Is art real?
Part of the lecture series 'Is art real?' initiated by Ad de Jong, November 22nd 2007, Sandberg institute, Amsterdam. The tekst is transcripted by Natasha Rosling.
I want to start with a small text from toon Tellegen, a story about two friends, a squirrel and an elephant. Here, the squirrel is astonished to see the elephant flying through the night sky wearing a red hat, and in his disbelief doubts the very reality of the elephant’s being. However at the end of the story we find out that it is the elephant that doubts reality completely. This brings us to the question, ‘what is reality?’
Drawing 1a refers to ‘Camping’, a work I made existing of 20mx30m laid grass, the borders within which there was a real reception, real toilets and real trees, it was a place where real people would turn up and camp. I saw this work as promoting a place where two realities were brought together. The first was the visual and physical authenticity of the campsite itself in terms of the objects and campers composing it; the second was the reality of the art context and the activities of its audience as both campers and art consumers. The meeting of these two realities, created then another reality, that of the piece of art itself.
So I continue to ask myself, ‘Can art be real? And is that enough?’ or does art have to be somehow engaged? I mean does art have to be seen by an outside audience and reflected on as art in order for it to become Art? In this sense, is it possible for art to be more real than reality, when an artist uses reality inside their art?
Moving on to figure 1b -a hypothetical work made up for this lecture- there are similar tents but now a different reality. This idea is about an artist who comes up with a story about major capitalist engagement on TV, prompted by a photograph I saw in the New York Times of Bangladesh after the hit of a vicious cyclone. As you can see the tents are sponsored by Coca-Cola, making them marketing machines of Coca-Cola together with the marketing machine of one of the biggest selling contemporary artists in the world. The concerns of Coca-Cola and the artist and the citizens of bangladesh were combined to make this work of art. In 1999 there was already a storm in Bangladesh, which got huge media attention, and directly after that tens of thousands of tents were brought there in waiting for the next storm. Therefore by the time the second cyclone had hit and the CNN reporters had arrived, Coca-Cola had already erected all the tents giving accommodation to the inhabitants of bangladesh and also immediatelly spreading their commercial label. CNN then also of course provided them with worldwide coverage.
Can art that embodies reality with a project of this size and with that status be less real than reality? How does the intensity of such an art projected within society differ from the intensity of a personal encounter with a sculptural object?
This brings me to picture no.2, a drawing of a work I made called ‘Lorry’. This was a work that took place on a highway-parking place. What I found interesting was that Truckers aren’t really the type of people who are longing for art in their parking spaces. Yet for me art is about communication, whereas for truckers, trucks are about communication. Truckers communicate through their trucks, completely covering them with ‘bling bling’, painted dragons and nude women. So for them trucks are real and for me art is real. For them art is not real and for me trucks aren’t real. In view of this, what I decided to do was make a copy of a truck but as an unreal copy, an exact copy but in a different material. For that I used pvc/plastified fabric, which neutralized all those individual details and made the truck anonymous. However, in effect my truck was immediately taken up as their collective mascot. They came to completely embrace it, drinking beer and telling stories around it, transporting it entirely into their reality. This then makes me ask, is the reality of public space dependent on its original purpose and functionality?
Figures 3 and 4a refer to my works ‘Basket’ and ‘Escalator’. Even though they are both made out of very similar materials, they were both conceived absolutely differently. The escalator was placed on the beach and hence subject to a very open mode of viewing throughout day and night, just standing there displaced. A newspaper took interest in it and sought some responses, some of which were, “Its very nice that and artist can get the opportunity to exhibit here”; “I like it otherwise the beach would be such a big emptiness” and another, “I miss an explanation.”
In contrast, ‘Basket’ was a completely different story. It was exhibited in a sculpture garden secured day and night, along side artists with much bigger names than mine. In this sense it probably became something discussed at a dinner table. This comparison interests me since the placing of a piece of work directs much of how a work of art is perceived and what type of experience it is drawn reference to. The experience of these works are always structured by their relationship to a surrounding, rather than the pure physicality of the sculpture itself. It is this experience of relationship between thing and place that makes the work real in the minds of the people.
I now want to talk about a work currently on show in one of Brussels’ public squares. It is actually composed of two storage blocks, storing a total of 16 sculptures. At the opening I was having a conversation with a student who told me that we are in a society where artists are the ‘antennas of society’, artists have the biggest creative minds, are the biggest trouble shooters, the biggest shouters, and the biggest interferers. So what the Dutch government then does by giving their artists a subsidy is to keep them from mingling in public affairs and therefore keep the government from unwanted trouble and scrutiny. This of course according to the guy, is intended to keep artists out of reality. We were talking about this under my sculpture, which is 10m high and he said, “You must be a very quiet and a politically un-active artist.”
: So how frustrated are you about the reality of art?
: I think art for me is a way to work through frustrations, but then I’m talking of the practical act of making art itself. But art for me is a way to deal with a lot of things, and also to deal with the frustrations I feel about other art I see around me, and art that I feel is just ‘bad art’.
: So this frustration exists in your own art?
: Yes my frustration is into my own art, and for this reason I can’t be entirely frustrated by art that doesn’t communicate anything to me.