Friday, March 23, 2007

A Funeral... and More Art

This morning we leave after breakfast for the funeral of the daughter of a man we have known for many years as a friend of the family. She was forty-nine years old, and had battled for five years with lung cancer. She had never smoked. There's an irony. My father smoked cigarettes for his entire life and died in his mid-eighties without ever having been afflicted with that terrible disease. I myself had never met this still-young woman, but knew of her as a notably successful writer--at the opposite end of the political spectrum from my own. We can hardly imagine the pain of a father being called upon to watch his daughter suffer for so long, and then to lose her in this way, and it is with that especially in mind that we plan to attend her funeral. (I think, too, in this context, of John and Elizabeth Edwards, and her continuing, very public battle with the disease. I wish them well...)


I enjoyed reading Carly's spoof of "installation art" in yesterday's comments--provoked, presumably, at least in part, by my enthusiasm for Lita Albuquerque's "Stellar Axis." I don't think, though, that artists need confine themselves these days to the traditional media of painting and sculpture--though I love both these approaches to making art. It seems to me that works like Robert Smithson's famous "Spiral Jetty" and James Turrell's Roden Crater Project have a significant place in the canon of contemporary art. Why not use light as a medium? Why not use "landscape" as medium in a more literal way than in paint on canvas? If it offers me a different and challenging new way to see the world, or the opportunity to see myself in the context of the world, I say--to paraphrase a once hubristic president--Bring it on!

Case in point, the exhibition Ellie and I saw at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects on our gallery tour yesterday. Joel Tauber's "Sick-Amour" is an interior installation documenting an outdoor intervention--the artist's attempt to rescue and restore to health a sycamore in the parking lot at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Tauber takes his tree-hugging seriously: he falls in love with his tree, and the exhibit is part love story. His installation creates a kind of electronic tree at the center of the gallery, from whose "branches" hang multiple video monitors with visual narratives and sound tracks (available through dangling earphone sets), along with "jewelry" designed for the cosmetic decoration of the object of his love.

This whimsical play has its serious side, of course, because the theme of the work concerns the protection of nature from the ravages of the human species and its demands. The videos describe the natural patterns of the tree's growth, and the way in which the parking lot surrounding the tree deprives its root system of needed water: the artist is seen subversively jack-hammering at the tarmac and fending off the suspicious inquiries of city authorities. I wish him luck. The tree--I trust he'll forgive my appropriation of his copyrighted image in this small-circulation context!--looks at once beautiful and sad to me. Its lonely presence in the parking lot has a certain poignancy that is curiously, almost anthropomorphically appealing.

Is it art? Of course it is. Tauber could, certainly, have chosen to make a painting of the tree--and a painting could have made some of the same associations. But there's a great deal of the narrative here that would have been impossible to convey in a two-dimensional, static medium. By combining a complex of media, including sound and video, photography, performance, installation, and documentary information he allows himself a far broader "canvas" than would otherwise be available. If anyone wants to call it something other than art, they're welcome to do so, so far as I'm concerned. For me, it's a "Gesamtkunstwerk" appropriate to the media available to creative minds today.

I might get an argument from Carly on this. I'd welcome that--as well as thoughts from others on the limitations of art. If you believe it has them.


Anonymous said...

Hey, this is Eli away from my usual computer, and I can't remember my sign in information.

I think that art can and should use whatever media available to convey the artist's message. There are times when I'm frustrated with most abstract art (usually using paint as a medium) just because I can't seem to understand it: the work doesn't say anything to me, so I don't see its significance. Regardless, most artwork I can identify with, especially Tauber's exhibit. That would have been a lot of fun to see.

On a related note, what's your consensus on Bonsai planting? It's a very careful art that I've been thinking about starting in an attempt to develop a little more patience, but I have reservations that extend beyond the time commitment it would require. Is the meticulous grooming and weighting of a tree to create a miniature tree "gnarled with wisdom" being unkind to the tree? Like paving over a forest to build a parking lot, would Bonsai planting be harming the environment, even if only in a small way? I'm interested in everyone's perspective on this.

- Eli

carly said...

P: I wasn't spoofing! That's my serious proposal. Back in '68 when happenings were all the rage, I told my grad school professor, I can't really consider that path because my ideas are too flamboyant, i.e.. expensive to produce. I would need whole industries to support the happenings in my head.

Maybe I could get a billion in funding for this project from the National Endowment for the arts, if I could convince them it would be good for NASA's military space program. You know, like it could be a message to the Arabs.

No, I'm all for anything being an art form. Hell, it's art when I chop vegetables for a stir-fry. I cut them in such aesthetic ways. Food is just as good a media to convey my message as any. Look what Dali did with bread. Or wait, that was paint. It'd be pretty hard to do THAT with actual food. See. Paint is just very imaginative.

My only objection is when installations look like science projects. Like, I think I saw Stellar Axis back in '54 in an article on weather balloons at the North Pole in National Geographic. Then I start thinking, "this is just derivative". I've seen this before in the Art of Weather Ballooning. I can't tell the difference sometimes, and then I have the problem Eli does with abstracts.