For a college final exam, I worked with a group of students to conceive of and participate in a performance art piece. We clashed on every idea. Our final idea frustrated me, because I thought it was devoid of any conceptual or artistic merit.
The day of the final we were in the fine arts building’s basement. I only remember one other performance. One group displayed a very detailed, beautiful drawing. Then each group member took a turn and erased the drawing (I only later discovered this concept mirrored a conceptual piece by Robert Rauschenberg where he erased a William de Kooning drawing). I remember vaguely the other groups who had elaborate videos and performances.
My group turned the lights off, and then we took turns and walked across the floor- - the floor was dirty with sand and the room was cavernous. We all had different cadences—someone kicked a plastic ball – and at the end we all walked together in a muffled shifting through the room. In his class critique, the professor described our work as monotonous, frustrating, and borderline pointless. This, in his viewpoint, showed that we understood contemporary art and we received an A.
We deserved a D. Actually, in this professor’s contemporary art philosophy, we deserved an A. In my view, we deserved a D --- maybe a C.
I believe that there are two sides to conceptual art (at least for me to write about the subject, it is easier if I can simplify conceptual art into two categories). On one side, there are artists that demand that you contemplate deep issues through an unfamiliar, creative new language – their language to tell, or better yet, open up a dialogue of questions about difficult concepts. On the other side, there are artists that demand that you acquiesce to them knowing better. They are smarter than you. They think deeper than you. They are Artists, and you are not. This group irritates me since they often rehash ideas that other artists explored at the conceptual art’s birth. An idea can only be original once. So these artists bask in self-importance while they skim the top of substantive issues, which results in an insult to the viewer and to their predecessors in this field.
In my view, Barely There is great because you get to see both sides. In fact, I believe that you can get an immersive education in conceptual art if you attend Barely There.
My review of the show breaks down the pieces showcased by Barely There into three categories. First, I discuss one of the important historical pieces. Second, I discuss one piece that frustrates me, and which adds to the discussion regarding the purpose of conceptual art and the duty of the artist who puts forward conceptual art. Third and finally, I discuss two pieces that inspire me and sparked a conversation in my head about what is good about conceptual art. Because this show hits all three of these categories, I think it is a brilliant example of MOCAD’s mission to educate the public.
The show’s cornerstone piece is a pivotal video in conceptual art, the World Question Center, 1969. James Lee Byars created this piece. His performance work shows the value in conceptual art. It can force us to ask questions and add substance to what may be the seemingly mundane of the everyday. Namely, all of us have questions, none of us have sufficient answers, and this highlights the beauty of communal interaction. The piece consists of a group of artists, which includes Byars, who sat at a call-in center. Prior to the live broadcast on Belgian T.V., various intellectuals were asked to call into the broadcast with an important question. And that was it. Byars merely acknowledged the questions—Byers offered no answers.
There is one piece that is merely a blue pen without a cap positioned at an angle by a red pen cap. It is by Wilfredo Prieto and titled Infidelity. While it invokes an initial laugh at its title’s implication, this piece falls flat as an original conceptual piece when compared with the other pieces in the show. In my mind, this piece fails because it echoes Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal into a show and titled the urinal Fountain. Through this act, Duchamp expressed his belief that the artist defines the art and not the viewer. He selected the urinal, he positioned it at a different angle, he created a new context for the object, and through this process he highlighted the value of the artist’s intellectual analysis of an object (his “readymades”) in contrast to an artist’s physical ability to create a piece of art. How does Infidelity add to this important piece?
I enjoy conceptual art, but the artist needs to challenge himself or herself before I can appreciate his or her particular idea. As noted, these discussions and these types of questions are only original once.
There are two pieces that highlight particularly deep thought by extraordinarily unique and creative voices. The first is a remarkable multiple faceted piece that the artist presents in several stages. The artist was inspired by his thoughts on his father’s death. The artist is Pablo Helguera and the piece is titled Endingness, 2005. The artist provides an essay on memory, death, and his art practice. He also provides a movable art sculpture, which consists of geometrical shapes. The shapes are made of wax and framed with wood and the artist carved his essay into the wax. You can see the artist’s hand at work, and you can see an artist that is open emotionally to let viewers experience the artist’s process as the artist explores difficult questions. The final element is an orchestral score that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed at MOCAD.
The second piece was Love Lettering, 2002, by the brother and sister art team Rivane and Sergio Neuenschwander. Rivane is the sister artist, and her brother Sergio is a neuroscientist. This is a beautifully quiet piece. This collaboration illustrates what is great about conceptual art. It engrosses viewers through a single-channel video where color saturated fish swim through the screen with pieces of a love letter attached to their tails. The words are taken out of context, which highlights fleeting, fragmented memories of love and lost. You get the tragic sense of someone that tries to grasp a beautiful memory, yet is unable to grasp it fully. The piece also has an organic, industrial soundtrack, which accompanies the piece without competing with the gentle and quiet ephemeral strength of the main imagery of the piece.
There are other pieces, but these are the ones that resonated with me the most. The piece that frustrated me the most also sparked the most discussions after I saw the show a second time. Does that fact validate it? Please see the show and let me know your thoughts.