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?