How to open your mind (and heart) to con­tem­po­rary art

The Nation - - NEW CHAPTERS -

IN OC­TO­BER, a sten­cilled, spray-painted “Girl with Red Bal­loon”, by the anony­mous Bri­tish graf­fiti artist Banksy, was sold at Sotheby’s Lon­don auc­tion house for $1.4 mil­lion. A mo­ment later, it self­de­struc­ted, the bot­tom of the pre­ten­tiously or­nate frame act­ing as a shred­der pre­sum­ably ac­ti­vated by re­mote con­trol. The re­mains promptly in­creased in value to $2 mil­lion (Bt65.7 mil­lion).

For­tu­nately, at the time, I was read­ing Lance Es­plund’s wise, won­der­ful new book, “The Art of Look­ing: How to Read Mod­ern and Con­tem­po­rary Art”, which helped me eval­u­ate Banksy’s feat. I have no idea what Es­plund, an art critic for the Wall Street Jour­nal as well as a pain­ter and teacher, thinks of the shred­ding per­for­mance. But that’s the beauty of his book – I don’t need to. Es­plund gives read­ers the con­fi­dence to make up our own minds and en­cour­ages us to find in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional joy in do­ing so.

The art his­to­rian Pre­minda Ja­cob con­sid­ered the Banksy episode “the lat­est ex­am­ple of artists de­ploy­ing guer­rilla tac­tics to ex­pose their dis­dain for the crit­ics, deal­ers, gallery own­ers, and mu­seum cu­ra­tors whom they de­pend on for their liveli­hood”.

Maybe. But I think it was more play­ful than that. Banksy’s dar­ing and tim­ing made me chuckle. The min­i­mal­ist, some­what cloy­ing im­age shows a girl ei­ther los­ing her heart-shaped bal­loon, or of­fer­ing it, to the sky. It’s a fleet­ing mo­ment.

Mwa-ha-hah! chor­tles the in­vis­i­ble Banksy as the im­age de­scends into the blades – more fleet­ing than you knew!

Then there’s the au­di­ence’s shocked re­ac­tion and the buyer’s sub­se­quent an­nounce­ment that she val­ues it even more now that it’s “a piece of art his­tory”. Like mo­bile and per­for­mance art, “Girl with Red Bal­loon” com­bines vis­ual, tem­po­ral and in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ments. Maybe it is, as Ja­cob writes, dis­dain­ful, but it’s also a witty re­minder to seize the day.

My re­ac­tion was in­flu­enced by Es­plund’s ap­proach to the per­for­mance artist Ma­rina Abramovic’s “Gen­er­a­tor”, in which par­tic­i­pants don a blind­fold and sound-sup­press­ing head­phones and ven­ture into a per­for­mance space where they walk or crawl, “bump­ing into walls, sup­port columns and other peo­ple”. He went into the ex­pe­ri­ence a scep­tic: “It struck me more as a so­ci­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­per­i­ment than art.” But he emerged a be­liever: “I was deeply af­fected. I felt fully present.”

Es­plund di­vides his book into two parts. The first, “Fun­da­men­tals”, dis­cusses the el­e­ments of art, its use of metaphor, how to bring one’s sub­jec­tiv­ity and ob­jec­tiv­ity into strate­gic play. The sec­ond, “Close En­coun­ters”, com­prises Es­plund’s read­ings of se­lect paint­ings, sculp­tures, videos, in­stal­la­tions and per­for­mance art. Those read­ings go deep but are sur­pris­ingly con­cise, some only a few pages long.

Es­plund re­minds us that all art was con­tem­po­rary when it was cre­ated and that to sep­a­rate our era’s works from the past “cuts us off from our his­to­ries, dis­tances us from our­selves”. He im­pres­sively in­ter­sperses dis­cus­sions of mod­ern art with rel­e­vant pre­de­ces­sors, some­times an­cient ones. He com­pares, for in­stance, Mon­drian’s “Com­po­si­tion with Blue” to the Great Pyra­mid at Giza – the way both push, pull and dis­ori­ent a viewer in a daunt­ing but ex­cit­ing way.

In a pair­ing of more re­cent work, the min­i­mal­ist sculp­tor Richard Tut­tle brings to Es­plund’s mind Alexan­der Calder’s shadow play.

Art is re­garded as part of a wide aes­thetic world, not sealed in a vac­uum, so Robert Gober’s “Un­ti­tled Leg” spurs as­so­ci­a­tions not just to Duchamp’s 1917 ready-made uri­nal “Foun­tain”, Meret Op­pen­heim’s 1936 “Ob­ject” and Duane Hanson’s 1970s Madame Tus­saud-like sculp­tures but also to an Al­fred Hitch­cock movie and Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.

In other words, Es­plund mod­els the way art view­ers are re­ally art in­ter­ac­tors, and the more ref­er­ences we bring to an in­ter­pre­ta­tion the more we’re likely to get out of it.

Es­plund is equally adept in analysing video pieces like Jeremy Blake’s “The Winch­ester Tril­ogy”, in­spired by a mys­te­ri­ous San Jose man­sion built by the widow of the Winch­ester firearms mag­nate. At the be­hest of her hus­band’s ghost, she ex­panded the man­sion from eight to 160 rooms to pla­cate the spir­its of Winch­ester gun vic­tims. The video tril­ogy be­comes a re­flec­tion of Amer­ica, with “Raquel Welch, rock ‘n’ roll, gun­slingers, and spir­i­tu­al­ism” among its “meta­phoric lay­ers ... as if it’s ex­plor­ing not merely a house, or the cham­bers of Sarah Winch­ester’s psy­che, but a deep-sea wreck, a lost city, the depths of our col­lec­tive un­con­scious”.

Life is busy and art is de­mand­ing, but read­ing Es­plund prods us to take the aes­thetic plunge, to com­mit to a James Tur­rell light sculp­ture or a for­bid­dingly mon­u­men­tal Richard Serra art space the same way we do to a Rem­brandt, a Berthe Morisot, a Pi­casso. Lay down your de­fences and your an­tag­o­nisms, Es­plund urges, and “be as de­mand­ing of your­self as you are of the art you en­counter”. A pro­found con­nec­tion to an art­work, “like lovesick­ness, is un­mis­tak­able and will in­spire your search for new and deeper re­la­tion­ships.”

– The Washington Post

The Art of Look­ing: How to Read Mod­ern and Con­tem­po­rary ArtBy Lance Es­plund Pub­lished by Ba­sic Avail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt877 Re­viewed by Alexan­der C Kafka

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Thailand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.