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Essay on Art

So I managed to catch the DeCordova's Biennial exhibit before it went away. Some of it I liked, some of it I loved, some of it I hated, some of it was bland and boring (the worst sin of art), and some of it seemed almost a parody of what "average" people think of modern art. Include William Pope.L's "Small Cup" in the last group: it's a film showing chickens and goats eating (and further demolishing) a toppled cupola building that had been made of cardboard, fat, and feed, set in an abandoned barn, and with close-ups appropriate to a Grade B horror flick. Yes, he's an Important Artist. Yes, it makes a Statement. But...

Two examples, what doesn't work for me and what does. The first is Ice and Ark by Ross Cisneros. This was at the Biennial. What does it say to you? It's a net full of water bottles (there's also an associated three-channel video of scenes involving water). Is it talking about removing trash from the oceans? You need to look closer to see all the water bottles are the same, and not the normal Dasani or Poland Springs. You have to read the posted info to find out that the water is a special designer-brand water bottled from calved icebergs, to understand that it's a Statement about the exploitation and monetization of dwindling natural resources. Nets are symbols of catching something, of predation, but they're also symbols of safety, of rescue. Their image is linked to the sea, but bottled water is fresh water. I'm not saying it's impossible to pick up something of the Statement from just looking at the piece, but how could you be expected to know the water's source, which seems one of the most important components? And the title: "Ice and Ark". Maybe the net -is- about keeping water safe instead of letting it float away. Isn't that what an ark does?

The second is 13,699 by Christine Destrempes. This was elsewhere in Boston. What does it say to you? It's strings of water bottle caps looking like raindrops. You can walk inside, and be surrounded by it. All those plastic bottle caps. Real rain would soak up into the earth, become part of the water cycle, but you know without more thought that the plastic caps won't go away as easily. You know, with only a little more thought, that the water in the bottles was taken out of the natural cycle and sold for profit, extending the artificiality of this shower of plastic. And the title intrigues: why that number? Because the artist had learned that was the number of people who died each day of water-related diseases, from lack of access to fresh, clean water. They're outside the cycle, the economic cycle. And so this piece is also a Statement. But with this, the first response is "that's beautiful, that's fascinating" and it pulls you in to think more, to learn more, of what it's about. The other piece, the first response is "this must mean something?" and you go to read, to find out what you can't be sure of from the art itself. Maybe that's the key: do you want to look at a piece because of itself? Or because of the Statement? Is it art? Or is it just an illustration, a visual aid?



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
Really enjoyed this; I totally understand the distinction you're making between the two displays. The sin of the first seems to be that it heaped on too much meaning, and that some of the meanings are contradictory, whereas the second had one clear message. Also, what you say about the primary reaction, and then being drawn in and considering more--as opposed to just scratching your head and then struggling to piece together a meaning.
Apr. 13th, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
Thank you! There was a comment on Destrempes' blog about how someone had first thought, when she found the Statement, that something was wrong about so many deaths being shown in such a delicate, ethereal sort of installation, until she started thinking more about it and of the souls and spirits of the dead. But a bunch of bottles in a net is... well... a bunch of bottles in a net. When something is so minimal in presentation, you have to assume there's deep meaning, or it wouldn't be in a museum, right? It's not just that it's minimal: the single-color or simple color-block canvases worked, when they first were presented, as a Statement on what constitutes a painting. But you didn't need to read a description to get that. I understand wanting to avoid too literal an interpretation of a Statement, but give the poor viewer more of a clue? :-) (Speaking of literal, Karen Weiner's Sink or Swim was also in the Biennial.)
Apr. 15th, 2010 11:29 pm (UTC)
"Sink or Swim" is an effective visual but for my tastes it's almost too message-y. I could appreciate it as a well-done public service announcement, but I'm not sure I'd appreciate it as art (LOL, which gets to "What is art?" which is a question I always avoid addressing, but really I guess I must have some sets of internal distinctions I make.)

I guess the etherealness of the one installation is effective emotionally in part because of the contrast between what at first glance is beautiful and then the implications of it.

Apr. 16th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
I think "Sink or Swim" did better on display, because it was in a group of similar works by the same artist, collages of old magazine and Time-Life-type images together with hand-drawn or -painted elements. It gave more of a feeling of a lost world, or at least a passing one. But I agree that this one on its own, it's too blatant. It -is- hard, of course, it must be, to get the right amount of complexity that draws in the viewer, that promises enough to make them want to learn more, without being either too opague (and make them not bother) or too blatant (and make them leave it at the surface).
Apr. 16th, 2010 11:21 pm (UTC)
*nods*--I understand what you're saying about "Sink or Swim"'s context-context makes a real difference.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )