Purple Magazine
— S/S 2016 issue 25


inoffensive art


On Dec. 3, 2015, on the square in front of the Pantheon in Paris, international artist Olafur Eliasson oversaw the installation of his new work, Ice Watch, a collaboration with geologist Minik Rosing. Describing the work in The Huffington Post, Sélène Agapé wrote: “It’s made of 12 blocks of ice, together weighing almost 100 tons, collected during a joint trek through a fjord near Nuuk, in the waters off Greenland.
The weight of the ice is not arbitrary: 100 tons is the amount of ice melting worldwide every 100th of a second. And the blocks have been set in a circle, forming a clock face.”

On the first evening, the French television news reported on the installation (it was a slow news day). Over the next few days, newspapers and several magazines followed suit, covering the logistics of the project, the weight of the ice blocks, the shape of the clock, and at times even the piece’s poetic dimension and the inspiration that perhaps lay behind it. Now, the magazines — what shall we call them? “Lifestyle” magazines, I suppose, mixing a little fashion with a little news and a little culture. Anyway, these magazines tend to have an “arty” take on just about everything. Connections are summarily made between a scarf and Joseph Beuys; Georgia O’Keefe is admired for her bohemian chic; an issue of Elle I was reading on a flight to Venice, with Gloria Friedmann and Bertrand Lavier in it, tells of pretty vases shaped like water towers, “in the manner of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.” It’s a fact that contemporary art has become massively popular, and we are supposed to be extremely happy about that. Like many others, I’d hoped things would turn out this way and tried, in my modest way, to help them along — but, of course, I never imagined for an instant the proportions or form things would actually take. And yet, as I watched the news coverage on Dec. 3 on Olafur Eliasson’s installation, I was slowly overcome by an unmistakable feeling. I was ashamed.

When I first took an interest in the visual arts, in the early 1980s, there was, I think, one thing in particular among all the discipline’s qualities that could fascinate an adolescent, that grabbed my attention — one thing that, like a watermark, tinted everything I saw, everything I studied. That thing, that dimension, was courage. I could more or less consciously see that those who chose to become artists needed a form of courage that the inevitabilities of the discipline — a certain marginality, a paucity of projects outside of dialogues with history, through a not-very-popular and widely spurned medium — would tacitly imply. At bottom, they were choosing a discipline both ambitious and modest, and having more to do with the gratuitous act than with strategic planning.

Anyone interested in taking up the discipline needed another form of courage as well to surmount the many obstacles to learning what the discipline was even about. Contemporary art suffered from a particular dearth of information, in part because so few people took an interest in it. Neither very dangerous nor very serious, it was the purview of specialists. For example, only a handful of magazines — five, maybe 10 — covered it. These were published in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. They appeared bimonthly or monthly at most. And when they did appear, you’d have to track them down because their distribution was so narrow.
It was surely not within everyone’s reach to be flying across the Atlantic all the time. A trip to New York was a special occasion, and a trip to Kassel, too. Well, things are naturally quite different now. As The Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde remarks of her own discipline, in Le Figaro on June 9, 2014:
“Today, everything’s just a click away. In my day, it was like being on a secret mission. You were stirred by a passion shared with one or two others at school.” She adds: “People talk to me about Miley Cyrus. I don’t care about Miley Cyrus. I’m supposed to be interested in her because she sells a lot of records?”

I was ashamed as I thought about Olafur Eliasson’s piece because I found nothing in it of what had originally fascinated me about the visual arts and their history. Not a thing. I acknowledged the triumph, surely — the triumph of what is truly the world’s most transparent work of art, but one that can now easily be confused with a host of others. Born of a banal idea (an idea that could have taken shape in the mind of any advertising executive, to promote a car, or life insurance, or a diet), it is easily summed up and exhausted in the summation. It is nothing more than its contents, nothing more than its parts. The most shocking thing about it is that, like any number of its counterparts, it is bereft of mystery, of questing, of difference. Not an ounce of it defies explanation. There’s nothing of what makes an object into a work of art, no arbitrary little something to distinguish the artwork from things that are not art, from things that are something else. As art, it is totally inoffensive, gluten-free, salt-free — skimmed of anything that would produce the slightest risk, and thus a taste. The only remarkable aspect of Eliasson’s piece —
I’m raking this poor work over the coals, but so many others could take its place! — is the monstrosity of its production, the scale of the undertaking. Indeed, that’s what the journalists have focused on: the sheer size of the job, the engineering that transported the ice blocks from their fjord to the Parisian cobbles — and set them up in front of the Pantheon, too, lest anybody miss the allusion. In short, the vast enterprise that a financial transaction has accomplished. The only thing that takes this piece out of the ordinary is that it required people to finance it: courage traded for a wire transfer. Make no mistake: I am in favor of gratuitous expense. I will fight to see big bucks spent on the production of works,
the value of whose effects on our imaginations is, at any rate, not open to measurement. But my opinion of Ice Watch is that its singularity is reducible to its production and that the road to that production was cleared by a mere financial transaction. On my imagination, it has no effect, which suggests that it fails even where certain ad campaigns have succeeded. And this, in fact, is how we can sum it up: Ice Watch is an advertisement for a behavior, but a soulless advertisement, an advertisement without wit or mystery, without a hint of shadow, with nothing but its message and its parts — whose naïveté, in the end, is all that offends me. And, in addition, this artwork doesn’t even bother to evoke other artworks that came before it (I hope no one has mentioned Land Art) just as so many other works pretend to rediscover what many artists, even famous ones, thought up before them.

Ice Watch’s image has already made the rounds. It’s been tweeted (not least by the politicians celebrating it), posted on Instagram and Facebook. Perhaps a few risqué Snapchats have been made as well, sent and consulted for six seconds before their definitive deletion. The image will circulate some more, then vanish forever, as quickly as a few tons of ice. The polar ice caps will surely last longer.

[Table of contents]

S/S 2016 issue 25

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

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