Art is something that, the older I get, I seem to have less and less of a grasp on. As someone with little to no formal education on “fine art”, I always feel glib in giving my interpretation of artists’ work or attempting to assess exactly what art is. And that value on what makes art important certainly seems to evolve with a person’s age (certainly for me). I think too that so much of what a work of art is hangs off the place it happens to be. A rusty old soup can on the street is just that, but resting atop an ivory podium in a glass case in the Guggenheim it obviously takes on a whole new dimension of “meaning”.
With that in mind, I wanted to impart my thoughts on the new exhibit at the Geffen Contemporary Museum at MOCA. The exhibit is spearheaded by Swiss-born American artist Urs Fischer. Urs actually has work displayed in both MOCA locations downtown. The concept of the piece is this: 1,500 people in the Los Angeles area were invited to the Geffen and handed a mound of clay at their disposal to create anything they wanted. Having walked through the whole installation, I will say that in my somewhat glib opinion, it is everything art should be. In the past, I’ve always harbored this sense of ambivalence about typical museum fare; “Am I moved and inspired because I feel like I should be or because the art is that powerful?”. Well, walking into this exhibit I had little to no expectations and my immediate reaction was truly one of awe! I walk in and shuffle down a corridor past the entrance where you see a massive, life-size “Last Supper” display completely fashioned out of clay. It was a pretty staggering thing to see. Once I passed by, there was a ramp towards a clearing where I suddenly realized how massive the installation is. Like a monochromatic war-zone, there’s an endless array sculptures, scraps and shrapnel pieces all composed of clay strewn all over the floor. It was quite a sight to see. Each individual, handcrafted piece of at had its own completely unique identity (obviously since it was made my different people). Although I do think the fact that each piece used the same material gave it all an air of subtlety so that everything had almost an interpretable aura to it (especially in the context of the work around it). If there’s one word that immediately came to mind it would be immersive. It’s not a work that’s contained in a space so much as a work that becomes and transforms the space. And in that sense, it becomes a more visceral artistic statement because the notion and the condition of the space doesn’t influence the work.
The rest of the installation was spread across a concatenation of rooms and platforms and each little nook had its own display. Some certainly larger in scale and scope than others. Some of the pieces were beautiful, some were scary, some were vulgar, some were pretty funny and some were downright perplexing. The most powerful piece to me was arguably the “centerpiece” of the installation and was a nearly two story tall roman statue composed almost completely of wax. It depicted three people climbing on top of each other towards (in this case) the skylight in the building. At the top of the highest figure you could see it was melting from a series of wicks inside it that were lit on fire. It was absolutely gorgeous. The face of the highest figure was black and charred from the flame and literally melting to the ground while the other two figures were etched with expressions of horror. It was beautiful albeit unsettling. In some of the rooms towards the back of the museum there were a few pieces that had splashes of color: a life-size wax mold of a man wearing a suit and an orange office-chair. Both of which were lit like the statue by wicks and were actively melting. From a purely visual perspective, this little smattering of color cast against an otherwise drearily uniform grey palate, created this wonderful pop that I personally found wonderful.
What I appreciated too was the sense of immediacy it all had. There was a balance of intricately crafted sculptures with haphazardly molded mounds. But the notion that it was all assembled IN that one space seemed to break a barrier of “placement” that I often feel in museums. There were smears of clay on the floor and little scraps hanging on railings and walls in a way that made the art feel “live”. It felt created rather than placed. I think there’s something to be said about art that was created at the place of its exhibition. Not to get too far into it but it harkened back to my college days studying Walter Benjamin and his theories about the fading aura of art in the “age of mechanical reproduction”. There was very much a sense of authenticity and immediacy about all the work. On a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder how the hell they were going to get these 100’s of lbs of clay out of there but I digress.
Urs seems to really utilize the SPACE he’s given to its absolute full potential, bending even breaking it to suit the work he’s creating. And what I find inspiring above all else is how collaborative his vision is. It’s incredibly modern in scope: in the age of crowd-sourcing and YouTube propelled talent, I think it’s incredibly refreshing that Urs didn’t hesitate to engage a community of people in realizing an idea. This collapses another barrier of identification between spectator and art. The lingering idea that not just artists but everyday people produced this work that’s hanging around a museum aided to a sense of connection with the piece. The collective work also has a history and was part of a process, which lends to its sense of being “live”. It’s a wiki-art project and I dig it.
Urs Fischer is clearly a talented and dynamic individual and this is utmost representation of that as far as I’m concerned. With his newest work at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, I take it as a little nudge to create something meaningful in my own life.