Strategies of Art Making
Sep 10, 2018
A friend in England asked me just recently whether I thought her work had become too much like 'the last cry of a dinosaur.' I thought not, but it made me wonder whether the whole art endeavour wasn't a little like that dinosaur's last cry. Art has been essentially functionless since it lost its monopoly on conveying a pictorial message: a scene from the bible, a family portrait, a vanitas all have an illustrative function. But then art had never really been just about that. During modernism the examination of what art really was about came to the forefront and it was pushed and pushed to its limits until we suddenly popped out the other end.
It's the late '90s. Anything goes and everything is possible. Art can be anything. It is competing with the world of the internet, the television, the cinema, and advertising, in a world saturated with images. How does one find a place for art which is meaningful within this maze of possibilities? How, as an artist, does one enable oneself to make work? The answer for many artists now seems to be to resort to various strategies borrowed from the 'real' world. Art can't convince by being better—the manufacturers and advertising companies have the upper hand in fashioning both objects and images. Artists can't connect with their public by being elitist and abstract, or expressive of individual genius, because they no longer believe in it. So, here is a list of strategies (in no way comprehensive) that artists are using to try and win back their public. The strategies in themselves are neither good nor bad, what is good or bad is the use to which they are put.
Exposing the self is the final line. There is no further to go—especially if done in a self-revealing, about my-life-as-it-is way. It's the real story, no bullshit. How much more direct can you get? The more revealing, the more personal, the more it lays bare the self, stripping away the layers of self-defense, the better. Sure, I have always wanted to know how you really feel—especially if I don't have to deal with it. It takes courage (or desperation) to be brutally honest and we like that. This technique is also used more and more in 'reality based' television, where documentaries are made by pressing camcorders into people's hands and telling them to push the button. It's a slice of real life and who wouldn't like to be the fly on the wall?
The confessional often takes the form of performance, video, photographs and/or text. British artist Lucy Gunning cries into the camera for the whole length of the tape; Tracy Emin establishes her own museum in which she displays her underwear and a tent embroidered with the names of all the people she has slept with. Gillian Wearing dances in a shopping mall without music, putting herself on display as the artwork. This is me and this is art. Confessions are about sharing experiences, sensationalizing the ordinary, but contrarily also about setting oneself apart.
Exposing others is very close to exposing the self; the direct relationship between the viewer and the subject is similar. Here, rather than looking at the artist we are looking in from the artist's viewpoint, taking on his or her role in a personal relationship. Richard Billingham for example takes photographs of his family, working class East Enders; his father is a chronic alcoholic. A caption in a newspaper article reads "Even the cat is not spared the daily violence recorded in Richard Billingham's brutally honest snapshots of family life" (The Independent, 8/25/97). What shocks is that he should expose his family to the eyes of strangers. The Dad lying drunk on the floor, the big frumpy mum with tattoos on her arms fighting with her husband. But what makes these so good is that the photos are taken from the inside, with warmth and understanding.
Most of the artists I can think of in this bracket tend to be photographers: Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson, Wolfgang Tillmans. They photograph friends and their surroundings in the snapshot style which lends (or is supposed to lend) these images the casual, intimate touch.
Gillian Wearing on the other hand uses others who are not known or close to her. By asking passersby to write down a message on a large piece of paper and photographing them holding up their words she establishes momentarily a very intimate relationship. People so ordinary we would not normally be interested in their lives write down everything from the banal to the tellingly honest. The written sign is something of a plea for help—like children traveling unaccompanied with tags around their necks.
Art as Entertainment
I use the word "entertainment" very loosely. Interaction is the key word, as this strategy is generally based on some kind of audience participation. For example: food. Rirkrit Tiravanja has long been cooking food at his openings for people to consume. Felix Gonzalez-Torres heaps sweets in the gallery space which people can take away and eat; Carsten Höller put out barrels of apples in a show entitled Happiness. It is almost a way of bribing the viewer into relaxing and enjoying—into not taking this whole art thing quite so seriously.
There have been many recent shows where artists have worked collaboratively, or the curation has forced works to interact with one another. Angela Bullochs' beanbags are spread out in front of TV's showing art videos in Rooms with a View: Environments for Video at the Soho Guggenheim in NY (May-June 1997). Here the videos are an excuse for the beanbags, and the beanbags return the favour for the videos. Just lying around on the beanbags was unfortunately not quite enough and the videos didn't make it worthwhile either. A similar show premise, but a little more effective was last summer's Assuming Positions at the ICA in London. Tobias Rehberger's hassocks covered in spirals of jute yarn had little wheels on them, so that you could roll around while watching the band Pulp's projected music video. The difference here is that the hassocks are very cool objects in themselves. Yet again, each element modifies the other and consequently each component is seen with much more leniency. It is a little like playing roulette and laying the stakes on both black and red—you're guaranteed at least a partial win, whatever the outcome. The main aim of this strategy is to reconnect with the public by setting a different atmosphere. Without the interaction, the pieces would, in some cases, not even exist, so the "viewer" becomes a vital component. It is a much less elitist approach to art; anyone can get it. It is art as the here and now, as the experience.
Similarly, Charles Long used entertainment as the main strategy in his pieces in the most recent Whitney Biennial. Bubblegum Station, a giant pink plasticine blob with headphones attached was set up for the public to work on whilst listening to music-but just as most people would never use the fully functional toilet set up by Sarah Lucas in one of the galleries in the ICA's Assuming Positions, who would really feel at home enough to play freely with plasticine in the guarded galleries of the Whitney?
Art as Product Design
This strategy essentially has existed since the Pop artists, but is now being used quite differently. Now the actual product is used, or objects are fabricated to look more and more like the real thing, blurring the boundary between fine art and applied design. For example, Andy Warhol painted Campbell's soup cans and printed the Brillo design on his boxes. Now artists like Dallas' Ludwig Schwarz just use the real thing. Schwarz cuts out the covers of food packages and tapes them together in semi-formal arrangements that simultaneously force us to look at the packaging design and appear to give us a quite succinct insight into the maker's eating patterns and thus life-style.
Product design is functional and, in a time where art in itself seems to have less and less purpose, artists are enjoying giving their work a secondary function. Artists, like Tobias Rehberger, are making furnitureoid objects which function as artworks, and, should that not be enough, you can also sit on them. Rehberger apparently uses information he has gathered in questionnaires from the public or from friends to make his semi-functional objects. By giving others some say in what to make there is a design-like attempt to integrate what matters to others and thus have a dialog between public and artwork. Also, functionality allows artists to make things which are essentially purely formal, but which, unlike abstract or formalist work, have content through function. In some cases, however, the objects made are so close to actual products that they are indistinguishable from the real thing. Jorge Pardo's perfectly curved table and chairs at the ICA did not make the jump from designer object to art object and I guess the sign admonishing us not to sit on the chairs didn't help. It was the primary rather than the secondary function of this piece that it was designer furniture and, with nothing left of the tongue-in-cheek, it failed as a piece of art.
Art as Decoration
The decorative was, at one time, dismissed as not belonging in the high art domain. If something was too decorative that disqualified it as a serious work of art. To some degree this is still the case and artists using decoration as a strategy often use a format which stops the work from being read purely as decoration. Houston's Aaron Parazette takes wallpaper patterns and reproduces their cutesy, banal designs in slick gloss paint. Their very slickness and professionalism make you think that this is more than just about decoration. It is about painting. On the other hand, London's Simon Periton remains a little closer to actual decoration with his cut-out paper doilies. With their repetitive patterns and bright colours, the doilies hang from the wall like coloured Mexican-style banners strung through a restaurant. Festive, delicate, and vulnerable, they are really just there for the here and now, for sheer enjoyment. In Periton's case the direct reference to previous decorative designers such as William Morris lifts his work from being not just decorative, but about decoration.
In a similar way, although New Yorker Beverly Semmes' work is always talked about in terms of fashion, the body, and femininity, I see her work very much in this context. In one piece, yellow fabric cascades all over the floor from one huge dress source with brightly coloured pink cushions strewn all over it. It is as much about decoration and home arrangement and festive celebration as anything else. Again the decorative allows the use of a highly formal approach to art.
Mimicking the Real
I guess we have always mimicked the real, but in the '90s, from being a no-no, this strategy has come to the forefront again. There have been loads of Duane Hanson retrospectives in Europe over the last few years (Deichtorhallen, Hamburg; Saatchi Gallery, London). Mimicking the real is an attempt to get in touch with what is, by reproducing it. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev writes, "Over the past years we have been battling with a feeling of dissatisfaction, with the concept of the hyperreal and the loss of authentic experience in a world described as a maze of things gone abstract, mere signs or maps without territory" (Flash Art, No. 158, June 91). This strategy takes the 'hyperreal' head on. By making a simulacrum of what is, it forces us as the viewer to verify the reality of what we are being presented with—often throwing us back to re-examine the real thing. For example, Ceal Floyer projects a light switch onto the wall in exactly the same dimensions that a light switch actually is. She tricks our perception for a moment into assuming that she is merely throwing a square of light onto an existing light switch (we are compelled to wave our hand in front of the projector to get to the bottom of her deception). Swiss artists Fischli & Weiss trick our perception in a similar way. They remake objects which look like the real thing—some planks of wood left behind by the carpenter, but which on closer examination are made of foam. Any material is used, except the one that should really be there.
Glen Seator duplicates the entire entry hall and stairway of the London gallery White Cube inside the gallery space itself, forcing us to reloop in actual time from entry to stairway to gallery, and back to the entry again. He mimicks the real facade down to the little crack in the pavement outside, the dent in the wall and the way the bell wires are twisted and thus forces us to re-examine the space we have just walked through unawares and reconnect with its details. In a very direct sense the perfectly mimicked object is an abstraction of the real one, but one where the source of abstraction is forcefully evident.
So, like me, you might have been thinking at some point, what's the problem? Why don't current artists just make art without using these strategies? But thinking about it, I realized that art making has always been linked to some kind of strategy. The difference is merely a shift in the choice of strategies. That doesn't mean that current work is either better or worse and it does not mean that work can't still be made using older strategies (look at Brice Marden!). Anything truly good transcends the use of strategy. It is just that current artists see their work in its context rather than as a separate entity relating purely to itself. They are trying to establish a different way of looking at art, one which isn't so exclusive, but more personal and inclusive of the everyday and, perhaps for the first time, the public itself. Now in the late '90s, artists want their work to reach beyond the narrow confines of the art world, because in a world where everything is connected, art can no longer exist in a vacuum.
"Strategies of Art Making" first appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of ArtLies, a print arts quarterly published from 1994-2011. Founded in Texas, ArtLies offered a critical examination of artistic practice, theory, and discourse on and about the contemporary arts. For more information and the ArtLies archives, visit The Portal to Texas History by the UNT Libraries.