Conceptual Art: Who Appreciates It?

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Art is sometimes overwhelming. Life as a whole can become overwhelming, and at times I do find myself caught up in its whirlwind of drama. Being the person that I am, being faced with it, I tend to question the things that I don't understand, and sometimes I questions the things I understand the most, the things that I am certain of the most, like art.

After one of our regular seminar sessions at college I found myself contemplating a piece of work we were presented with that afternoon: three canvases painted yellow placed on top of each other on a wall of a gallery, a creation seemingly effortless, yet was declared to us and to the whole world as a masterpiece, something of given value, an example we should measure up to. It stirred a lot of controversy in the room, the most diverse response I have ever witnessed on an art related discussion amongst my classmates. Some could not help but demean it, others dismissed it as something pathetic, something a child could produce in one day, while a few glorified it. However I sat there disappointed with my not knowing how to assess it, with my not understanding how it could seem credible and worthy of admiration to many.

From that day on, viewing such pieces of art became very thought provoking for me. When I visited the college's library, I came across a book on Tom Friedman's work. One of his pieces, untitled 1995, caught my eye; it was a chewed piece of bubble gum that has been stretched to stick to both the ceiling and the floor. On the spur of the moment, this piece of work seemed insignificant and dirty to me. Why a chewing gum as an art piece? Something very accessible to all, something we chew on and spit on the side of the streets day after day. Why would he want to present such a trivial thing as a work of art? I just did not get how such an artist would find recognition and fame. It made me reflect on art again. What is it? Who defines it? Who creates it? And where do its parameters lie?

As I read about it I discovered that it all lies within the concept, the value of it lies predominantly in the idea, the philosophy embedded behind it. This particular piece of work 'untitled' 1995, was one amongst several others of his featured in an exhibition in 1996. Each individual piece was an illustration reflecting on one angle of the bigger picture he was exploring.

His work in that show was seen collectively as an exploration of the relationship between ideas; ideas that he did not mention the content of, but ideas that I see representing general ones, representing thoughts in their raw context. How do they interact with one another? Do they exceed to strengthen, or do they branch out and complicate themselves?

The bubble gum piece visually tackles the concept of ideas drifting apart from each other, hence the action of being stretched. It also shows how further and further away the idea has moved from its original state. The relationship is then depicted to have become thinner and thinner until its connection is no longer detectable and defined. It has also been said that this particular piece carried further meaning, as in it Friedman saw the relationship his other various pieces of work have with each other, their increasing independency and their evolving further apart.

Reflecting back on this piece of work I have become more appreciative of such work, and learned to search for meanings to pieces of art that I fail to comprehend at the first glance. However, still bearing in mind the subject matter of this work (ideas and their relationship with each other), I have come up with an interpretation of my own that could be relevant. What if the stretched piece in between the ceiling and the floor expresses a feeling of holding on rather than moving away? This idea could also reflect the ambiguity, contradiction and spontaneity that exists in the way we think and develop ideas. I also believe that he is an honest, simple person, who reduces or compares the meaning of life to a thing, smaller than him, something tangible, something our hands can play around with, like a chewing gum in Friedman's case. To me it is his expression of control over his life. In my opinion he is making life seem as trivial.

Friedman is one artist that has approached art in ways that are beyond the conventional painting or sculpture, and, as I have come to find out, this is one of the features of modern art as a whole, in which conceptual art belongs.

Conceptualism is a form of art that questions conventional art. It sets to project a concept to the viewer through a piece of work, in which the value of it lies firmly on the intellect and the idea behind it rather than the representation of it. In fact the physical appearance and the aesthetics of it is frequently of little or no importance. Like the works of art that are classified under conceptual art, the movement in itself is open to controversy, many do no want to stick labels or definitions to it, others reject it as not art., Lucie-Smith, 1995

The movement started out as a backlash created by a group of independent artists against the commercial attitude that existed towards the previous art movement (pop-art). The exponents of conceptual art therefore wanted to produce art that was deprived and 'purged' of the 'impurities' of Pop Art such as its heavy emphasis on iconography and its quest for visual appeal. Moreover, most of the conceptualists have nothing to sell, enforcing a statement to their viewers about their attitudes towards materialism. It also gives a clearer idea of what they value most about their work; their consideration of form as form, idea as an idea.

To return to Friedman's work, "Untitled 1990", Two white sheets of paper, displayed side by side seemingly with identical size, texture, and believe it or not with identical wrinkles. The idea presented by him this time revolves around identity and 'identicals'. To him such a thing does not and cannot exist. He is teaching us something new while making us doubt what we believe in. No two things can be the same, they can be alike but never the same; to have something be the same as something else would mean having two of the real and actual thing, which in reality can not happen, because at the end of it we will always have one original. Each is placed at a 'different' relation to one another the right piece is positioned to the left of the left piece and vice versa. I can't help but find it ironic that what we first perceived to be identical objects evolved into opposites through a process of thought and reason. I wonder if the artist had it in mind to lead the viewer into this path of thought or whether it is only my added insight on what I understood from his book.

Friedman's recurrent incorporation of everyday things, such as chewing gum, straws, papers and pencils, into his work in a matter new to all, creates an atmosphere of contemplation. Such new positioning of items and objects makes the viewer consider their existence and his existence in one.

Let us take Simone Berti's work for instance. As a part of an outdoor exhibition he has placed a bridge of bricks in the middle of a pond so that, it is enclosed by the water. Observing this installation piece, many people would reach the conclusion that the water is acting as an obstacle not allowing the bridge to perform its undisputed function of transferring people from one end of dry land to the other end of dry land. However, despite this unsettling arrangement of the bridge and the pond, Berti wanted to present this scene as a harmonious environment. He intended to present to us the bridge as 'an object in its own right', while to him the pond almost acted as a background or a backdrop.

As I view it, Berti is not illustrating an emotional attachment or a connection with the bridge, but rather using it as a tool to tell the viewers that it is okay to break loose from the chains, break away from the ideals of what looks or is indeed right. It allows us to see the bigger picture in life and be less afraid to label things that are unusual as the norm, or even more daring as the praised. What if we take what Berti has just taught us as a measure of our attitudes to other issues in life, like beauty for example, why is still not acceptable to have an overweight woman on the cover of Vogue magazine? It is only us that set certain measures and constrains on ourselves, and in order to change that, art radicalizes what is common to us and stretches it like the piece of bubble gum. Until that piece of reality has distorted itself and we are then forced to look at life from a fresh more hopeful, more questioning angle.

This brings me on to mention the similarity I have also found between Friedman's pieces and one of Damien Hirst's. The piece titled this little Piggy went to Market; this little stayed home is one example of his wider work on animals. In it he displays a pig that has been cut across into individual parts, each is placed in a tank of formaldehyde preservative which is then separately monitored by an 'automated track'. The tanks then move the parts of the pig apart and slide back into place in repetitive motions, connecting and disconnecting the pig's body.

Although in comparison with both Friedman's and Berti's work, this piece appears to me as shocking, grotesque and sickening. I find that a similar thoughtfulness in their approaches. Hirst stated that he wanted his piece of art to make "people think about the things they take for granted. Like smoking, like sex, like love, like life, like advertising, like death". He also said that he wanted " to make people frightened of what they know. I want to make them question".

In my opinion it is his inclusion of objects and things that are familiar to us in his art work in ways that are new and unthought-of of that really provokes us as viewers into questioning. The realization of reality in a new order brings fear. "Ordinary things are frightening. It's like; a shoe is intended to get you from one place to another. The moment you beat your girlfriend's head with it, it becomes something insane. The change of function is what's frightening?. That's what art is."

Say we were presented with canvases that no longer hang in galleries, no longer project an idea through its surface but rather through the manipulation of the body of the canvas it self, won't that be scary. In some of Angela De La Cruz's work, I found such concepts to be evident. Her canvases are almost the personification of ugly and negative feelings. They appear to be treated as people who have committed a misdemeanor and have been punished, or rather abused for it. After reading about her piece titled, Sky Folded, 1997, I have come to discover that without acknowledging the action and the process in which such pieces have evolved into, they will never maintain the same value and appreciation if they were. Reading about Sky Folded, 1997, I was amazed to find out that the block of canvas 'has been violently smashed and bent along the diagonal, like arms pinned behind one's back in a painful wrestle'. Such information alters my perception of it now, it is not a piece of canvas that has been folded at one of its corner and then placed thoughtfully on the floor, and instead it has been emotionally and physically dealt with. Breuvant, 2002

To conclude I have come to realize that what it all comes down to simply; when reality is rearranged it confuses people straightforward as this may sound; I found this out while researching artists that have presented our reality in another form. I discovered a reality of another kind and that, is what I find shocking, art works that have insignificant sizes of faeces on a pedestal have never managed to make me doubt my knowledge and common sense. It is like finding a new dimension of thought and staying true to this point, can any and all form of art other than conceptual able create a wave of shock when realizing the actual hidden thought and intents behind its concept?

Mahaba Abdulla

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