The Message Is In The Medium (Among Other Things)

Posted: February 2nd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , , ,

Love, love, love 20×200.com. It’s really a terrific site. Right now they have some photos I am lusting after – and I’m hesitant to share this because I really want one – but what the hell, here it is …
In 2010 Doug and Mike Starn had a great exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see. (Yup, there we are …)

The exhibit, Big Bambu:  You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop, was an installation which was a structure consisting of almost five thousand interlocking 30 and 40 foot bamboo poles, connected using more than 40 miles of rope.  It includes spaces to walk through, bridges to walk on, as you interact with the sculpture.  The Starns work most frequently, however, in photography. Fortunate for anyone who wants to collect since photography is so wonderfully reproduce able. And they have done a project tied to the Met installation in collaboration with 20×200. 20×200 is offering a series of four photographs of the installation. If you’ve seen the installation, the photographs conjure up memories of the experience. But they are not “pictures of an installation piece.”. The Starns are obviously gifted photographers, and the photographs stand very much on their own. Through framing, angle, weather conditions (since it’s an outdoor piece) and background, each one conveys a very different mood and setting.

BBMet_06.03.2010_S2257 by Doug and Mike Starn as available on www.20x200.com

BBMet_03.12.10_K0441 by Doug and Mike Starn as available on www.20x200.com

(I figured I’d only put up two of the four so that you’ll have to visit 20×200 to see the other two.  It’s worth the visit.)

I’ve been working through my thoughts on artistic media and reproduction a lot in the last few day. I have often expressed my discomfort with”prints” without actually clarifying what I mean by that. I keep saying I’m sure I’ll get over it at some point, and I’m really not sure I will. So I’ve been trying to nail the issue down. The issue is not with prints per se. It’s not a judgement about art based on the value of the materials involved in its production or on its singularity. Photographs, screen prints, prints of etchings, sculpture reproduced through a cast, are all art forms which I would be happy to collect. My issue is quite specifically with prints of paintings.

For art to be good (as I see it – you’re welcome to your own view) there is some sort of idea which the artist is conveying through the object or performance which is the art. The artist may not be able to articulate that idea, may not even be aware of what the idea is. But the idea is, none the less, conveyed through the art and it’s medium.  The medium is a critical component of the object.  It is one of many choices the artist makes that shapes his or her art. If an artist feels that art should be easily reproduced, not elitist, and financially accessible, he or she may choose to work in photography, screen prints, or to make images digitally. The idea and intent becomes part of the choice of medium. But the medium is inherent to the object and can’t be randomly exchanged. I can imagine an artist deliberately choosing to make a painting and then photograph it and have the photograph (or a distortion there of, or the photo with things glued on to it) be the desired art object.  In that case, rather than being the original, the painting is not complete on its own, but is part of the process.  Or, I suppose, an artist could make a painting intended to be an art object on its own, but also take a photograph of that painting which would become a different work.  If the new image is really a different work in its own right, I have no problem with it.  The Starns’ photographs of Big Bambu are a perfect example of this.  If, however, the photograph is merely a copy of the painting which, bummer, you don’t get that one, then I feel like it loses a certain amount of integrity.

This whole issue made me think immediately of the phenomenon that has become popular lately of having a photograph printed on stretched canvas and hanging that on the wall.  It’s exactly the inverse of the issue outlined above.  I don’t get it.  I have a number of friends who have canvases of photographs in their homes, including very talented photographers, and I certainly don’t begrudge them that choice.  I just wouldn’t make it — ’cause I don’t get it.  Is the idea that the photograph goes from being a snapshot to being art worthy of being hung on the wall simple by virtue of being printed on canvas stretched on a wood frame?  What was wrong with the darn photograph to begin with?  What is it about canvas that suddenly makes something art?  Print the photo in a large format on photo paper, frame it, hang it up, and as far as I’m concerned it is 100% legit.  The element that makes no sense is the canvas.  On the other hand, if an artist took a photograph and printed it on canvas, and something about the photograph itself or the way it was printed was self-aware about being printed on canvas — if the fact of being on canvas were in fact an integral and deliberate part of the conception of the work in the first place — that I get.

A few other things come immediately to mind.  The first is perhaps the most classic anti-art art object, Duchamp’s urinal.  The ballsy idea of signing “R. Mutt” on a urinal and putting it in a gallery and calling it art was impossibly clever and makes for an extremely amusing work, and raised questions that the art world hadn’t been asking up until then.  Taking a urinal now and screening that same signature on it and putting it in your house would not suddenly mean that you had a copy of Duchamp’s Fountain.  Can you imagine someone buying 100 urinals and screening Duchamp’s name on them, and then selling them as art objects?  Awesome, no?  That would be really funny.  But Duchamp wouldn’t be the artist.  If you bought one of said urinals (ok, I’m really loving this idea already), you would own a clever piece by Joe Artist who had this idea, and its meaning therefore would be entirely different from the meaning of Duchamp’s original urinal.  Another possibility which would result in multiple urinals, all of which in my opinion have artistic integrity, would be if, in 1917, Duchamp had in fact decided to take 100 identical mass produced urinals instead of one, had signed all of them, and the presented the whole darn lot as Fountains.  But there’s no changing that one at this point.

The Fountain, Marcel Duchamp

Working through this idea has also gotten me feeling a little guilty about a piece we have in our home which is box number 65 of Dimple Pimple.  Dimple Pimple is, in turn, part of a larger series of “urban interventions” which constitute Serendip(c)ity.   The website for Dimple Pimple  explains:  ”A left-over hole in the ground is named ‘Dimple Pimple’ to imply and acknowledge the organic growth and decay of city surface. Identified holes are numbered and sold along with it’s photograph, location map, seed of native plants, soil and water bottle.”  The object which we have is a box containing all of those elements, and a cute little scooper, with instructions about how we are supposed to use the materials to plant, and then care for, the hole number 65 as specified in our box.

I like the box.  I like having it sit out.  I like thinking of this whole story of which I am reminded each time I see it.  But I can’t help feeling like we are betraying the artist by not finishing the project – using the contents of the box to fill the hole and plant in it.  In part, our hole is located in Los Angeles and we have not had an opportunity to go there recently.  This also makes tending to the plant once we have planted it in said hole awfully difficult.  Excuses aside, we hold onto the box with all of its contents as if it were an art object, and it’s not — or it’s certainly not THE art object as the artist intended it.  The art is, in fact, not meant to be an object, but a process — an interaction with the city.  We didn’t finish it.  We have interrupted the process and turned the box into something which wasn’t the point.  Obviously I haven’t a clue what was in the artist’s head except for snippets of explanation.  But my reluctance to part with the contents of Dimple Pimple  box number 65 has made me think that the tension of forcing the buyer to part with his purchase is part of what is interesting about this piece.  It asks you to really think about why you buy art, what you think you’re buying, and what you hope to get out of it?  It is suggesting that you purchase this art object not in order to own something, to display it, to have it in your personal environment every day, but to purchase the object because you support the artist, his idea, and the premise behind both the act of Dimple Pimple, and the larger phenomenon which is Serendip(c)ity and for that to be enough.  In return for your money, you get the idea.  Crap, I guess I’d better be scheduling a trip to Los Angeles.

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