By Maristela Romero

A new installation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden features artwork from various artists through the decades, showcasing the expression of absence and the associated feelings of emptiness and loss that go along with it.

Curated by Hirshhorn’s curator-at-large, Gianni Jetzer, “What Absence is Made Of” seeks to capture the complexity of absence and its physical manifestation. The collection ranges from renowned artists such as Ana Mendieta, John Baldessari, Joseph Kusuth, Giovani Anselmo, to budding contemporary artists like Hiroshi Sugimoto and Ed Atkins, among many others.

An overview of the installation plastered across the first wall describes the represented artists as having “given form to this enigmatic nature [of absence], this space that exists between things and ideas, the concrete and the intangible.”

It begins by exploring the theme of “Dematerialization of the Art Object,” in which the main focus is conceptual art of the 1960s when “the idea behind the artwork took precedent” over the medium that it was represented by. This approach redefines art as something that can flourish without a physical embodiment, but rather through impalpable measures like a simple idea.

Four other themes are present throughout the installation in successive order: “The Body in Pieces,” “Close to Nothing,” “Memento” and “The Posthuman Body.” Each theme delves into how the formation of an artificial presence can come to replace the absence of memory, objects or individuals. Despite the negative space being filled by another presence, the presence itself further deepens the chasm left behind.

The installation also tackles the negative implications of an increasingly digitalized world by featuring Ed Atkins’ video, “Safe Conduct” and Seibren Versteeg’s “Neither Here Nor There,” which offer a dehumanized perception of our growing reliance on technology to fulfill experiences. These artworks suggest the loss of human distinction as computers and mechanization slowly change the essence of what it means to be human.

“Safe Conduct,” in particular, brings a profoundly disturbing interpretation of the loss of self. The animation portrays a man at an airport security check disassembling his body parts onto a conveyor belt as he nonchalantly hums an eerie and apprehensive melody. It displays how technology encourages artificiality to engulf individuals to the point in which their very essence becomes fabricated.

As the last featured installment in the exhibition, “Safe Conduct” makes a powerful impact as it truly immerses its audience in the intended purpose of the carefully curated collection: to present absence as an intriguing concept.

“What Absence is Made Of” will be available for viewing until summer of 2019.

Featured Photo Credit: Title spread across the front entrance to the exhibition (Maristela Romero/Bloc Reporter).

Maristela Romero is a freshman journalism and public health science major and can be reached at

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