it’s not funny, it’s even more funny, because it’s not funny.’(Goddard J. cited in Cavett D. 1980) For Goddard, when an audience’s expectations of comedy are not satisfied the jokes are all the more fulfilling. In a similar way, and with an elegant facetiousness, Christopher Hanrahan’s works are often about failed expectations. In addition they demonstrate a mobile philosophical disposition and interest. Aesthetic and conceptual voids are ongoing themes for Hanrahan, and are often cited as a material from which he makes his work. His 2010 exhibition, ‘Correction’, clearly illustrated this point with a group of freestanding, welded metal holes. These works appeared as simple and effective punctures in the space, graciously inhabiting another type of metaphorical void, the emptiness that is the white cube.

An initial impression of the work is as a solarised, Naumanesque, blueprint of the biggest none things in the universe. Black Holes, and the dark anti-matter they are made from, are a metaphor in Hanrahan’s practice for various orders of emptiness. Hanrahan’s none things are the things that are somewhat difficult to talk about; holes, obliqueness, voids, existential event horizons and the vacuity at the heart of the world monetary system. Might we think about ‘Towards a theory of everything’ as a standard model for this universe? Hanrahan’s work, far from simply decorating empty white spaces (which they do pretty well by the way), are a mixed philosophical project, a mobile conceptual practice that has interests in areas as diverse as cosmology, sociology and commerce.

In our pursuit of Hanrahan’s interest in no thing ness, lets start with the world of commerce and work backwards. Hanrahan himself pointed me in the direction of Xenomoney, a bizarre notion that infers the world of high finance and world futures trading is largely mythological. Since the mid 1970s, because of the expense of the Vietnam conflict and the increase in the price of crude oil, the American dollar ceased to be a promissory note for a stipulated amount of gold. Instead of gold being a guarantee for the dollar bill, the dollar bill presents only abstract value, a number between everything and nothing. Brian Rottman proclaims, ‘In short the dollar was a convertible currency: one dollar could be converted into a specific amount of some anterior ‘thing’, gold, which was held to have a fixed, unchangeable, intrinsic value’. (Rotman B. 1987). When this direct connection was no longer honored, the American dollar bill became ‘a tautological void.’ (Rotman B. 1987).

This Xenomoney abyss is geographically and historically congruent with the self-actualisation and EST movements, both of which discovered another kind of emptiness at the core of the individual. The existential self had become a particular concern of the student and Yippy movements of the 1960s and 70s. Werner Erhard’s ‘Erhard Seminar Training’ (EST) asserts that at the core of the individual there is nothing, that the self, as such, is non-existent. The central power of this self- actualisation emanates from an awareness of the non- objective nature of the self. For Erhard the drill goes thus:

The real point to the EST training, was to go down though layer after, after layer, after layer, after layer, until you got to the last layer and pealed it off, where the recognition was that it is really all meaningless and empty … now that’s existentialism’s end point, EST went a step further, in that, people began to recognise that it was not only meaningless and empty, but it was empty and meaningless that was empty and meaningless. (Erhard W. cited in Curtis A, 2002)

So, then there’s cosmology. The title for this show is inspired by the documentary; What if everything you know about the universe is wrong? which proposes that quantum physics’ use of mathematics provides an inadequate, or at best, incomplete model for how the universe works.What standard models of the universe demonstrate is that there are always phenomena that don’t fit the current models. We can’t, therefore, really know what is going on. One phenomenon posited as an explanation for the shortcomings of standard models is the existence of exotic substances variously referred to as ‘Dark Matter’, ‘Dark Energy’ and ‘Dark Flow’. While they cannot be directly observed, their existence is mathematically necessary in order for our existing conceptions of the universe to work. Personally I think this is analogous of the art universe we operate in, are we not in the business of continually coming up with new exotic matter to keep the old models going?

As with Hanrahan’s philosophical mobility, Slavoj Žižek sometimes plays the role of quantum mechanic. At the beginning of the film Žižek, for example, he proclaims a visceral affinity with cosmology:

What would be my spontaneous attitude toward the Universe? It is a very dark one, there is nothing, basically. I mean it quite literally… To look at the universe it is one big void. But then how do things emerge? Here I feel a kind of spontaneous affinity with quantum physics… where the universe is a void but a kind of positively charged void, and particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed, and I like this idea spontaneously very much. The fact that it is not just nothing, things are out there. It means something went terribly wrong. That what we call creation is a kind of cosmic imbalance, a cosmic catastrophe that things exist by mistake. (Žižek S. cited in Taylor A. 2005)

One can understand Hanrahan’s interest in vacuums as being analogous to Isabelle Graw interpretation of Bruce Nauman, wherein she sees his work as signifying something of the hole or no thingness at the centre of human existence. Graw puts it out there that emptiness is something that we, the bourgeoisie, find both entertaining and even liberating to ponder. With that in mind, what would a theory of everything look like? Hanrahan’s metal holes, embroidered wall hangings and installations are in various combinations an aesthetic model for the movement of human experience, value and energy.

by David M. Thomas

CAVETT, D. 1980. Dick Cavett and Jean-Luc Godard [Online]. pbs. Available: http:// 9 [Accessed 23/11/2011]
GRAW, I. 1995. Just Being Doesn’t Amount to Anything (Some Themes in Bruce Nauman’s Work). October, 74, 133-138.
ROTMAN, B. 1987. Absence of an Origin. Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero. New York: St Martin’s Press.
There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed, 2002. Video. Directed by CURTIS, A. England:BBC.
Is Everything We Know About the Universe Wrong?, 2010. Directed by LIDEDELL, R. England: BBC.
Žižek, 2005. Directed by TAYLOR, A. US: Zeitgeist.

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