The Thingness of Air
Michelle Grabner on the work of Nazafarin Lotfi
“We become aware of the vessel’s holding nature when we fill a jug. The jug’s bottom and sides obviously take on the task of holding. But not so fast! When we fill the jug with wine, do we pour the wine into the sides and the bottom? At most we pour the wine between the sides and over the bottom…When we fill the jug, the pouring that fills it flows into the empty jug. The emptiness, the void, is what does the vessel’s holding. The empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as the holding vessel.”
Heidegger uses the ceramic jug, a functional common form with sides and a bottom made from fired clay as a philosophical case study to examine the concept of “thingness.”
Nazafarin Lotfi elaborates on Heidegger’s poetic obligation to “thingness” by freeing up the vessel and by making shapes that “stand in different truths” to the idea of function, science, process, and making.
Clearly Lotfi’s unique and irregular objects are not intended to hold liquid. But they are intended to shape the space of air or Heidegger’s void.
The outer contours of Lotfi’s forms are determined by harnessing distinct volumes of air trapped in plastic bags. These air-filled bladders are then subjected to the physical properties of papier-mâché, a process that introduces the material forces of weight, gravity, expansion, and contraction to the plastic membrane and the gas within.
Indexes of collapsing space, these exercises are concrete artifacts of dynamic physical effects.
Attentively sanded and painted surfaces comprise the shells of these forms. The paint tones are grisaille and evoke the language of illusionism, a conceptual play within a field of observables.
The inherent time that defines the individual gestures and events that comprise Lotfi’s work—the compression of air, the drying of wet paper, and the sanding of paint—are in a changing relationship or even at odds with our understanding of the thingness of the void inscribed by these processes.
Thus these objects evoke a palpable tension between the measurable science of collapsed pockets of air, the poetic vigilance of developing a carefully worked surface, and the semiotics of color.
Certainly we can observe that these forms are not practical like Heidegger’s exemplifying jug. Yet we cannot square the work’s material aesthetic with its conceptual wit.
In other words, the work’s embedded empirical explorations in combination with its array of artifice, generates a complex and compelling philosophical object.
It is incorrect to frame Lotfi’s objects as formal sculpture. And it is too easy to suggest that these works are a direct inheritor of Duchamp’s Paris Air (1919).
The beauty of these objects is misleading because the space shaped by these forms’ contours is the thing of the matter, the thingness of air.
“The jug as a vessel has a basic function; to hold. We become aware of that function when we fill the jug. It would appear that it is the bottom and sides that does the holding, the material that shapes the jug. If you fill the jug with water, do you then pour it into the bottom and walls, the material? What we are doing is to pour the water between the walls and over the bottom. It is the emptiness, the void, that is holding the water. “The empty space, this nothing of the jug, is what the jug is as a holding vessel.” What about the potter? If the holding is done by the void, then the potter is actually not making the jug. He shapes the clay. This shapes the void, which is where the vessel’s ‘thingness ‘ actually lies.”
Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, Thought, 163-180. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.