artintelligence

April 11, 2008

Play it Again, and Again, Manon: 4′33″ at 5th Berlin Biennial

Filed under: History, Berlin Biennial 5, Conceptualism, Memory, Readymade — Graham Coulter-Smith

Still from  Manon De Boer, Two Times 4?33?, 2007/2008. 35mm film transferred to HDV 12.30min, colour, sound Dolby Surround.I found Manon De Boer’s contribution to the 5th Berlin Biennial Two Times 4′33″, 2007-8 significant not because I liked it—I thought it was tedious—but because it is an especially clear sign of the degeneration of conceptual art into pretentiousness, self-absorption, and repetition. This was not a work of art at all, it was a non-musical, non-performance with a banal attempt at art tacked on at the end.

In terms of creativity De Boer’s contribution to the 5th Berlin Biennial was vacuous. But the curators treated this work as if it were a religious object.  It was placed in its own special  little cinema, and  limited groups of visitors were ushered in at the start of this remarkable film.  it reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art essay in which he states:

the cult value would seem to demand that the work of art remain hidden. Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain Madonnas remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are invisible to the spectator on ground level. (Benjamin 1936)

 

Manon De Boer, Two Times 4′33″, 2007/2008. 35mm film transferred to HDV 12.30min, colour, Dolby Surround sound. Shown at 5th Berlin Biennale, 2008, in the KW Institute

De Boer and the Biennial curators treated 4′33″ as if it were a religious icon. 4′33″ was originally created by John Cage in 1952. It is a musical composition consisting of sheets of blank paper. The musician, accompanied by his or her instrument, turns these sheets at appropriate intervals for 4 minutes 33 seconds then the performance is over. The performance is complete silence. The idea is that we should pay attention to the sounds all round us because they are as aesthetically interesting as any musical composition. It implies anything can be art. If you want to be intellectual about this work, and if you are serious about fine art you will probably want to do this, talk about it in terms of “phenomenology”. Robert Morris developed this rationalisation of post-Duchampian, post-Cagean art in the 1960s.

 Men’s urinal in KW Institute, Berlin Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

After watching Manon’s turgid homage to Cage I was inspired to go to the toilet in the KW Institute, and remarkably, in this much less religious setting (although one could think of the entirety of KW as a church of conceptual art) I found another religious icon: an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s urinal Fountain 1917. I have reproduced this icon above left with a photo of Duchamp’s “original” [1] on the right. Cage’s 4′33″  came a long time after Fountain 1917 and was deeply indebted to Duchamp’s Readymade strategy: the strategy that initiated the concept that anything can be called art.

But the ramifications of the aesthetics of ”anything goes” possesses two sides: on the one hand it can be liberating,  on the other hand if it becomes a religion it lead to stultifying and turgid repetition. It can also lead to the situation, which  to some extent actually exists, in which it really does not matter what a fine artist does, what matters is who he or she knows.

 NOTE
[1] The original urinal was lost, no doubt because Duchamp though that it was a bit of joke. Then, when the Readymade virus spread in the Euro-American art world in the 1950s and ’60s the canny Duchamp recreated it in an edition of seven, each now worth over a million dollars.


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