Upon Receipt of My Diploma

A headline caught my eye while trolling the Internet for finals week memes that said, “An Invisible Artwork by Yves Klein Just Sold for More than $1 Million at Sotheby’s.” The article was quick to clarify that the private European collector with the winning bid didn’t buy empty space, per se, but rather a paper receipt for a “Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle.” Literally translated as a “zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility,” the receipt is a piece of paper that certifies the ownership of a “zone of empty space” conceptually created by the French artist in 1959. In essence, Klein said he created an invisible work of art. The visible receipt allowed someone to buy it. [1]

These receipts are incredibly rare, reports Sotheby’s, as Yves Klein’s sale of his invisible “zones”—each accompanied by a receipt, or proof, of ownership of the intangible, and only sold if pure gold was the payment—was accompanied by a ritual: the purchaser of the artwork would burn the receipt while Klein dropped half of the gold into the Seine. This ritual, Klein said, “rebalanced the natural order” between buyer and seller. Thus, hardly any receipt survives today. [2] Where the immaterial zones they claimed for the purchaser are is anyone’s guess; they may be swimming around in outer space, wandering the wilds of New Zealand among wooly sheep, swallowed by a duck in Wisconsin, or hiding in the Harold B. Library’s stacks on the fifth floor. I can swear I’ve felt a slight breeze while looking into voids of my own during my four years spent there.  

The receipt this unnamed collector bought is carefully framed and meant to be hung on a wall with care. It represents, by its materiality, certain immaterialities. Curious, I look up “receipt” in the Oxford English Dictionary and am struck by its definition: a written or printed acknowledgement of something conferred or purchased. [3]  

“Receipt,” thinks my finals-and-senioritis-befuddled brain, sounds awfully like “diploma.” 

***** 

Last month, my mother unearthed a box of my high school mementos: a bent feather from a marching band hat (I marched the clarinet to the beat of my own drum, as I lacked the crucial ability to match my steps to the drums playing for all others; it was a short-lived phase that, even now, causes me to break out in nervous hives when I hear “When the Saints Go Marching In”); an old AP English exam (I thought Hamlet was “a silly Kurt Cobain drama about the existential acne-angst of teenage hormonal dooms”—I, blessedly, no longer think, or write, like this); a T-shirt from the time I thought I was athletic and could run track; a knee brace from the time I realized I definitely wasn’t and couldn’t.  

At the bottom of the box was a brown leather portfolio, eight-by-eleven, with a glossy sheen. I cracked it open, expecting to see my high school diploma inside. Alas, I hadn’t saved the actual diploma with my name and the signature of conferral. Instead, I was greeted with the fake diploma from NextDayDiploma.com (they helpfully put their URL below the faux signatures for “All Your Future Fake Diploma Needs!”), the piece of paper that they stuff in all the portfolios so you can have a prop as you waltz across the auditorium to the sounds of pomp, circumstance, rustling polyester, and illicit airhorns (you know what you did, Neighbor Steve).  

Now, this faux piece of paper lives in my memory box next to the bent feather and the T-shirts and the exams. Go, eighteen-year-old me. I hope twenty-five-year-old me will be wiser with my BYU diploma. At the least, I hope I don’t confuse the fake with the real. 

But this begs the question: what is the (real) diploma itself? It’s a postdated piece of parchment that certifies pictorially my blood, sweat, tears, and prayers spent over the last four years in pursuit of my degree. When I receive it in the mail three weeks from now, it will say “April 22, 2022,” and will be screen-print signed by those whom we have decided their screen-printed signatures matter. It will be a receipt for my undergraduate degree—my written acknowledgement of something conferred.  

But where in the world is my actual degree? Can I hold it? Hang it on my wall? What is this thing that I’ve earned over the past four years? What does it mean that I “earned” an immaterial thing, or that, to play upon the headline that so captured my attention, “An Invisible Degree by Brigham Young University Was Just Awarded at Marriott Center”?  

The word “diploma” means “to bend or fold double,” or, literally, “a doubling.” Its singularity lies in its doubling of my conferred degree. My diploma will hang on a wall like the just-auctioned receipt in its frame, standing in for something. I can’t help but see a void—a gap—widen between my physical diploma and the degree I can’t touch or sense. It’s lost in the zone of immaterial pictorial sensibilities, a thing that both is and isn’t.  

***** 

We live to relate, and, in 2022, we relate pictorially one to another: memes, GIFs (whether pronounced like the first syllable of my favorite peanut butter brand or like the gift they are on a terrible, no-good, very bad Monday), selfies of me binging on late-night peanut butter by the spoonful as finals looms large in my purposefully peripheral vision, Google image searches of Gene Wilder’s wide eyes and sinister little-girl smiles in front of burning houses. We collect memes by the jpeg-full, bytes of bites of humor and irony and honesty gathered in neat file folder icons on our hard drives.  

But I can honestly say that, in recent memory, and as I prepare to graduate and leave BYU behind, I can’t recall coming across an image that I relate to more viscerally and immediately than Yves Klein’s Le saut dans le vide (1960), or “Leap into the Void.” [5]

Graduation terror-excitement—territement? Excitorror? —mood, indeed. 

The image shows Yves Klein himself jumping from a rooftop on the Rue Gentil-Bernard in October of 1960 with arms extended outward and chin tipped up in defiance of the blacktop below. It is a black and white photomontage, lending verity to the fantastical image of a small Frenchman in a black leotard defying gravity and self-preserving sense to demonstrate man’s ability to undertake unaided space travel. (Indeed, from a young age, he had professed his belief in his power to levitate and had a bone to pick with NASA about using unnecessary toys like, say, spaceships and rockets, to explore the upper atmosphere.) [6] His body holds, for the forever-moment captured by the camera, the liminal space between the solidity of the tree line and the negative space of the sky. His upturned face seems to blur into nothingness—into the white void.  

The “void” was an artistically provocative theme for Klein and other monochrome artists such as Supremacists Kazimir Malevich and Aleksander Rodchenko. Of Malevich’s work compared to his own, Klein said, “Malevich was actually standing before the infinite…I am in it. You don’t represent or produce it—you are it.” [7] Hence, Klein’s 1958 staged show, “Le Vide” (The Void) at Iris Clert’s gallery in Paris: when 3,000 visitors arrived to experience the opening, they were met by Klein in a vacant room. [8]

What helps Klein be so fearless? What helps him jump off a building with nary a bodily cue that the ground awaits below? Maybe it was his orientation to the imagined Void, a steadfast belief in a zone of empty space that was filled with wonder and possibility, or a firm faith in his own ability to fly. Or maybe Klein could leap into the Void because he saw what we do not: his friends, edited out of the scene, standing on the road beneath Klein’s outstretched arms as they held open a large tarp to catch their friend as he fell. [9]

We are infinities, says Klein. The void is full, says the receipt that claims ownership over it. You can leap, says my diploma that certifies a conferral of an immaterial something I’ve only just earned. 

*****

A leap into the void. That’s what graduation is, beyond much pomp, circumstance, and polyester, beyond the honor cords and the photographs in front of “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve” and April flowers knocked back into their soil-blankets by our spring snows. It’s a leap, a bound, into the unknown. We bounce into the beyond, buoyed by the well-wishes of friends and family, flowers in crinkly cellophane wrappers and leis layered upon leis while on the Marriott Center’s sloping lawn. 

And then comes two months from now. Three. Six. Two years pass, twenty, and we are there, still in the beyond beyond BYU. We cannot know what is coming. We can only hold the piece of paper that certifies we possess what we need to be ready for it. We hold a material receipt of our immaterial pictorial sensibilities—information literacy sensibilities and critical thinking sensibilities, the “I took ECON 110 and can handle The Wall Street Journal’s NASDAQ index with only minor confusion” sensibility, the “I read Crime and Punishment in a literature class and can relate to living within complex socioeconomic realities a la Raskolnikov ” sensibility, sensibilities about worlds beyond our own and questions that cannot be answered simply, or quickly, or even definitively. We, like Klein’s theory of the infinite, are our immaterial degrees that, yes, on April 22 will be represented by a certificate of ownership in the form of a diploma. 

I cannot avoid the void; graduation is this week, and whether I get above a 90 per cent on my Physical Science 100 final exams or not, I’m walking across a stage toward it. But am I ready to jump, like Klein, into the void with head held high and arms outstretched to embrace the space beyond? Can I leap into the void, recognizing that there isn’t any such thing as The Future, only each successive Now, a series of moments that, like flashbulb bursts of incandescence, light my path step by faithful step? Can I remember that I, too, have loved ones holding a tarp below to catch me if I should fall?

I ran this essay past one of those loved ones yesterday. She did some leaping of her own, as she took my use of “immaterial” to mean “unimportant under the circumstances; irrelevant” rather than “spiritual rather than physical.” Her point was well-taken: no matter how immaterial my degree seems to be, it is not immaterial. No matter how non-physical my degree is, it is not unimportant under the circumstances, particularly our material circumstanceswar in Ukraine, endemic diseaseand immaterial threatsviral hate, primal fear. And, in speaking out into the void of the blogosphere here: I don’t know who will read this, but I hope at least one person at the cusp of their own void finds here a sense that the material and immaterial both matter, and that there are things beyond the physical that are worth paying attention to, and leaping toward.

I plan to save my “real” diploma, though I’m sorely tempted to perform a Klein purchase ritual, burn my diploma-receipt to assert full ownership over my immaterial sensibilities, and throw gold into the Seine (or, the next best thing: the Provo River). Alas once more: I care too much about the paper itself, I don’t carry gold bullion in my wallet, and the Provo River doesn’t need more litter thrown into its (shrinking) depths. But I may walk by the stream that fords its way by the Life Science Building, faux diploma/receipt in hand, and ponder upon things material and immaterial. And if you see me leaning forward with arms open wide and chin tilted to the sky, you’ll know why.

This blog essay was written by Abby Thatcher, BYU Humanities Center undergraduate intern.

 

[1] See “An Invisible Artwork by Yves Klein Just Sold for More than $1 Million at Sotheby’s” (https://news.artnet.com/market/yves-klein-invisible-artwork-sold-more-than-1-million-2095096) and “Anonymous Buyer Pays Over $1 Million for a Piece of Invisible Art” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/anonymous-buyer-pays-million-dollars-for-invisible-art-180979881/). 

[2] “Invisible,” ibid.

[3] OED,  “receipt, n.”

[4] OED, “diploma, n.” 

[5] Yves Klein, “Le saut dans le vide” (“Leap into the Void”), artistic action and photomontage (1960), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/266750. 

[6] See Angelica Sardini, “Leap into the Void,” https://www.sartle.com/artwork/leap-into-the-void-yves-klein

[7] See “Yves Klein: The Art Story,” https://www.theartstory.org/artist/klein-yves/. 

[8] Yves Klein, “Le Vide” (“The Void”), Iris Clert Gallery, Paris (1958), http://www.yvesklein.com/en/oeuvres/view/642/the-specialization-of-sensibility-in-the-raw-material-state-of-stabilized-sensibility-exhibition-of-the-void/.

[9] See Jacqui Palumbo, “How Yves Klein Tricked the World with This Iconic Photograph,” https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-yves-klein-tricked-iconic-photograph. 

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