Following The New Earthwork: Art, Action, Agency, published last year by ISC Press, Artists Reclaim the Commons makes the case for art as a driving force behind efforts to reimagine human relationships and the built environment. Far from advocating any one genre of public art, this book features a range of project types, from innovative campus programs and biennials to participatory performances and political protests. Art can take to the streets in any number of ways—regardless of approach, the selected projects all share a willingness to work outside of and/or across discrete public art typologies, using institutional frameworks at will, for instance, or blending high-profile status with small-scale, local activism. Continue reading
Public art commissions always require justification—and that should tell us something. If traditional systems of representation are bankrupt and common values suspect, if committee-driven compromises can only dole out watered-down abstract “spaces” carefully formulated to offend no one and convey nothing, why do we bother? What is the purpose of public art? We say that it’s something we should have, but no one can convincingly explain why it’s necessary. “Uplift” and other vague intangibles get trotted out, but it’s hard to connect these “benefits” to projects that end in entertainment and strive for nothing loftier than increased tourist revenues. Until we can say that we need public art, nothing is going to change; and we won’t need it until it succeeds in touching and improving people’s lives in tangible ways. Continue reading
Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, the first English translation of Ai Weiwei’s Chinese language blogs and micro-tweets, could not have appeared at a more timely moment, not least because Ai’s short-lived cyber postings have demonstrated the revolutionary potential of these rapid-fire, viral modes of communication (beyond the much-vaunted and exaggerated role of social media in the recent Middle East democratic uprisings). As a means of unleashing suppressed information and censored viewpoints and spreading impassioned calls for freedom, the blogosphere in China has had an undeniable effect—for good and bad.
Born in Hawaii in 1922, Toshiko Takaezu, who just died on March 9, helped transform ceramics into a major artistic medium. Whether small enough to cradle in the fingers or approaching life size, her closed forms approach monumentality by stripping sculptural exploration to its essentials—volume and mass. The best of her pieces give visible shape to hidden interiors, enclosed spaces of restless energy and potential whose pulsing subterranean breath expresses its rhythms in subtle irregularities and asymmetries on the surface. A touchstone for countless artists and students, she inspired several generations with her example of art as life and life as art. Her holistic approach established a kind of ecological support system conjoining studio work in clay, textiles, and bronze with teaching, meditation, and the rituals of daily life: as Takaezu herself put it in 1975: “In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking, and growing vegetables.” A true potter’s potter (and her use of that word is significant), it is tempting to see Takaezu as a kind of anti-Voulkos, a counterweight to aggressive machismo (both in the studio and out) and a corrective to the cultic worship of inflated artistic gods.
This weighty volume documents what are arguably Kounellis’s most important works—an ongoing series of interrelated, ephemeral installations that have been unfolding in various alternative venues since 1969. Like Beuys and Kiefer, Kounellis is a mystic, a material alchemist who steeps his assemblages of coal, gasoline, wool, coffee, lead, and live animals in a solution of myth, history, and memory. Thus transformed, these elements become catalyst, metaphor, and medium, alluding to and supporting the full weight of Western civilization. Kounellis’s work may be contemporary in form, but its spirit is anything but new. It draws strength from age and decline, failed endeavors and lost hopes, and sounds these reverberations across time and space. Such work is never quite at home in the sanitized purity of conventional art spaces; like a gold-ground altarpiece, it requires a sympathetic setting that can echo and reinforce its resonance while sharpening its conceptual and affective focus.
Beloved cult figure and blue-chip art world asset, Nara has achieved mainstream success with seemingly little compromise. Having learned the lessons of his punk rock heroes, he recognizes the pitfalls. It’s hard to retain the values of “Garageland” once money and power come into play, yet thanks to his mischievous and sometimes malevolent alter-egos, he remains the perpetual guttersnipe—distilling the isolation, alienation, and fierce independence of youth. He may be an adult now (with slightly tempered tastes), but his morally and ethically ambiguous imps allow him, as well as the rest of us, to revel vicariously in the uncivilized wildness that is (or was) the privilege of childhood, before socialization delimits protean worlds and “responsibility” proscribes every creative action.
The fear of becoming an imaginatively castrated drone, sleepwalking through life like the drained commuters in David Mitchell’s Number9Dream, is Nara’s driving insight. For more than 20 years, his message, shouted out with raw intensity from every new work, has been nothing less than a rousing call to rediscover and preserve curiosity and freedom in the face of relentless pressures: as he says, “Never forget your beginner’s spirit.” While acknowledging the demands and problems of the real world—for all their swagger, even the most defiant of Nara’s children betrays vulnerability, fear, and a sense of uncertainty—he invites us to reconnect with the rebellious spirit that accompanies youthful optimism and the belief that we can change the world.