When art is temporary, does it last? (by Margaret Cooter)

Would you like this to happen to your art?


It was done by permission of the artist, Motoi Yamamoto. Yamamoto’s  salt sculptures, which take weeks to install, include Floating Garden (below). It represents the eye of a storm, so perhaps what happened at the end of the show – the perfect storm of preschoolers – was entirely appropriate. Generally, on the last day of his exhibitions, the salt is returned to the sea.


Seeing the photo of the “destruction” of the work led to thoughts about the permanence, or ephemerality, of art works. Why do some artists deliberately make work that isn’t meant to last “forever”?

Linda Florence uses sugar to much the same effect as Yamamoto, sifting it through stencils onto a dance floor – the destruction by dancers is part of the work’s life –


Richard Wright won the Turner Prize in 2009 with his site-specific painting, which used traditional fresco techniques and gold leaf, and took three weeks to make – and probably about 20 minutes to paint over at the end of the exhibition.


The next year the Turner Prize winner was Susan Phillipsz, a sound artist. “Lowlands”  was first shown – or rather, heard – under old bridges along an industrial river in Glasgow. Transferred to a white room in the gallery , it was played on speakers in three corners, requiring the audience to move about to experience the work fully (as with the original installation). It was also caught in a video – hear it, and see the setting, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWeKzTDi-OA, a different experience … but also an ephemeral one.


Some art is ephemeral because of the materials used, or its situation; consider the land art of Andy Goldsworthy, selected leaves on a rock in a river that will get swept away, or an Ice Arch that will melt once the sun rises.



Is ephemeral work all that these artists do? Yamamoto (who is Japanese) calls himself a salt installation artist, and yes, that’s all he does. Florence (who is British) is a designer; her wallpaper, for instance, be seen on the walls of Ted Baker’s New York flagship store and the changing rooms in Selfridges, London. Phillipsz was originally a sculptor and started making sound works in 1998.

Goldsworthy and Wright are artists who deliberately choose to make ephemeral work. Goldsworthy’s practice includes photographic documentation, and arguably the many books of his work belie any ephemerality, not to mention that a digital catalogue has been compiled. Wright (who is currently making a stained glass window for the Tate) is on record as saying, after his Turner Prize win, that he wants to leave nothing behind. Worthy as this sounds, I contend that leaving nothing behind is impossible, in an age of data trails and photos posted on the internet – if indeed it is these traces that are the record of an experience of art, of an individual seeing (or hearing) something that changes their subsequent perceptions.

Anyway, why should we worry if, at the end of the day, children roll about and mess up the art, or it becomes a backdrop for dancers? Is that worse somehow than a tidy sweeping up and disposal when the exhibition period is finished? Is the mere fact of there being an exhibition, with its limited duration, part of the fact of a work being art, and deserving reverence? When the show has closed, the art goes on record and/or disappears from view. Is that very different from it disappearing through an act of destruction?


7 Responses to “When art is temporary, does it last? (by Margaret Cooter)”

  1. 1 olganorris December 18, 2013 at 5:07 am

    My answer to your question ‘When art is temporary, does it last?’ I think is probably – or it has a chance, yes, if it is good. The means of capturing and reproducing events are so sophisticated now that just as postcards and illustrated books allow us to see and to a certain extent appreciate paintings, sculptures, etc. by acknowledged masters of the past, in the same way through photographs and moving images we will be able to understand at least a flavour of art events. I believe that if the event is meaningful and captures something important about our lives, then it will last. Others will fall by the wayside, just as so many paintings over the centuries.
    Important historic events are remembered in paintings, song, and writing, and so in their own way art events can similarly be recorded. Of course seeing a reproduction, or a re-production of an event is not the same as experiencing the original – just as seeing a postcard of a painting is not the same as seeing the original. But it contributes to our education about art, what it can be and what it can do. And I suspect, as with all things, only the good product will last as art, and sometimes not always that.

  2. 2 Cynthia McNair December 15, 2013 at 6:01 am

    I also have a hard time with “temporary “art. Sometimes I think it’s just a con by the art world and the artist is laughing their head off somewhere at the stupidity of the general public. I find it a little pretentious.

    But, isn’t most art, to an extent, temporary? Did Michaelangelo ever think that his work would survive for another five hundred years or so? I would like to think that what I create will last, but don’t think it will.

    Maybe it’s the answer for the instant world we live in today, it’s constantly changing so people don’t have to live with a painting forever. I do feel that children may not know the joy of going to a gallery in the future because they will be bored with the fact that the art hasn’t changed, it was hanging on the gallery wall the last time they were there.

    • 3 margaret December 15, 2013 at 7:19 am

      Artists laughing at the stupidity of the general public? let’s hope not… Locations that commission “temporary” contemporary art and installation art, such as some historic houses in my neck of the woods (England), do so to attract visitors, to draw a different audience (eg, younger or cooler than the usual crowd), to change their image as staid places. From the submitted proposals, those most relevant to the setting are chosen.
      One of the criteria for selection is usually that the art should be attractive to or understandable by the general public – the funders don’t want to alienate the visitors!
      As for children going to “the same old” gallery – many galleries are making big educational efforts, such as a changing selection of art trails to get kids to see the art in different ways. And many kids will go to the gallery only once … It’ll be a world that’s not instant or interesting enough for them.
      Since writing this post I’ve learned a new term that is used by exhibition organisers, the category of “high point events” – exhibitions (such as Linda Florence’s dancers on the icing-sugar floor) so unusual that visitors will remember them long afterwards. So in a sense these transitory works of art can last longer, or have a greater effect, than the Old Master paintings kept unseen in a museum store room.

      • 4 Cynthia McNair December 15, 2013 at 9:47 am

        I agree that more is being done in the UK and Europe for attracting the general public and children, and I’m all for that, it’s a lovely way to interact.

        Here in Ontario, unless you live in one of the big cities, the big galleries and Museums tend not to advertise outside the city, which I think leaves the rest of us unencouraged- especially children, I’ve not been to a gallery here that is very welcoming, even Museum London isn’t particularly friendly regardless of what age, and unless I look at their website or check any listings in Thursday’s paper, have absolutely no clue what is going on.

        BUT, I think that it will change. I stand by the comment that I think some artists are laughing at us, or maybe I just don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand it!!

        Great conversation and post though Margaret.

  3. 5 Dena Dale Crain October 23, 2013 at 5:42 am

    What you show, Margaret, and beautifully, are works of installation art. Contrary to much popular opinion, installation art is not a generic term describing work that must be installed with special fittings or superstructures to support its weight. Installation art is, by definition, art that is context specific, transforming the space within which it exists in such a way that should the connection between artwork and space be broken, the artwork fails completely.

    Many such works must of necessity be translated as temporally limited as well. The spaces in which they are displayed often must be used for other purposes, so the work either decays there, is removed or otherwise destroyed. Placement into a new space never works in quite the same way, as for example when one shifts a painting or sculpture to a new location which does either a better or worse job of displaying the piece. Because of mental associations with the space in which it fits, installation art visually, creatively and expressively falls apart when moved to a new location–it fails!

    Last year, I wrote a paper on this very topic in relation to art quilts. The paper was published by Studio Art Quilt Associates’ Journal, but the article is available to members only as it was included in the online publication, not in the hard copy of the time. If anyone is really interested in reading what I had to say, you can contact me through my blog at http://www.denacrain.com (use the contact form bottom right sidebar) or find me on any of various social networks. I will happily supply you with a copy of the paper for personal use only.

    The most significant fact I discovered at that time was that until then NO quilt artist had produced installation art, although many claim the title. I found Janet Morton’s Femmebomb (http://www.arts.wisc.edu/artsinstitute/IAR/morton/femmebomb.html‎), but that was patchwork only, not quilted. There were numerous and amazing examples of textiles used as installation art, but none of them would have qualified, I think, as art quilting.

    The gauntlet has been thrown, my colleagues. There is a void in art quilting that calls for filling: patchwork quilts as installation art!

  4. 6 juneu October 20, 2013 at 11:28 am

    I just finished reading a transcript of a radio lecture by Grayson Perry, a ceramicist, called “Democracy has bad taste.” It’s not only very funny if you are or strive to be part of the art world, but it strikes me as descriptively valid without being sarcastic. And his final words feel poignant to me, as striking at the heart of my own experience, with opera as with “fine” art:

    “For somebody just to walk into an
    art gallery and expect to
    understand it straightaway, it would be like me walking into, I don’t know, a classical music concert you know, knowing nothing about classical music and saying oh it’s all just noise. It is quite tricky sometimes to get into the position where you can start to
    understand because you can intellectually engage with something quite quickly but to emotionally and sort of spiritually engage with
    something takes quite a long time. You have to live with it.”

    He says he’s a “middle-brow” artist with middle-brow taste. I love it!

    This is a bit of a tangent, but with strong connections to Margaret’s commentary on this post: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03969vt

    Thanks to Olga for the URL: http://threadingthoughts.blogspot.com/

  5. 7 june October 20, 2013 at 9:41 am

    My mind instantly thinks of historical trends, of course. In the western Christian art tradition, art was either meant to remind people of eternity and their place in it (or not, as the case may be); hence churches used gilding and put a lot of the art out of reach of the hoi-polloi. I think some of that feeling was transferred when artists began doing work on canvas for rich merchants and aristocrats (and then some not-so-rich) to display in their homes, although many must have known that the pictures of grandpa and grandma, if family fortunes declined, wouldn’t last. But a whole basic set of precepts rose about the “eternal” relevance and lastingness of art had already been implanted, willy-nilly, one which we’ve been living with ever since — until, perhaps the 1960’s.

    The breakdown of that notion probably came when artists stopped caring about the materials they used and whether the light bulbs in light installations would burn out and whether the janitor would sweep up the pile of sand in the corner that signified “the end.” And so on and on.

    But of course, at the same time as ephemerality appeared, so did replication, increasing from old heavy cameras to the most marvelous digital possibilities. Now we can see close-ups of the Sistine ceiling by zooming in and out, having the best of all possible worlds. Or have we?

    Children rolling around in art works brings them back to the material world, out of the digital and eternal context that underlies something like the Chapel. We can literally immerse our physical selves into the materials, like yarn bombing, sometimes making, sometimes destroying. It’s almost as if those exquisite images of Michelangelo’s work has reached some kind of end-point.

    However, like you, Margaret, I am made uneasy by this latest iteration. I guess I’m still attached to the notion that art is precious, that we need to be taught that there are things besides ourselves that are far longer lasting than any of us, that we need to value and preserve such things and find ways to revere them. I wonder if children are being taught about these.

    Oh dear, such conundrums.

    I do believe there’s no getting around what has happened to the art world, and I also believe there’s an enormous irony (if not simple materialism) in the fact that a lot of the ephemeral art is really just a gimmick, carefully documents in slick paper. I also know that always it was thus.

    But what the children will carry in their hearts is a different matter.

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