Only in the nothingness may we find ourselves: An Interview with Artist John Franzen

Written & Curated by Lilly Ball


john franzen artist

“Slowly exhaling, the young artist is standing at a heavy drawing table and is drawing an uninterrupted line from top to bottom on a thick white sheet of paper with a wide felt-tip pen. He repeats this in always the same distance and width until it covers the complete sheet. He breathes regularly, but still each of the numerous sheets that he covers like this presents a different picture of waves searching for a pattern.”

— Dr. Wolfgang Becker on the artist John Franzen


What is it about the absence of our physical world that is so appealing?
[In order] to have a better understanding of what we are really, we have to look beyond the understanding of the physical world and how we think. Every scientist and priest searches for truth in the unseen worlds in order to get closer to the meaning and creation of life and the universe. They search for the truth far beyond the physical world. I am doing the same, but I am an artist.

As an artist, you investigate not so much in research. My investigation is not scientific or religious. We are creators, so we deal with forces from [within ourselves] that [can] bring us closer to the real source of what things are and where they are coming from. We create from out of creation itself, [which] is a very non-physical dimension of existence. My motivation to investigate the non-physical world comes from a longing to find an everlasting truth in order to trust things which are not going to die again and again. I consciously try not to understand things in order to feel them and to touch and merge with their real substance.

We think we are only made up of our body and think everything around us is something else, but it’s all in our mind. A simple, little, stupid thought.”

When my physical body dies, my energy and essence stays. I am interested in that energy. The everlasting part of things…

I don’t find answers in the physical world.  Everybody and every thing dies at a certain point. And dying hurts. We all look for love and we all want to have it forever. I would rather love something immortal like nature, than very fragile pieces like a human or a flower.

Understanding is more about feeling it than knowing it. It’s a non-rational way of using the mind in order to evolve a non-dualistic awareness. This is why I focus on the unseen, the unnamed and the bodiless existence of things—the inherent reality which we can’t see, hear and touch with our body. I call this “the nothingness of things.“

john franzen each line one breath

john franzen each line one breath

john franzen each line one breath

How do you achieve wholeness from nothingness?

“The nothingness” is the most crucial state of consciousness for myself.

By feeling and understanding “the nothingness” of a thing or a being, I am able to merge with the universe. It’s like what German physicist Hans-Peter Dürer said: Matter is actually empty and the space around matter is what resonates. We consider ourselves and the space around us as emptiness, but if we were to identify ourselves with the nothingness around us, we would be able to merge with the universe and become one with it, in turn creating wholeness within ourselves.
Nothingness thus becomes an entity— living, breathing matrices we live in. But nothingness doesn’t mean emptiness. That’s totally different.

The sentence, “I am what I am not“ explains it the best for me. Everything around me, the people, the plants, the ground under my feet, the sky, the entire planet, even the sun and the universe is what we think we are not. We think we are only made up of our body and think everything around us is something else, but it’s all in our mind. A simple, little, stupid thought.

I like explaining it with this story: Your finger thinks it’s an individual and has free will, but it doesn’t realize thats it’s connected to your hand. And your hand also thinks it’s an individual, but doesn’t realize that its connected to your arm and shoulder, chest, and so on and so on.

If you become what you’re not, you see yourself fully.

john franzen each line one breath
john franzen each line one breath
It seems to be a very spiritual way of thinking, but to me it’s a more absolute, realistic way of thinking.

Let me explain it through the act of breathing and where it comes from: The air we breathe has also been in plants, animals, other people, clouds, even oceans and stones. We are, in essence, exhaling and inhaling each other from the inside out. Right now I am breathing the same air that was exhaled by people and things that lived 1,000 years before me. Like a T-rex or a cave man. The same oxygen was in their blood and in their brain and heart.

It’s the same with water. The water in my body was also in other people, plants, animals, seas, rivers, clouds and oceans. So now, do you really think you’re so different or separate from other people, nature, or the universe?

“In my work, I look for the origin, the beginning of something in order to understand its very meaning. This is why I reduce the creative form to its bare minimum. “

We are the planet and the universe itself. That’s our real body.

“Nothingness” is just a word, a concept, an illusion of what my mind does not consider as itself. But it’s actually the key. It’s the last tone of the octave of a dualistic thinking before the mind enters into a singular understanding of being.

Ask yourself what you are not and try to feel it. Know that the physical world is not separate from the spiritual or abstract world. Embracing our nothingness is the bridge to our wholeness and oneness with everything.

john franzen each line one breath

john franzen each line one breath


Lines in nature represent increments of time passed—i.e., lines in the sand representing the encroaching tide, lines in a tree representing growth—so the lines you create with each breath, are they perhaps the physical manifestation of time’s inexorable march? 

The line is the initial sequence of any drawing. It’s in the very first cave paintings and it’s in what we create today. The caveman started with the same form we use today. Each face, tree, image and picture you want to draw starts with a point and then a line. It’s the beginning, the original motivation of any drawing itself. The archetypical inner-body of a drawing.

If we draw more and more lines and order them to become a figurative thing we are no longer seeing the initial line. Through many lines, we see a world. But the initial line is the inner, deconstructed element of what things really are.

In my work, I look for the origin, the beginning of something in order to understand its very meaning. This is why I reduce the creative form to its bare minimum. It’s is a prenatal state of matter and figure. It’s a dimension where things still don’t have a name, face, or body yet. It shows only the will and force to create.

john franzen each line one breath

In an abstract way, can spectators achieve a sense of the temporal parameters involved in the creation of each piece?

Yes. Kenya Hara explains in his book White that the nothingness or emptiness in design and esthetics effects peoples’ minds: “Striving to use ever-simpler forms to reach people’s inner selves and complex thoughts. Simplicity leads to emptiness, the space where people’s minds reside.“

I see it a bit as a healing journey. I believe that if we go back to the source and everlasting essence of things, it calms us down, it opens our minds and hearts in a very deep and powerful way.

What are you going to do after this interview?

First of all, I really liked your questions. My answers were very spiritual or mystical, but that’s how I think.

I’ve worked with life-forces and breath and the initial sequence of every drawing, the line, but the next step will be my heartbeat and then my brainwaves. It’s a concept that focuses on life forces, and also the other side, which is death and destruction. Death is something that we don’t want to accept, but nature and the universe deals with death and destruction in the same way it does with life and growth. I am already busy creating new works about this. They are very conceptual and minimal, but still poetical.

John Franzen was born as a single child in 1981 in Aachen, Germany. Both parents worked in a hospital. Constant changes of residence within Germany and the resulting lack of social connections led to a withdrawal into his creative inner world as a child. At the age of six, Franzen moved with his mother to Belgium, where he grew up close to nature. The last three years of high school at the technical Robert Schumann Institute in eastern Belgium were marked by an art education of 20 hours per week. After leaving school in 2001 he worked as a woodcutter and nature-pedagogue. In 2003 he began his studies at the Kunstakademie in Maastricht, The Netherlands, where he graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. His life as an independent artist is mainly marked by an intimate, self-paced career.  His interests are wide and unconventional, and primarily devoted to issues of human spiritual nature and origin. You can view more of his work at and follow him on Tumblr.


Lilly Ball joined FORTH Magazine as Art Director/Brand Manager in the Fall of 2014. She is interested in writing, people, and the forest.

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