• Redefining art — again
     | September 07,2013

    The use of alternative, non-traditional, and often ephemeral materials in the creation of visual art has become a hallmark of the avant-garde movements since at least the very early turn of the 20th century, if not earlier.

    Marcel Duchamp will always be remembered for his seminal piece Fountain, which was, for all practical purposes, an inverted porcelain urinal signed, “R. Mutt.” As the artist said at that time, this object is a work of art because Duchamp said so. Who is in a better position to determine if something is or is not a work of art than the artists him or herself.

    Although Duchamp never considered himself or his work as part of any movement, this piece is considered very much in keeping with the underlying direction and concepts of the Dada movement. In fact, the whole idea of the readymade and the assisted readymade spawned much artistic activity which still continues today. It can be said that the paths blazed by Marcel Duchamp have provided the inspiration for much of what we consider as art today.

    Moving from the period of Dada to the Fluxus movement, a jump of some 40 or more years, one of the overriding principles of Fluxus was to promote the belief that art did not have to be precious, shown in a museum or gallery, or even be a painting, drawing or sculpture to be art. It wasn’t necessarily simply the art object as signifier of this status; it was the participation of the viewer in this creative process that created much of the vitality. This art movement lead directly to the Happenings, originated by Allan Kaprow. These were time-sensitive performances or gatherings that often left no physical trace, yet had deep significance outside of the time during which they occurred (think art-centric flash mobs).

    Eva Hesse, an early pioneer of the use of such non-traditional materials as latex, fiberglass and early plastics in the fabrication of sculptures, created works that are still causing conservators around the world to discover new and innovative ways to care for the art objects she made which are under their care. These new materials are challenging in that they are very fleeting compared to such traditional art materials as oil paint, graphite, ink and marble, which are designed to be almost permanent in duration. The relationship of art to its audience was changing. Some artists were unaware of the archival concerns of future generations and some embraced the gradual (or relatively sudden) changes in their works as part of the natural order.

    More recently, Strange Fruit (Zoe Leonard, 1992-7), an installation of oranges, bananas, grapefruit, lemons and avocado peels with string and other materials, was designed to allow the ripening and eventual spoilage of the piece’s components to take place. This work of art was created after the death of a friend of the artist and was a consolation piece. The passage of time and its effects was one of the keys to understanding this piece. It was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is still tended to by its staff.

    Now, directly leading to the topic at hand, lest anyone think that this so-called “Chicken Sh** Bingo” is an isolated fundraising concept without art historical significance, they would be seriously in error. This is yet another reason that it is important to be aware of how the work of today connects with the past and to understand the societal mores that helped to guide, develop and shape the development of visual art. This is context, and it is essential to understanding that at which you are looking.

    The first artist that comes to mind who used excrement as a focal point of his work is Piero Manzoni. He produced The Magic Body (Merda d’artiste/Artist’s Sh**), 1961. Ninety cans of freshly preserved, produced and tinned artist poo. Each tin was numbered and had a net weight of exactly 30 grams, in line with the daily exchange rate of gold at that time. This was a clear artistic statement about relative worth, consumerism and the role of the artist’s body in contemporary art.

    In the early 1990s, an artist named Chris Ofili became well known for his paintings which contained thick swaths of paint, collaged images, glitter, map pins and varnished elephant dung. He created works which combined opposites aesthetically and culturally. As is often the case, when this work was first shown in public, the prevailing paradigm expressed was “What’s up with the elephant dung?” The underlying cultural and political statements were obfuscated by the public’s inability to “see beneath the surface of the composition.” This is the curse of the new.

    Art not only comments on the world around it, it often elicits strong comments from those who view it. That is one of its primary functions. This is good. Comments, reactions and thoughts are good; destruction and physical bodily harm are not.

    Now finally, in keeping up with the times as well as the fast growing localvore movement, we have Chicken Sh** Bingo as an important local signifier of the avant-garde here in central Vermont.

    Mark Waskow is a collector of contemporary visual art, an independent curator, as well as a writer and public speaker on this topic. He is the founder and director of The Waskowmium, a collection of contemporary visual art consisting of over 15,000 art objects, a reference library devoted to this topic and the Vermont Contemporary Visual Arts Archive.

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