This week the Fashion Institute of Technology held a panel on scale and spectacle called “Size Matters” (apparently unaware that they were in danger of ripping off and thereby angering curator Shaquille O’Neal, also a basketball player apparently, who curated an exhibition in 2010 by the title of “Size DOES Matter”). The panelists were Gavin Brown, Roberta Smith, Peter Halley and KAWS, with Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic.com as the moderator. There are a lot of panels all over the world and this one wouldn’t really be notable except that Julia Halperin, editor of Art + Auction, live tweeted it and one particular tweet caught my attention. Following the subject of the panel on scale, Halperin reported that “Roberta [Smith] likes Anish Kapoor’s Bean [Cloud Gate] in Chicago because you can have a private experience [with] it.”
This caught my attention, and the attention of at least two other writers, since it seems the exact opposite of what the actual experience of the artwork is—extremely public. I recalled an essay I had written years ago about the artwork but, wanting to share it with my colleagues, realized that I had never published it since I wanted to be sure to retain copyright over it. I imagine a lot of other writers also accumulate essays and articles never published for one reason or another.
So in the interest of expanding the dialogue around this iconic Chicago work it seems time to publish this essay albeit in slightly modified and updated form.
“[O]ver the past 15 years public sculpture. . . has become one of contemporary art’s more exciting areas of endeavor and certainly its most dramatically improved one,” stated New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, in August of 2008, when she visited Chicago’s Millennium Park. And by all accounts, Chicago’s Millennium Park is an extraordinary success, inspiring other communities across the country to take on similar projects. The success of Millennium Park, and public art generally, lies in how the artworks function in relation to the city and the people. The artists have achieved a high degree of success in their respective creations, which directly makes the park successful in its mission: “to be a new public space for the people of Chicago.”
The mission of Millennium Park sounds a bit generic until one considers the difficult challenge behind that goal. Chicago is the third largest city in the U.S. and like all major cities is home to a variety of people and interests. We’re only drawn together by the fact that we are Americans and that we share certain intangible ideals. Other than that we differ in appearances, faith, language and a myriad of other things. We are alike, yet profoundly different. This has been the strength, and challenge, of American life since our country’s founding, and this is the strength of the public artwork in Millennium Park, that it allows the viewer to celebrate our differences while creating a tangible sense of community.
Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, nicknamed “The Bean” by Chicagoans, is a large, highly polished stainless steel abstraction that looks like a round cloud pinned down on both ends. The reflective surface lures visitors in close, drawing them from far off as if by magnetic attraction. Cameras emerge and visitors start taking pictures, in groups, individually, up close, or far off. We try to find ourselves in the reflections and simultaneously we find ourselves surrounded by the city, and we see ourselves in the city, part of a fabric larger than ourselves. It’s a powerful metaphor that becomes real when we see a young Chicagoan make this connection. Strangers inevitably become a part of other people’s pictures, guards are let down and conversations are struck up. The curving reflections of the work dissolve the barriers we put up between ourselves, drawing people into relation, and sometimes conversation, with each other.
The alien form of the abstraction identifies itself immediately as Art but does not alienate, instead it draws people in through their curiosity and the work’s generosity. Kapoor’s contribution accomplishes the mission of Millennium Park, while being wholly successful on its own terms. Rather than an indifferent sculpture, this is public art that lives up to the aspirations of its genre, bringing people together and inspiring them.
Yesterday I came across this interview about Ai Weiwei. The interview takes place between Spiegel International and Roger Buergel, a curator who first invited Ai Weiwei to Documenta in 2007. Buergel is certainly quotable, and the thrust of his sentiment is that Western artists are not as bent out of shape about Ai Weiwei’s absence as we ought to be; he suggests an unconscious but palpable jealousness as the cause of our apathy. “Young Western artists are producing works that amount to nothing more than footnotes in art history, and then this Chinese artist appears who takes a totally different approach and makes 98 percent of the art world look very, very old.” It definitely shocked me into paying attention—what is perhaps the larger point of such statements. It is not about what is being said, but what might be done.
Ai Weiwei has been missing for 38 days, since the Police refused to let him board a plan to Hong Kong. His latest disappearance was not his first run-in with Chinese government authority. According to an earlier article in The Washington Post, ”In 2009, in the western city of Chengdu, Ai was beaten so badly that he required surgery to have blood drained from his brain. Late last year, he was stopped at Beijing’s airport from flying to South Korea because authorities feared he might go to Oslo to attend the Nobel ceremony for Liu [2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner].” He was also prevented from having an exhibition in Beijing.
At the same time, I’m not sure what Buergel wants from us. What exactly is his call to action? It seems to me that twitter, facebook and a plethora of media outlets have been regularly fore fronting their concern for Ai Weiwei’s whereabouts. Petitions have been circulating for months now and artists have been making work in tribute. “Anish Kapoor has dedicated his largest ever artwork – a truly enormous cathedral-like space made from inflated PVC – to the missing Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” (Guardian); Kapoor’s installation opens today, May 11th, and will be open to the public until June 23rd at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is called Leviathan, after Hobbes’ instrumental work about social-political structures. Kapoor suggest all the galleries and museums in the world close down for a day, in honor of this missing colleague.
What an amazing thought.
It’s horrifying—the idea of someone getting swept up into absence. Of course it’s unacceptable that anyone would have to undergo such an ordeal. Yet there seems to be a message in Ai Weiwei’s particular missing-ness, because he boasted such an international profile. ”‘If they are willing to go this far with someone like him, then all bets are off,’ said Joshua Rosenzweig, who heads the Hong Kong office of the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights organization” (Wall Street Journal).
It is important to counter a sense of powerlessness. I certainly have no idea what someone could do to impact this situation, perhaps in part because there is nothing to see. The action—whatever it is—takes place out of public view, in impossible-to-reach cloisters. Only the absconding was visible. We have no direct access to the artist, only public-go-betweens. Governments are big and it feels difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how to influence such powers. Nevertheless, Kapoor takes a positive step towards a solution, outlining a possible path in order to participate in an action that is poetic, peaceable and demonstrative of a trans-national solidarity.
I love art books. My bookshelves bow with them and they offer thoroughgoing diversion when I can’t sleep. Monographs work best for this. I prefer thick paper, with big images that fill the whole page. Although I always read the introduction and biographical essays that start these sorts of books, I prefer the artwork to stand alone on the page. Maybe a date, but that’s it. These books offer what all books offer, the ability to experience what I haven’t experienced in real life, or to re-experience what I have. I’ve never been to the Tate or Van Gogh Museum, or even the Frick. But that’s the beauty of books, right?
Still, this same warm fuzzy argument doesn’t extend to all mediums, at least not for everyone. There was recently a spirited Facebook debate between some friends of mine about Art Project by Google. The pro Art Project folks said that for the first time in history some of the world’s best art was available directly to our homes, that with our personal computers we could access images of great (and maybe not so great) art. Because the images are high-resolution, we can zoom in close, see the paint, the hairs left by the brushes, the hand of the artist, all at a quality even more detailed than an actual book, even more detailed than standing in front of the original painting. And what about the detractors? They argued that when we log into Art Project we are not looking at art, we instead are looking at digitized reproductions. Even reproductions in books are still ultimately objects. These same folks also argue that we are on a slippery slope, where a virtual experience becomes a replacement for the experience itself.
Recently museums have started making apps for smartphones and tablets. Personally, I have apps for The Louvre, Hermitage, The Art Institute of Chicago Impressionist collection, and the MoMA Ab Ex Exhibition. Some of these apps are better than others. For example MoMA’s excellent Ab Ex app takes you through a tour of their recently closed Abstract Expressionist exhibition. You click on an image to make it larger and to access information about the artwork. But along with the images we also get a video of Ann Temkin discussing why she mounted the show and how she selected the works that would be included. She discusses the history of the Abstract Expressionists and why we should care about them today. Arguably, if I had seen this show at MoMA, I wouldn’t know any of these things. Perhaps what is lost by not seeing the works in person is made up for by added information and contextualization.
David Lynch said, “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” I do see Lynch’s point, a smartphone or even an awesome tablet doesn’t equal a real-life experience with a work of art. But my question for Lynch is, does he extend this to all non-theatrical viewing? I mean before we watched movies on our phones we watched them on DVD, and before that video, and before that broadcast television if we were lucky enough that the one of three stations would re-run a movie we might consider “art.” Where exactly is he drawing the line in the technological sand? What technology is an acceptable mediator for art? The harsh tokes are that once your art is in the world, you don’t control it anymore no matter how hard you try (I’m talking to you, Anish Kapoor).
Over the years we have grown comfortable with new technologies. By now, no one is threatened by a book. When records were introduced people argued that this reproduction was not the same as a live performance. Then CDs were not as “alive” as the sensuous analog sound of vinyl. MP3s not as “lush” as compact discs. Without exception this is all true. What is also true is that we now listen to music all day instead of just on special occasions. So perhaps we trade quality for quantity, but we also gain access to music we could never hear live and we can also control when we listen to it.
All through college “The Birth of Venus” hung over my bed. Never once did I confuse this poster with the real thing. The original hangs in Florence at The Uffizi Gallery. I’ve never been to that museum and sadly enough, I probably won’t ever. Mechanical reproduction and digital technology has acted as a mediator between viewer and artwork for centuries. How is an exhibition app any different than a catalogue? Even with all its bells and whistles an iPad is still on the same trajectory as moveable type. After all those years of looking each morning at Venus, I never saw her so clearly as I did when I saw her on Art Project.
Artist Tony Fitzpatrick Runs for Mayor of Chicago
Read his facebook postings to follow the story but with Daley stepping down after 21 years the race begins and Tony Fitzpatrick has some fun points to be made. read more when someone makes a website for him?
British Artists Protest 25% Cut in Arts Spending
In hopes of bridging the substantial budget deficit Brittan faces the coalition government is proposing a max 25% cut in Arts spending. Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and David Hockney, counter that “radical cuts to current levels of arts funding will decimate what has been one of the U.K.’s chief success stories over the past 20 years, and will bring an end to the U.K.’s reign as a global capital for culture.” read more here
Ansel Adams Story Continues, With a Showdown
A new gallery showing is opening now with 20 prints — hand-developed and signed by Adams himself and guaranteed to be authentic by the Duncan Miller Gallery in West Los Angeles, which is putting on the show, shown side by side with prints from the embattled garage-sale find of Rick Norsigian, the Fresno resident who believes he has find of 65 negatives shot by Adams next to the more famous “Uncle Earl” Brooks, the previously unknown photographer they contend is the man who actually shot the pictures in the Norsigian find. If your a fan of Adams this would be a one day chance to make the decision for yourself. read more here
Interesting Tale of Dan Colen’s Career From Gagosian Gallery Bathroom to Solo Show
Read more here
Ireland Sparks Controversy Over Venice Biennale Choices
Emily-Jane Kirwan, a director at the Pace Gallery in New York, has been chosen as a commissioner for the Irish Pavilion in 2011, while Corban Walker, who belongs to the same Manhattan gallery, is Ireland’s official artist in Italy next year. The fight begins in 3….2…..1….. Read more here
Charles Saatchi’s Gift of His Gallery & Many of His Works to British Government an Offer too Good to Refuse or Trouble in the Making?
Charles Saatchi announced in July that he was in talks with the government to create a Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) for London. Turning over his Saatchi Gallery and 200 works of art worth a reported £25m to the British public. The offer which has been reported as a suprise to the goverment is now raising concerns about financial stability. Read more here
Danish art pranksters mock Spain’s royal family
The provocative Danish artist group Surrend have placed posters around Barcelona that mock Spain’s censorship laws as applied to the Spanish royal family. The posters depict several drawings that have been made unrecognisable by being painted over. A slogan at the top of each poster says: “Things we are not allowed to draw”. Next to each obliterated image is a sentence such as “The Royal Family having a lunch nap” and “The Royal Family having sex”. Read more here
Chicago Typefaces, Unlike Anywhere Else
The NPR picture show name dropped a blog that showcases the comercial typefaces that pepper Chicago, both new and old, and give the city some of it’s unique character. I am a bit biased but having visited/worked/lived many other places I can agree that when it comes to Architecture & public graphics Chicago is on a level of it’s own especially in the States. read more here