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