Art 21

Art as warning: David Olsen’s Vulture

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of art around these days questioning our relationship with the natural world and the creatures that live in it. Arts Catalyst’s extraordinaryInterspecies series last year contained a series of works in which artists “collaborated” with animals in disturbing ways that disrupted our conventional ideas of the co-dependency of the natural and human worlds.

As part of their excellent Flash Point series “How do arts respond to the natural world?”, art:21 blog has just published an essay by curator Nova Benway on the artist David Olsen, whose work explores the toxic impact we have on the natural world. As part of it he adopts the persona of “Vulture”, dressing in bizarre protective handmade clothing to ape the vulture’s adaptive strategy of becoming resistent to the pathogens that it finds in the decaying food that it finds. His attempts to become animal appear ridiculous.

Benway explains how Olsen then suberges pieces of work beneath the polluted waters of Benway Creek in Brooklyn:

The creek is one of the most pollutedwaterways in the country, and the sculptures are, in a certain sense, tools for healing. Made from natural materials like clay, wax, and rope, they employ humble filtration devices to purify tiny amounts of water, or crystals intended to absorb negative forces. One recent work, Witness (2008), is a seal skull with crystals embedded in the eye sockets. A rope attaches the skull to a glass buoy, so when it is lowered into the water it can float through the depths, “seeing” and collecting information or negative energy, until it is retrieved by the artist. Olsen adopts the identity of “Vulture” for these actions, wearing a handmade protective helmet and suit to mimic the bird’s heightened immune system. Of course, these activities have negligible impact on the rampant pollution of the waterway. Olsen’s deliberate mixing of pragmatic and mystical solutions to the problem further obfuscate their effectiveness, while retaining the urgent desire for change.

Its an interesting idea, and I like the idea of art-as-warning, but I confess the Mad Max apocalypticism of this work puts me off. That it revels  in the aesthetic of decay seems to dent the point it may be trying to make about the awfulness of pollution.

Read art:21 blog’s How does art respond to the natural world series of Flash Point essays.

Pictured: Above, David Olsen as “Vulture”; below, Witness (2008) by David Olsen.

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Roni Horn on water

Art:21 blog have been doing one of their flashpoints on art and the natural world. It includes this miniature gem of the artist Roni Horn, talking about the elusive but fundamental qualities of water, the element that much of her work revolves around. Horn, whose exhibitionRoni Horn aka Roni Horn was on at the Tate earlier this year created Vatnasafn/Library of Water in Iceland.

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Art, religion and shock

Paul Fryer’s Peita, installed in a cathedral in the French town of Gap has been raising a few eyebrows among church goers. It  shows Christ Electocuted, arms semaphored, looking much like a victim of Abu Ghraib. Parishoners have protested, say repoorts. The statue has been robustly defended by the Cathedral’s Bishop Jean-Michel di Falco;

“The scandal is not where one believes it to be. I wanted the provoked shock to make us once again conscious of the scandal of someone being nailed to a cross. “Usually, one does not feel any real emotions in front of something really scandalous: the Crucifixion. If Jesus had been sentenced today, he would have to reckon with the electric chair or other barbaric methods of execution. Scandalous is therefore not Jesus in the electric chair, but the indifference to his crucifixion.”

Enterprisingly, Paul Fryer’s local paper the Waltham Forest Guardian jumped at the chance of a local angle: “LEYTON: Christ Sculpture Provokes Fury”. But to be fair, it also snagged an interview with the artist in which he expresses gratitude for di Falco’s defense.

Mr Fryer said he was pleased to have the support of the bishop, because his intention behind the piece, which is no larger than a small child and is made of waxwork and human hair, was to evoke pity for someone being persecuted by another.

Mr Fryer said: “The meaning is open to interpretation. But the original meaning of the Latin word Pieta is pity. To take pity is a crucial part of living, human beings taken pity others.

“Today people might be electrocuted or given the lethal injection, but it is all the same thing, someone ending another person’s life.

Art 21 | Blog ran a thread recently called What’s So Shocking About Contemporary Art which wondered if art could shock any more. Clearly it can, but I doubt if it did in this case, whatever the papers say. This isn’t exactly Piss Christ; it’s a work that blurs the line between the historically sacred and the contemporaneously secular, and doesn’t contain much that could possibly shock the modern European’s sense of religion, however devout. The shocking part, as the Bishop points out, is that the electric chair is still at use in the modern world. I wonder if any of the good citzens of Gap were actually shocked by Paul Fryer’s work. I somehow doubt it. This looks much like a French slow news day story.

Photo by Sjoren ten Kate

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What is the value of art?

Sometimes it’s worth asking the questions that are so big people people only raise them shortly before last orders. Kudos to Art 21 | blog who have been running a series of what they call “Flash Points” over the last few months. Their topics have included What’s So Shocking About Contemporary Art? and How Can Art Affect Political Change?

They’ve just started a new strand with What Is The Value of Art, introduced by Beth Allen:

The questions of how art is valued and how it is monetized inevitably overlap: artworks perceived as “important” yield high prices at auction; economic development funding goes to out-of-the-way cultural institutions that bring high quality programming and consequently, tourists, to their neighborhoods; exhibitions that push boundaries attract grants from foundations dedicated to promoting free speech; arts education is consistently underfunded… Buried within questions about the economics of art, are assumptions and often, judgments, about its value that beg to be examined: How is the value of an artist’s intellectual versus physical labor calculated? Are collectible works valued differently than ephemeral projects? How does individual “taste” and critical reception affect the value of an artwork, exhibition, or institution? What factors influence the way we value an artistic experience, as individuals and as a society? How do we quantify the intangible benefits that art education provides? How do we talk about the subtle and personal value that art has in our lives?

And, of course, they’re looking for contributors to stir the pot.

Image:  Photo of Fear Eats The Soul [date unknown] by Rirkrit Tiravanija taken at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, November 22 2008 by j-No

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