Bataille, Blanchot and Kawara: Confronting the Unsayable and the Impact of Time

In: Giving Voice to Silence

In Languages of the Unsayable, Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser argue that all utterances are doubled by what is left unsaid, or by what cannot be said, and this unsayable quotient conditions these utterances through blanks and negations. The negativity that informs the unsayable thus acts as a double for the said and, while this negative force remains silent, its traceable impact can be felt. For 20th Century French authors Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, silence is a force that undoes writing, leaving the unsayable exposed in the text. Bataille confronts the unsayable when his inner experience leads him into a dead end, ‘where all possibilities are exhausted and the impossible prevails’. For Maurice Blanchot, the writer ‘belongs to a language that no-one speaks, that is addressed to no-one, that has no centre, [and] that reveals nothing’. For both authors, the writing process must sabotage itself if the unsayable is to be heard. But what of the visual artist who confronts the negativity of the unsayable? On Kawara, whose work is the subject of a restrospective at the Guggenheim called ‘On Kawara –Silence’, is a Japanese artist known for his daily date paintings, consisting of the date painted in white letters on a black background. Each new canvas is accompanied by a subtitle, gleaned from newspaper headlines of events occurring that day. Kawara’s choice of subtitles bespeaks his interest in ‘tragedy, violence, and death’. Indeed, despite their apparent tautological nature, his date paintings reveal much more than they appear to say. For Bataille, Blanchot, and Kawara – despite their different choice of media – the unsayable and silence are hinged to the negativity which is time. All three artists, in their own way, confront and reveal this negativity, a troubling dynamic that ‘speaks’ in their work.