The term refers to the part in a story when loose ends are tied up, and the reader prepares for the ending. But consider its etymological roots. Denouement derives from the French word dénouer, to untie a knot. Perhaps this seeming contradiction that underlay the term—to tie and to untie—says something about what a story should do at its end—bring closure as well as open up for the readers a consideration of new experiences, thoughts, and actions.

Group ZERO, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: George Pohl.

If ICA@50 can be likened to a story of the institute’s founding, maturation, and its continued growth, I was tasked with conceiving the denouement to its thickening plot. Given the last eight weeks of this six-month-long anniversary exhibition to present my curatorial projects, I found myself visualizing the high walls of ICA’s second floor gallery gradually filling up with all sorts of objects that would come through as part of fifty micro-projects that constitute the larger one. It is this accretion to which I answer.

Accumulation does not necessarily mean positive growth. I offer a simple example to illustrate the point: the shiny worn-down part of a stone charm effectively contains the accumulated traces of hope-filled gestures. Similarly, Duane Linklater’s scraping away of the layers of white paint in the Ramp Space is an accumulation of small acts which results in shallow dips of negative space.

In a statement prepared for the 2002 ICA Ramp Project Without Ground, to which Linklater is responding, the late artist Kimowan Metchewais described the walls of the museum as the ribcage of a living animal. He said that his photographs are like tattoos etched onto the bones of the beast. To claim to have tattooed on the bones is to make an absolute statement about the enduring nature of his work, as well as of the work’s visibility.

Metchewais thought that there are two kinds of stories. Some are like hair. They grow and are stuck on you, but eventually they’ll fall out and be swept away. They are, despite their visibility, ephemeral and forgettable. The other kind of story is the one that gets etched into your ribcage. These stories can never be excised. They stay with you permanently even if they cannot be seen. Metchewais’s words make me look at the walls differently—as vessels containing stories that fundamentally structure how we, as curators, artists, administrators, and visitors, are shaped within this living, organic system.

As Linklater’s divots on the wall become filled with his desire to connect with Metchewais, three artists engage with an accretion of a different kind in the high wall space. I asked Josh Kline, Benjamin Tiven, and Noa Giniger, whose solo presentations respond to ICA’s 2004 exhibition The Big Nothing, to help me return the gallery to an empty state by selectively taking down objects from their salon-style hang. In response, Kline chose to occlude the view of the walls by draping them with plastic sheets and creating an impromptu laboratory space within ICA. The whited-out space directs the focus to his work, part of which is literally a biology experiment—tubs containing various samples hosting bacterial growth. Rather than attempting to create a blank slate within which to exhibit work, Tiven selects objects from past ICA@50 micro-exhibitions. Influenced and inspired by the artist Morgan Fisher, Tiven re-hangs Fisher’s Aspect Ratio Pieces in proximity to his own work to trigger a productive conversation about the history of presenting moving images in a gallery space. Finally, Giniger considers the wall as a bearer of constantly changing information. In a new work created specifically for ICA, she inscribes on the wall a quote from the Hebrew poet Lea Goldberg: “Years go by and more words are forbidden.”

The three artists, who are responding to The Big Nothing, perform a kind of countdown. From a radical obfuscation to a selective engagement to a poetic insertion, their varied approaches to emptying out the gallery space confirm, if anything, the myriad ways ICA’s history can be recounted. As Giniger winds down this series of three exhibitions, she leaves us with her online work, Absolute Countdown. Upon opening up the web page, a clock begins ticking down from |00:10|. Anticlimactically, once it reaches zero, the count continues on, in negative value, from |-00:01|. In mathematics, an absolute value—indicated by a bracket of two vertical lines—is neither negative nor positive, but is quantified in relation to zero. This countdown in absolute values challenges our conception of linear time and teleological view of history by suggesting that an infinite set of numbers exist between +1 and -1, and zero is but one among many. It is neither the beginning nor the end.

Zero is, however, a potent symbol; Otto Piene described it as “a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning as at the count-down when rockets take off—zero is the incommensurable zone in which the old state turns into the new.” The final presentation of ICA@50 is a historical look at one of the institute’s first exhibitions from 1964, Group ZERO, guest curated by Piene. Pairing Piene’s words and works with those of younger contemporary artists, the micro-exhibit The Capricious Sky explores how the concerns of the group resonate today. I dare not say I brought ICA@50 full circle, but in enlisting many artists along the way, I hope we are ending our half-century celebration with a void full of the efforts of its own making.

—Liz Park
The Big NothingJosh Kline: Living Wages / The Big Nothing (2004)Benjamin Tiven: Synthetic Spectra / The Big Nothing (2004)Noa Giniger: Durational Boundaries / The Big Nothing (2004)The Capricious Sky / Group Zero (1964)Josh Kline, Benjamin Tiven, and Noa Giniger in Conversation About Nothing / The Big Nothing (2004)Artist Talk: Benjamin Tiven in conjunction with Matt Neff: Second Sight at The Print Center