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Zero The Hero, Corn Exchange, Brighton, May 24
The concept of nothing has had some pretty bad press in the Western world over the past 2,000 years or so.
Whether it’s having nothing, doing nothing or being nothing, there’s an inherent absence to the idea that makes “zero” a daunting word in the language.
Inspired by Brighton Festival’s guest artistic director Anish Kapoor’s preoccupation with nothingness, writer Fiachra Gibbons is bringing together a wildly different group of individuals for a discussion with the aim of rehabilitating this neglected mathematical hero in the public imagination.
Artist Michael Landy – who famously destroyed his every possession in an Oxford Street shop window – will be joined by philosopher and author Julian Baggini, Iranian mathematician Dr Ali Taheri and Isabel Losada, best-selling author.
“We tend to see nothingness in the West as something that’s kind of frightening,” says Gibbons. “For us it’s a vacuum to fill, but in central Asia, it’s seen as nirvana or heaven.
“The whole idea of nothingness is made concrete in mathematics, but it’s also a philosophical and spiritual concept – that’s why it’s so freaky to us.”
He says the concept of zero is particularly pertinent at a time when the headlines scream negative equity and negative inflation at us.
“Purely from a Western point of view, we’ve had more than 20 years of a very materialistic culture, where it’s about more and more, but the floor has fallen out from under us. We’re in a situation where millions of shares aren’t worth what they were, and if you have nothing, it’s the only place where there’s actually a bit of stability.”
The group of individuals brought together seem uniquely qualified for the discussion. Taheri’s role as lecturer in mathematics at the University of Sussex speaks for itself, but as an Iranian raised within a Sufi tradition – which celebrates nothingness as a perfect state – around him, he also brings a spiritual dimension to the discussion.
Julian Baggini (whose attendance was in question as we went to press) is well-known as an atheist, and Gibbons says he brings “the baggage we all carry” to the table as a thinker from the western humanist philosophical tradition.
Losada’s book Battersea Park Road To Enlightenment won her an army of fans for its portrayal of its author’s real-life endeavours to lead a more fulfilling life, while Landy’s systematic categorisation and destruction of more than 7,000 objects he owned, including his car and family photographs, brought him to the attention of the global media.
“He really did have nothing at the end of it,” Gibbons says. “Even the first paintings he ever had shown on the Tony Hart programme went, and he was left only with what he came into the world with.”
Gibbons himself now lives in France, where he’s writing a book about the astonishingly rich history of the Balkans, something of a cultural blind spot for many northern Europeans. He says we’re no closer to getting to grips with the complex protean concept of zero than the ancient Greeks, who struggled with the notion of “nothing being something”.
“This is a paradox that gets handed to us on a plate and I don’t think we’re any more equipped to deal with it than people were 4,000 years ago.”
- Starts 5pm, tickets cost £8. Call 01273 709709