Updated: Jun 5, 2021
by Johny ML
(Translated from the original Malayalam)
I had mentioned in an earlier article that art is like an abandoned stone. An artwork produced in the studio is unaware of what its sequel will look like and once the studio door opens and the artwork exits, no one can tell where it will go. But this earlier reflection of mine on the abandoned stone needs a revisit. To some extent we can understand the trajectory of the abandoned stone. With the eye, the weight of the stone, the force of the throw, the resulting acceleration, the friction against it, and the elliptical nature of its trajectory, it is not difficult to determine where the stone will fall. Rockets and missiles all operate on this basis. But art is unlike that. It takes a journey that may at best be described as “zig-zag”. It doesn’t have its own unique, regular repetitive curves and turns. Recognizing these journeys becomes part of history and business transactions when artworks arrive at auction houses.
Journeys of art occasionally become mysterious and completely disappear from social viewing, giving rise to the feeling that the art object did not even exist. It then travels through catalogues, reference books, websites, library books, research, seminars, lectures, and memoirs. Thus not all art objects have the good fortune to continue their journeys in virtual reality. While this is the reality of art, there are certain art objects that reveal some unexpected trajectories and acceptance of art. There are artists who create such art which move in ways that could not have been imagined.
This article discusses such past journeys and unexpected journeys of art through a few examples. Significantly, these journeys of art also involve interactions with human beings; symbiotic contexts occur in which spectator human beings relate to art and artworks interact with human beings. You can't tell where it starts and where it ends. It is important to note that this article is not about interactive art. I say this more to make things easier to understand. Virtually all art is interactive, but this activity often happens mentally. And that is something that is limited by appearance.
Eye travel and eye contact take place in all traditional art forms. There will be a 'do not touch' warning at all traditional places where paintings are displayed. Daniel Dennett, an evolutionary biographer in the study of grooming and gossip, says that touch is a primitive process among humans; it is something that affirms knowing. Recognizing that what is thought to be a ghost is not a ghost is done by touching it and pinching oneself. The act of denying touch refers to lateral knowledge: the technique of perspective was developed in painting, which enables the eye to touch and travel through the work. Not only seeing with the eyes, but also touching a picture (I’m reminded of the song, "I’d have touched you, and hugged you with my mind; I’d stuck you to my chest like the statue in this picturesque pillar.”)
To a certain extent, sculptures are allowed to be touched in traditional spaces. One has to only look at the sculptures in the temples to realize that touching them is an insurmountable urge. Breasts and groin of these sculptures can be felt to be smoother with human touch. Sculptures that have been touched by humans for centuries are likely to melt away just like the rocks which are in contact with seawater. This possibility can be seen to some extent in the themes of the Indian sculptor LN Tallur. Though installations technically enhance sculptures, they also negate touch. For example, the British artist Richard Wilson created an installation called 20:50 in 1987. It is the interior of a room flooded with glossy recycled engine oil that creates a spatial illusion because it is stationary; the space is subverted here. Not only is interaction impossible here, the viewer can only enter the space with very controlled movements. It is a similar experience when you go to visit the 1994 installation of an exploding shed (Cold Dark Matter) by artist Cornelia Parker. No more than five people are allowed to enter the installation at the same time. Even the breath of the audience can disturb that installation. In short, interactivity is the art of presenting a place (including the gallery) for that purpose; this may be with traditional media, using the most up-to-date, cutting-edge technology.
20:50 by Richard Wilson
Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker
The examples I’ll present here with regard to journeys of art are somewhat different from the above. I will explain this primarily with a sculpture by the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. Arte Povera is an art movement that originated in Italy in the sixties which Pistaleto invented. Several movements arose during this time, such as conceptual art, ephemeral art, performance art, video art, land art, and nature art. These were moves against the materialistic pop art in America and all were directed against the commercialization, materialization and marketing of art. During 1967-68, Pistaleto bunched up newspapers to form a large ball. He called it Newspaper Sphere. It was not until 1964 that Marshall McLuhan stated that the medium is the message. It must have been intended that Pistoletto made a world with the same medium. (The later version of McLuhan's version is Medium is Massage.)
Newspaper Sphere by Michelangelo Pistoletto
Pistaleto did not know how people would react to his newspaper sphere. A globe made with newspaper is a great source of knowledge is what he told the world. Pistaleto saw a world living in the news (and now in fake news). But when he took the work out of his studio, people reacted to it in many different ways. Some took it and put it on their shoulder. Others tried to climb on it. Some took photos with it. Some rolled it and went too far. Thus the sculpture literally travelled distances not intended by the sculptor. Not only this, but it went far because of human intervention. In India, in Rajasthan, in a village called Parthapur, an incident occurred during a residency program called Sandarbh. The participating artists made a horse out of paper and cloth and placed it in front of the village bus depot. The next day it disappeared. Someone said it was sitting in front of a shop in another part of the village. In the days that followed, people took the horse to the plaza. This was not a decision made by the sculptor or the people who took it there. A work of art can literally travel in directions different from where its master intended.
Such movements of art change the very way of looking at art. For example, take a look at the Danish artist and architect Olafur Eliasson's 2003 installation of the Weather Project on Tate Modern. Tate's giant turbine hall (established by converting an unused hydropower plant situated on the banks of the river Thames) was used for the project. Olafur Eliasson recreated a sun with an arrangement of electric lights in a foggy turbine hall. The audience had to watch this installation while lying on the ground. The projects of Pipilotti Rist, a leading video artist in Switzerland, are similar. The video projects are presented in a way that the visitors to the gallery need to lie down on the floor or go down on their knees and look up.
The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson
Pour Your Body Out by Pipilotti Rist
The same is the case for the installation Sunflower Seeds by the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei installed in 2010 at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. The art could only be enjoyed by stepping on it from within the installation and taking out the porcelain seeds that hundreds of people had made into clay and baked for months. It is impossible to fathom in whose hands those seeds would have reached. (Similar community projects include creations by Antony Gormley (Field), Rajan Krishnan (Or) and Chris Ofili (The Caged Bird’s Song inspired by the title of Maya Angelou's book, I Know What the Birds in the Cage Sing). It may seem at first that we can determine the ways and directions in which art travels, but often that is not the case. For that to happen, all that is needed are artefacts that are capable of such journeys.
Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei
(This article is a translation from the original Malayalam written by the author, Johny ML, published on his Facebook profile. The text and images are republished here with the author's permission.)
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Johny ML is a writer, translator, art historian, art critic, art curator, poet and a prolific blogger. His writings related to the arts, culture and politics have been published in several print magazines, newspapers and weeklies in English and Malayalam. He has also founded and edited many popular online art journals. One of the pioneering curators in India, he has curated high-profile group shows and camps throughout India. His blog is a platform for his continuous response to various issues he addresses within the art world, literature and a variety of other realms.
Johny ML lives and works between Trivandrum and Delhi.