Null Hypothesis: A Virginia Lake Public Art Proposal

Call for Artists

Virginia Lake Public Art Project (with visual examples of past public art)

Previous public art plan for Virginia Lake – a ten-foot-high, rainbow-colored statue of a guy playing an accordion

Absence art has been recognized at least since Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), and the modern tradition of extracting meaning from absence can be dated to Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (1818). In “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Susan Sontag concludes that

A genuine emptiness, a pure silence, are not feasible — either conceptually or in fact. If only because the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech (in many instances, of complaint or indictment) and an element in a dialogue.

Styles of radical will 3:34, 1969

Virginia Lake is an artificial urban lake one mile in circumference, excavated during the 1930s. Its man-made emptiness offers “borrowed scenery” views of Mt. Rose to the south, Peavine Mountain to the north, and casino towers to the east. Cormorants nest in the tiny island. Black-crowned night herons hunt by the water at dawn, and the single swan paddles around languidly. (His solitude is the subject of much local speculation.) The park is popular all year, from dawn until late evening.

Borrowed Scenery view of Peavine Mountain, looking north


A garden at the south end of the lake; only man-made signs mar the view.


Ducklings swim under big skies, before casino towers and the tiny island full of nesting cormorants.
The solitary swan grooms himself under a tree.


Fallen branches add life to the ditch.

Public art is almost always large in size and made of sturdy artificial materials. It is usually painted bright, unnatural colors and frequently takes striking geometric forms. Any public art project of a positive, physical nature would draw the eye from many points around the lake. Serious views of mountains, city, trees, water, and birds would be marred by eye-catching but capricious public art. Man-made items are the ugliest items at Virginia Lake.

Man-made items with smooth surfaces are targets for graffiti.
Man-made items are the only ugly objects visible at the lake.

I propose to use the medium of absence to protect Virginia Lake from positive public art. No sculptures, murals, or other structures will be created. The project requires no materials and can be completed within one day of approval.

The absence of concrete forms echoes Virginia Lake itself: if the void of Virginia Lake did not exist, the mountains would not be visible, lost in dense development. And many vacancies and voids increase the beauty of the park. On the northern shore of Virginia Lake, looking South, a stump is visible, and in the void created by the removal of the tree, a majestic view of Mt. Rose presents itself. In the northeast, a rock garden surrounds a perpetually empty fountain. The bathroom walls are empty of murals, resembling the simple, rustic bathrooms in National Parks.

The positive void suggested by a stump anti-obscures the view of Mt. Rose to the southwest.
A perpetually empty stone and concrete fountain is the void at the center of the mysterious rock garden growing wild.
The “void” of Virginia lake (its water) is visible behind the negative water of the fountain.

All three letters to the editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal (May 9, 12, and 27) on the subject of public art at Virginia Lake have advocated my proposal. I felt it my duty as an absence artist to put the null hypothesis proposal into an actionable form, although doing so is a form of positive collaboration (submitting a proposal), and my usual method of performance is negative collaboration (leaving everyone alone).

Past Work

1. Null Hypothesis at Lake Cootapatamba, absence, 160 meters by 160 meters (approx.), 2000, New South Wales, Australia. An absence work in negative collaboration with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service at the Kosciuszko National Park. Unbroken views of distant mountains and wildflowers emphasize the absence of positive artistic intervention. (Photo: CSIRO)

Null Hypothesis at Lake Cootapatamba

2. Null Hypothesis at Laguna Caliente, absence, 1700 meters by 1700 meters (approx.), 2008, Costa Rica. An absence work surrounding Laguna Caliente on the Poás Volcano in Poás Volcano National Park. The extreme acidity of the lake’s water, as well as frequent eruptions from the active volcano, establish absence by preventing the growth of vegetation. (Photo: Peter Andersen)

Null Hypothesis at Laguna Caliente

3. Null Hypothesis on K2, absence, 500 meters by 500 meters by 500 meters (approx.), 2006, Pakistan. K2 is a nearly inaccessible place located on the border between China and Pakistan. Its inhospitable nature prevents settlement, enforcing an emptiness that concretizes the political border between nations. This absence work emphasizes the liminal aspects of emptiness. (Photo: Svy123)

Null Hypothesis on K2


Materials: $0.00
Labor: $0.00
Expected maintenance: none

Total: $0.00

In many ways, my project is the most expensive of all those proposed. It requires the Reno Arts & Culture Commission, as well as the City Council, to decline to spend the $50,000 that has been allocated to building positive public art at Virginia Lake from the Residential Construction Tax and the Room Tax. In other words, it requires a genuine sacrifice on the part of local government: to abstain from spending allocated funds. The pre-allocation of funds transforms the non-building of art from a negative collaboration between government and citizens, to a positive collaboration, requiring unusual positive action. Non-building, more than the “speech” of positive art, would paradoxically establish a meaningful dialogue with the public, as exemplified by the letters to the editor and the many silent admirers of the unadorned lake.