How to See the Invisible

Robert Barry, "It Can Be Accessible But Go Unnoticed," 1970. © Robert Barry. Photo: Brian Forrest. Courtesy the artist and Klemens Gasser and Tanja Grunert, Inc.

“An SEP,” he said, “is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.”

– Ford Prefect in Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982)

What is essential is invisible to the eye.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (1943)


The invisible is frustratingly difficult to see.

A sublime ghost, naked of its sheet, tiptoes through art. Some days glowing with divine light, others jangling with ideas, but resolutely impossible to set eyes upon.

I cannot see the universe in a falling snowflake or fear in a handful of dust. Millennia of religion, centuries of inequality, and decades of advertising all make for blind spots. Some days I can almost feel, but never quite see, the invisible hand of the market fingering my throat. The supernatural, in all its invisible glory, even just a belief, succors the afflicted and fires up the holy warrior. My sight of all these things is at best metaphorical. Metaphors, I suppose, are a turn of art.

The invisible hides under the surface, beneath deceptions so complete their makers believe them most of all. It is what’s missing, the erased and the yet-to-come. Both tragedies beyond grief and visions of what could be. You can devote a lifetime to remembering what was lost or making manifest a dream.

A scientific fact, a political reality, an ethereal poem: the invisible remains out of sight.  

Even if cellular conversations and late-night radio call-in shows permeate my body, there are cosmic and molecular forces at play I can’t pretend to understand. Science and its harder facts set the boundaries quite literally. The cones in my eyes can only combine three colors cut from light; invisible dark matter, according to some, constitutes two-thirds of the universe. What we can’t see makes up most of everything.

Art gives us an ability to turn the invisible visible, to help us see what we are blind to, beyond leaps of faith and the intractability of ignorance.   

The wind, the most handsy of invisible forces, finds form as puff-cheeked deities in Greek statuary and floating heads on the edge of ancient maps. In JMW Turner, the sightless wind whips the sea and sky into a churn of exquisite color. Cartoonists stream the wind in gusting lines to capture its pure, intangible touch. In fiction, dead souls with breathless voices often complain the thing they miss the most is the kiss of the wind. What these artists are trying to capture is pure, invisible movement. Like Jackson Pollock whipping snaking paint. Tom Friedman’s 1000 hours of staring (1992-97) simply lists its materials as “stare on paper.” But this blank paper gives space to laugh at the waste or contemplate the meaning of its meditative act. Every painting is a record of actions disappeared.

Something turned in the middle of the twentieth century, though. Yves Klein owns the distinction of the first invisible contemporary art show with The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility – a vacant gallery excepting a single cabinet in which every surface had been painted white. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robert Barry’s work went deeper than most, digging into the facts and mysteries of invisibility. In 1969, the artist buried a small piece of barium in New York’s Central Park. The work of art is neither the act nor the barium, but the rate of decay. That same year, he released a one-liter foot of Krypton into the atmosphere over Beverly Hills. The work is the expansion of this inert gas from a measured volume into “indefinite expansion.” During this period, Barry made art out of ultrasonic waves and electromagnetic fields, out of a shared idea in a closed group and through telepathy. My favorite from this time is Psychic Series, 1969. The description reads, “Everything in the unconscious perceived by the senses but not noted by the conscious mind during trips to Baltimore during the summer of 1967.”

Lucy Lippard’s “dematerialization of the art object” bears contemplation, here. The long-form title of her book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972, a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries … (which runs to 86 words and fills the cover) captures all the faux- and quasi-scientific play on the expansion of meaning into the realm of the immaterial.

Conceptualism’s rise tracks with the dominance of invisible forces, whether nuclear threats or consumer branding for a financial system based on the churn of abstractions. It’s unsurprising that Conceptual art and what would become the internet were born around the same time.

Value is not inherent, but attributed: an idea. Ideas interlock into ideologies and understandings. These define our lives. Abstraction as word, floating by itself, implies the immaterial, taps the invisible. Both abstract art and Conceptualism through their various gambits and imagery both whisper: invisible forces are central to art-making; it’s all in your head. Or as Harald Szeemann put it in his first title to When Attitudes Become Form (1969): “Live in Your Head.”  

In 2009, Anthony Huberman curated a show, originating at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, titled after a brilliant joke that evolved over decades, but that he attributes to Darwin: For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there. Huberman posits in his show, “we can learn to enjoy the experience of not-knowing, unlearning, and the playfulness of being in the dark.”

In 2012, this subject of invisibility was directly taken on by curator Ralph Rugoff at London’s Hayward Gallery in his exhibition Invisible: Art About the Unseen (an idea begun for a Frieze article in 2000). Amidst works by Barry and Friedman were Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning, and an empty plinth suffused with the disappeared presence of Andy Warhol, where he briefly once stood. The exhibition also pointedly included a work by Teresa Margolies, where the artist took water that had been used to wash bodies of the murdered in Mexico, and poured it into a humidifier. A superfine mist filled the gallery. This piece brings to mind the word used to describe those abducted and murdered, as in Argentina’s Dirty War: the disappeared. (The UN now classifies “enforced disappearance” as a crime against humanity.)

The invisible can be painfully real.

All revolutionary aspiration is begun with witnessing what’s been hidden and seeing what can be. To help others see the invisible forces that affect us is to start the change.

In HG Wells’s The Invisible Man, the title character is a lunatic. Some have argued, including prominent conservative theorist Friedrich Hayek in The Fatal Conceit, that the Invisible Man was a caricature of technological capitalism, a kind of creepy stand-in for that invisible hand of the market. It was Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man (1952), that best embodied an invisible man, revealing the profundity of those that others either can’t or refuse to see.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything, except me.

Ellison’s narrator is Somebody Else’s Problem. His invisibility is essential, not only to him and the novel, but to everyone else. Such men and women inhabit much of the world and are, almost invariably, conveniently invisible to power until they are inconvenient themselves. But just because people have been forced into invisibility doesn’t mean they are not bodies capable of action, a flurry so powerful they can no longer be ignored.

The forces that enfold and shape us, craft our contexts and define our actions, the most fundamental aspects of existence and the cosmos – these are all invisible. I am surrounded by the invisible bonds of culture and community, the love of family and friends. I am, so I’m told, protected by a missile defense net, by a border (only sometimes marked by a fence). Others tell me that my every move can be tracked and maybe (shades of Illuminati) already is. My movements are governed by treaties I’ll never read, by laws of which I only have a vague awareness. Depending on the weather, I’m filled with an equally invisible hope or dread.

Just because we cannot see the invisible does not mean it must be passed over in silence. At its most essential, art is a struggle to make visible the invisible.

To see what isn’t there, you must do all the hard work of asking what others see, of looking around the invisible and seeing how its force shapes reality, of figuring what has disappeared and imagine what can be. Sometimes you’ll catch it by surprise, out of the corner of your eye, but it takes incredible effort to see what can’t be seen, what’s invisible to only you.

This is a daily task, a constant effort.

I don’t pretend to see what I can’t, but I try.

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