The concept of emptiness and its true definition has been studied, analysed and interpreted for years by many different cultures, designers, artists and philosophers around the world. Śūnyatā (pronounced Shun-Ya-Ta) is a Buddhism concept that is closely translated to "emptiness". The Śūnyatā concept is extremely profound and difficult to understand or explain but it is a primary tenet of Buddhism. The realization of Śūnyatā and the state of "being empty" leads to detachment, enlightenment and a heightened sense of freedom. In this article we will expand more on the concepts of positive and negative emptiness across multiple theories of Śūnyatā, Zero and the Ma. This article is to be experienced with an empty mind and an open heart.
Śūnyatā & The State of Being Empty
Before we start analyzing the concept of emptiness, one must understand what emptiness means in the context of Buddhism and the state of "being empty". To really simplify the concept, Śūnyatā in Mahayana Buddhism refers to "non-self" and that everything is dependently originated. In this state of emptiness and great void, there are no obstructive tendencies. The lack of distraction and removing the self from the mental and physical experiences to the point that we don't add anything and we don't take anything away from the raw data, with no hidden or obvious agenda, a complete silence of comparison, association and self/ego. The state of "being empty" opens up room for enlightenment and infinite opportunities to gain knowledge and wisdom and that's why the great void is a positive significance in Buddhism. By creating void and emptiness (the negative), we create space (positive). It's very important for one to realize that emptiness in this context does not mean an absolute absence of existence or just removal of clutter. The emptiness is an open-ended state of being, with no limit, no time, no beginning and no end. This state of "being empty" leads to an heightened sense of freedom- from the ego and the attachments that come with the ego- the path to suffering.
To me Śūnyatā is the state of zero and a complete equilibrium of mind, body, form and space with no assumption, no addition and just pure presence. This unpretentious state of being is the basis of detachment from expectation, material (form) and illusion (maya).
"I do not want to make a painting; I want to open up space." Lucia Fontana
The concept of Zero is to create void and emptiness to create opportunities. The Zero group originally founded by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene and the international ZERO movement which developed post World War II introduced the great void and the concepts of emptiness to the world of art. This was the time for new beginnings and starting over as people were lost in the aftermath of the WWII. ZERO emphasized this state of new means with the movement of forms and shapes with light and space in a new form of art and expression, breaking free from the traditional ways and concepts.
Artist Lucia Fontana which is known for introducing specialism was one of the key members of this movement, best known for "Concetti Spaziale" and the concept of hole, cutting through a canvas often with a knife to create void and space. The cut symbolizes a third dimension that "expands beyond the confining plane of the picture" as Fontana once explained. Fontana changed the history of art by introducing the concept of 3-dimensional art using 2-dimensional means like cuts through canvas and holes to expand the picture plane and create measureless depth. Throughout his work with paintings and sculpture, Fontana celebrated the concept of hole and focused on the empty space. Using techniques and simple backgrounds, the holes were the focal point of his art which emphasized the core concepts of emptiness and negative space.
The Ma is perhaps one of my absolute favorite concepts that significantly changed the way I think about design and created an awareness of the both positive and negative forces in a space. Ma is a Japanese word that is somewhat translated to "pause" and the space-between or as I like to call it, the white space. Ma is described as an "emptiness of full possibilities".
The core concept of Ma is the negative space that highlights the shape and gives definition to the positive space (form); it's the void and the pause between the noise and the clutter. The negative space is an extremely important element of an experience. Without the negative and the pause, the shapes and forms don't have any meanings or value and our brains and eyes cannot process all that clutter and non-sense without it. Ma creates value by giving emphasize to the negative air rather than just what fills the air. Ma is the silence between the notes that defines the outline and composition of a song. The negative space defines the space surrounding an object and sharpens our attention and value for the composition itself. It always starts and ends with the Ma. The white space.