Art about getting rid of stuff

One thing I have discovered over the years is that people have really strong opinions about art. If I write about an artist that people don’t like, they immediately press “unsubscribe” and sometimes follow-up with a reprimanding email saying that what the particular artist in question is doing, is not art. By now I am used to this and I amuse myself by predicting what kind of articles will solicit such a response. This is going to be one of those articles. Brace yourself.
An important goal of art and artists is to make us see the world in a different way. Often this is done through artworks in the form of paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs or videos. However another way contemporary artists challenge our ways of thinking is through actions. This kind of work might be described as performative art or social practiceMichael Landy is an artist who used the action of destroying every object he owned to make us question our accumulation of objects.
We all have moments in our life where we realize we own too much stuff: too many clothes, too many shoes, too many books and on it goes. Some of us attempt to de-clutter by following gurus such as Marie Kondo in the Magic Art of Tidying Up or others follow the Swedish “dostadning”, a hybrid of the words for death and cleaning. In 2001 Landy chose to deal with the burden of possessions by making an an art piece about getting rid of every object he owned.
In Breakdown Landy put all of his belongings on a conveyor belt and over a two-week period, he systematically broke them down into the smallest components possible given the machinery involved (see image below). While this might seem an extreme act, the loss of one’s possessions it is a thought that crosses everybody’s mind at some point. We convince ourselves that we cannot live without our objects, and yet this is not true considering many people have experienced such as loss through fire, flood or war and somehow they find a way to survive. Our possessions give our life meaning, but they also hold us back and can be seen as an unnecessary burden.
In a blog called SPACES, Landy describes the experience of destroying all his possessions:
“I really loved it, especially the actual process of destruction. I didn’t miss things because I rationalised them as part of an artwork – I wasn’t acting as a madman – so I was mentally prepared”. Landy meticulously documented all of his belongings (see image towards end of article) before breaking things down. The written record replaced the loss or absence of the actual objects. He discusses his process in a Canadian Art article: On the Art of Destruction.
Roberta Smith’s includes an exhibition of Landy’s work in her recent New York Times article: 5 Great Art Exhibitions to See Before They Close. Landy’s current project, Breaking News, includes a multitude of drawings described in Hyperallergic as “ranging in size from minuscule to monstrous”. This exhibition also contains a floor-to-ceiling text inventory of the 7,227 objects destroyed in Breakdown (see below). While the works are different in intent, the themes of the everyday and excess create a sense of continuity in Landy’s work spanning the last 17 years.
The thing that appealed to me most about Landy’s process was that of taking an “inventory”. The visual impact of the list of all the objects he owned is very powerful. After first seeing Landy’s work at the Vancouver Art Gallery at For the Record: Drawing Contemporary Art (2003), I attempted to make a list of all the things I owned. I stopped after a couple of pages because I couldn’t get past the immensity of the task at hand. The process did make me consider what I owned and why I owned it. Breakdown is an exemplary example of how art can make us think about how we live our lives.

Art in windows

I was mesmerized as a child by the Christmas window of Ogilvy’s department store in Montreal. This window was filled to the brim with moving animals including hopping frogs, swaying monkies, working bunnies, nodding sheep, sliding donkies, as well as lights, sparkling snow, trees and lovely old-fashioned buildings: Ogilvy’s window. It had been the same display since 1946 and in 2015 it went through a Canadian make-over. It was a holiday tradition to go downtown and look at the Ogilvy window every year.
Whenever I see beautiful window displays, I think of the well-known artists who did window dressing for a living at the start of their art careers (Rauschenberg, Warhol, Johns, etc). Andy Warhol in particular used window dressing as a way to launch his career. The first holiday window display was done by Macy’s in 1874 and it coincided with the development of plate glass windows: The History of Department Store Holiday Window Displays.
A recent issue of Hyperallergic showcases the Bergdorf Goodman’s windows which are celebrating cultural institutions this year including American Museum of Natural History, New-York Historical Society, New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Academy of Music and others. The bird display in the image above right and the rhinestone covered dinosaurs in image below, pay homage to the American Museum of Natural History. The designer of these windows, David Hoey, explains that he wants to create “aesthetic delirium” and that the windows are the result of eleven months of work: How Bergdorf Goodman’s Holiday Windows Were Made.
David Hoey’s 5 tips on window designs could possibly applied to artwork. Here is an overview of Hoey’s working method and approach: Behind the Scenes. Bergdorf Goodman’s blog has an archive of their windows dating back to 2010. Of course theirs aren’t the only windows in town; for a overview of other beautiful windows in New York check out 2017 New York Holiday Windows. And for Harper’s Bazaar’s choice of best windows from around the world (which includes a Canadian mention -The Bay in Toronto): Best Christmas Window Displays 2017. And for a local Christmas surprise, check out the over-the-top window display at 665 Fort St made by Gunter Heinrich of Winchester Galleries.

Doing things over and over

Repetition can be a good thing. Some people associate it with boredom or tedium, but repetition brings focus, concentration and it can free the mind to create new ideas. Yayoi Kasuma is a master of repetition as she has spent her entire life painting dots in one form or another.  Kusama, who is 88 years old, currently has two exhibitions in New York at the David Zwirmer uptown and downtown galleries: Festival of Life. Kasuma has an incredible work ethic: in a New York Times article, Roberta Smith mentions Kasuma has “shifted her work week from five days to six, saving Sunday for writing, reading, talking on the phone and making smaller paintings.”
Kasuma has become renown for her “infiniity rooms” where she creates installations using mirrors to give the effect of a room with no beginning and no end, just dots to infinity; in other words: endless repetition. A Yayoi Kasuma Museum recently opened up in Tokyo and only 50 visitors are allowed to enter each day and even the washroom have polka dots. Doug Woodman in Artsy gives an overview of Kasuma’s rise to fame in the provocatively titled piece How Yayoi Kasuma Built a Massive Market for her Work. The secret to her success, in big part, was doing a lot of work over and over again and then making sure the world took notice.
When students are looking for new ideas, I tell them to repeat the last thing they made and new ideas will come from that. We often delude ourselves by continuously being in search of the next best thing. We are afraid we will become boring if we repeat ourselves. But I believe through repetition comes insight. And the beauty of handmade repetition is its impossibility. We can never repeat ourselves no matter how much we try. The thing we need to know, or are looking for, is always much closer at hand than we realize. We don’t need to search far and wide for great ideas, they are often right at our fingertips, perhaps even in the last work we made. Try it. I dare you. Take a work that you have already done and make another version of it. Notice what happened. It wasn’t the same. An old idea becomes a new idea through repetition.
One of my favourite John Cage quotes is: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Cage was actively involved in meditation practice and many others who do meditation can attest to the fact that repetition is a key to mindfulness: Why Repetition is a Key Element in Mindfulness Practice. There are also many artists who purposely factor in repetition in their work for a variety of reasons; some because it is a way to create focus and calm, others as a way to give a sense of chaos and excess. An article in Widewalls gives an overview of how repetition has been used in art: To Be Exactly the Same Over and Over Again -Repetition in Art. And another blog post also gives a list of the use of repetition in art: The Importance of Repetition in Art. Kusama is mentioned in both these articles. Kusama saw repetition as a way of making art. Repetition in the work and repetition of the work.  I am certain that she rarely experiences boredom with her dots no matter how many million she has painted or created through lights, sculptures or mirrors.

What is the biggest question facing artists today? 

A visitor poses in front of an art installation by Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno, entitled ‘Altostratus/M+1, 2017’ during  the Frieze Art Fair in London.
The Guardian asked this question to several contemporary artists. Most of the responses related economic issues, with some referring to questions about morality, ethics and equality. Money issues tend to be high on the list because it is definitely a struggle to make a living as an artist, even it seems, if you are a well-known artist.
The main concern artists have is about space: space to live, space to make work and space to show work. Affordable space. Many cities want to be known for their vibrant arts and culture scene and are actively incorporating this concept into their long-term strategic plans. While I applaud the CRD Arts Service for coming up with a comprehensive Strategic Plan 2015-2018, there is no mention of the need for space for artists. The City of Victoria is working on an Arts and Culture Master Plan called “Create Victoria” and it is encouraging to see that they have heard artists’ feedback, and have listed “space” as a number one strategic priority. Funding and grant initiatives for artists are wonderful, however the best way to create a dynamic cultural city, is to have affordable spaces for artists to live and work. It is important to acknowledge in the ever-increasing desire for density in city centres, we are creating a mono culture of upper middle class individuals with little room for artists to be part of the fabric of this society. Mark Gimein discusses this issue in a New Yorker article called: Why the High-Cost of City Living is Bad for Everyone.
There are various initiatives to help artists find spaces such as Bow Arts in London. They use an online tool called Artist Studio Finder to match artists with studio space (this will make you want to move to London!). Vancouver has started a program for Artist Live Work Spaceswhere you  get a 1,075 square feet space over two levels, with a bright living space upstairs and a studio space below with high ceilings. The space also includes a living area with a full kitchen and room for a large dining table, couch, bed and more. All this for $440/month! The catch is that there are only seven of these spaces available and they are distributed on an “award” basis. More information on this program can be found here: Artist Studio Award Program.
Another space issue is where to exhibit work. Tacita Dean in response to the Guardian’s question says “I think the biggest problem for artists is balancing a need for the market with a detachment from it. The demise of public funding and the overbearing existence of large, commerce-oriented galleries that even museums rely on these days, has distorted the capacity of artists to work freely. We are increasingly mollified by commercial obedience. There needs to be plurality again: other ways, more confusion, fewer defined routes.”We need to make work whether or not there is a market for it.”

Artists will make work whether or not they have a studio space or a place to exhibit. As artist and VISA instructor Xane St Phillip likes to say, “art is its own reward”. Artists are finding alternative spaces such as borrowed or rented space for short term exhibitions, or by inviting people to their home/studio to see work there. And it is true we do need to continue making work despite lack of support from government and society at large, however it is important for this society to understand the role artists play in making our world a better place to live. Including a few paragraphs about “arts in culture” in strategic plans or government White Papers is not enough. As cities expand and develop, a serious consideration needs to be made for the artists that are going to make these cities exciting, diverse and interesting places to call home.

Image: Tacita Dean, white chalk on slate (from Documenta 13)

Is photography over? 

Wim Wenders, Self-portrait, 1975
The renown German film director, Wim Wenders said that it was over for photography and to give credence to his thoughts, he recently made a gift of his Polaroid camera to singer/writer and photographer Patti Smith. Wenders adored Polaroid photography; he used it enthusiastically as a tool for getting ideas for his films. Between 1973 and 1983 he produced over 12,000 images. The Photographers Gallery in London currently has 3,500 of these Polaroids in an exhibition called Instant Stories.
Wenders feels that photography is a thing of the past. “It’s not just the meaning of the image that has changed – the act of looking does not have the same meaning. Now, it’s about showing, sending and maybe remembering. It is no longer essentially about the image. The image for me was always linked to the idea of uniqueness, to a frame and to composition. You produced something that was, in itself, a singular moment. As such, it had a certain sacredness. That whole
notion is gone.”

Like the premature and frequent announcements of painting’s demise, Wenders might have underestimated people’s lack of interest in the “unique image”. Artists have long been fascinated with Polaroid cameras for a number of reasons. A big factor is the excitement of having an instantaneous image form before your eyes. The Polaroid company was always excited to work in partnership with artists.  A Brief History of Polaroids in Art gives an overview of how artists used Polaroids in their work. The Polaroid: The Magic Material by Florian Kaps, the person responsible for the resurrection of the Polaroid, gives an overview of our love affair with this camera. He says “they really introduced a new way of photography …with instant film, every picture is a chemical adventure: the quality is really unpredictable, and they have a very special look and feel.” In the trailer to the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land, makes an uncanny prediction in 1970s regarding the future of the camera, “the camera of tomorrow will be something people carry around with them in their wallets and people will be take photographs all the time”. The book is reviewed in Art News. All these recent publications certainly attest to the interest in the Polaroid and to the photographic image as tangible object.

The return of the Polaroid is an interesting story. After hearing that Polaroid was ceasing production of its cameras in 2007, a Dutch-based company called The Impossible Project (started by Florian Kaps) bought all of Polaroid’s old equipment. And then Polaroid found a new owner with Lady Gaga as the creative director. They released a Polaroid in 2010 but theImpossible Project was not happy with the new version, so this month, October 2017, a model based on the original Polaroid will be available in stores. The Impossible Project is now Polaroid Originals.
It is true that our relationship to photography has changed immensely, especially with the easy access to cameras on our phones. Photographs for many have become intangible, immaterial images that last for only a few seconds with a short life span on social media platforms. Many people however are wanting more, and hence the pressure for Polaroid to bring back their cameras. Perhaps its part nostalgia, as fashion photographer Emily Soto describes in her HuffPost article:Why I Still Love to Shoot with Instant Film. But maybe people do crave the materiality of printed photographs, perhaps the same way we still want to read actual books that we can feel and touch. Maybe we still want to see photographs as a way to capture a singular moment. But like painting which has been on death’s door since the 1960s, our desire for the photographic image as object will continue to thrive and do well. Of course we see and understand painting and photography in a much different way than we did fifty years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is over for either of those means of artistic expression.
For those of you who might like to take more time hearing what others have to say on this topic, you can watch the videos from a conference at SFMOMA called Is Photography Over?
Wim Wenders, New York Parade, 1972