Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Conceptual art: con-artists at work

A first in a limited series of my musings on art, which I have dubbed art-iculations (groan). It was triggered by the news that one of the most famous contemporary artists, Damien Hirst, made 200 million dollars on a recent auction of some of his works. This included several of his infamous animals or animal parts on formaldehyde, but perhaps even more stunningly his creation The Abyss - a collection of cigarette butts - which by itself fetched over 3 million dollars.
This is a typical example of conceptual art, where background information and lengthy explanations become more important than the "art" itself, which usually is of a type that anyone can make. Wikipedia gives an excellent overview article, which rightfully traces the origins of this art form to the controversial Duchamp urinal "created" in 1917 (see picture). This article gives a bewildering overview of the various conceptual artists (con-artists would be a perfect name for them) and their creations through the years. Just a few excerpts:
  • 1960: The artist Stanley Brouwn declares that all the shoe shops in Amsterdam constitute an exhibition of his work.
  • 1961: Robert Rauschenberg sent a telegram to the Galerie Iris Clert which said: 'This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.' as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits.
  • 1962: Piero Manzoni created The Base of the World, thereby exhibiting the entire planet as his artwork.
  • 1969: Robert Barry's Telepathic Piece of which he said 'During the exhibition I will try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image'.
  • 1972: Fred Forest buys an area of blank space in the newspaper Le Monde and invites readers to fill it with their own works of art.
  • 1999: Tracey Emin is nominated for the Turner Prize. Part of her exhibit is My Bed, her dishevelled bed, surrounded by detritus such as condoms, blood-stained knickers, bottles and her bedroom slippers.
  • 2001: Martin Creed wins the Turner Prize for The Lights Going On and Off, an empty room in which the lights go on and off.
It is the emperor's new clothes all over again. The only thing that I find amusing about these so called art pieces is when things go wrong. This can be a slight disturbance, such as what happened with the aforementioned My Bed, when two performance artists, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, jumped on the bed with bare torsos in order to "improve" the work, which they thought had not gone far enough. They called their performance Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey's Bed. The men also had a pillow fight on the bed for around fifteen minutes, to applause from the crowd, before being removed by security guards. This can be hilarious, as when a bag of rubbish that was an integral part of an exhibition by Gustav Metzger at the Tate gallery was thrown away by a cleaner (something similar happened to a Hirst piece earlier).
It is a real shame though that these con-artists get so much attention, sponsorship and payments, whilst real artists struggle.