Contemporary Art

Is it ever JUST a kiss?

It was just a regular day of museum visiting at the Beyeler Fondation in Basel, Switzerland. That is, until it wasn’t.

Danielle and I had just finished discussing some works in an exhibition featuring Wolfgang Tillmans’s photography, emerging from the show feeling very serious, very intellectual.

We trotted into the next room on our artsy fartsy high horses. In the following moments, we were knocked clean off our noble steeds. THUD THUD. Dumbfounded.

birdyThe space is large, white, mostly empty. There is a big square mirror propped against the right wall. It doesn’t hang but simply rests on the floor. On the left side of the room I recognize the polished gold surface that belongs to my favorite sculpture, Bird in Space by Brancusi. Right smack dab in the center of the room on the floor, sandwiched between the mirror and sculpture, lay a man and a woman kissing.

We don’t really know what to think.

The kiss is long and slow. I don’t embarrassedly look away like I normally do when I see these sorts of kisses between couples in public.

The man and woman appear to be in their late twenties or thirties. Both have tied back their brown hair in loose buns, some flyaway wisps of hair escape the elastic constraints. They both wear plain pants and shirts.

They move in a perfectly controlled slow motion, methodically shifting between positions of spooning, cradling, hugging, different forms of embrace. All the while they maintain an unbroken eye contact.

I, not usually a great admirer of excessive PDA (public display of affection), was completely mesmerized.

What made this so special? After all, we see people kiss and embrace all the time. Heck, and you sure see a lot more if you’ve been watching Game of Thrones. But these two fully clothed, regular people seared an image in my head, probably forever.

It was done tenderly and with such sincerity. Didn’t feel phony, didn’t present as a set-up. Those two could have been visitors just like everyone else and suddenly plopped down in the center of the gallery and there they were.

tinoWhat we were seeing was a presentation, Kiss (2002), created by Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal on display at the Fondation Beyeler during a limited time. Sehgal does not call his works “performance” or the participants “performers” because that might suggest viewers don’t play a role in his works, which they defintively do. Instead he calls them “constructed situations” and “interpreters.” His oral instructions and rules are interpreted by male and female artists who can usually sing, dance, and choreograph. The situations he creates are “immaterial and fleeting, the thing that truly matters being the viewer’s experiencing of the situation.” Sehgal gives an insightful talk on his inspiration, thoughts and motivations for creating Kiss which I link here.

Once Danielle and I were finished dusting ourselves off from our metaphorical fall and processed the situation as an art piece, we calmed down. We wearily re-mounted our high horses and started to analyze and discuss.

This act breached the boundary between performance and “real life.” Where does one make an exact distinction between the two anyway? The blurred line freaked me out a bit.

What a funky paradox. It feels private and intimate, yet other visitors and I were watching them do their thing safely from within the sanctions of a museum. Besides, this was not real…. right? It was a feeling of internal conflict I had never experienced before.

Danielle and I began to observe the other visitors filing cautiously into the room.

kiss3A teenage brother and sister blundered in. His gaze fell upon the interpreters, the color rushed to the tips of his ears and he twitched a sheepish smile. The siblings retreated to a corner of the room and with body language oozing of insecurity continued to watch in spurts of furtive side-glances. 

A young woman and her hunky beau strode in holding hands. As they registered the situation, they broke apart and perhaps unknowingly distanced themselves. She was very intent on watching the piece while he stood behind her and stole a glance at his watch. Heaved a sigh. 

Another couple -much older this time- hobbled in. They watched the embrace side by side for some time before pulling each other in close. A secret smile spread across her face and her eyes flickered in a way that gave away her nostalgia.

A father and his pre-teen daughter shuffled through the doorway, talking. She was facing him and saying something when he first discreetly spied the interpreters and made the decision to keep a fluid walking pace. She didn’t look around the room as they crossed, her eyes fixated on him the whole time. They disappeared in the other doorway.

Funny how a performance can unveil so much about its audience. Some were embarrassed, some drew together while others spread apart. Everyone kept an invisible radius of distance from the couple, and no one stayed long. I didn’t meet the interpreters, but I did meet the visitors in a sense.

It can be refreshing to not know what to make of an artwork at times, to be humbled by it, to have to work to comprehend.

Thank you, Sehgal, for the challenge. I hope I stumble on another equally as curious “situation” again one day.

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Scientific Art or Artsy Science

Jimmy Fike’s botanical photography is a harmonious fusion of science and art that promotes aesthetic modes of utilitarianism. Phew! Mouthful. Now let’s break down my pretentiously worded, esoteric thesis.

Artist Jimmy Fike takes pictures of plants that are both useful and pretty, and it’s awesome.

A brief LA Times article covers the gist of Fike’s work: Fike scavenges in nooks and crannies, ditches and alleys in search of plant specimens which he can photograph. Like any photographer, he carefully positions his models to emphasize desired traits- in this case it could be a leaf of interesting root. In the following months, he digitally illustrates the images to render edible plant parts in color.

Over the years Fike has complied an inclusive catalog of hundreds of photographs and plants and has exhibited some of his work under the title “J.W. Fike’s Photographic Survey of the Wild Edible Botanicals of California.”

Think about how multidisciplinary this work is. Biology, photography, media, ecology, and technology all compressed into a single image. An image that can seem as simple and

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California Poppy

innocent as that of the California Poppy. What is most interesting is the uncertainty I encounter in how to address this work- is it research work, scientific work, or art work? Or, gasp, all three!? One many wonder whether Fike’s photographs belong in a science text book or an art gallery.

It is precisely this fluid exchange between fields that should be welcomed into the contemporary artistic sphere. These photographs, which are neither entirely aesthetic nor purely scientific, possess the power to reach a wider audience.

Images like these can possibly attract artists and scientists, women and men, children and adults alike. In light of the highly concerning juxtaposition between American politics and the rising threat of climate change, work like Fike’s should be encouraged, circulated, and gaining increasing relevance.

Bringing education and awareness of nature by means of art is genius, if you ask me.

Olafur Eliasson accomplished exactly this in his work Your waste of time. The piece features massive chunks of ice collected from broken fragments of Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. The 800-year-old ice blocks are exhibited in a refrigerated space and behave as sculptures; visitors may walk around them and contemplate their age, their size. 

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But it is possible to stretch our frame of reference. When we touch these blocks of ice with our hands, we are not just struck by the chill; we are struck by the world itself. We take time from the glacier by touching it. In a sense, Your waste of time is a ‘waste of time’ because I shipped the ice across the world for it to be on view for a short period of time, after which it melts away – a nanosecond in the life of the glacier. Then there’s another way in which time is wasted: we take away time from the glacier by touching it. Suddenly I make the glacier understood to me, its temporality. It is linked to the time the water took to become ice, a glacier. By touching it, I embody my knowledge by establishing physical contact. And suddenly we understand that we do actually have the capacity to understand the abstract with our senses. Touching time is touching abstraction.” ~ Olafur Eliasson

img_mda111139_1600pxIn few other contexts would the general public in Berlin or New York be able to experience the ancient Icelandic glacier. Again, Eliasson’s installation is not purely art, nor is it purely scientific. A mysterious factor beyond either field- the same one present in Fike’s photographs- lends the piece a surrealistic feel. This factor instills a mix of wonder, awe, oneness with nature. These feelings are crucial to contemporary issues about the rapidly changing earth. Humans must acknowledged this issue, must care enough about this issue to take action.

Works by Fike and Eliasson address the very foundation of concerns like climate change- tackle the roots, if you will. It begins with educating humans, reinstalling a connection to nature, and fostering that bond to blossom into meaningful action. 

Header Image: Western Gooseberry 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contemporary Art: The Real Load

I did it.  I put myself out there and gave contemporary art a chance. But of course, right as I begin to get comfortable viewing the APCd Foundation’s new exhibition, BAM. I am proven gravely, gravely wrong.

Low and behold, before me, wrapped in vacuum tight, clear plastic, sits a piece of shit. Just waiting to be admired, contemplated, squinted at. I wish I was kidding. But at this point, it was just too tempting to not call bull-you know what.

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Win Delvoye, Cloaca Faeces (2003) APCd Foundation’s Mobility exhibition

After staring at the object dumbfounded for some seconds, I took a deep breath and recollected myself. I was pretty frustrated, but since my sister was completely absorbed in watching a film, and my dad had given up and trudged to the café, I huffed fine. I’ll give it a try.

Instantly my thoughts filled with self doubt as I oscillated between “Will I look foolish if I give this object my time? Is it even meant to be given time, or simply skimmed over with a smug smile?” and “Does this object have a higher, symbolic meaning? Is there more than meets the eye?”

The encounter was all too reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain,  a “readymade” sculpture consisting of a porcelain urinal that Duchamp flipped upside down duchampand scrawled on the initials “R. Mutt 1917.” Upon its first exhibition (photograph form), hordes of artsy fartsy elites cocked their heads, wrinkled their foreheads, and stroked their beards as if in deep contemplation of the upside-down pee funnel. This was Duchamp’s way of poking fun at the I-can-name-wine-in-my-sleep-and-own-a-ridiculous-number-of-turtlenecks people I’ve mentioned before. Here they all stood, in deep reflection and introspection, before a piece Duchamp had designed specifically to mock their irrational worship of art. His mindset was in alignment with the Dada art movement, which aimed at being purposefully nonsensical. “It was the representation of the exact opposite of everything that art stood for.”- Little Art Talks.

Was I falling into Duchamp’s trap?

It didn’t matter; I was tired of being bullied by contemporary art anyway. 

Maybe this dung nugget isn’t meant to be viewed on its own, but as part of a bigger whole of the exhibition. The exhibition displayed countless contemporary pieces, seemingly all disconnected from one another, within the same context- Mobility. There were pieces mimicking clockworks for mobility of time, flickering candles for the mobility of light, shoes with wood soles for the mobility of walking, a self-beating drum for the mobility of sound, wooden and paper airplane installations for the mobility of flight, photographs of exhausted children washing into shore on raggedy lifeboats for the mobility of refugees. Taken in this context, the feces can stand for the mobility of food through the intestines. The mobility of our bodies.

Further research on Delvoye’s work revealed that this is not human poop: it’s machine poop! The feces we see packed in the translucent box is only one of many produced by his famous art installation, Cloaca in 2000. The machine, “fed” twice a day, is equipped with glass containers which allow viewers to follow the digestion process from beginning to end (see header image).

Even still, reaching this conclusion has brought me no satisfaction, no enlightenment. To content myself, I’ve created a deeper and more whimsical “meaning” for this turd.

Perhaps, in the end, the art of Delvoye’s Cloaca Faeces lies in the subjective reaction of each viewer. It could be establishing that, in a setting out of the ordinary, an object as natural as excrement can elicit confusion, disorder, or humor.

I considered myself an easy going, laid back person…until this encounter. After reflecting on my own reaction from the work, however, I realized that I can actually be rather orderly and rigid, which in turn makes me sensitively fragile to any disturbance in my sense of structure. It’s astounding that this piece, of all things, revealed my limited comfort zone and most profound tendencies.

Confession: I spent an absurd amount of time searching “synonyms for poop” on the Internet. 

Title credits: Sophie Aubry 

Header image: Wim Delvoye, Cloaca Machine (2000)