The Light of Nothingness: Existential Reverberations in Contemporary Art

While commonly misunderstood as a pessimistic branch of philosophy that illustrates the gloomy and absurdist predicament of existence, existentialism abides as an iconoclastic antidote to the ‘rational’ aspect of metaphysical inquiry. Considering art as an extension of human consciousness, and, as such, an embodiment of the illogicality of being, how does contemporary art reflect a renewed interpretation of existential sensibilities?

This paper will argue that ‘subjectiveness’ transposed by way of the aesthetic imagination (Einbildungskraft) into objective representation through light and luminosity actualizes the existential process of self-recuperation. This exploration of select artworks also suggests a wholly existential circumstance for the viewer of art, one that defies conventional philosophy’s attempt to establish coherent frameworks for existence. Although frequently associated with unfavorable feelings of despair, the existential inclination as demonstrated by artworks that engage illumination as their primary material proposes the latest incarnation of the existential impulse: the light of nothingness. Through an analysis of two original installations by leading contemporary artists—Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) and James Turrell (b. 1943), this investigation of light through aesthetic experience demonstrates a retrieval of self-identity. Where Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room (2004/2013) elicits a return to subjectivity via the infinite, Turrell’s site-specific Aten Reign (2013) provokes a sense of reintegration with pure existence. Both artists reveal the innate existential quality of contemporary art as unrestrained and irrational, inspiring a re-rerouting of epistemology and a restoration of the ‘mystery of existence’ by way of radiance. Through their artistic interpretation of light as the actuality of our sacred nothingness, Kusama and Turrell establish a singular vision of the existential ethos in art today.


Taliesin Thomas received her B.A. in Fine Arts & Language from Bennington College (’98) and her M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University (’12) with a focus on Buddhist studies and Chinese art and culture. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Art Theory & Philosophy with the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. Thomas has worked in the field of contemporary Chinese art since 2001, first as the managing director of Ethan Cohen Fine Arts (the oldest gallery in the United States to specialize in Chinese avant-garde art) and then as a lecturer and private teacher on the subject. Since 2007 she has been the founding director of AW Asia, a private organization in NYC that exclusively promotes the field of contemporary Chinese art.