Formal analysis of artworks made of duplicates presented at “The Gift”
Posted on February 8, 2018Special Topics in Studio Arts: Ideas and Issues: Reproductive Media in Contemporary Art
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo) (detail), 1991
For its tenth anniversary, the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art is presenting an exhibit titled L’Offre/The Gift. The curator Sheryl Sim was thinking about all the works exhibited during the gallery’s existence, and this “prompted [her] to reflect on the vastness of the gift that is DHC/ART. The fruit of this reflection is L’OFFRE, a group exhibition dedicated to an exploration of the concept of the ‘gift.’”1 Visitors are even invited to take elements of the artworks with them. However, an ethical issue arises: is it acceptable to modify works of art, even when we are authorized do to so? The works which I will discuss below are all made of multiple, repeating components. Removing elements sometimes causes no visible alteration, but at other times, it could affect the installations’ aesthetics, and potentially their impact.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo), 1991
Located in the Old Port of Montréal, the DHC/ART building is very narrow, and spans a few storeys high. At the right of the elevator on the topmost level, an oddly crystalline sky blue texture covers a few square metres of the floor. Inspecting the floor closely reveals that this is actually hundreds, if not thousands, of candies spread on the floor. Their wrapping paper covers a corner of the room, and reflects the gallery light. The edge of the covered area at the opposite of the wall does not follow a straight line, suggesting that visitors may have pilfered the artwork’s components. This installation, Untitled (Placebo), is the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban artist who lived in the United States of America until his death in 1996.
On the second level, another of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work is installed. Untitled (NRA) consists of 147.3 × 106.7 cm posters placed in a pile, forming a block on the floor. These posters are almost entirely and uniformly red, save for a thick black border at the edge of the paper. At the time of my visit, the pile rose about knee-high.
Dora García, Steal this book (detail), 2009
Finally, the basement of the gallery is set up as a reading room. Prominent in that space is an installation designed by Dora García. Black pocket-sized books with the title Steal this book written in lowercase in thick white letters are displayed on a low table. The books are placed so that they cover the white table to its edges. Where in the other artworks, the invitation to take a piece of the work is implied by the rationale of the exhibit, this piece is blunt about it. A few steps away, other books related to the exhibit are available for guests to read. Ironically, there is a copy of Steal this book, attached to the wall by a metal wire, preventing visitors from taking that specific copy.
These three pieces’ form worked similarly because they use duplicates, which made them interesting to me. Taken individually, a single element of these works would be less impressive, and potentially meaningless. A single candy, a single poster, or a single book holds much less power than multiple instances grouped together. Duplication is a part of what powers these artworks. Removing a single element would undoubtedly alter a piece, but by no means would it destroy it. In the case of Untitled (Placebo), a missing a candy—even a few—would probably not be detectable, since the glittering blue texture on the floor would still be massive. Untitled (NRA)’s well-organized pile of posters would still look like a thick block, even if a few posters were taken. As for Steal this book, because of the high contrast between the black books and the white table, it would be quite obvious if books were missing. However, I believe that in this case, missing parts could strengthen the perception of the piece’s message, as empty slots would show books were indeed stolen.
I argue that the essence of the artworks will not change if they lose some of their components. As explained above, these installations can sometimes even gain by shedding some of its duplicates. In Copying as Transformation, a chapter of In Praise of Copying, Marcus Boon—a writer, journalist and professor of English—believes that duplication transforms both the source material and the resulting copy.2 In this case, the artworks I analyze are not copies of others, but rather they are constructed with duplicates of an object. Interestingly, I believe Boon’s theory could apply differently: if an element which constitutes those artworks is taken away, then that instance loses its value as it becomes separated from the installation.
A candy taken from Untitled (Placebo) has no real artistic value on its own, it gains value and meaning along other identical copies of itself, displayed in a way designed by Gonzalez-Torres. A visitor showing a taken candy to describe the installation to a friend who did not attend the exhibition would not be able to completely convey the charm of the glittering light, or the surprise of the discovery when kneeling on the floor next the spread of candies.
The poster taken from Untitled (NRA) may be aesthetically pleasing to look at, but it is not exactly an outstanding and interesting illustration to frame and hang on a wall at home.
Steal this book might be somewhat of an exception to this argument. The book of over a hundred pages includes documentation of García interacting with authors of some eleven artworks. This makes it the only single instance of an element of these three artworks that retains its full value when removed from the gallery display.
Untitled (NRA) has an ideal height in its description, which most likely acts as an instruction for gallery employees who could reprint new posters as needed. There were no missing copies of the Steal this book display at the time of my visit. Since other people could be seen with posters or books in their hand, it’s quite likely that the installations are maintained.
With maintenance, Benjamin’s idea of the aura of an artwork clashes with Boon’s idea of variation. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin—a philosopher and cultural critic—declares that while artworks have been removed from their religious context, we should still contemplate works in a revering state, akin to a believer praying. When there is only one instance of an artwork, he argues, there is some sort of aura around it. In this contemplative mindset, the viewer of the artwork is bathing into this aura, and to an extent, is communing with the artist. From that point he argues that a mechanically reproduced artworks have no such aura.3
In his text, Boon states that copying transforms both the source and the copy. He leans on Gilles Deleuze to show that repetition also has a variation element, which is actually a part of the duplication process. As such, the copy is the same as the source, while not being the same either.4
By definition, these theories are not at odds. In the context of this exhibit though, they do challenge each other. As I stated previously, the three artworks I have chosen to discuss are made of duplicates, and as such, they each are a single artwork. Even if they were constructed with mechanically duplicated objects, they are brought together and presented as an artwork by an artist. In a way, these pieces have their aura, since they are only in one place at once. Taking a part of them does not duplicate them. Their state, however, is not finite; they are in flux. As the pieces are removed and replaced, their aura is modified. Such a variation does not seem to have a place in Benjamin’s perception of artworks. Some of these works are meant to be presented in a certain way—with a certain aura, if you will—meaning that their aura is cancelled at a certain rate with each alteration. What would happen to that aura if someone were to visit the exhibit every day, take pieces of these artworks, and then recreate them elsewhere? The source’s aura would likely be intact, as the gallery maintains its presentation—adding missing candy, printing new posters, replacing the missing books on the table—but what would the newly created artworks be? They are not a copy per se, they are actually components of the source.
In a way, I believe that Benjamin already addressed this issue:
What they achieve by such means is the ruthless destruction of the aura of their output, which they use the means of production to stamp as ‘reproduction’. […] Immersion, which in the degeneration of the bourgeoisie became a school of asocial behaviour, stands over against diversion as a variety of social behaviour.5
Contrary to Benjamin’s opinion, I do not believe that either Gonzalez-Torres or García is attempting to destroy the aura of his/her output, or showcase an asocial behaviour as a work of art. Benjamin’s would probably still argue that the work’s aura is lost.
Reading Benjamin’s grandstanding and judgment on what actually constitutes acceptable art reminded me of Richard Wagner’s own grandstanding. Wagner—German as well, although he was born almost a century before Benjamin—was a composer and a court-appointed conductor. During his period, fine arts were only available to the elite. While in a privileged position himself, Wagner hoping for a society in which classes would be abolished, and in which fine art would be an endeavour available to everyone. In The Art-Work of the Future, he wrote:
Art has become the private property of an artist-caste; its taste it offers to those alone who understand it; and for its understanding it demands a special study, aloof from actual life, the study of art-learning.6
There is much to unpack in this statement. Let’s first explore why I see a link between Benjamin’s and Wagner’s theories. Where Wagner thought his contemporaries were restricting access to art to a select few and was hoping for a broader access, it seems that Benjamin is living in a society in which this popular access is actually becoming reality. Wagner’s own words could almost be a direct response to Benjamin’s position—thinly veiled disdain regarding the masses:
[They] regard the Folk exclusively under the aspect lent it nowadays by their culture-spectacled eyes. From their lofty pedestal, they deem that only their direct antithesis, the raw uncultured masses, can mean for ‘the Folk.’7
It’s as though Benjamin is defending this past ideal of conserving the artworks away from the general populace, because they do not know how to appreciate it properly, by taking the time to delve into a contemplative state, in awe in front of the almighty artwork.
Finally, I would like to come back to Wagner’s thoughts on how art requires “the study of art-learning.” From the point of view of gallery visitors who did not study art history and its conceptual and institutional debates, form is the first—and sometimes only—approach they have to works of art. The conceptual artworks I have discussed above—Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Placebo) and Untitled (NRA), as well as García’s Steal this book—are actually artefacts of the artists’ thought processes. An analysis of their form, like the one I did, is a luxury I can afford thanks to the skills I have developed during my art education. Sadly, I believe that much of this content is too cryptic for many visitors, and often their response would be “my five year old could have done that.” While I disagree with this statement—countering that argument would require an essay on its own—I understand where it comes from.
Many of the artworks presented at the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art required much investigation on the part of the visitors to find a link to the theme. I strongly believe there is a space for artists and for institutions to tackle complex issues, deep thoughts, even convoluted concepts. However, as artists and art institutions, we should always strive to ensure that our audiences can approach exhibits and artworks without requiring them to spend countless hours reading and processing the concepts we use. In Network Installations, Creative Exhibitionism, and Virtual Republishing: An Attempt at Contextualizing the Ongoing Ungoing Story of Being in Cyberspace,8 Mark Amerika—an artist, theorist, and professor of art and art history—questions the exhibition model of galleries for showcasing complex conceptual artworks. He illustrates that it would be inconceivable to spread a 300-page novel in a gallery and expect the audience to have the patience to go through it all, sitting or standing.9
1 Sheryl Sim, L’OFFRE. (Montréal: DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, 2018). Exhibition flyer.
2 Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 81.
3 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London, England: Penguin Group, 2008), 8-10.
4 Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 81.
5 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (London: Penguin Group, 2008), 31.
6 Richard Wagner, extracts from “The Art-Work of the Future” (1849), in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory, 1815–1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 472.
7 Richard Wagner, extracts from “The Art-Work of the Future” (1849), in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory, 1815–1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 477.
8 Mark Amerika, “Network Installations, Creative Exhibitionism, and Virtual Republishing: An Attempt at Contextualizing the Ongoing Ungoing Story of Being in Cyberspace,” in Meta/Data, A Digital Poetics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), 320-323.
9 I used that summary of Mark Amerika’s thoughts in a previous text:
Mat Janson Blanchet, “Toledo’s ‘Echo Chamber’,” Mat Janson Blanchet’s academic works in progress (blog), January 5, 2018, https://academia.jansensan.net/arth-358/toledos-echo-chamber/.
“L’OFFRE”, DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, https://dhc-art.org/loffre-exhibition/.