15 October 2010 § Leave a Comment
I am not a big fan of Christmas. It is a big excuse for business and media to assault our eyes and ears every moment of the day – with promotions, sales, ‘opportunities’. The worst of the lot is the buzz around the possible Christmas ‘Number One’. Yawn. So here is a campaign that I can thoroughly approve of. A few minutes of silence could be at the top of the charts this Christmas with a big Facebook promotion having been started in favour of John Cage’s famous 4’33″. The American composer wrote Four Thirty-Three (as he said it) in 1952 for any instrument, or combination of instruments, the score instructing the performer not to play throughout the three movements of the piece.
Contrary to common belief, it is not however silence that Cage is actually giving us during these 273 seconds. The piece was instead written to highlight the ambient noise - the ultimate extension of his Zen Buddhism beliefs and his work in experimental music. He wanted to show that it was possible to make music not only with instruments, but also using sound.
Interestingly Cage himself has said that his primary inspiration came from the visual arts with Robert Rauschenberg‘s White Paintings of 1950. As with 4’33″ it was not the work itself but the external aspects that were most important – in this case the changing light that fell on to these ‘blank canvases’. Their importance is further indicated by the fact that they actually hung above the stage during the very first performance of the piece at Black Mountain College.
Here is the full orchestral version of Cage’s 4’33″ as performed in the Barbican:
This is what Cage said about its first performance in New York:
They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.
Cage was based at Black Mountain College where his he began teaching at his legendary New School classes. Hugely influential his students included for example pioneers of performance art Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, and Al Hansen. His influence was felt far and wide – would minimalism and fluxus have happened without him? Cage regarded 4’33″ as his most important piece of work and these 273 seconds of ‘silence’ have helped shape the visual arts (not even mentioning other arts) ever since.
Going farther space/absence is a big theme in modern and post-modern art – from Malevich‘s Suprematist Composition White on White to Martin Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off. It is far to big to touch on now – but please take a look at previous posts that very briefly touched on some aspects with air in art and air in art – postscript.
- ‘Cage Against The Machine’ John Cage campaign aims to launch silent work to Christmas number one (mirror.co.uk)
- The sounds of John Cage’s silence (netnewmusic.net)
- Rauschenberg’s use of materials meaningful (sfgate.com)
8 October 2010 § Leave a Comment
I could not resist posting details of an upcoming conference. Entitled Boring 2010 it is being organised by James Ward - a DVD distribution manager from Kingston upon Thames. Upon hearing that the London Interesting conference – one of a series on obscure esoteric topics – was being cancelled James decided to go ahead and organise his own somewhat less interesting one.
Being touted as the world’s least interesting conference is however one very good way to make everyone stand up and take note. The Independent for example decided that it was actually so interesting that it set aside two whole pages of the 7 October 2010 issue to report the earth-shattering event. Of subjects reported to be featured this year my personal favourite is on the history of dust, with the reasons for draws in cricket coming in a close second, although to be fair Mr Ward actually aims to put forward the topics as sounding boring but actually that ’turn out to be really interesting’.
It made me think that one of the artists featured at yesterday’s suitably mediocre private view of Transmission at the Haunch of Venison would be an appropriate candidate for the Boring conference. Katie Paterson was trying rather too hard to be very dull – one of her works for example was a slide archive of the history of darkness over the ages; a box full of black transparencies. Paterson has broadcast the sounds of a melting glacier, mapped all the dead stars, custom-made a light bulb to simulate the experience of moonlight, and buried a nano-sized grain of sand within the Sahara desert. She also laser-beamed the Moonlight Sonata to the moon and back and played the resulting melody back to us. Broken and occasionally distorted it was a rather touching and emotional record of time, distance and loss. Damn it – she was actually quite interesting in the end.
Picking over mind-numbingly dull subjects or the seemingly unimportant minutiae of life has always of course provided rich pickings for many artists. In no particular order and without much thought, time or deep analysis (that would be way too dull of course) here are a few artists that it occurs to me have looked at the plain, boring or mundane and, at least in their minds, made it a little more interesting.
Duchamp (of course he gets a mention again usual) took the ordinary – a urinal, shoe rack, shovel or phial of air, and told us it was art. Malevich meanwhile reduced representation to a plain black, red or white canvas – his ‘zero of form’ , a reduction of representation to the absolute minimum. Many other later artists have created similar monochromes for differing reasons, for example for Robert Rauschenberg with Erased De Kooning it was the symbolic erasure of what the previous drawing represented that was interesting. Yves Klein, being French, used his own home-made blue for his quite interesting monchromes and took over a New York gallery in order to leave it empty (Le Vide). The minimalists reduced everything to the simplest forms to expose the essential – Carl Andre’s infamous Tate ‘pile of bricks’ (Equivalent VIII) perhaps being one example which proved too dull for many.
John Cage’s 4′33″ of course created another big 1950′s landmark for ‘nothingness’ in art – a period of ‘silence’ where a solo pianist played asolutely nothing at all. Warhol was of course a master of repetition and the mundane – eight hours of someone sleeping, in the 1964 film Sleep, probably the most provocatively boring, whilst the pinnacle of his musical dullness was with the band Velvet Underground playing The Nothing Song whilst people did nothing much on film.
In the sixties Fluxus artists like Kaprow and, of course, Lennon (happy birthday) and Ono inspired by the Dadaists held happenings where nothing in particular actually really happened or arranged gatherings where the actual act meeting was the art. Ed Ruscha produced photobooks featuring, for example, seemingly random gasoline stations or parking lots. From this period onwards there is almost too much to mention. Many photographers, like Nan Goldin, have recorded the most mundane aspects of peoples lives – and private lives. Gerhard Richter created paintings that were devoid of any colour, copying mundane photographs or composed of random sweeps of paint. Richard Long walked up and down making marks, Bruce Nauman walked in circles and filmed it or made casts of empty and uninteresting spaces, Joseph Beuys did nothing much at all. Perhaps the ultimate boredom in art prize might go to Martin Creed who won the Turner Prize with a light turning on and off in an empty room.
As far as all of this dull, nothingness goes a lot of people have found it exceedingly interesting. There is actually much more to nothing than there first appears. Any artists will for example know that it is often best to draw the ‘spaces’ of ‘nothing’ than the object itself. Books have been written on it, galleries stuffed with it an even the Pompidou last year ’filled’ a floor with empty rooms for a retrospective of ‘nothing’. I will quickly conclude, before I get too boring, with some very appropriate Tom Lubbock comments on the Pompidou show from The Independent last year:
Having arrived at emptiness, fill her up again – with meanings. Sometimes the emphasis is on absence, on contemplating nothingness. Sometimes it’s on noticing what you might have overlooked. Perhaps you should notice all the gallery background noises you ignore. Perhaps you should see that art has its environment, which crucially conditions our experience of it. Or perhaps you should be looking at the only exhibits that remain in your empty gallery – yourselves. The empties are always going to be full of something. The art consists of working out what.
Perhaps I will go to Boring 2010 after all….
- Boring Conference 2010: Chairman of the bored (independent.co.uk)
7 September 2010 § Leave a Comment
Following yesterdays post a couple more thoughts. Courtesy of the Critcismism blog we have Martin Creed‘s Half the Air in a Given Space. Here he calculates exactly half the air that should normally occupy the room and measures the equivalent into balloons. He translates something intangible in to something real. One walks through the room and becomes aware of the normally invisible/ignored air around you.
Air naturally is also a life-giving force. Invisible yet essential. Catharine D’Ignazio, otherwise known as Kanarinka is a US-based collaborative performance artist. In a project called It Takes 154,000 Breaths to Evacuate Boston in 2007/8 she ‘ran the entire evacuation route system in Boston and attempted to measure the distance in human breath.’ Post 9/11 this was Breath as a measurement of time, distance and fear.
The project also involved a podcast and a sculptural installation of ‘the archive of tens of thousands of breaths.’ The archive comprises a series of jars, each with the sound of the breath used to fill it. Very neat! Wolf Vostell did something similar in 1972 broadcasting live the sound of gallery visitors chewing gum presented to them. Here it was the Fluxus doctrine of art=life=art connecting the visitor directly with the art.
Clearly any discussion of air in art ends up largely as essentially an examination of what effects the air has on other objects, what ’contains the air’ or what ‘the air contains’ rather than the air itself. An imaginary thesis perhaps could translate this as air 1/ in the context of the natural environment 2/ as a life-giving force and a concept 3/ as a container for other matter and 4/ as an object to be contained and used?
Ultimately the problem of course is that it is essentially invisible and only conceptual art, such as that of Duchamp and Creed, seems to address this with even partial success. I will however leave any deeper analysis to others more talented and knowledgeable - perhaps the guy at Barcelona University who is doing a thesis on art and breath! Visit his Art & Breath Blog here.
Enough from me – I have art funds to analyse. Now there is a source for a lot of hot air in art! New post coming soon!!
- Much ado about nothing: Why Martin Creed is the master of minimalism (independent.co.uk)
- Martin Creed at Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Seven magazine review (telegraph.co.uk)
- Prickly customers: Martin Creed and Richard Wright in Edinburgh (guardian.co.uk)