Saturday, July 20, 2013

It's About Time

Fine art tends to exist in three dimensions.  Painting and sculpture are the most traditional media, and both deliver works with spatial, but not temporal qualities (except for the unwelcome fact of deteriotion over time).  Artists have often puzzled over how to bring time into their work, exploring everything from dynamic forms to decay.  Continuing in this tradition, The North Carolina Museum of Art is currently hosting an exhibition called 0-60: The Experience of Time Through Contemporary Art.  Here's a speedy tour of some highlights.

A number of regional artists are featured in the show, like Tom Shields, currently a resident at Penland, North Carolina, whose deconstructed chair appears at the start of this post.  The work by locals holds up well in the show.  I was very taken with the work of Virginia-based Sonya Clark, for example.  The piece above is a digital print, in a scroll of a 30-foot dread lock.  Other work uses hair to track the years since the Emancipation Proclamation.

The show also includes many national and international artists.  It opens with a number of clocks made by the ever-inventive Californian, Tim Hawkinson.  The examples above are a dried banana skin and a medicine cabinet filled with toiletries, all of which have moving parts that keep time.

Hawkinson's banana expresses time through its movement and also it's ongoing process of degeneration.  More subtle--and stunning--is Tara Donovan's cube made of thousands of toothpicks.  Talk about transfiguration of the commonplace!  Donavan is a master at making the mundane marvelous.  This toothpick monolith looks like it is about status rather than temporality, but a brief look at its periphery reveals the fragility of what appears structurally implacable.  The assembly could not survive transportation, and will likely loose parts over the course of the show.

A bit more conservative, but also impressive are some photographs created over long periods of time.  There is an imposing triptych by the German photographer Vera Lutter (not pictured here), which used a camera obscura to document an afternoon at Frankfurt airport.  The image above is a remarkable 3-year (!) exposure made by Michael Wesley using a pin hole camera which remained on during the construction of the renovation of the Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibition also included two large installations of the excellent Mexican-born Montreal-based artist, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.  The piece above uses a respirator to inflate a paper bag continuously using the breath of a Cuban singer.  It inflates 10,000 times a day, the breathing rate of a typical human adult.

Another room-sized installation includes a small hole where visitors can insert a finger.  The hole captures the fingertip on video and measures the pulse, resulting in an encompassing montage of fingers and nails.

One of my favorite pieces in the show is a one-room apartment made entirely of sheer fabric by Korean, Do Ho Suh, one of the most interesting artists active today.  Do Ho Suh is interesting in biographical time, and this room is part of a larger project in which he creates fabric scale models of every home he has lived in.

For me, however, best in show was an old classic.  It celebrates a piece by one the legends of performance art, Taiwan-born Brooklyn-based, Tehching (Sam) Hsieh.  Hsieh's performance works of the late 70s and early 80s were true tests of endurance.  In one he avoided anything having to do with art for a year.  In another he lived outside for a year, never entering any enclosed space, including vehicles.  In a third, he spent a year in a wooden cage, not speaking, reading, or watching television.  The exhibition documents another performance from this period, in which Hsieh took a photograph of himself every hour on the hour for a year.  The photos have been assembled into enlarged contact sheets and a video, which document his hair growth, and his amazing punctuality.  Day or night, he managed to be on time for his hourly photo.  The work is about the passage of time, but also about life on the clock--a ineluctable aspect of modern life.  If artists strive to represent the world they live in, the Hsieh's pieces does a better job than any other on display in representing what time has become.


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  4. Hsieh's outdoor piece worked especially well because you got to see him at it more continuously than the quarterly visitations of the other pieces. I would run into him frequently (especially because there was a cheap Chinese restaurant with an outdoor take-out window near my house) and watch him get scruffier and scruffier as it became more difficult for him to get clean during the cold weather. Then suddenly I remember him showing up pristinely clean, the warming weather presumably having provided a chance for a decent bath. One of the best artistic representations of spring I've ever seen. (His year of not making/seeing art is also interesting because of the way it paradoxically calls its own status as art into question: after it was over I asked him if he could have just spent the year painting by declaring the act non-artistic; he said yes that was possible but he kept to conventional -- but oddly if I remember pretty arbitrary -- definitions of what art is.)

    1. what about Do Ho Suh? what do you think about his artworks? I did not know about him, but after seeing more of his artworks, I found him quite interesting. I have problems to understand contemporary art, in general, but I think some of the artists today are just trying to convey an idea and that might not have much to do with aesthetic.

    2. I really do not like Hsieh either. I somehow include him in the category of too much experimenting on yourself as an artist. It gets too personal and emotional and I wonder how much this has to do with art. I understand, though, that subjectivity is what makes an artist an artist?! but, personally, I find it dangerous and too much playing with your mind. I also wonder about beauty in aesthetic and if we can eliminate it completely. I am mainly interested in photography and paintings, in general, I would like to see more philosophers writing about photography in an understandable manner. I think it would be very useful for photographers since nobody really understands what makes a great photograph or not.

  5. I am also interested to know if aesthetic is something that the minds recognizes instantly and therefore, likes it ( since it has so much to do with beauty and beauty is something that we all recognize and like) or aesthetic is something that is always challenged and defined ( as it seems to be ). Because the artist has this role even if he likes it or not. To challenge.
    But when we interpret art, we do have "gut feelings" in judging and appreciating art.

    As for subjectivity, I have read an article recently in which it was argued that the way the art of an artist looks like has a lot to do with his personality. As a psychology discovery. Simply said, if the photographer has an outgoing personality and has a very daring personality ( toward a nasty one ), then his artwork will reflect that...and that's it.
    I personally do not think it is that simple. I am afraid that there are really nasty personalities who are able to produce amazing art that we can not help ourselves not to like.

    I tend to think that subjectivity(!) and/or emotions do not have that much to do with good art. I think art is about ideas and aesthetic.
    But I also regard the artist as a sort of a prisoner for the art's sake who tends to loose himself in pursuing it as finding it hard to do otherwise.
    As searching for some absolute ideas who will and will not reveal themselves and actually has little importance if they do.
    This leaves judging if pursuing your emotions is better. It is better only in the sense that you will be against art itself ( if art really means pursuing some universal ideas/universal truth ).
    However, once you are dealing with emotions and they are overwhelming and you happen to be an artist, emotional art happens.
    The problem is that emotions imply not feeling well as well. It implies pain.
    I do not like it at all.

    The problem with pursuing universal ideas/universal truth is that these universal ideas do not care at all about how you feel, about the artist.
    I am not sure if it is clear what I mean, but for me, it makes sense.

  6. when I think of emotions, I think of pain. I have never seen a painting that screams of happiness and be considered artistic or good art. Or, to be more precise, an artistic artwork involves more often pain than anything else. Whether it is distress, disgust, sorrow, etc.

    For instance, Diane Arbus. I honestly could not look at her photographs because they are so disturbing. It is clear that you have an emotional response toward her photographs and it is about emotions in her photographs. People who are crippled and who look disturbing. She also photograph them in such a way that I have to follow the emotion that she is leading me to whether I like it or not. Although the content is very powerful as it is. But the photographer has an important role as well.

    why is this good art? is there something else in her photographs that I am not seeing beside the powerful emotional impact?
    I understand this in the situation when the artist is so emotional charged that he actually needs to photograph certain situations to fulfill some internal needs. As Don McCullin said it, I've seen horror situations in war, I can not just look happy now. The war took something away from me.

    The thing is that these situations happen. People get sick or do not get well, war happens, or just sheer absurdity. These things are neither abstract or rational ideas that you can look at and contemplate. It is the reality.
    But the photojournalist is the one who precisely depicts reality in photography who is not necessarily an artist.

    I've also watched a video recently, there was a man who was in a different country trying to gain more money for his wedding. He got bitten by a stray dog and got sick with rabies. He did not go to the hospital because he thought the vaccine will cost him money ( it was free though ) and he died in a few days. It is absurd. I saw his look at the end of the video, and I've seen that look before. The look of someone who knows he will die. I would not want to take a picture of someone in this situation even to be promised the greatest prize in photography. I think it is painful, useless, hopeless, death.

    I always regarded art as being something that I like doing, that gives me pleasure and that is beautiful. But it seems that it can not be.

  7. an example from painting is Frieda Kahlo. I really liked her paintings.
    I think they are very personal albeit not so much emotional, if I am not mistaken. Painting is also very different than photography.
    She has a very dramatic use of color and a striking sincerity with which she depicts moments from her life or her emotions regarding herself/her husband. She is straightforward.
    But it is about pain in her paintings and what she was going through in her life, explicitly. But not an emotional approach although her paintings are so highly personal. She is painting herself detached, emotionless about her illness and her tribulations with her husband. Like depicting a fatality, like watching a movie about someone else, cold but without missing any detail. As this is what art is suppose to be.
    An eye of glass who regards you eternally no matter what it happens to you and what frightening reality you are living.
    It can not help you but it is so highly rational.

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