A bloke came up to us in City Hall Gardens and asked for directions to somewhere we’d never heard of. He then ambled round asking other people. His t-shirt said: “Not everyone who wanders is lost.” Americans clearly do ‘do’ irony after all…
Anyway, there’s nothing quite like going round a circular art gallery for making your head spin.
The Guggenheim in New York City has a challenging exhibition (until 28 September) entitled ‘Marking Infinity’ and featuring work by ‘art-philosopher’ Lee Ufan. I put his self-description in inverted commas simply because the philosophy bit doesn’t quite fit.
The art is interesting – particularly the sculptures, which do make you think about space and balance and (for example) the relationship between iron and the stones from which the iron comes. His early stuff is also interesting in the use of space and colour. But the ‘Dialogues’ material left me questioning whether art can really do what he says it should.
Hands up: I am not an artist. I am not an art critic. I am an art virgin when it comes to experience and understanding. But, I think I know when language is being used to stitch me up. ‘Dialogues’ consists of large canvases or walls painted cream, with a squarish sort of silver-to-grey acrylic patch in diverse places – hard to explain without pictures.
Consider this by way of explanation: “Human beings live with dreams of transcendence. Art can be described as something that foreshadows and encourages reflection and leaps of imagination.” OK so far. Then: “Just as human beings are physical beings combining internality and externality, works of art should be living sites that mediate and sublimate self and others.” (From ‘Correspondance’, 2010) Meaning what…?
Ufan goes on elsewhere to say: “If a bell is struck, the sound reverberates into the distance. Similarly, if a point filled with mental energy is painted on a canvas (or a wall), it sends vibrations into the surrounding unpainted space… Yohaku [resonant space] transcends objects and words, leading people to silence and causing them to breathe infinity.” It certainly led me to silence – the silence of trying to understand the words. What exactly is the ‘infinity’ we are supposed to be breathing?
I must be lacking imagination here – my wife certainly thinks so and she is an artist. I can understand an artist expending mental energy in deciding where to apply the acrylic on the wall; I can’t, however, see how the mental energy itself is transmitted into an inanimate object. I can see how the acrylic ‘changes’ the space around it, but can’t see what that has to do with the artist’s mental energy. I can understand how the art provokes or evokes an investment of mental energy on the part of the beholder, but that doesn’t seem to be what Ufan is saying.
Later in the exhibition we read: “For Lee, restraint in creating art… transforms his works from material objects to fleeting lived experiences, and his nonproduction serves as a nuanced critique of our globalised society of surplus and overproduction. By not making, Lee inspires a kind of productive passivity in which emptiness and open time are given meaning and substance.”
In the same way that the five books I have not written provide a powerful critique of the publishing industry’s überfertility? How is the decision to do nothing suddenly pregnant with ‘somethingness’? This just sounds to my ears like … er … weird. I fully confess I might be missing something here, but the artist (or curator) cannot do a Humpty Dumpty and simply use deep-sounding words to create a fog of fine-sounding but inherently meaningless sentiment.
Does Lee Ufan really mean that the artist commits his imagination and energy into creating something that, hopefully, will cause the observer to stop and wonder what is going on? If so, I agree with him. But, why couldn’t he just say so? (I have just seen a cab with an advert on it that read: ‘Creating the intersection between taste and flavor’. Blimey…)
Lee Ufan’s work did, however, make me look at the rest of the Guggenheim with a different eye. It seemed to me that people moved quickly through his exhibitions – rarely standing and looking for long – but then crowded out the wonderful Kandinsky exhibition (space, line, object and perspective in dialogue). The Nazis closed down the subversive Bauhaus; I doubt if they would have bothered with Lee Ufan. The impressive Thannhauser Gallery with its Monet, Manet, Seurat, Cezanne, Degas, Pisarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso, (pre-Cubist) Braque, etc. was packed. Or were we all missing the point Ufan was trying to make?
If Ufan was trying to make a comment about overproduction and consumerism in the art world, I think he failed. Hans-Peter Feldmann, on the other hand, fills a large space with 100,000 dollar bills pinned to the walls – exactly the amount he won in 2010 for the Hugo Boss Prize. As well as funny, he makes his point about art as consumer commodity very well.
To return to Ufan’s comment at the beginning about the human dream for transcendence, I couldn’t help notice that almost next door to the Guggenheim is the (Episcopal) Church of the Heavenly Rest. Put to one side the silly name, this church also seeks to meet the human need for transcendence in a variety of ways, some of which involve invitation to worship, contemplate, sit and pray. But they also look after homeless people and feed the hungry.
Transcendence has to be held down to earth. I guess Ufan might agree, but would want to describe it in esoteric language which only other ‘initiates’ might understand.
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Location:New York, USA