BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Opinion | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

The Art of the Matter

How art can weave into life and vice versa

BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Opinion | 12 MAR 09

Let’s presume art is innocent. With the noise of the art industry, though – the power, the money – still ringing in our ears despite of the current downturn, it’s impossible to see it. Gallerists, curators, art fair organizers, art critics, biennial directors, auction house teams, collectors and, not least, the artists themselves: the people that make up the art world, with their insatiable desires or intractable conflicts, all have a part in drowning out any innocence. Art becomes specific rather than abstract. Sometimes it seems as if it’s more about who you are and who you know in the art world than about what you make; more about where your work is shown and sold than about how it reflects your relationship to the world or how it is viewed by others. More about who discusses your work and how they do so than about what it says for itself. More about myth-making than art-making and more about strategy than empathy. Since art contexts can sometimes be overbearing and uninspiring, it’s not surprising when artists and curators sidestep them to reignite intellectual sparks and rediscover fun in everyday life.

Thirty-five years ago, Gordon Matta-Clark realized his conceptual project Fake Estates (1973–4), in which he auctioned off small, oddly located ‘leftovers’ of New York City land that were impossible to build on and thus worthless as real estate. The strength of his work relied less on any physical forms of representation than on its conceptual vitality. With this and other projects such as Food (1971–3) – a restaurant he co-founded with Carol Gooden, that was run and staffed by artists in SoHo, New York – Matta-Clark intervened in the everyday structural or social order. Such interaction, while slightly straying from the norm, was also genuinely and endearingly a part of real life. Almost without exception, his actions took place outside traditional art environments and in the broader context of society, yet have today secured their place within the history of art.

It’s not enough for art to simply become a parody of reality. The great challenge is to conceive of a strategy so art and life can interweave and compliment each other. ‘Of Mice and Men’, the 4th Berlin Biennial in 2006, which assigned artists to work with specific ‘real life’ venues such as private homes, a former school or a dance hall, was a prime example of such an interactive partnership. More recently, Wang Gongxin created a video installation It’s Not About the Neighbours (2009) in the storefront of the art space Arrow Factory in Beijing. It’s a replica of the pancake shop’s humble façade next to Arrow Factory, located in a small ‘hutong’ alley buried deep inside a densely populated residential neighbourhood in the city centre. At night when the real-life pancake shop is closed, the artist projects images of scenes from the bustling daytime activity next door. Arrow Factory, as an alternative art project, is presumably relatively indecipherable to the residents, but Wang’s project, by acting as a quiet observer and ‘recorder’ of a flavourful slice of life from the alleyway, transforms the gallery into an active participant of the specific local dynamics.

Throughout 2008, ‘Intrude: Art and Life 366’, conceived by the curatorial team of the Zendai Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai, invited artists to employ every medium the city has to offer – be it an existing radio programme or the façade of a high-end shopping mall – as the carrier for their artistic practice. Every day, over the course of 366 days, a new intervention took place. The most crucial conceptual aspect of this project was that the artists (who also chose the component of the city they wanted to engage with, or ‘intrude’ into) were asked to make sure their intervention would not conform to the usual order or tempo of things but disrupt, upset, interfere with or even reverse it. Throughout the year, these guerrilla projects infiltrated city life, by, for example, parasitically taking over a website to compile an online dictionary of icons based on slang contributed by viewers (Wu Junyong, Slang Dictionary, 2008) and projecting a video piece on surveillance at different sites such as bridges, buildings, and monuments all over the city (Vibeke Jensen, Nightwatch, 2008). Already the idea of the project alone – creating an additional layer to what is going on in the city – is exciting.

It’s probably unrealistic to hold such an idealistic view of art and it is certainly too simplistic to conclude that art is at its most innocent when it exists without the baggage and temptations of the art world as an industry. In truth, art has its own immune system, which is founded on genuine intellectual curiosity, artistic experimentation and, more importantly, on an ongoing and actively self-questioning and self-reinventing relationship with the rest of the world.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.