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Monday, July 19, 2004

The Something Missing from Nothing

Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes posts about his experience last weekend at ICA Philly's Big Nothing exhibition. His short take on the show:
It is a show full of art that appeals to the October subscriber base and anyone else who values an idea more than the execution of that idea into a work of art. The Big Nothing attempts to demonstrate that art need not be visually engaging, that it need not be looked at, that all you have to do is think about it and somehow that in itself will be fulfilling. This is an exhibit that should have been a book.
The issue he raises is a good one. What's the point of going to see an exhibition of concept-based works that have no presence as objects of art? Or, at a more removed level, how can and should concept-based work be exhibited when the purpose of an exhibition is to display objects?

I find Nikki S. Lee's identify-based photography compelling. It's smart, playful, and conceptually and (surprisingly) visually rich. Her Seniors Project, for example, contains layers of meaning that aren't obvious. This photograph from the series was taken in Stuyvesant Town--a housing development in Manhattan that has been declared a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community by New York City. Lee could have done work in this series just about anywhere, but she chose Stuyvesant Town because it allowed her to get that much more deeply into the lives of those whose identify she assumes in her work.

But would I find an exhibition of Lee's work compelling enough to travel to see it? Probably not. Why? Because the objects, the photographic documentation of her assumptions of others' identity, don't gain much in original that they don't have in reproduction. Would I buy one of her works? Again, probably not because I wouldn't feel the return on my investment in an original. I would, however, not hesitate to buy and enjoy her book.

I don't believe that all conceptual art is as good in reproduction as in original, though. I still think about an early text-based work by Joseph Kosuth that I saw a couple years ago at a Sotheby's preview. It was as simple (and reproducible) as a work could be--a dictionary definition spelled out in white text on a black background. But there was something about the work--a true presence--that it loses in reproduction. I guess I wasn't the only person who thought this way. The work ended up selling for three and a half times its pre-sale high estimate.

(As an interesting aside, I was taken enough with the work to talk with a specialist about it. The piece was in rough shape for being only 35 years old. The sides and a corner of the face were severely cracked, and I worried about how well the work would survive into the future. The specialist offered to contact Kosuth's studio for me to see if they could restore the piece. She emailed me back with an answer a couple days later. If I bought the piece, Kosuth's studio said, they would be happy to refabricate it for me.

The irony here is too delicious to pass up uncommented. If I bought the original work, the studio would destroy the piece and make me a copy--a copy of the definition of the word "original." Truly Art as Idea as Idea, not art as unique, hand-made object. In case you're wondering, I didn't end up bidding on the piece.)

So what was it about Kosuth's piece that Nikki S. Lee's work is missing and that, presumably, is missing from Big Nothing? It's not conceptual richness or complexity. It has something to do with how an artist chooses to objectify the concept he or she works with.

Sometimes the object created provides an experience for the viewer that goes beyond the instigating idea for the work. Kosuth's work, with its sharp contrast between the black background and the white text and with its size (these pieces are surprisingly large which you wouldn't guess from reproductions), provides an experience that is akin to that provided by good minimalist art. To be in the presence of the object makes you aware of yourself being in its presence. It tightens your strings just a little bit. It gives you a jolt and makes you more aware.

If a work of conceptual art can't, or doesn't, do this for the viewer, there's not much point in making a trek to see it. It's easier, and almost as satisfying, to read the critical essay about it that will eventually show up in October. But if that something is there, you'll miss it if you write the show off as nothing.

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