Air holds a privileged position in modern art. For over a century, art has struggled against the idolatry or enchantment of objects, preferring processes, like the process of vanishing, decomposition or evaporation to the precipitation of forms. Air has signified the carrier of the immaterialism. Such a tradition might have started from Marcel Duchamp’s Air de Paris of 1919, a glass vial bought from a chemist’s shop that Duchamp asked the chemist to drain. The air in the empty vial is a ready-made, an arbitrary presence without essence. It has no single form of object- hood and reveals itself instead in a mass of traces and effects, like a zephyr.
Air has since become emblematic for art’s aspiration, symbolizing something that can approach and merge into life’s condition. In Yves Klein’s Le Vide of 1960, the French conceptualist leapt into empty air, a neutral void. Klein here is like an real estate agent, exchanging territories of immaterial pictorial sensitivity. His elegant gesture defy common notions of art and aim to alter the world in spiritual and aesthetic terms.
In 1957, after meeting architects Claude Parent and Walter Ruhnau, Klein entered his ‘pneumatic period’, which was consolidated over the next two years with a series of projects to fulfill his this fantasies of universal ‘architecture de l’air’[Klein 1974: 45].The ‘air architecture’ made use of ephemeral natural elements, such as air, fire and water. It was a manifestation liberation from materiality, where humans would have complete access to the space in Universe. As Klein declared, human beings are no longer the center of the universe; but the universe is the center of humanity.
Inspired by ancient Islamic palaces with pavilions, fountains and sky, Klein’s unrealized air architecture engaged elements of nature: walls of fire were proposed for cooler northern climates and walls of water for the south, shelters were shells of moving air, providing protection from rain. Klein intended for all existing solid architecture to be dismantled and stored underground and for the climatic conditions of all regions of the earth.
Klein meant utopian habitats to be celebrated Eden where people would be in direct contact with Earth and nature. Privacy was not important any more; everyone could live outdoors without partitioned rooms, using invisible furniture made of air; the bathrooms, kitchens, closets and storage were all underground. Klein's idea was to create a state of planetary pneumatic bliss, which would promote universal levitation. During a speech in Düsseldorf, Klein said that 'we will become aerial men, we will experience the force of attraction upward, toward space, toward nowhere and everywhere at the same time; the force of earthly attraction thus mastered, we will literally levitate in total physical and spiritual freedom'. [Restany 1982, 76]
Klein’s ‘air architecture’ was influenced by Zen concepts, what Klein described as the void. It is like a nirvana state emptied of worldly influences, a zone where attention is paid only to sensibilities, and to reality as opposed to representation. Klein wanted his objects to embody their indications.To use Martin Heidegger's phrase, to ‘let things be’.‘What will happen, will happen. Let things be themselves' [Meyer 1972:35].
Command and mystical self-abandonment in Klein’s work recalls Heidegger’s life in his mountain hut and his essays on architecture. Beginning in the summer of 1922, Heidegger occupied a small, three-room( a living room, a bedroom and a study) cabin in the German Black Forest Mountains. (that he called ‘die Hütte’). He claimed an intellectual and emotional intimacy with the building and its surroundings, suggesting that the landscape expressed itself through him, almost without agency. Heidegger's mountain hut has been an object of fascination for many, including architects interested in his scholarship on ‘dwelling’ and ‘place’. It is important to consider the circumstances in which the philosopher, as Heidegger himself said, felt ‘transported’ into the work's ‘own rhythm’.To build one’s place the world is to support man’s being on earth. Heidegger moves the notions of architectural space beyond the fixity of the physical, and into the metaphysical place beyond object-hood. Heidegger’s interaction with his sky hut, then could also be seen so, an immaterial void.
The void is a metaphor for art, as well as for life, that can be constructed out sources, projecting itself into a specific place and time. Heidegger's hut can be interpreted in many ways; as a site of heroic clash between philosopher and existence, as a modern Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò (from Italo Calvino’s Baron In The Tree) escape of a misguided Romantic, as a place overshadowed by fascism, as a metaphor of consciousness independence; or simply an unremarkable little house. ‘Man does not dwell in that he merely establishes his stay on earth beneath the sky . . . Man is capable of such building only if he already builds in the sense of the poetic taking measure. Authentic building occurs so far as there are poets, such poets as take the measure for architecture, the structure of dwelling.‘ [Heidegger 1971:213]
In Heidegger’s sense, buildings and dwellings always attempt to make sense of one’s existence, and thus are poetic. Now, contemporary human dwellings have been distanced from poetry (thus from art) by the frivolity of thinking.The etymology of the Greek word for making- poiesis- links poetry with dwelling. Heidegger implies that all making thus involved poetry to some extent. Like poetry doesn’t necessarily involve words, true dwelling is harmonious with the context outlined above.To dwell is to be at home, to live in a state of peace and freedom. It means not just being oneself free from outside aggression, but peacefully leaving free what is around us. Dwelling is living without agency, beyond transforming between the external worlds and our internals. It is a neutral void that is both nowhere and everywhere, a complete physical and spiritual freedom.
This essay is in memory of Chinese modernists and architects Sicheng Liang (梁思成) and his wife Phyllis Lin (林徽因)'s home, No.26 courtyard Beizongbu Hutong (北总布胡同26号) in Beijing, which was demolished in 2011.
Yves Klein, Yves Klein 1928-1962: Selected Writings. (London:Tate Gallery, 1974)
-------------- 'The Monochrome Adventure.' In Gilbert Perlein and Bruno Corà, eds.,Yves Klein: Long Live the Immaterial! (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2000), 75-85; 'Water and Fire.' In Perlein and Corà,Yves Klein, 91.
Pierre Restany, Yves Klein.2nd edition.trans.John Shepley.(NewYork:Harry N.Abrams,1982).
Ursula Meyer, Conceptual Art. (New York: Dutton, 1972)
Martin Heidegger,‘The Origin of the work of Art’, trans. David Farrell Krell, in Martin Heidegger Basic Writings (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 169
----------------Poetry, Language,Thought, 213. trans.Albert Hofstadter (NewYork: Harper and Row, 1971)
Yves Klein, "Overcoming the Problematics of Art," in Overcoming the Problematics of Art, transl. Klaus Ottmann (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 2007), p. 64; translation modified.