FORM AND NOTHINGNESS
by Michelle Chin

When Peter Dittmar worked on his Art Links People installation, he became increasingly fascinated with the concept of empty space. During that project he discovered that the space in between the strips was as important to him as the actual panel paintings.

In Chinese and Japanese calligraphy the same character is used for "empty space". This character is pronounced as KUN JIEN in Chinese and AIDA in Japanese. In Chinese and Japanese art, the empty space between objects is an indispensable element in the overall balance of a composition. The blank space is there to heighten the tension of what is present, to enliven every line and shape: that which is left out sings with its own life because of the lines and shapes around it. With the incorporation of empty spaces, Peter Dittmar tries to give symbolic form or shape to nothingness, emptiness, and the unknown. In the Eastern philosophical tradition this is not something negative: it is rather the completion of everything. The empty space stands for imagination, freedom, quietness, stillness and peace.

Dittmar has studied Eastern philosophy for many years. He is impressed by the work of the Japanese Zen monk and calligrapher Tetsuzan Shinagawa whose work was published in a book titled Nothingness - Talk to a Stone in New York in 1998. Shinagawa summarises his philosophy of nothingness as follows:

Everything that is returns to nothingness.
When you have learned everything,
you become nothingness,
and from there you form boundless being.
It is hard to attain real nothingness,
but it is also easy.
By remaining ordinary in your daily life,
by thinking and feeling whatever may come,
you open the way to spiritual peace and enlightenment.
All ends in nothingness.


The empty space or the nothingness also has a tradition in western art where empty space can be symbolised by pure black or white. In his longing for an art of clarity and discipline that somehow reflected the objective laws of the universe, Mondrian built up his pictures out of the simplest elements: straight lines and pure colours, with black and white symbolising nothingness. A similar concept inspired Dittmar's 50 square metre permanent installation created in 2000 for the lobby of the Alila International Design Hotel in Jakarta. Yves Klein held an exhibition in Paris in 1958 titled Le Vide (Emptiness). A.D. Reinhardt tried to express the concept of nothingness in his black paintings, and the theme continues to inspire artists: Tim Johnson, Lindy Lee and Peter Tyndall held an exhibition titled Three Views of Emptiness at Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne, Australia in 2001.

Dittmar's incorporation of calligraphic elements also has a tradition in 20th century western art. In 1956-58 when the explosion of Abstract Expressionism took place, artists such as Jackson Pollock, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung and Franz Kline were linked by a desire to convey their aesthetic visions in a personal monochromatic calligraphy. There is little doubt that the Abstract Expressionists' belief in the need to surrender to spontaneous impulse was influenced by Chinese art. It was the ambition of Chinese masters to acquire such facility in the handling of brush and ink that they could write down their vision while their inspiration was still fresh, much as the poet jots down his verse. We speak of the Chinese art of 'calligraphy', but really it is not the formal beauty of the characters that the Chinese admire so much as the feeling of mastery and inspiration that must inform every stroke of brushwork. Many of the Abstract Expressionists were also inspired by Asian mysticism, particularly Zen Buddhism. In this respect, the new movement continued the earlier tradition of twentieth century art when the mystics Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian wanted to break through the veil of appearances to a higher truth and the Surrealists had courted "divine madness".

In modern music, the "silent cacophony" of John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33" (Silence) revolutionised the arts world: the pianist sat silently at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds and did not play at all. Cage intended to express stillness, silence, nothingness, emptiness. It was a contemporary way of expressing Claude Debussy's statement: "Music is the space between the notes."

Dittmar expresses his concept of nothingness and emptiness in his latest series of works titled AIDA by the inclusion of basic geometric shapes such as the circle, square or triangle to provide "form" for the empty space within the cosmos of his abstract paintings. These forms however are not painted in black or white; they are actual holes incorporated into the surface of the paintings. He deliberately chose the geometric shapes as a contrast to the free flowing calligraphic signs and the richly textured backgrounds of hand-made papers applied onto teak plywood boards. Dittmar often "combs" the surfaces of his paintings, creating traces reminiscent of the sand-gardens in Zen monasteries.

In his work, Dittmar balances opposites such as the concepts of mind/rationality (symbolised by the geometric shapes of his compositions) and emotion or spontaneous expression (symbolised in the calligraphic brushstrokes). Emotion and rationale, visual and intellectual, are essential to Dittmar's creative process. His use of colours reveals the duality of male/female and yin/yang with the subtle Siena Red signifying the female and the black-blue-violet mixture symbolising the male. Rising, leaping swaying, merging, the strokes dance and flow in harmony, friction, attraction or balance.

Dittmar's paintings may often be described as free and spontaneous but the vitality stems from many decades of rigorous practice in control. His strong, vigorous calligraphic signs gain their strength and power from an inner space of concentration focussing on the expression of the very moment of the here and now. Dittmar has reduced his signs to an essential visual dialogue with the viewer, exploring the dualities of mind and emotion, male and female, yin and yang in their purest forms.

Control on one hand and the spontaneity conjured up by human feeling on the other may seem at odds, but only through total mastery of his media can Dittmar accurately evoke the subtlest moods and tensions. He believes that expressive liberty should be underpinned by the understanding of certain basic techniques. Similarly, the artist's rational translation of beauty seems to belie the finesse of his work's sensuality and human intensity. Dittmar's aesthetics refer to the traditional Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi, that is, the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. His art seeks to relate a profoundly experienced state of being, an invitation to enter the open door, the empty space, the state of nothingness.

Michelle Chin is a writer, translator and art consultant based in Jogjakarta, Indonesia.

[published in exhibition catalogue, AIDA by Peter Dittmar, Wetterling Teo Gallery, September 2002]