The Difference between Coolness and Artness: What Turns Everyday Objects into Art

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The Frieze says “Hi!” via Martin Soto Climent’s Frenetic Gossamer (2016). Photo: Skye Arundhati Thomas.

Inevitably, many of the highlights at this year’s London Frieze are works that turn common objects into art. To enter the Fair, visitors must walk by a courtyard and  up a narrow hallway where Martin Soto’s pantyhose installation cuts the sky into the vaulted Gothic cathedral lines of a sacred place of worship.

The Gagosian is the first gallery one meets, featuring the works of Edmund de Waal: white and black porcelain vessels and small objects arranged onto shelves of the same color. The fragility of the exhibit is humbling. Here is a work of pure, selfless devotion to the things made by Man. Here is a work that, for a change, does not lessen but, rather, heightens the role of that being who is always lurking behind at art fairs: The Collector. But, more on this later, much later.

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Edmund de Waal, white sail (detail), 2016. Photo: Mike Bruce.

Immediately to the right of The Gagosian is London heavy-hitter Sadie Coles Gallery. Here hang several pieces by Scottish artist Jim Lambie. My favorite is Pin Code 3379 (2016), pictured below, which uses thousands of safety pins to hold together a torn navy blue canvas in lines that conjure a Scottish kilt. The scarred canvas belies the function of the safety pin, pointing a pricked finger at the past and present pains associated with Scotland’s national identity. It holds together, but at what cost.

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Around the corner from The Gagosian is Hong Kong’s Simon Lee Gallery. On display here are works by the Polish artist Paulina Olowska. Her installation includes paintings as well as a massive pile of cobalt-dyed cotton in the center of the space. Looking at it feels menacing: at any moment, the strands of cotton might turn into tentacles and drag you in.  It is a great feeling.

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But, then I saw the piece below by artist Haugeue Yang at Seoul’s Kukje Gallery. The S-shaped panel of small bells turns, making the piece jingle.  It was cool, sure, but I felt nothing. I began to wonder what makes a piece of art made from everyday objects successful? What is it that actually makes it art, and not just a cool thing to hang?

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I’ve come up with two words that sum it up: sanctity and uncanniness. In order for a piece built with everyday things to “do” it, to interfere with a viewer’s emotions, it must transgress the sanctity of the objects it uses.  The bells in the piece above fulfill their intended purpose: they chime. Edmund de Waal’s perfect white vessels, however, will never be sipped. No one will slip Soto’s pantyhose on.

It is this transgression, this violation of an object’s raison d’être, that provokes a sense of uncanniness in the viewer. Something is off, and it is creepy.  

“Uncanny” was one of Freud’s favorite words. I really like it, too, because it identifies a feeling that eschews description. Olowska’s pile of blue cotton is terrifying. Why? It is uncanny. Why? Something is not right. What? The object and our expectations of it. Why? Cotton exists to make underwear. But, what if it does not? Then, maybe, we must probe our surroundings.

And, it is in that private, silent rereading of life that our chest encounters art.

 

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