Pushing Out the Boundaries

I often say there’s nothing new in art, but I might have to admit I am wrong.  Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland in conjunction with the University of Western Australia’s SymbioticA, is opening a new exhibition “Visceral:  The living art experiment” on January 28th.

According to the press release “the exhibition will explore and provoke questions about scientific truths, what constitutes living and ethical and artistic implications of life manipulation”.    Seventeen artists “will challenge visitors to consider the tension between art and science and the cultural, economic and ethical implications of biosciences today”.

Emma Crichton-Miller of the Telegraph explains that this exhibition experiments with living organisms such as “segments of DNA, tissue cultures, cell lines, breast milk, viruses, neurons and so on are set to work for artistic purposes.”

“Semi-Living Dolls” are living tissue engineered sculptures where cells are grown on biodegradable polymers shaped as dolls created by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr.  Eventually the polymers disappear and the cells remain.  This particular work was first shown in 2000.

“Blood Wars” are white blood cells collected from several individuals whom then “battle” in a Petri dish created by Kathy High.

This sort of exhibition is likely to raise a lot of moral, ethical, philosophical and artistic debate. Bob Hogge likes to say that art is everywhere.  Here’s surely the proof of that statement.

Would this be censored if it was in the United States?  Do you think this is art?  What are your views?

What is Art? Yet Again

The old chestnut of ‘what is art?’ has reared its head again. 

This time the European Commission has taken it upon themselves to decide that the late Dan Flavin’s ground breaking minimalist sculptures using colored florescent lights are not works of art.  They are just……light bulbs and so subject to VAT tax which in the UK will become 20% as of January 1st 2010 instead of just 5% if they were deemed sculptures. 

This all started in 2006 when the Haunch of Venison Gallery of London imported six video pieces by Viola and a light sculpture by Dan Flavin.  UK Customs decided that these could not be classed as art and levied a £36,000 VAT charge on the gallery.  The gallery won a landmark victory on appeal in 2008 but this verdict has now been overturned by the European Commission. 

It’s interesting that lawyers, judges and civil servants should be the ones to determine what does and does not constitute art.  Their reasoning in determining that Flavin’s work was not art, according to the Guardian is that “It is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art’ but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it.”  So because the component parts of Flavin’s work could be dismantled and used individually for light, it cannot be determined to be a piece of art work.   The Telegraph further reports that the court said that the work had  “the characteristics of lighting fittings … and is therefore to be classified … as wall lighting fittings”.

What do you think all the worldwide galleries and collectors who have purchased Flavin’s work would say to this decision?  I suppose the same decision would apply to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountains”. 

It sounds crazy, but according to the Guardian “there is one particularly famous precedent for the commission’s decision, in a row over the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. In 1926 the American collector and photographer Edward Steichen bought a bronze version of his tall slender Bird In Space, and attempted to import it to the US. Since it had neither head, feet nor feathers, US customs refused to accept it as a zero-rated work of art, and instead classified it as “a manufacture of metal … held dutiable at 40%”.”

Additional coverage by the Telegraph

Soul, Empathy & Humor

I walked by and experienced soul, empathy and humor.  What I saw was steel.  This is art.

Sokari Douglas Camp uses steel to create sculptures that remind me of people that I am sure I know or at the very least have encountered.  They exude a dignity of character and human uniqueness that bring the sculptures to life.  Looking into their eyes, I feel a corresponding enquiry that is a little unnerving.

Born in Buguma, Nigeria, educated in the USA and UK, currently living and working in London, Sokari Douglas Camp merges the traditions, symbolism and fables of her African origins with the sharp rhetoric of modern day socio-political issues worldwide.  Some of her works are mythical and philosophical, whilst others are distinctly more serious and political and yet even these pieces hold a degree of self-deprecating humor that is gentle and remind us that despite the longevity of steel and the consequences of human ignorance, nothing lasts forever.    

I was captivated by this refreshing exhibition “An Installation of Steel Sculptures”, a title that has little artifice or ego which is also reflected in the artwork at Stux Gallery at 530 West 25th Street, Chelsea, New York until December 18th.

2010 Turner Prize

The Turner Prize is a contemporary art award that was set up in 1984 to celebrate new developments in contemporary art.  The prize is awarded each year to ‘a British artist under fifty for an outstanding exhibition or other presentation of their work in the twelve months preceding’.

Nominations are invited each year, and the prize is judged by an independent jury that changes annually. The four shortlisted artists present works in a show normally held at Tate Britain before the winner is announced in December. Artists are not judged on their show at Tate, but the decision is based on the work they were nominated for.

Over the years the Turner Prize nominations have attracted a fair amount of controversy and media attention.  Past nominees have included Damien Hirst and his formaldehyde shark , and Tracey Emin and her soiled bed.  The K Foundation and the Stuckists usually demonstrate outside the exhibition.

The four nominees for the 2010 Turner Prize were announced today and are Dexter Dalwood, Angela de la Cruz, Susan Philipsz, The Otolith Group. 

This year there is nothing shocking.  The only question is whether Susan Philipsz work is really visual art.  She is a sound artist.  Her work is called called Lowlands, which consists of overlapping recordings of her voice singing a plaintive Scottish folk song in an empty room.  The work was originally installed under the Clyde Walkway Bridges in Glasgow.  The work  at the exhibition at Tate Britain lasts for eight and a half minutes, after which there is a gap of 35 seconds before it repeats in a continual loop.  “Everyone can identify with the human voice,” the artist told The Times. She sees her work as a “natural progression” from making physical sculptures to making sculptures in sound that she hopes “will heighten your sense of self in the space” and also make the listener more acutely aware of the physical environment around them.

It certainly is conceptual.

How does it make you feel?

I like to spend some time reading other blogs and critics from around the world including those who write about subjects other than art.  I feel that it can give me some perspective and allows me to do some fairly inconsequential and biased benchmarking. 

So I’m reading The Times and an article by Giles Coren when I come across this line:

 “(it) is making my groin pulse, as I write just remembering it.” 

What is he’s talking about?……Don’t you wish you had a little bit of whatever he was remembering?…….Well I’ll let you in on the secret…….. “slim, lean ravioli, filled with calves’ brains and drenched in butter and sage”.  It sounds pretty good to me, but doesn’t make me pulse…..

So I wondered if I’d ever seen a piece of fine art (and let’s leave pornography out of this equation for the time being as it could get messy), that made my groin pulse?  I’m not sure about my groin, but there are photographs that have made me sad or happy and I have had visceral reactions to a few paintings in my lifetime.  However if I am really honest I’m not sure I’ve ever cried or laughed or even pulsed over a piece of visual art.  On the other hand, some songs and writings have elicited very strong emotions from me. 

Is this because visual art requires a more intellectual interaction?  Many artists try to convey their emotions in their art and want the viewer to “feel” the art.  Someone recently suggested to me that the most important moment in seeing art, is the first few seconds of first seeing it, before thinking too much and allowing your own thoughts to crowd the impact of the visual sensation.  Is it that the visual sense is the weakest sense to evoke emotions? 

Is there a painting that has made you pulse?

The Ghost of Duchamp Present


Appreciating that we’re still on the 11th day of Christmas, I feel validated in using the analogy from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, in that the spirit of Duchamp’s urinal seems to be unusually strong particularly in England at the moment.

Kane Cunningham a landscape painter and the head of the fine art degree course at Yorkshire Coast College has bought a house that is on the verge of falling into the ocean, following in the footsteps of neighboring houses which have already succumbed to the effects of nature and fallen 200 ft into the North Sea. The house has been rigged with cameras to capture the house as it falls and the sunrise on that fateful day which may be in a couple of days or in a few months. Cunningham’s investment of $4500 in the property was made to create an “installation” titled Last Post “as the address will one day cease to exist and so it’s a rare opportunity to participate in an original and unique work of art”. In an interview with The Times Cunningham said that that the house symbolized “lost dreams, financial disaster and threatening sea levels. Its global recession and global warming encapsulated.”

The public have been invited to participate in the installation by sending letters, which will be pinned to the wall as part of the work, then destroyed as the house disappears. Cunningham is also using the house as a studio and creating paintings of the property and the view.

He very kindly asks the question himself: “People might ask can a house that is about to fall into the sea be a work of art? I say it can.”

I would like to ask another question: Is it good art?

Michael Landy on the other hand who in 2001 took “everything” he owned included holy water from the Knock shrine, in Ireland, his car, his clothes, various works of art, his passport and his sales tax records and burned it all in an empty store in London’s busy Oxford Street, in the name of art titled Break Down, is on a new mission of destruction in the name of art.
This time Landy has taken a large garbage bin in which people will be invited to come along — or apply via the internet at art-bin.co.uk — and throw away works of art. These can be their own works or works they just own; in the latter case, they will require evidence of permission from the artist and/or evidence of ownership. Landy has specified that only art will go into the garbage bin and not just any old junk and he will approve what goes in. In an interview with The Times he said “I suddenly got protective about the bin, and I thought, ‘I don’t want just anything to go in.’ So there’s this completely subjective thing that only things I like will go in. There’s not hard and fast rules, to be honest.” He has decided that only “good stuff” will go in as a matter of pride.

So Landy decides what is good art. Who decides whether Landy’s art is good art?

And then there’s the Serpentine Gallery of London, home of contemporary art which is hosting “Design Real” curated by German designer, Konstantin Grcic until February 7th The show is displaying 43 everyday functional ‘real’ items all conceived in the last decade: mass-produced products that have a practical function in everyday life. The exhibition presents a wide range of objects by leading international designers and manufacturers, from furniture and household products to technical and industrial innovations including a battery, suitcase, step ladder, an IKEA flat pack chair, fishing bait and a lacquered designer humidifier by Naoto Fukasawa.

Grcic explains “What interests me about industrial design is how these things are made, in what material, and how this has affected their language and their quality. Some objects are very technically-driven; the function really determines the object. Other objects have much more of a signature or an authorship; you see the handwriting of the designer who made it and that’s what makes it so special.”

According to The Times’ review of the exhibition the Serpentine Gallery “is asking the obvious question: what happens to the urinal (Duchamp’s Fountain) — or some other piece of everyday matter that we barely glance at — when you remove it from the “real” world and place it on a pedestal?”

Does it make it art? If yes, does it make it good art?

The Meaning of Art

Jonathan Jones

Having recently talked about the relationship with art from a viewer’s point of view, I was intrigued to read Jonathan Jones of the Guardian’s take on good art.     In his latest blog he says “the best art is meaningless”.   He starts:

“Art doesn’t have to be about anything to be good. In fact, the easier it is to say what a work is about, the less interesting that work becomes. The greatest art takes a lifetime to understand; the slightest takes a moment. And if it really is reducible to an explicit message, is it actually art at all? 

I love the scene in DA Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, where the young Bob Dylan is interviewed by a journalist who demands to know what his message is. “Walk tall and always carry a lightbulb,” he replies. Of course, Dylan didn’t have a message….”

It’s an interesting take on art.  However I have to disagree.  I think that whether art is good or bad or mediocre, (and really who are we to judge), there is always some meaning; whether it is a message, an emotion, an idea, a concept, a representation of a sound, a rhythm, a feeling, a memory.  We cannot create in a vacuum.  Even what we may perceive as random will be colored by our genetics, our history and our environment, even if we are not conscious of a meaning, our subconscious will have a hand.  Even if the meaning is not obvious at the moment, the reason for the painting may reveal itself to the artist at a later date. 

It is the same for the viewer.  It is only if the art makes a connection with the viewer, drawing on an emotion, a memory, a feeling or an idea that art has value to the viewer.  The art has to communicate something.  Work that doesn’t communicate has no value to the viewer and so will be ignored or dismissed.   The same work may mean something different to one viewer at different times of their lives.  A work that didn’t speak to them earlier in their lives may become laden with meaning later on and visa versa.  Some works may communicate with millions, while others may only connect with one other person, but that’s still ok.  Art needs to connect and thereby makes a difference in this world.

Understanding the message


I was watching an artist paint today…..or rather I watched an artist study his painting today…..for he spent more time looking than painting.  I asked what he was thinking about as he stood there looking at his painting.  He replied “I’m looking at the balance of color.  This yellow starts here, divides there, but it’s not really separated because it’s part of the bigger whole.  These smaller sections could be complete paintings in their own right, but together they become more than the sum of the parts. ”   It may be one of those “you had to be there” quotes, but looking at the painting while he spoke, I understood exactly what he meant.  


However had I been looking at the painting on my own, without his insight, I’m not sure that I would have seen that particular play of the yellow paint.  That’s despite the fact that I work in the art world, I’ve seen thousands of pieces of artwork, studied them in great detail and discussed the merits or otherwise of art with many artists.


Art can benefit from a lot of attention in terms of time and effort.  Yet today, I’m not sure how much attention viewers are able to devote to art such as paintings and sculptures in museums and galleries.  In a world where web pages have only a 6 second window to grab the attention of a person, how long is Joe or Jane public going to devote to studying a painting?  


I heard the story recently of a couple visiting the Louvre during their Grand European Tour.  The wife went up as close as she was able to the Mona Lisa, took out her lipstick and touched up her lips while looking at herself in the protective glass in front of the Da Vinci painting.  She then turned to her husband and said “shall we go and get some lunch now honey?”  The Mona Lisa had been “done” in probably less than 30 seconds. 


The Louvre administration have also changed the protective glass so that the millions of people who come and photograph the famous painting so that they can look at the image when they get home, don’t get a reflective glare that used to occur with the previous pane.  It’s probably not so that they study the work, but so they can tick off the “got the T-shirt/photo” to-do item on their list.   They might as well have stayed at home and seen it on the internet or in an art book from the library….it would have been a heck of a lot cheaper!


Many museums around the world are struggling with this issue.  Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times talks of tourists spending less than a minute in front of any one object at the Louvre on a recent visit “only a 17th-century wood sculpture of a copulating couple, from San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands, placed near an exit, caused several tourists to point, smile and snap a photo, but without really breaking stride.”


The Australian, Jonathan Mills who has been director of the Edinburgh Festival for 3 years this week was quoted in The Times that “the trivialization of British life has left millions of people subsisting on a cultural diet of “white bread without the crusts…….Sportsmen such as David Beckham are more widely respected than leading scientists and great artists, partly because we can no longer be bothered to understand what the scientists and artists do.”


So what does this mean for the artist who spends hours creating his work, agonizing or emoting over each and every stroke of the brush or tap of the chisel?  If art is a form of communication, are we missing part of the message?  Or does the many strokes, taps or molding with the fingers build to make a broad stroke concept or idea?  Do we have to understand the grammar and know the spelling to understand the spoken message?  


In all probability the more we understand the fundamentals of the artist’s work, the more likely we are to understand his message.  However as in all forms of communication, the listener’s interpretation will have an impact.  The more the listener understands the artist’s work; their values and influences, the better they will appreciate the message.


It makes me wonder if I’m missing a message from Constable now when I look at the “The Hay Wain”….is there more to this than the bucolic English countryside?  Is there a political message about those farm laborers in the far right distance of the painting in light of the start of the industrial revolution?  I don’t think so, but we don’t know for sure.  


Anyway, in this day and age of information overload, how are we able to allocate enough attention to all the artwork that we see to do justice to the effort that the artists put into creating the work?  How do we prioritize which we study and which we don’t?  It’s a little bit like an interview….most interviewers they say make a judgment in the first 5 seconds of meeting a potential employee.  It’s a little like web pages….they have to grab our attention in those first 6 seconds or we’ve clicked on to the next site.  If we don’t like or are not intrigued or shocked enough by the overall impression, we’ll have moved on to the next object.


So what happens to all those art objects that are created and then not studied but glossed over?  Their messages are lost in the ether….perhaps like the millions of posts which are created in blogs every day and never read…….the constant messages that are sent daily into the universe in the hope that another living planet will be out there in the unknown waiting to here from us.  


Is it worth the effort to create?  Of course the artist has no choice but to create and try and communicate.  They can only hope that there is someone out there who can make the time and effort to appreciate the message.  It’s why I like dealing in contemporary art…I can always double check with the artist about what they were thinking and why.  Guessing is fun, but it’s better to get it straight from the source….but the problem often is that even they can’t always remember what they were trying to say!  Hey what hope have the rest of us have?! 


“So what does the ‘not- really-divided-but-separate’ yellow signify in your painting?”

The Mystery of Art


In last week’s NewScientist, there is an article titled “10 Mysteries of You” that discuss 10 aspects of humans that science has still not adequately understood.  They are, in no particular order; blushing, laughter, pubic hair, teenagers, dreams, altruism, superstition, kissing, nose picking and art.


Personally, I never thought that I’d find art and nose picking to be on the same list, but if Piero Manzoni was able to persuade others to buy what he claimed was his canned faeces then I suppose anything is possible. 


Emma Young says “explaining the peculiar human urge to create works of art in terms of evolutionary survival is a challenge.”  


Geoffrey Miller at the University of New Mexico thinks that “art is like a peacock’s tail – a costly display of evolutionary fitness.”  However he does admit that there may have had some original function before evolving into a sexual display function.  


Brian Boyd at the University of Auckland suggests that art is a form of intellectual play, allowing us to explore new horizons in a safe environment.”


Ellen Dissanayake at the University of Washington suggests that it is a social adaptation that helped increase our ancestor’s chance of survival by bonding a group together by appealing to our emotions through the use of color or rhythm.  


I am not a scientist, but I have always said and I know that I am not unique in suggesting that art is a form of communication, which then would bear out Dissanayake’s claim that it is a social adaptation for bonding a group to improve survival.  However I am loathe to think that it is purely an evolutionary process, for although art is a universal language, it also gives us the opportunity to underline very distinctly, what differentiates us.  Artists continually strive to create unique work which in turn attracts those who wish to own “something that nobody else has.”  This is born out by a recent quote “Art is willful” that I saw on a graphite pencil, which suggests that art can be a hostile manifestation of our emotions, wanting to depart from the group.


On the other hand art can also be an expression of man’s need to procreate and maintain his bloodline.  Art can survive the lifetime of man and provide immortality.  Is there not a secret desire by most artists to achieve immortality through their work?


Art is old, currently determined as having started around the time of Stone Age man, the point at which humans transitioned into homo sapiens or Cro-Magnons.  It is said to be one of the factors that make us human and differentiates us from apes and other animals…..but hang on a minute what about the elephant in Thailand that paints pictures?!


Whatever the scientific reason for art, the fact that I know is that the need to create art is something very primal that wells from the very core and soul of an artist.  It cannot always be controlled consciously and often is best when allowed to manifest unconsciously.  Personally I think at it’s best,  art is magic.

Is it Art?



There’s an art project going on in London which started on July 6th and will continue for 24 hours a day, for 100 days.  The project is called “One & Other” by Antony Gormley. 


It takes place on a 23 foot high stone statue plinth in Trafalgar Square in central London, not far from Charring Cross which is the official point from which all mileage measurements in the UK are taken.  There are three other plinths in the square occupied by statues of King George IV, and two 19th-century generals Charles Napier and Henry Havelock.  This fourth plinth has been empty since it was built in 1841 to support a statue of a horse, but funds were never made available to finish the project.  


Gormley’s aim is to create a democratic work of art.  One member of the public chosen randomly from the application web site is given the opportunity to stand on the plinth for an hour, to be replaced by another and another; continuously so that there will be 2400 “plinthers” (as they’ve been nicknamed)  by the end of the project.


In an article by the Telegraph, Alistair Sooke says “One and Other is participatory, democratic and perfectly in tune with our reality-television age, which worships ordinary people for nothing other than being in the limelight.”  Some people have just stood there with signs, a woman blew up and released helium balloons for a charity, a man dressed up as a town crier, others danced, a man had a cup of tea and another took photos of the crowd looking up at him.


Gormley says “My project is about trying to democratize this space of privilege, idealization and control. This is about putting one of us in the place of a political or military hero. It’s an opportunity to use this old instrument of hierarchical reinforcement for something a little bit more…” He pauses, searching for the right word: “Fun.”   He goes on to ask some intriguing questions: “This is also me testing myself, calling into question everything that I’ve done. Is this sculpture or isn’t it? Can you use time as a medium? Can you use real life as a subject?”


The interview concludes that possibly as a result of the democratic message of his work, Gormley suffers a fraught relationship with the art establishment, who often look down on his output. Sookes asks if Gormley believes that he is the victim of critical snobbery.  “I’m very – what is the right word? – suspect,” he says, with a bitter snigger. “There is still huge snobbery in this country and a division between high and low culture that means, yes, for me, it hasn’t been so clever being a news item as opposed to a critical item.”


Gormley wants to classify the project as a sculpture of life rendered in time, or is it just a form of performance art?  Or is it art at all?  In the words of “Rembrandt” who commented on the blog yesterday……“what is the artist trying to ‘say’”.  I think he’s welcoming the ordinary person, by  giving them an opportunity to become a part of what shouldn’t be but is, an elitist world of art.  



For a live link up, statistics and record of the project go to the Guardian.