June 29, 2006

the submissive sensuality of the scarred plywood desktop

My dad sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal. I thought it was hilarious, but also quite a scary commentary on the current state of affairs in 'high art'. These are the people who decide which artists make it in the world and which ones don't. They decide what the public sees and what remains forever in artist's studios. And as a result, they directly influence what sort of art will be created in the future.

'Thought to Have Merit'

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'Thought to Have Merit'
An English sculptor loses his head.

BY LIONEL SHRIVER
Tuesday, June 20, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

LONDON--Once in a while a news story so speaks for itself that it threatens to put commentators out of a job.

In this year's summer show at London's Royal Academy of Arts, "Exhibit 1201" is a large rectangular tablet of slate with a tiny barbell-shaped bit of boxwood on top. Its creator, David Hensel, must be pleased to have been selected from among some 9,000 applicants for the world's largest open-submission exhibit of contemporary art. Nevertheless, he was bemused to discover that in transit his sculpture had gotten separated from its base. Judging the two components as different submissions, the Royal Academy had rejected his artwork proper--a finely wrought laughing head in jesmonite--and selected the plinth. "It says something about the state of visual arts today," said Mr. Hensel. He didn't say what. He didn't need to.

Moreover, the Royal Academy denies having made an error, for the plinth and hastily carved wooden support were, according to an official statement, "thought to have merit."

For those who despair that artists these days seem to have lost the skill of fashioning meticulously crafted objects, don't blame Mr. Hensel. While the slate base took only four hours to hack from a mortuary slab, and the little boxwood prop less than an hour, he had painstakingly carved and polished that laughing head for two months. But alas, the sculpture itself has--shudder--emotional content. It was originally christened "One Day Closer to Paradise," a far too expressive title; Mr. Hensel would have been better off with the portentously enigmatic "Exhibit 1201." His laughing head is not only fatally well rendered, but exudes a sense of joy and hilarity, and the overtly evocative is declassé. How much more sophisticated, a stoic square of slate that speaks of--well, ask the viewers.

"The sculpture is a mixture of heavy stone with a light piece of wood on top," the Daily Telegraph quoted a Dane as explicating last week while admiring the plinth. "I like the total effect. It is a really nice contrast." A Londoner rejoined, "If it was in more of a minimalist show, it would definitely seem more beautiful." Presumably these folks would find an emperor clad in a "minimalist" manner equally stunning.

Me, I just put a brick on my desk. I gaze in wonderment at the contrast in textures--the smooth, unyielding sides of the brick, the rough, almost sexual crumble on its chipped corner, the humbler, more submissive sensuality of the scarred plywood desktop. I marvel at the fierce, affirmative perpendicular of the brick, in firm opposition to the languid, taciturn serenity of the lateral . . . But that's not even funny, is it? Joseph Beuys has piled bricks on a floor of the Guggenheim and called it art. How exasperating, a field so far out in la-la-land that it is impervious to parody. You see what I mean about being out of a job.

Of course, the Royal Academy's exaltation of that plinth recalls many a misapprehension in galleries, where visitors are wont to coo over the fire hydrants, ventilation grates and trash cans, all of which are more durably and fastidiously crafted than the works on display. For that matter, one gift that contemporary art seems to have given us viewers is a way of seeing every object in our surround--as I look about my study now, the powerful yet precarious piles of paperbacks, the airy, ephemeral flutter of bank statements--as art. But in that event, we not only don't need commentators; we don't need artists, do we?

Or the Royal Academy.

Posted by halsey at 12:41 PM

June 21, 2006

music for dead people

Several months ago, I was selected to participate in a juried sculpture exhibit at one of the most beautiful (and undiscovered) green spaces in the greater Boston area: Forest Hills Cemetery.

  • WHAT: Dwelling: Memory, Architecture and Place
  • WHERE: Forest Hills Cemetery, 95 Forest Hills Ave, Jamaica Plain, MA
  • WHEN: June 24th through October 31st, 2006
  • OPENING RECEPTION: Saturday, June 24th – 3-6 PM

Yes, I know I am not a sculptor(!), but I love this place so much that I wanted to participate with music instead of a physical object. I interviewed people in the cemetery about why they were there, how it makes them feel, what they think about being surrounded by dead people etc etc, and have incorporated those recorded responses into 25 minutes of music. The hope is that people will listen to the music while walking around the grounds if possible, and I have created two methods for doing this. The preferred method is to download the music to an iPod or some such portable device and bring it with you. The alternative method is to call a number on your cell phone while in the cemetery and listen that way. You will also be able to leave a voicemail with your thoughts at the same number. The phone system will not be fully functional until the exhibit opens this weekend, but you can download and listen anytime from my website:

One Hundred and Four Thousand

There are fifteen artists participating in this exhibit and the people organizing it have set up a nice walk that takes you to all of the pieces as well as to some of the more interesting and beautiful permanent artworks and memorials on the grounds. Believe me, this is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.

Posted by halsey at 02:44 PM