There is an exhibition on at the Hayward Gallery now, called (appropriately), “Invisible. Art about the Unseen. 1957-2012”
Well, what will they think of next!
The initial response to going to an exhibition of invisible art – featuring lots of blank canvases, an empty room, a plinth cursed by a witch and a fascinating maze of unseen walls, perceptible only by wearing a device that buzzes when you walk into one of them – is that it must be a big con.
It is an impeccably curated show with intelligent notes and an obvious awareness of its need to deal with perplexity and cynicism. But are they really serious? Ain’t it all a big joke. There’s certainly a lot of humor around: Maurizio Cattelan – one of the more interesting and engaging conceptual artists around – exhibits an Italian police report of his own report of a theft of an invisible painting. It’s a wonderful documentation of bureaucratic absurdity.
But is it art?
So, here’s the deal: Arthur C. Danto – one of America’s foremost art philosophers – pointed out in his analysis of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box cubes (where you can’t tell the difference between the object and the real thing) that the philosophical resonance of what Warhol had done in his transformation of reality was the assertion – confirmation really – that you can’t tell art just by looking at it.
Marcel Duchamp was there a hundred years ago when he upset a lot of folks by exhibiting an urinal in a gallery, thereby changing forever the sanctified image of art as pretty works lovingly created. Because art really isn’t about mimesis – imitating reality – it’s about the provocation of thought. Materiality and visibility are only a means to an end. (Indeed, this show comes at an interesting moment. On the same day I saw it, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, who run the Large Hadron Collider, proclaimed that they’d confirmed the – invisible – identity of the Higgs bosun. Hey, if science can be orgasmic about the invisible quantum world, what’s the big deal with art being equally excited about stuff you can’t see?)
Even before Duchamp, Hegel had noted that art shared with philosophy and religion the purpose of focusing the mind on what he called a “comprehensive apprehension of truth.” For him, art was not an illustration of a truth but an embodiment.
And as I rushed past countless other galleries and exhibits to get to this one, in search of invisible art, I was only able to do so by rendering all the others I noticed but did not see, equally invisible. And that’s the thing isn’t it. Most of us look at art without really thinking a lot about what we’re looking at. The reaction is so often a sensuous one; a response to engaging forms and colors. Well here’s are that’s all about the thinking – it relieves you of the burden of having to look
Tom Friedman – one of the artists in the show – has a framed, empty fold-out which is actually an erased image of a Playboy centerfold.
Think about it: The Playboy centerfold is (maybe ‘was’ is a better verb) the icon of male voyeurism, sexual exploitation and economic success built on fetishizing tits and ass. Its erasure is a wonderful statement of denial and rebellion against a set of values – from the West’s body fixation to issues about how wealth is made. It is also in a sense an erasure of history.
Indeed, much of the exhibition is a delightfully cheeky slap at the investment mentality that defines the art world of today. How do you sell a work of art that’s just an empty room, laden though it may be with philosophical signification? (Of course that’s the focus of Yazmina Reza’s wonderful play, “Art”, which centers around the purchase of an all white painting, for $40,000 by Serge, one of the three characters.)
To get back to Warhol: his works nowadays fetch for, God knows how much – $1M? $2M? maybe $10M or more? But were I to create a painting in every way identical to that of a Warhol, or even to what Warhol might have painted, designed to replicate exactly the same emotional aesthetic response I’d hazard that it’d be worthless.
For the aesthetic experience of art isn’t just about our response to what we see – to visual stimuli – but to our appreciation and understanding of a world of cultural and historical phenomena that surround the painting like an invisible nimbus.
In the exhibition, there’s a plinth by Warhol. It’s a blank cube next to which he stood – to infuse it with his aura of celebrity. My worthless imitation of Warhol would lack precisely this: his aura of celebrity; the fact that it was touched by his hands.
It’s a fundamental side of art we respond to, but don’t see.
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Gianni Motti has a series of works done in invisible ink. So it’s not as though the work doesn’t exist – it simply doesn’t exist to the naked eye. Mere invisibility is not an ontological negation of existence. For existence doesn’t need the “ocular proof”, like the tree’s sound in the forest. Motti’s invisible paintings challenge you to respond to the idea of the art, it’s philosophical point of view, not its sensuous execution.
All in all, a fascinating exhibition.
But that’s just what I think