Nothing There

The Globe and Mail had a story last summer about an unusual work of “art” at a gallery in Halifax: a banana.

At first glance, it appears to be a forgotten part of someone’s lunch. Perhaps set aside because it’s still a bit green and not really ready to eat. But on closer look the passerby will notice a tag alongside the piece of fruit. The artist is identified as Michael Fernandes. The work is called Banana. The price is $2,500.

And there’s a blue sticker, indicating that a buyer has put a hold on this work.

Actually, the exhibit consisted of 21 bananas. But only one banana was shown at a time: Fernandes changed bananas on an almost daily basis, going with gradually greener, less ripe bananas.

“I’m taking it back to green, before green it doesn’t exist,” said the 64-year-old native of Trinidad, who lived near banana trees before immigrating to Canada in his teens. “The banana is temporal. We are also temporal, but we live as if we are not.”

That sounds deep, doesn’t it? But what does the buyer get for their $2,500? It won’t be the bananas, as Fernandes generally eats the banana he’s replacing each day.

Instead, the buyer will be paying for the concept and will receive photos documenting the project. The buyer may also get press clippings or credit as patron if the project is staged again.

Great – documentation that you were dumb enough to spend $2,500 on a piece of fruit.

You might have the idea that this is something novel, that Mr. Fernandes is quite a sharp cookie for getting someone to plunk down $2,500 for the concept of a banana. A temporal banana, at that. This is pretty cutting edge, isn’t it?

Well, maybe not. Check out what Time Magazine had to say at the time about Yoko Ono’s 1971 exhibit – titled This Is Not Here – at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY:

Apple was an apple on a pedestal, two rows of flowerless flowerpots were titled Imagine the Flowers, and Iced Tea was a sizable T made of ice and melting fast. These and about 80 other treasures, executed or inspired by Yoko Ono, made up the show that opened at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y.

Ah yes, conceptual art. Oops! I mean Conceptual Art – when you’re dealing with a Very Important School of Art, capitalization is important. Then again, Time noted “…proud Husband John Lennon, who celebrated his 31st birthday with the show’s opening, noted—perhaps revealingly—that ‘Yoko likes to call her work con art.'”


THIS is not THAT banana

I was involved in the local art scene in Syracuse back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and had even had a photograph or two exhibited in group shows at the Everson. But I’d pretty much forgotten about “con art” until the recent holidays when I took my sister, visiting from Texas, over to Mass MOCA in North Adams, MA.

For those not with it, a MOCA is a Museum Of Contemporary Art. While I had heard of the one in Massachusetts (that’s what the “Mass” stands for), they are all over the place – in LA, DC, Tuscon, Jacksonville…even Cleveland. As far as I know, none of them are part of a chain, like Home Depot or IHOP. I’m guessing somebody at some point just came up with a catchy and cryptic name for an art museum – something new! fun! with CAPS! – and everyone else just copied it.

The facilities for Mass MOCA are great: a complex of 19th century factory buildings that have been nicely renovated. Living in the northeast, you see such building complexes in any city of at least moderate size. The spaces inside, designed to be large enough to hold large machinery and many workers, are impressive. They are perfect for the monumental size of some of the, um, pieces on display.

I found some of the exhibits at Mass MOCA intriguing. Parts of Badlands were interesting and thought-provoking, dealing as they did with landscapes within the context of our world today. (Even aerial photos of toxic waste sites had an odd beauty to them.) Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China was also fascinating. Even after the recent extravaganza of the Beijing Olympics, much of China remains an enigma to us.

Then my sister and I walked into the big Sol LeWitt exhibit, and I felt like I’d stepped into Con Art Central. It was just wall after wall of geometric designs in different colors – all painted by someone other than LeWitt. For him, apparently, the idea was key. Everything else was secondary, to be handled by assistants. After a fairly quick stroll, I walked right back out again.

It’s not that I don’t get conceptual art. At least some of it has a whimsical, free-spirited inquisitiveness about it that can be refreshing. Sometimes it can be like rearranging the furniture in your mental living room: “Hmmm, I wonder how that would look from this perspective.” As a pun-loving former English major, I also can find amusement in the wordplays present in some conceptual art. Yoko Ono’s Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through (a sheet of Plexiglas) may not be a gut-buster, but it’s mildly amusing.

What I object to about conceptual art is the pompous spin that often accompanies it. Take MASS MoCA Director Joseph C. Thompson’s comments on the Lewitt show:

With this exhibition, Sol LeWitt has left an amazing gift for us all. Great art draws upon previous artists, but also contradicts and contravenes. And the most essential art argues for new ways of seeing, even as it is almost immediately absorbed into the work that surrounds and supersedes it. As I believe will be evident in this landmark exhibition, LeWitt’s wall drawings rise to those highest of standards. We look forward to having this amazing collection of works on long-term view as a sort of proton at the center of our museum around which our program of changing exhibitions and performances will orbit with even more energy.

Wow! A description like that just assures you the exhibit will be a hit in academic art departments everywhere! With words like “great,” “essential” and “landmark,” you might get the idea that Lewitt’s work was right up there in Art Land with someone like Vincent Van Gogh. If it is, that doesn’t say much for Art Land.

The most amazing exhibit of art I’ve ever seen was the Metropolitan Museum’s Van Gogh at Arles. Seeing in person his work from that period left me in awe. Most people tend to hold something of themselves back in their art. There’s a fine line between whole-heartedly following your creative muse and falling into insanity; most people play it safe. But in his paintings it was clear to me that Van Gogh held nothing back. I felt like I was seeing a man’s soul itself brushed onto the canvas.

There are undoubtedly many in the art community, especially in academia, who have issues with Van Gogh’s popularity among the masses – as well as that of others, like Monet or Picasso. They might accuse us of being “slaves to traditional representationism.” (I have no idea what that means – I just made it up.) Or they might argue that our knowledge of the life of someone like Van Gogh colors our appreciation of his work; prejudiced by this knowledge, we can’t view his work objectively.

Perhaps there is an element of truth to that. But what is also true is that, whether you know something about Van Gogh’s life or not, there is a human quality to his work that is missing from most conceptual art. Whether it’s the clever mind games or word plays, or whether it’s the cerebral discourse on “contradicting and contravening” and such, conceptual art is basically a mental exercise. Rooted in academia, it is all head and no heart. Descartes once said “I think, therefore I am.” For con art, the equivalent would be “I think, therefore I paint.” (Or exhibit bananas…or Nothing Boxes.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with conceptual art, as long as you don’t take it seriously. If you recognize that it is basically an intellectual visual exercise, it can be entertaining and informative.

But in its emotional detachment, such art has limited relevance to life in our interrelated Quantum world. Any alienation it may portray is merely a reflection of the alienation that comes from living exclusively in your head.

Anyone searching for meaning in conceptual art might just as well hang on to their checkbook and buy their bananas at a grocery store. Con art is purely mental cotton candy; there’s no nourishment for the soul there.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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