Zero to Infinity: Fear of the ephemeral

I was visiting the Tate Modern a couple of weeks back and came across an artwork with the following sign:

In keeping with the artist's intentions, this work is re-arranged at 10.00 every day by staff members. Please do not touch

I’ve been interested in in public and private spaces in composition for several years now – I find works which open up private aspects of themselves to be public particularly interesting – but this one grabbed my interest because of how the rearranging of the work is public – yet not public. I was intrigued that the participatory element of the work was restricted to being handled by experts, and scheduled for a time of day when the gallery was at its most empty (Tate Modern opens at 10am). Reading the notes on the work on the Tate website connected this in with another topic which I find of immense interest – the prioritising of longevity of the artwork over the artist’s vision.

So here we have a work, positioned in the Tate’s new participatory art display, which is intended to be a work of public participation, and which has become a work of publicly private participation in order to preserve it for as long as possible by ensuring that only trusted experts actually handle it. I find it particularly intriguing that the sign is worded “In keeping with the artist’s intentions” – but the text on their own website makes it clear that this conservation solution only preserves one aspect of the artist’s intentions.

Sure, it’s better to have somebody move it than just set it up and leave it, but it assumes that this piece is only for looking at, which it isn’t. It’s for feeling the texture of the structure, the heft of a cube as you lift it. It’s experiencing how the separate cubes might be connected. It’s a sonic experience as you listen to the sounds made when the cubes connect. The artist’s original intent – to have the cubes manipulated by the public – also means that it’s not only participatory sculpture, but also kinetic sculpture – theoretically at least, the interaction of the public with the sculpture could/would be continuous, meaning that the sculpture is perhaps intended to be viewed as constantly in motion and constantly in interaction with human bodies. It is, in fact, performed rather than simply viewed.

Of course it saddens me that works of art deteriorate over time, but my feeling is that the art world’s obsession with the value of the singular art object fails to take into account the strength that can be lent by ephemerality. Musicians and music-lovers get this – experiencing a great live performance is an amazing thing that can never truly be repeated, even if it’s recorded – but I feel that the temporary almost terrifies the art world. We musicians may continuously reinterpret Bach, but an Old Master painting is an Old Master painting and must be preserved exactly as it is.

A more extreme example than the Tate’s relatively sensitive Zero to Infinity solution comes from a review of ‘Mindfuck’, a 2013 exhibition of the work of Bruce Nauman which included a ‘conserved’ version of Nauman’s Carousel:

And as I look at the words on the wall, the carousel keeps turning. Yet there is something missing. Those rotating, dangling body parts were originally intended to be dragged around the concrete floor, with a terrible sound of screeching. All they make here is a quiet shush as they revolve on a floor constructed from MDF which acts as a sort of plinth. It’s less a Mindfuck, more a lullaby.

This, I was told by someone at Hauser & Wirth, is a conservation issue – the sculptures risk being worn away by their interminable circular journey – but the work’s imminent auto-destruction is, I would surmise, an intended consequence of what Nauman originally had in mind. Where the work was once aggressive, it is now muffled, pathetic… I want to hear the metal scream.

YES! My sentiments exactly. Without the scream, it’s Nauman through a filter of curator. Without the scream, it’s only half a work.

Update 28 October 2016: Today I found the following video on Tate’s site of Rasheed Araeen talking about how the human intervener becomes part of the work, which I feel is relevant to what I’ve said in this post:

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