yoko ono: to the light – at the serpentine gallery

21 July 2012 § 1 Comment

This is a must-see for all those who like Yoko Ono. It is also a must-see for those who quite like or even dislike her. For most of her career Ono – in the UK at least –  has been pilloried as the woman who broke up the Beatles, ridiculed for being somewhat ‘bonkers’ whilst all the time being disgracefully ignored as a world-class artist.

In recent years she has become more widely recognised for her talents and this exhibition hopefully puts all the negativity behind and reinforces her admission in to the list of the best and most influential of 20th century artists.

One enters the exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery via a lobby where a brief documentary on the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland plays. The creation of this tower of light  – first posited in 1965 before being eventually realised in 2007 – neatly encapsulates Ono’s work. Stunningly simple – a single beam of light asks us to reconsider our existence. It asks to appreciate and enjoy the essential purity of life.

These deep messages, simply executed are at the heart of Ono’s genius, regularly and consistently repeated over the last 50 years to a largely unappreciative world. At the Serpentine the works are not ordered chronologically but rather have been assembled thematically, placing works that are similar – or occasionally repeated – together to reinforce the consistency of the work over time whilst  at the same time illustrating the variations.

What is most striking is the reminder as to just how ground-breaking she was as a conceptual, video and performance artist. The first room for example has three piles of earth placed simply along the floor whilst either side soldiers helmets, filled with jigsaw pieces of sky, hang from the ceiling. This sort of presentation now almost de rigeur for any student degree show was unheard of in the early 1960’s. Then it was daring, imaginative and new. The whole Fluxus movement, of which she was a vital part, infact ripping up the white cube rule book for what was acceptable as art and its method of presentation.

In subsequent galleries one first encounters a piece of dirty canvas – no longer of course in a frame or on a wall – lying on a floor for us to walk over. There is a mirror ahead so we can see ourselves literally trampling on the previous history of art. 

There are more iconic works: bronzes of everyday objects oozing with blood, films in ultra slow motion of eyes blinking or Lennon smiling, a glass maze, words in pencil scrawled on walls on floors asking us to imagine another reality. From the famed Indica Gallery show – where Lennon and Ono met – there is also the famed stepladder with magnifying glass attached leading to a ceiling where the word ‘yes’ is framed. John always said that if it had said ‘no or f**k you’, he would have taken little notice, but the word yes hooked him and changed the rest of his life – for better or worse.

Despite being a little brief and sparse this is a ‘yes’ exhibition which really should make us all appreciate Ono that bit more.

 Until 9 September 2012.  www.serpentinegallery.org

defining contemporary art?

7 August 2011 § Leave a comment

Since I purport to comment on contemporary art I thought it might be useful to post some sort of definition. In an attempt to find any sort of consensus I stumbled across an excellent blog called ART CANON whose tag line is art genres, groups, movements and styles, art critics, historians, philosophers and theorists (Not sure who Jacques Ranciere is, or want a definition Neo Geo? Then this is the site for you!) Here is their entry which takes from Tate and Wiki:

Term loosely used to denote art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature. In relation to contemporary art museums, the date of origin for the term contemporary art varies. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, founded in 1947, champions art from that year onwards. Whereas The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. [Tate]

Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced at this present point in time or art produced since World War II. The definition of the word contemporary would support the first view, but museums of contemporary art commonly define their collections as consisting of art produced since World War II. [wikipedia]

Not clear, so perhaps the biggest contemporary art gallery in London – Saatchi – has a good definition? Nope – they don’t even bother. The Tate is the next and it calls itself ‘Modern’ (as many contemporary art galleries do), and if you want to get more confused try the auction houses. Sothebys Contemporary department includes work from ‘the early abstract expressionists to the present day’. Since the term had also been sometimes used in the 1920’s one assumes they refer to the American movement of the mid 1940’s. Christies Contemporary Art is ‘dedicated to art created after 1970…  focusing on the various artistic movements of this time, from Minimalism and Conceptualism…Bonhams do not have a definition and nowadays tend to hold ‘Modern and Contemporary’ sales. None of them help clarify matters by chucking in occasional pre-war works, by Picasso for example, in to their Contemporary sales.

Contemporary art is most normally taken as starting after the end of the modernist period (in which I’d include the abstract expressionists) so I thought a look at writings on post-modernism might help. Post-modernism is also hard to pin down but usually is considered as a movement including most, but all, Contemporary art – and, as the name suggests, succeeding modernism. In Wikipedia’s definition it contradicts its previous entry (quoted by ART CANON above) by now placing the start of Contemporary art as 1950. To confuse matters further some thinkers and philosophers feel that modernism has not ended, or that post-modernism is actually just a part of modernism – but I won’t go in to that!

Mark Tansey - Modern Postmodern

It is generally accepted however that by 1960, amongst many other influences, the Assemblage art of Robert Rauschenberg, the Fluxus movement and the Pop art of, for example, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton had at least laid the foundations of what we would now call contemporary art. It is in the end probably impossible to define exactly where modernism ‘died’ – so let’s just settle for somewhere between 1950 and 1980. 

In general the main problem lies with using social science to define art history – can the start and end of ‘modernism’ ever be defined? Can anything ever come after post-modernism (or contemporary art)? Would we not be better off just sticking to the ‘isms’ and movements like cubism and Pop art, which have clear styles, aims, practitioners and so on? And so for a definition of contemporary art, I will leave that as a trap for others!

So, does that help? I thought not, but it is nevertheless good to see that – as is often the case in the art world – there is no definitive answer. The moral perhaps is if you want to hold an opinion, or like a work that is ‘unpopular’ – then why the h*ll not!

Homework for tonight:

Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 344 pp. ISBN: 13-978-0-226-76431-3.
E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Phaidon, 1960 386 pp, ISBN: 0-7148-1756-2
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998, 125 pp. ISBN-10: 2840660601
Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984, 210 pp. ISBN: 0-674-63126-9

air in art – postscript

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. 

Kanarinka - Breath Archive 2008

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!! 

who’s afraid of the big bad wolf (vostell)?

22 July 2010 § Leave a comment


Miss Amerika 1968


Right – hands up anyone who has heard of German artist Wolf Vostell. OK, gold star for you Helmut, but for the rest of you – I thought not – extra homework tonight. And if you are good students and read to the end of the (rather factual) post, at the end Ill tell you two amazing facts.

Firstly let me tell you first of all that Vostell (1932-1998) has a whole museum, in Malpartida, Spain, dedicated to his work. He has been shown over 8o0 times worldwide, has had 210 solo shows and is included in many of the world’s most prestigious public and private collections. He is well known of the continent and there is even a Vostell ‘art hotel’ in Berlin full of his work.

Next – sit up straight – a bit about Vostell. As a student in post-war Germany period the influence of abstract expressionists like  Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko was all-pervasive. However as a child he witnessed the hell and destruction of war. His reaction was to attempt to address these horrors and to incorporate all the aspects of the modern world whilst ensuring that he created something  he called ‘more meaningful than tachist painting and sculpture.’ Early work was in the studio of poster artist Cassandre and subsequently, looking for direction he felt that ‘painting did not include the ‘phenomena of our changing and pulsating life’.

German Outlook1958-63


In de-coll/age, a word that he ‘discovered’ in a Figaro headline about a plane crash that he found a way to describe and conceive his work. It symbolised his belief that much of art in the 20th century was as much about destruction as it was creation – he recreated by destroying, recombining, disrupting and merging to create ‘not order but the transformation of order’ and also produced his own art publication with this name.

He echoed much of what was happening around him – in Europe there were movements like Nouveau Realism, Nul, Zero, the Independent Group and the Situationists whilst in the USA there was Pop, Fluxus and John Cage’s experimental music – everyone was reacting to the new world order by pushing the boundaries of art –it was a time of construction and composition, destruction and chance, chaos and transformation.

Reflecting the ‘anti-art’ aesthetics of dada Vostell went further than Duchamp who declared the ‘object as art’ by placing the ‘action as art’ – art not restricted but extended. He felt that life within art should not be just a gesture but should be a constituent part, reinforcing the Fluxus doctrine that art = life = art. He determined to include the spectator within the work and created ‘environments’ incorporating varied elements drawn from the wider world.

Lipstick Bomber 1963


He was also a prominent member of the Fluxus group – think Yoko Ono and George Maciunas – organizing its first European festival, and with others like Allan Kaprow, was a leader in the ‘happenings’ movement of the 1960’s. He was the first artist to include working televisions and in 1963 presented the first video installation in the USA and is considered one of the earliest proponents of video art. He was an innovator, experimenting widely with materials such as lead and concrete, used diverse objects such as trains, cars and planes and included other elements within his art such as sound, light and movement.

Well done everyone. Now the amazing facts. It seems that England is the one afraid! Vostell has only ever has TWO works shown in the UK – and that was back in the 1960’s otherwise being almost totally ignored. Secondly you can pick up works at auction for just a few thousand euros. This has to be a bargain, but just dont hold your breath waiting for the British art world to notice this particular big, bad Wolf!

If you liked this post please make a comment or like it. If you like the blog please subscribe for regular updates (top right of page). Many thanks! akuta

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