What do we hear when we don't hear anything?

Cornelius Lange


Translations: Dr. Jeremy Gaines

Composer John Cage supplied an amazing answer to this question: a piece of music. He simply called his composition Silence 4’ 33”, and it represents his experiences in a sound-proofed room during his attempt to explore the physical characteristics of silence. Cage came to the conclusion that it is not possible for people to hear silence. We always hear something; the sounds the body makes such as our breathing or heartbeat, for instance. Silence, in the sense of the absence of any sound is a notion only of the mind.

Everything is sound

Silence 4’ 33” consists of three movements, and can be interpreted on any instruments; however, the musician or musicians are not allowed to play them. What then does the audience hear? Nothing? Or silence? In fact, listeners perceive sounds not normally considered to be music: coughing, rustling, traffic sounds, chairs creaking, whispering, dogs barking. Sounds alien to music become its content.

What do we see when we see nothing?

Artist Holger Schmidhuber has came up with a startling answer to this question: “We do not see nothing. We always see something.” In his paintings he presents the visual impressions he experiences with eyes closed, during self-imposed blindness. Schmidhuber uses his art to lend substance and expression to a state that he himself term “unseeable”. Yet his paintings are not as you might first imagine, black and empty and gloomy, but rather reflect the full range of colors, materiality and perspective he sees with his mind’s eye.
Initially, Schmidhuber captures the “unseeable” in sketches. It might be a single impression, or (as was the case recently) a series of impressions that he employs in a painting; for instance, the colours he encounters in the course of a day during his excursions into the “unseeable”.

Quotations that expose the painting

Schmidhuber applies a sandwich system of sorts when transforming his impressions into art. First he applies oils and a painting evolves, then he applies a second layer consisting of pigments and other materials ground into powder such as stainless-steel or glass, which are then scattered onto the painting through a sieve. The effect is surfaces with a silky, soft look, an iridescent, crystaline and elegant appearance. Finally, he opens sections up to reveal and quote sections of the oil paint. “The monochrome may be charming, but it does not satisfy me as an artist. By scratching I destroy the idyll,” explains Schmidhuber, and indeed these openings often act as breaks and divisions, resemble will-o-the-wisps or aimless lines, yet likewise imbue the works with depth and volume, an enigmatic, fragile tenderness. Prior to this there is absolute purity, perfection – an ideal impression of color, yet an image which Schmidhuber withholds from the observer. It is only through the creation of openings that Schmidhuber reveals his paintings, and allows us to gaze at the concealed and intimate.