This post is a critical analysis of an Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (England) publication From Arkhipov to Zittel: Selected Ikon Off-Site Projects 2000 — 2001. I think that it is a particularly interesting document because it cites numerous instances that operate at the edge of art, and some that, in my opinion, teeter over the brink into the oblivion of non-art.
The fundamental premise informing the kind of art included in From Arkhipov to Zittel is that “anything goes” and the question that will be posed in this critical review of the book is whether anything really does go. Take for example Vladimir Arkhipov’s “Post-Folk Archive” project; Ikon Gallery off-site projects curator Deborah Kermode notes that for “many years” Arkipov has been compiling:
a collection of objects as hand-made by people living in Russia. It consists of a hundreds of assemblages and gadgets with idiosyncratic functional qualities such as mouse-traps, pitchforks and ladders. Each object embodies a do-it-yourself ingenuity, often inspired by shortages of the most ordinary manufactured goods” (Kermode 2002: 6).
For his Ikon Gallery “off-site art” project Arkipov toured the West Midlands of England apparently looking in people’s gardens for interesting objects and possibly approaching the owners to ask them whether their object could be included in his archive. It is not clear in the book whether this archive consists of photo-documentation or the actual objects, one would assume the former.
If we take the object illustrated at the beginning of this post, We can see that it is a home-made garden cloche or row cover. It is the kind of object that one would expect to see in a very bad art exhibition such as Documenta 12. Exhibiting such an object as a work of art seems patently absurd. On the other hand one can observe that 750,000 people visited Documenta 12 and saw numerous objects that were of the same genre as this garden cloche, and apparently not very many of them asked for their money back.
Although the row cover is not a work of art in itself, it can be accepted as being a component of the work of art that is Arkhipov’s Post-Folk Archive. I have no problem with that proposition. But one can analyse, indeed one should analyse, why one can accept this. The reason is because of the “idea”. This notion which we now refer to generically in terms of “conceptual art” was most poignantly coined by Marcel Duchamp via his distinction between “retinal art” and an art of ideas. Accordingly, when confronted with an object such as what is now Arkhipov’s garden cloche, we can ask ourselves why is it that Arkhipov selected this object? Well, he selected it because of the hegemony of the Duchampian Readymade and, in addition, it looks a bit like minimal art.
Take a look at the illustration above of Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1966. This consists of a row of stainless steel and yellow Plexiglas 34 inch cubes bolted to a gallery wall. Arkhipov no doubt noted the comparison when he looked into the garden of the person who made the makeshift garden cloche. The narrative becomes more complex when we consider the fact that minimalist sculptors such as Judd claimed that their objects were inspired by objects seen in their everyday urban environment. Arkhipov’s photograph of the garden cloche becomes art thanks to a process of self-referential transposition, where an object from everyday life is referenced to minimalism which in turn referenced everyday life in a manner similar to Pop Art but far more sublimated. One can also mention the Italian Arte Povera (“poor art”) movement which began in the late 1960s and subversively transposed a minimalist-like visual vocabulary onto “poor”, “found” materials effectively deconstructing the American minimalists’ obsession with industrial processes and factory finish. The obsession with grunge materials in art at the turn of the millennium owes a significant debt to Arte Povera.
What is rather odd about the row cover is that in its new art incarnation the object belongs to the post-Readymade artist Arkhipov and not to the person who actually conceived and constructed it. The name of that person is conspicuous by its absence in spite of the fact that the forward to Arkhipov to Zittel stresses the participatory and collaborative nature of “off-site” art; noting for example that “considerable emphasis is placed on audience participation in this [off-site] programme” (Kermode 2002: 4).
Despite this definition of off-site art some of the works included in Arkhipov to Zittel are traditional in the sense that although they may be off-site—which is to say outside the gallery—they are very much the work of the artist concerned and designed to be looked at by an audience in the traditional manner wherein the audience admires the ingenuity of the artist rather than having any direct interaction or participation with the work of art.
In this analysis of From Arkhipov to Zittel I will ignore such instances due to their belonging to a traditional aesthetic order which is established and approved. But the line is not drawn fast and there are instances I will treat here which come close to the traditional mode of art appreciation despite some ingenious displacements.
Fundamentally, I am most interested in those examples which are attempting to delineate a new aesthetic order. And what I am also concerned with is establishing the boundary of his new order: the point were we can say that the art work was either a success or a failure. This is necessary because if we cannot say whether something is a success or failure then we cannot evaluate it, we cannot say that it possesses aesthetic merit. This issue intrigues me also from an educational standpoint, because art educators are required to justify their judgements; which is significant because the kind of art foregrounded in From Arkhipov to Zittel has entered into the context of contemporary art education.
Guy Bar-Amotz’s contribution to From Arkhipov to Zittel is a karaoke installation which although located outside the Ikon Gallery may just as well have been located in the gallery. There is nothing intrinsically “off-site” about it; apart from, perhaps, amplitude. In the centre of the installation there is a monitor showing a video the artist made of a day in the life of a “typical busker” (Kermode 2002: 10). The visitor was provided with a microphone on a stand in front of the monitor and a home-made sound system which played cover versions of popular songs to which the audience could sing along. The work seems rather weak in the sense that, apart from the busker documentary, it is basically karaoke. Which raises the question as to whether karaoke can be considered art.
To be fair, perhaps we are missing something in reading From Arkhipov to Zittel due to the very fact that this interactive installation is being documented in the form of a book. It would seem to me that this kind of art demands a different kind documentation, namely video. Not having the opportunity to see the work directly one could judge it much more effectively if one were able to watch some video footage.
But the question “can karaoke be art?” remains interesting because karaoke is actually a powerful instance of an interactive cultural phenomenon. The goal of bringing art into life and breaking down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art has a long and venerable history (Coulter-Smith 2006), to the extent that we should not dismiss a phenomenon such as karaoke as not worthy of the title “art”. However, it seems too easy just to take an already existing stroke of genius and claim it as one’s own. Karaoke is not a simple object, it is a methodology. Rather than simply following suite one would expect an artist to introduce an ingenious twist, and in this case the addition of the busker documentary doesn’t really cut the mustard. A more sophisticated take on the karaoke theme can be found, at least implicitly, in some of the work of Candice Breitz (Coulter-Smith 2006)
The inclusion of Margaret Barron in From Arkhipov to Zittel is of interest because although it is most definitely “off-site” its mode of reception is traditional in the sense that viewers’ appreciate the ingenuity of the artist in a more or less traditional manner. But Barron’s miniature paintings stuck on posts in Birmingham city centre deconstruct traditional modes of exhibition and reception due to the fact they literally take works of art out onto the street. There is also an interesting self-reflexivity evident in these pieces because they are paintings of the 1960s architecture of Birmingham’s Bull Ring shopping centre as it was before it was demolished to build a new millennium version. This reference would have been highly accessible to the inhabitants of Birmingham who may have randomly encountered these tiny paintings.
Barron’s paintings are principally successful because they take art into life, and perhaps part of that success lies in the repurposing of the traditional medium of painting, which we all know as “art”. The insertion of traditional modes of art into public spaces in the form of sculptures and poetry is a widespread strategy, but it is also highly effective. Of course, we also have in Barron’s case the transformation in scale due to the fact that these painting were effectively being given away.
There is a point at which the long-standing strategy of bringing art into life intersects with community art and this is evident in Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s contribution to the Ikon Gallery’s off-site project: The Transformation Parlour, 1999-2001. The community art aspect is evident in the fact that this project involved children. Kermode’s text informs us that The Transformation Parlour stemmed from Guilleminot’s visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 1998 when she was “profoundly moved by the story a Japanese girl who was a victim of the Hiroshima A-bomb. During a lengthy fatal illness caused by exposure to radiation she made origami birds to embody her prayers for piece.” (Kermode 2002: 18).
Kermode explains that for The Transformation Parlour Guilleminot travelled throughout the West Midlands setting up workshops in which children made the same origami birds which, when the project was finished, were sent to the Memorial Museum. The children were also informed about the context of the birds.
For some people a proximity to community art is inimical to art. It is also possible that some balk at works such as The Transformation Parlour due to the fact that they are focused on children—and one can also cite the work of Oda Projesi. But the very fact that community art can overlap, however rarely, with fine art or high culture must be a positive phenomenon. Certainly from an ethical standpoint is very difficult not to be positive about The Transformation Parlour and one wonders why more fine artists do not make similar contributions outside the rarefied confines of the art museum.
In a similar vein From Arkhipov to Zittel also includes the work of Shigenobu Yoshida who led “a series of holiday workshops a with children and community groups” (Kermode 2002: 62) which explored the use of bowls of water and mirrors to create rainbows that could be projected onto everyday objects. What is appealing about this project is its extreme simplicity and the intersection of poetry with science.
In contrast, Tadashi Kawamata’s Canal Boat (July-September 2000, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, UK) is one of the weakest pieces in From Arkhipov to Zittel. From a formalistic point of view the work is evidently a deliberate mess. A photograph of the interior on a sunny day shows it off at its best, which is unimpressive. When one considers the beauty of the barges designed for the canal that once connected the Midlands—which was the origin and heart of the Industrial Revolution—to the rest of England, Kawamata’s attempt to turn a 21 metre ex-commercial narrowboat into an “improvised installation” (Kermode 2002: 30) seems a pathetic attempt at “deconstructive” design.
Talking of barges one can cite the example of the “Goshawk” that Japanese artist Shimabuku rented for his Ikon Gallery off-site project in 2000. This project has more substance than the architectural mess produced by Kawamata, but it is also open to criticism. To begin with Shimubuku’s project possesses more than a passing resemblance to the post-Readymade strategy perfected by Rikrit Tiravanija: namely, using the preparation and consumption of food as a work of art. The difference lies in Shimubuku’s use of a barge which can be considered, as with Kawamata’s contribution, as a “site specific” reference to the tributary that, during the Industrial Revolution, connected Birmingham with the rest of the nation and the world.
The artist hired the barge to make a two-week journey from the Chisenhale Gallery in London to Brindleyplace in Birmingham where the Icon Gallery is located. During the journey the artist pickled various vegetables. This may not seem very significant but the text in From Arkhipov to Zittel informs us that the “taste of the vegetables sharpened as the boat moved closer to its destination. The pickling thus became an analogy for the artist’s preoccupation with change through the passage of time”. Once again we encounter the hyperbole that infects much writing on art.
When the artist arrived in Birmingham the pickled vegetables were eaten at an event at the Ikon Gallery in a manner extremely similar to the work of Tiravanija, and also open to the same criticisms which I have made concerning Tiravanija. But perhaps I am being unfair, on the positive side Shimabuku’s idea is very “convivial” to use a word that that occurs with monotonous regularity in Nicolas Bourriaud’s paean (Bourriaud 2002) to the generation of artists who achieved fame in the 1990s, of which, for Bourriaud, Tiravanija was the pinnacle.
Let us turn to a more original contribution to From Arkhipov to Zittel: Tatsumi Orimoto’s Bread Man, a performance which took place 8 May, 2001, in Birmingham’s Open Market. This piece is surreal and meets the original aim of bringing art into life espoused by Dada and Surrealist artists in the first half of the 20c, which is that bringing art into life should undermine common sense complacency.
Orimoto’s performance is also self-referential in the sense that a metonym for food (bread) is superimposed on the head of a person such that the person becomes a metaphor for the person hunting or shopping for food. What is remarkable is that the performer actually appears to be buying food in spite of the encumbrance. What is impressive about this work is not only its incursion into everyday life but also the poetic sophistication of the intervention.
So, to conclude, does anything go? What we can say is that a lot does go, or can go. But this is difficult territory and failure is not uncommon. It is up to curators to be careful in their selection and, on balance, Kermode’s curation seems largely positive and successful. From Arkhipov to Zittel has enough that is stimulating in it to underscore the fact that experimental approaches to art are worth the risk. We can also note that traditional aesthetic judgement is not confounded by non-traditional works of art. Scanning some of the more radical works in this book I can report that it remains possible to deploy judgements on the basis of poetic merit, formal qualities and ethical value. Such values have been the foundation for aesthetic judgement for as long as it has existed.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational aesthetics, Documents sur l’art. Dijon: Les presses du reel.
Coulter-Smith, Graham. 2006. Deconstructing Installation Art. Southampton: CASIAD publishing. Online book http://www.installationart.net
Kermode, Deborah; Watkins, Jonathan. 2002. From Arkhipov to Zittel: Selected Ikon Off-Site Projects 2000 — 2001. Birmingham: Ikon Gallery.