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A sambista from the Samba School Vai Vai using Hélio Oiticica's Parangolés.

by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

I am particularly interested in The Art Section as a vehicle for personal reflection. Ten years ago, I would bring my students regularly to artists' studios and gallery shows. Since I no longer teach, it is now through my role as Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section that I can continue to share my passion for the personal in the reading of the visual world.

This month, we have three very engaged articles by three writers who are also artists. I am not going to come to any conclusion about this fact, but I think it may be something on which the reader could reflect.

Christina Roiter from Rio de Janeiro brings us significant news of the art world in Brazil. She writes about the destruction of works by the deceased Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937–80) in a recent fire, the terrible loss and the way the artist and his work are being mourned by his countrymen.

Ken Lum, an artist living in Vancouver, reveals in his essay “To Say or Not to Say” an epiphany he experienced concerning the way museums influence one's perception of art and a very personal reading of artworks and how they have been subjugated by cultural politics.

Anna Leung from London writes here about the Pop Life exhibition at the Tate Modern. Anna offers a finely chiseled reading of recent art history and the shifting of values with the coming of the 1980s.

All three essays raise questions concerning the fundamental value of art--whether that is understood as political, social, economic, or aesthetic-- and the values art can or does represent. At the end of the day, this sort of reflection on what really matters is the best kind of reflection and consideration one can undertake.

The Art Section wishes you Happy Holidays and a Joyous New Year. Our next issue will be launched on January 15, 2010.

All my best,



Hélio Oiticica, B22 Glass Bólide 10 Homage to Malevich Gemini 1, 1965.

The Death of Parangolé
Hélio Oiticica and the Problem of Preservation

by Christina Roiter

The art world is furious over the loss of the work of the great Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica.

On October 16, 2009, a fire destroyed around 2,000 works of art by this famous artist – approximately 90% of his estate (an amount whose estimated value is US $200 million) that was kept in his brother’s residence, in the neighborhood of Botanical Garden, in Rio de Janeiro. Besides paintings and the famous Parangolés, books and documentaries about the artist were also lost. When Brazilians learned from the news media that a fire had destroyed 90% of the work of one of the most famous and important conceptual artists of Brazil, a terrible sense of loss and despair was felt across the country, a sense of disrespect to Brazilian art. Some said the pain caused by the destruction of Oiticica’s art was the same as that caused by his physical death; they called it his second death.

Not even the victory of Rio over Chicago and Madrid to host the 2016 Olympic Games could console us.

Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) was a Brazilian painter, sculptor, visual and performance artist with anarchist aspirations. He was the grandson of José Oiticica, anarchist, professor and Brazilian philologist, author of the book Anarchism Made Comprehensible for All (1945).

He was considered by many to be one of the most revolutionary artists of his time, and his experimental and innovative work is internationally recognized. In 1959, he founded the Grupo Neoconcreto along with artists like Amilcar de Castro, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Franz Weissman. Neo-Concretism spoke of art as pure, non-concrete, form and space, no expression of emotions (no catharsis), non-emotional, related to Constructivism.

In the 60s, he created the Parangolé, which he called “anti-art par excellence.” It is a kind of cape (or flag, banner, tent) that only completely reveals its intricate play of colors, forms, textures, and text--and the materials with which it is executed (fabric, rubber, paint, paper, glass, glue, plastic, rope, straw)--through the movement of a person who dresses in it. For this reason, the Parangolé is considered a kind of moving sculpture. Like the more contemporary famous Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes, Oiticica was inspired by Brazilian Carnival. The Parangolés grew of out of Oiticica’s interest in the Brazilian samba dance/rhythm, which represented, in his own words ”a vital need to ‘unintellectualize,’ to be free from intellectual inhibition, the need of freedom of expression.” Samba dancers are involved in the rhythm, in a trance of complete integration, shunning the intellect and constantly improvising along with the dance. He called this experience during the dance the “expressive lucidity of immanence” and it led him to create the Parangolés.

Oiticica also created a series of works he called “penetráveis” (penetrables). Like the Parangolés, these were works designed for interaction with the viewer, though the penetrávels offered the viewer the opportunity to enter into the work rather than wear it. The 1967 installation Tropicália, a series of panels, many decorated with intense solid hues or colorful patterns, arranged to form a line of room- or shack-like spaces, inspired the name and helped to consolidate the aesthetics of Tropicalismo, the “Tropicalist” movement in Brazilian music of the 60s and 70s.

Following the October fire, there have been commentaries from the local and international media, protests against Oiticica’s heirs, discussions of who should keep the remainder of the collection, the State or the heirs, claims that since art belongs to humanity, it should be safeguarded in a museum, etc.

It may be that less was lost than was reported originally. Neville d’Almeida, a filmmaker who collaborated with Oiticica on some of his paramount works, including the Cosmococa series that juxtaposes pop cultural images (Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix) with rows of cocaine, stated, “I helped to take the burnt material of the house and can affirm that the great majority of the drawings and metaschemes were saved, so the information that 90% of the estate was gone isn’t accurate.”

Oiticica’s work is also preserved internationally, in museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as other American museums and institutions in England and Spain. Within Brazil, there is also the charming and widely discussed museum at Inhotim, in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, that has penetrables and one Cosmococa (the Jimi Hendrix one). Another Cosmococawill be exhibited at an American museum in San Francisco next November. And d’Almeida reminds us that Oiticica’s entire estate is digitalized and accessible in the Itaú Cultural website. [Editor’s Note: This online project is a truly remarkable and astoundingly comprehensive archive of the artist’s life and work. It is well worth a visit—click here.]

However, none of this takes into account the significance of the demise of the physical works of art of a conceptual artist whose work was not so much about particular objects as the physical deployment of objects in space through spectatorial interaction. According to Brazilian poet and writer Ferreira Gullar, “They treated Hélio as if he was a Renaissance artist, when he was actually a creator of concepts, propositions, interventions, an artist of the future, not of a neo-concrete past that stayed behind, reducing the dimension of one of the inventors of contemporary art.”

As Oiticica himself put it, “The act of the spectator carrying the work of art reveals its expressive totality in its structure: the structure reaches the maximum in its own action in the explanation of the expressive act. The action is the pure expressive manifestation of the work of art.” If, according to Oiticica, the action is the manifestation of the work of art, then are the Parangolés, penetrables, etc. actually gone? The flags, banners, and tents were not works of art per se: they needed spectators and action to achieve their aesthetic realization. Physical manifestations of Oiticica’s ideas were indeed destroyed by the fire. But they are replicable. His ideas remain intact and can serve as the basis for future actions. Oiticica’s worked has been restaged at the Hélio Oiticica Art Center in Rio, founded by the artist’s brother after his death. The São Paulo gallerist Nara Roesler, who sold an installation of Oiticica’s to the Walker Museum in Minneapolis, proved that the instructions left by Oiticica for the assembling of his projects can do more for the preservation of his work than the physical objects. In 2006, she adapted her gallery for Cosmococa CC4 Nocagions (1973), a collaboration between Oiticica and d’Almeida that incorporates projected images and a swimming pool spectators are invited to use.

Can the work of an experimental artist who made installations, performances, and videos really be said to be lost when the work was always intended to be based in action significant at the time of the event, and whose value reisides in what it represented at that moment in the 70s? The estimated value for the collection is US $200 million, but what does this mean when one is speaking of the work of one of the pioneers in performance art whose real work consisted in ephemeral moments of action rather than the objects used to create the actions?

Arguably, the value of an installation or a performance is in its presentation and exists only for its duration. Is the art of a performative, conceptual artist so concrete that it should be kept somewhere, or is it, as Oiticica wanted, an art of the immanent, “anti-art par excellence”?

Brazil is mourning the destruction of the memory of the artist….

But did that memory really die when his objects went up in flames?


Christina Roiter is an artist and writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

For more information on Hélio Oiticica and his work, please follow these links:
Hélio Oiticica at Tate Modern
Instituto Cultural Inhotim

Ken Lum, Coming Soon, 2009, at the Arrow Factory Gallery, Beijing, China. Photo: Rania Ho.

To Say or Not To Say

by Ken Lum

Twelve years ago, I visited an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris titled Face à l’Histoire [Confronting History]. The exhibition brought together art objects and archival documents that dealt with French history between the years 1933 and 1996. Themes focused on the French experience of the Second World War and the German occupation of France. Other themes included the events of the Algerian War of Independence as well as the Indochina Wars. The archival documents were displayed in long glass vitrines located along the central corridor that connected large galleries on either side where art was displayed. The vitrines formed the spine of the exhibition with photographs, street pamphlets, and posters anchoring history in an agonistic face-off against the historicity of art. The galleries contained major works by artists such as Salvador Dali and Gerhard Richter and were historiographic in nature.

I experienced an epiphany while walking through the exhibition. It was not the sort of epiphany I recall experiencing when I first encountered a Jackson Pollock painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a young artist. It was 1981 and I had just abandoned my studies in science for art because I believed that the latter had a liberating potential for me that I had not found in science. Art could allow me to say things that I could not otherwise. These things related to feelings that were and continue to be very difficult to express in terms of language. Art seemed capable of expressing the deepest wounds of a person. A famous work by Bruce Nauman asserts that The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967).

My epiphany at the Pompidou had to do with the fact that the archival component of the exhibition was utterly packed with people. The attention being paid to the materials in vitrines was unrivaled by the attention paid to the art. Many people leaned over the glass surfaces in order to more closely examine photographs or read letters. Some of the older visitors appeared to be revisiting a place of trauma. It seemed to me that the archival material had the capacity to expose an underlying anguish that had never been fully reconciled. In sharp contrast the galleries seemed staid and were relatively empty of people.

This experience at the Pompidou has stayed with me. It offered me a lesson in terms of the effectiveness of art in the face of the Real. It should be said that my reading of the exhibition was inflected to a large degree by a deep dissatisfaction that I felt towards art at that time. I was finding it increasingly difficult to believe in the endeavor of art. I had started to look to places largely ignored by the art world that I knew. More and more of my time would soon be spent working on projects in such places as Senegal and China in order to learn to see art differently. As a result of these projects the borders of art began to widen again

When I started out as an artist the category of art seemed borderless to me. Anything seemed possible as potential subject matter for art. But as I established a position in the art world I began to see that there were many limits in terms of what defined art. These limits I have found are often socially and economically determined. They are fueled by the myth that entry into the art world is somehow unencumbered by categories of race, gender, and class. These limits are not necessarily made explicit but they are there. At some point I found such limits intolerable because it was as if the art world had become a plenum, described by Gaston Bachelard as a space utterly contained.

I had been feeling for some time that much of art, and my life within it, had become cliché. Perhaps not so much because of art itself but because of the ways in which art has become culturally dominated by the social structure in which it is incorporated, the habitus of the art system. Part of what the art system often does is to commodify categories of the intolerable behind the curtain of universality, thus expunging such categories of their discontinuity. Increasingly, I was seeing a chasm between that which could be spoken about in art and that which can be actually spoken as art. According to Pierre Bourdieu, “the invisibility of domination is founded on the concordance of a social structure with a habitus inculcated by the same social structure.”

But a paradox is that as art increasingly follows the logic of capital it becomes deterritorialized to itself. As Sylvere Lotringer stated in a recent interview:

The art market has expanded exponentially and has been losing its shape to achieve monstrous proportions. It is occupying all the space, wildly metastasizing in every possible direction. It is so bloated at the core that it does not seem able anymore to digest all the data. It is on its way to surpass its function.

So perhaps the purpose of art is to concentrate on discontinuities in order to flag those lackeys of capitalism: clichés. Gilles Deleuze defined clichés as “floating images which circulate in the external world, but which also penetrate each one of us and constitute our internal world so that everyone possesses only psychic clichés of what he thinks and feels, is thought and is felt, being himself a cliché among others in a world which surrounds him.” Deleuze claimed that “physical, optical, and auditory clichés and psychic clichés mutually feed on each other. In order for people to be able to bear themselves and the world, misery has to reach the inside of consciousness and the inside has to be like an outside.”

“How,” Deleuze asked, “can one not believe in a powerful concerted organization, which has found a way to make clichés circulate, from outside to inside, from inside to outside?” My own interest in the cliché has to do with how clichés mitigate reality by denying us the ability to examine life more deeply, particularly in terms of the category of the intolerable. There is no way for habituated perceptions to reach the intolerable through language given the compromising force of the cliché. What art must do is open itself up to the intolerable so as to render the cliché strange. To render strange is to overturn the habitual. Here I would like to consider the term catastrophe for a moment. The etymology of this term is from the Greek for katastrephein meaning “to overturn.” It was only later that “catastrophe” came to be associated with “sudden disaster.” This later association of catastrophe with “sudden disaster” took this term in a slightly different direction: from the concerted act of a body to an unexpected accident. So this later association shifts the meaning of this term from a political act to an act of nature, much as Barthes saw myth as that which turns history into nature.

“To overturn,” suggests a desire to see that which was previously concealed. So in this way the catastrophic implies a desire to experience otherwise. At the Pompidou the central corridor functioned like an open wound of the Real in all of its gore. How does one reconcile a past that includes Nazi collaboration and unspeakable colonial acts? Perhaps it is not a matter of reconciliation. Perhaps it is more a matter of realization. So the question would then be: How does one realize a past that includes Nazi collaboration and unspeakable colonial acts? To realize is to understand clearly, to bring into existence, and to make real the crimes that have been committed to those who have been so gravely Othered. To reconcile is to come to terms with, to agree that this is necessary, and to “sew up” the wound so to speak.

One of greatest atrocities in modern times took place in the Belgian Congo—now the Democratic Republic of Congo--during the late 19th century through to the early 20th century. Up to an estimated 15 million Congolese were killed working as forced laborers in the colony’s many mineral mines and rubber plantations. The working conditions were especially gruesome on the rubber plantations as King Leopold II of Belgium decreed the accelerated harvesting of rubber following the invention of the inflatable rubber tire. The bloodshed eventually incited protests around the world by those who wished to “speak out” against the atrocities.

These protesters wanted the world to know the “truth” of what was going on in the Belgian Congo. In response to widening accusations of crimes against humanity, including from cultural figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington, Leopold engineered the creation of numerous “philanthropic” public relations agencies. Money was spent building hospitals and schools in the Congo with the aim of reconciliation, of “showing” and “telling” the world that all was well in this part of Africa. Meanwhile blood continues to be shed in the names of “progress” and “profit.”

In recent years following the example of post-apartheid South Africa there have been numerous states that have instituted their own “truth and reconciliation” commissions to address past atrocities committed by the state on those deemed Other in that state. An example of this the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formally established here in Canada by the Stephen Harper government two years ago. The aim of this commission was to discursively redress the deep wound inflicted by the residential school system on First Nations children and their families.

In 1894 the Department of Indian Affairs began to remove First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children from their homes and take them to residential schools. These schools were operated by churches of various denominations and funded by the federal government under the Indian Act. In 1920 it was mandatory for all First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children between the ages of seven and fifteen to attend residential school. Priests, Indian agents, and police officers confiscated children away from their families so as to “kill the Indian in the child.”

In 1931 there were eighty residential schools operating in Canada. During the 1980s residential school students began disclosing forms of abuse at residential schools. In 1996 the last federally run residential school closed in Saskatchewan.

Harper had a public relations coup with the public apology that he delivered in parliament ten days after the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was introduced. Like King Leopold of the Belgian Congo Harper understood the power that could be gained by “reconciling” wrongs through cliché. The question that I have is: What has this apology actually wrought for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis survivors of the residential school system and their relationship to Canada?

The French artist Bracha Ettinger has stated that the place of art is for her the transport-station of trauma. If we consider that the term “trauma” originally signified a “physical wound” then the relationship between the injured body and the memory that it carries is of the utmost importance to attend to in art.

Walking past one of the vitrines at the Pompidou, I noticed an opening in the crowd, which I immediately filled. I found myself looking at a photograph of a young French Resistance fighter running across a street with a rifle in his hands. The accompanying label indicated that this photograph was taken in the Marais: the same quartier as where I stood in the Centre Pompidou. At that moment I was made acutely aware of my own existence in relation to the material laid out in front of my eyes.

The gap between the spectrum of human experience and all the possible subject matter contained within this spectrum and the general constitution of art is startling. Art has become less and less important as it transforms into an industry. New information technologies have opened up spaces for creative and critical expression not reliant upon on the art system. An example of this is YouTube, which functions as a site where people can be creative without having to vet themselves as artists through the art system. Despite YouTube’s corporate ownership by Google and increasing problems with copyright infringement issues, it can function as a direct repository for all kinds of spontaneous creative works that can be posted and accessed by just about anyone. An example of this is the outpouring of videos produced and posted on YouTube in homage to the actor Heath Ledger after his death. These came overwhelmingly not from artists, but from Ledger fans from all over the world. Many of the contributions were deeply affecting precisely because they connected directly to the feelings of a community of mourners. They were also affecting in their disregard for any rules that all too often precede artistic thinking and production.

But sites such as YouTube are not immune to the politics of the art world. I attended a symposium in Chicago two years ago that dealt with the relationship between globalization and the emergence of new aesthetic forms. One of the presentations under the panel discussion “Challenging Cultural, Political, and Formal Boundaries” included a YouTube clip featuring the Back Dorm Boys lip-synching the Backstreet Boys song I Want It That Way. The two performers are wearing Houston Rockets jerseys, the team of Chinese basketball star, Yao Ming.

Significantly, no mention was made of the fact that the Back Dorm Boys were art school students from the Guangzhou Arts Institute in China. Huang Yixin and Wei Wei have spoken about how their art school education played an important role in determining the composition, visual effects, and lighting in their videos. Their YouTube posts garnered them international success and they were signed as spokespersons for Motorola mobile phones while still in school. A few months before they graduated, the Back Dorm Boys signed a five-year contract with the Beijing media company Taihe Rye to continue making lip sync videos. In Chicago, the audience was completely enthralled by the video. They assumed that it was a non-art expression of creativity. But when I pointed out that Huang and Wei were art school students making a work of art, the initial excitement in the room dissipated. We live in a time when knowing something is art may actually detract from an appreciation of the affect of a work.

Deleuze said, “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us.”

I have just returned from the West Bank of Israel/Palestine to see the Riwaq Biennale. During the conference that was organized in conjunction with the exhibition the following questions was posed: How does one make art in an agonistic context where artists are caught between the oppression of occupation and the acculturating process of the normalization of occupation? This question is a difficult one to answer. But it can be extended to other contexts besides that of Palestine. So perhaps the question can be slightly reworded: How does one make art recognizing—not reconciling—the agonistic contexts that many live in at this very moment in time?

In 1986 I returned to New York for a solo exhibition. My grandmother was living in Brooklyn and so I visited her and told her about the show. Like my other relatives in New York she worked in a sweatshop sewing garments together. Her experience of the city was almost exclusively restricted to her place of home and her place of work near Chinatown. She knew not a word of English.

Halfway through the gallery opening I suddenly heard my grandmother’s voice over the din of chatter. She was loudly calling out my Cantonese name. I remember thinking: Is that my grandmother’s voice? Is she here? Moments later I saw her emerge from the crowd dressed in poor Cantonese attire. She was holding a gallery invitation card in her hand. It was this card that she had shown to strangers in order to find her way to the gallery. At first I was completely stunned, even mortified for I felt completely exposed. My family. My class. My race. My private self as opposed to my public self. My non-artist self as opposed to my artist self. They had been made painfully visible to me and for all to see.

My grandmother had lived through so many difficulties. She had witnessed the murder of her younger sister at the hands of Japanese soldiers. She had left her homeland and lived in a tiny, cockroach infested, one-bedroom apartment with several family members in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan before moving to better premises in Brooklyn Borough many years later. I could go on but I will not. I think that I have said enough. What I will say is that the presence of my grandmother at that gallery opening revealed to me a deep disjuncture between art and the Real. My grandmother did not know anything about the art world nor even know what contemporary art could even be. And yet there she was. As we stood next to one another in that space she asked repeatedly: Who are all these people? She wanted to know.

Foucault wrote that “One cannot speak of anything at any time; it is not easy to say something new; it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay attention, to be aware, for new objects suddenly to light up and emerge out of the ground.” This should be the challenge put to art today.


Ken Lum is an artist based in Vancouver, Canada.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986. © The Artist. Courtesy of Tate Modern.

Pop Life: Art in a Material World
At Tate Modern

by Anna Leung

In 2004 Maurizio Catellan’s Ballad of Trotsky (1996), was auctioned in New York for $2,080,000. A taxidermied horse suspended high above the public, it appeared not so much dead as powerless and vulnerable, spelling out the end of ideologies. Catellan’s contribution to Pop Life is bleakly entitled Untitled (2009) as if there were no more to say, the connotation being that of flogging a dead horse. It is one in a series of Catellan’s taxidermied horses but in this case it is definitely no longer alive and lies stretched out on the floor impaled through its flank with a stake on which is written “INRI,” the inscription affixed to Christ on the crucifix tauntingly proclaiming him the King of the Jews. What has this got to do with Pop Life? What does this tell us about our age and about art’s value in our society? These are some of the questions this exhibition gives rise to, and Andy Warhol, who declared “Good business is the best art,” is the artist in the dock. The exhibition examines his legacy from the 1980s on and opens with three rooms devoted to late Warhol productions, including a room of silkscreened gemstones that ominously glow under the fluorescent lighting.

From the Romantics the avant-garde inherited the need to reveal a core of truth that was normally concealed behind the political and cultural accretions of the status quo. For this reason, notions of authenticity and sincerity ranked high as means to counter the inauthenticity of society. A good century after the Romantics, the Abstract Expressionists still recognised this transcendental aim as their ultimate aesthetic and ethical drive. Truth and Beauty were not yet riven apart but sustained each other in a state of high tension. This exhibition, on the other hand, shows to what degree, since the 80s, avant-gardism, or rather the avant-gardist artist, has become part of the social spectacle with creativity designed not to plumb emotional or psychological depths but to function commercially by creating a façade which often cynically appropriates the authenticity valued by the modernist avant-garde. Philosophically, Foucault was in the ascendant in the 80s, arguing that sincerity itself was never more than a social construct, and therefore highly suspect, while at the same time touting the theory of the death of the author/artist. Consequently, with concepts of originality and authenticity equally subject to deep scepticism, post modernist artists felt free to avail themselves of and manipulate styles and subjects from both commercial mass media and high modernist discourse. Warhol, and Damien Hirst a decade later, went so far as to quote themselves in a seemingly endless recycling of previous work. Jeff Koons moved from Wall Street commodities to high art PR campaigns which, using the female body as the perfect commodity object, annexed pornography as art. This art remains unabashedly macho in its sexual politics even as female artists elected to adopt the life style of prostitutes (Cosey Fanni Tutti) as art or make ersatz art porn videos. The distinction between art and life had become dangerously tenuous.

By the 80’s, then, the modernist divide between art and life was no longer operative. Avant-garde art and society had achieved a sort of belated reconciliation. However, whereas the progressive modernists' (the Russian Constructivists, Malevich, and Mondrian) envisaged reconciliation of art and life was sustained by a utopian faith in the eventual transformation of society by aesthetics and by design, in the 80’s this reconciliation took another direction with art increasingly appropriated by society. Art lost its anchorage in the utopian modernist trope of secular salvation. No longer safeguarded by its vaunted aesthetic autonomy art was co-opted as part of the culture industry. The traditionally oppositional, non-conformist avant-garde artist remained revolutionary, though unable and even unwilling to effect real social change. His or her revolutionary energy was reinterpreted as a display of creativity that proved society’s open mindedness. Avant gardism became a means for society to justify itself, a demonstration of the superiority of Western values, their health and continuing viability. Whereas originally the avant garde had as its aim to disclose the truth that was hidden by society’s façade, by the 80’s art had become part of the façade and, as Warhol, Koons and Murakami demonstrate in an exemplary manner, the artist had become part of the entertainment industry, adopting a gamut of complementary roles such as collector, publicist, curator, and retailer of merchandise. There is no artistic truth awaiting revelation or, if there is, it is a catastrophic truth. Fascination is attached to appearances but these no longer hold out the promise of a transcendental good. In fact it is more likely they point to fascination with radical evil, as in Piotr Ulanski’s The Nazis (1998), a wall featuring Hollywood actors in Nazi regalia.

What Catellan’s dead horse tells us is that God is dead. Catellan reminds us that art shares with religion an ontological core that gravitates around the mystery of the unknown and the unknowable. Historically, an artwork was valued not for its artistry, though of course this was important, but for its sacred or ritual sacerdotal functions. Whether it was actually beautiful or beautifully executed was of secondary importance to its symbolic significance as a repository of inner values derived from some spiritual or religious practice. It is through this strange metaphoric transmutation of material into idea that art makes its quasi-magical effect.

Secularisation inevitably led to a devaluation of art. Its ritual value was gradually superseded by exchange value and from the nineteenth century its transcendent value was transformed into a therapeutic project. But with the 80’s, often referred to as the age of greed, as art became increasingly dominated by capitalism, even this genuine belief in art’s healing powers was truncated and the centre of interest shifted from the art object to the artist as celebrity and as superstar. Witness what Warhol does to Joseph Beuys, one of the last artists to still believe in the power of art to make whole and to heal. Warhol’s showering his silkscreened image with silver dust may be an acknowledgment of Beuys’s shamanistic powers, but it may also serve to neutralise them.

Pop art had already levelled the playing field in the 1960s. By blurring the distinction between high art and popular culture and transferring the visual language of commercial advertising art and illustration to high art painting and sculpture it created an art movement that was accessible, bright, and upbeat. As early as 1961 Oldenburg organised an art happening, called The Store, which would in his own words “create the environment of a store, by painting and placing …objects after the spirit and in the form of popular objects of merchandise, such as may be seen in stores and store windows of the city.”(Claes Oldenburg, An Anthology). In this way Oldenburg diminished the distinction between the art lover and the department store shopper and created a precedent for Keith Haring’s Pop Shop in the Soho Gallery district and Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas’s The Shop in Bethnal Green a good twenty years later. Oldenburg still exerted a critical influence in this two-sided practice: selling art objects while simultaneously questioning the rampant consumerism overtaking the Western world. Whether this was also true of Haring and the Young British Artists is open to conjecture, though towards the end of his life the subject matter of Haring’s comic book dayglo figures was becoming increasingly politicised as means of alerting the public to racial issues, such as apartheid in South Africa and the danger of aids and drugs. He died at 31 of an AIDS-related illness. Certainly the Haring room at the Tate, which simulates his retail store with its geometric black and white figures covering all surfaces, captures something of his aim to express universals in the figures of “the radiant child” (hope) or the barking dog.(danger/evil) while also serving as an actual outlet for his retailed goods, such as T-shirts and other memorabilia, right at the centre of the exhibition.

Of course the close relationship between art and money that the exhibition is premised upon is not entirely new and is not necessarily venal. In the Renaissance, financial principles mattered, as did status. Nor were Warhol and Koons the first artists to display such an acute understanding of the financial markets. To make it to the pantheon of great artists it has always taken a great ego and acumen in the fields of publicity and finance as well as an extraordinary eye. In the modern movement Picasso and Matisse understood from early on the principle of art as investment. But for the last half century artistic value has increasingly come to be equated with auction prices and measured not by its intrinsic aesthetic or cognitive qualities, but by success in the marketplace. Especially in the US, art acquired a certain glamour by dint of its blue chip potential. The art market mirrored the same get-rich-quick economics as TV soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, a sentiment echoed by ex-film star president Reagan when he stated, “What I want to see above all is that this remains a country where someone can always get rich.” Artists like Koons and Basquiat reaped the rewards of this mercantile mentality and the media hype that accompanied it while the economic boom lasted – it broke in 1987.

By the 80s it is no longer stylistic revolutions that mark shifting paradigms within the art world but auctions prices. Art’s worth is now primed on its exchange value and this is the mark of its success. His early adoption of multiple images of dollar bills and saving stamps, coke bottles and soup cans, the wherewithal of daily life, would seem to indicate that Warhol had a good understanding of what the commodification of art entailed; it is then Warhol who prefaces this shift which results in the voiding of intrinsic value from the art work by eliminating introspective subject matter and the expressive touch. But psychologically it goes deeper than that. If Warhol’s artworks are purposefully devoid of self-expression this reflects a sense of the void within himself that will crave for some sort of compensation in the cult of celebrity and fame and the need to mix with the glitterati. But anxiety, I think, is never completely excised, the anxiety of being subjected to the gaze of others on one hand, anxiety as a prisoner of one’s own image on the other. For what has happened is that the artist is no longer a producer of original images but of himself as an image. Warhol becomes a living artwork selling the Warhol brand and fetishising everything he touched. Warhol openly admitted that he was obsessed by feelings of nothingness. “I’m still obsessed with the idea of looking into the mirror and seeing no one, nothing,” Mass production of imagery, seriality and silk-screening were all means of keeping the self at bay.

Certainly after the attempt on his life in 1968, Warhol’s Factory began to go into overdrive churning out commercial and celebrity silkscreen paintings. Increasingly bored by the whole process, much of which was delegated to assistants, Warhol put greater effort into “business art” and celebrity enterprises such as his jet set gossip magazine Interview and also leant his image to fashion and store catalogues. The paradox is that whilst declaring for the democratisation of art, bringing it to the level of TV soaps or celebrity magazines and conflating it with fashion, the artist as celebrity is no closer to the masses than any other kind of celebrity, and continues to inhabit a separate sphere. The fixity of Warhol’s stare, his famous blank stare that aims to conceal anxiety, ensures that the audience is kept at a distance. For in a society awash with images the artist can scarcely compete and feels the need to bolster his own self-designed image through osmosis with other star personalities – and vice versa. Koons, Hirst, and Dali before them, all created for themselves a culture of celebrity where socialisation counted as much as, if not more than, the art object. In this artificial world, reality is stifled because suffering is disavowed or made light of. This equally applies to Hirst, even if he seems to be dealing with big subjects such as life, death, and procreation, for he makes it seem as if they amount to nothing in a nihilistic world where nothing counts. Inevitably, though, when the mask is lifted, the presence of death prevails; as Warhol observed in 1978, “Everything I do is connected with death.” This, however, is only one side of Warhol, the one he hoped to conceal.

Jeff Koons’s world is even more saccharine, even more insulated from reality. By the 80s Koons had moved from minimalist consumer goods into kitsch and sexually explicit myth-making exemplified by his sensationalist photorealist bill board images of prelapsarian sexual congress with his ex-porn star wife La Cicciolini (aka Illona Staller). Much like capitalism, this series of pornographic high resolution photographs and sculptures facetiously entitled Made in Heaven (1989) tantalises through its commodification of happiness. Appropriating imagery that hardly needs art to make it successful Koons can also take on the role of oppositional avant-garde artist while in reality defusing genuine criticality with the ironic stance of the dandy. Suave, smooth shaven, and more plastic than Warhol ever wished to be, Koons sets himself up as eternally young, the bringer of the good news that we can all liberate ourselves from sexual shame. Telling us that we don’t have to live with unfulfilled desires he sets himself up as a late twentieth century equivalent of Gauguin, an equally good self-publicist and self-promoter who believed that by fleeing from civilisation he could recover his pristine inner nature. This is in effect Gauguin’s primitivism turned inside out, for there is no real intimation of feeling in this material world. Rather than turning his back on civilisation, Koons embraces a synthetic primitivism totally dependent on Hollywood. But what really shocks is not the explicit sex, which is, after all, to some degree camouflaged by its ambience of kitsch sentimentality, but rather his totally uninhibited, unashamed lust for celebrity.

This is pseudo avant-garde art that cheerfully cannibalises the therapeutic element of modernism’s original blue print for a transformed society. Everyone can be free to make their fantasies into reality. “Embrace your true being” Koons seems to be saying, just as Warhol seemed to make creativity easy, and President Reagan preached the glorification of greed. There is, though, another side to this equation: the eagerness with which museums and collectors bought these highly priced cultural products as ‘Reaganomics’ precipitated a stock market boom and corporations realised the public potential of subsidising the visual arts. Charles Saatchi made a similar impact on the generation of Young British Artists in the 90’s. Much of the Young British Artists’ work reflects a popular disquiet with the culture of violence, sex and drugs that,according to the media, prevailed in British society. But what marks them is that this focus is overlain with a cool, laid back, overriding sense of irony that ultimately protects while allowing the artist a stance of criticality and subversion. Using a minimalist language, Hirst’s productions are consummately staged; but once past the initial thrill of horror at living in a Godless universe, we are left with little more than an opposition between the perishability of once living organisms and the permanence of inanimate stuff, especially gold and gemstones. The Kiss of Midas (2008) literally transforms once living butterflies into dead trophies captured on a gold support. There is some truth behind this: the artist glamorises everything he touches but also deadens it. Hirst parodies one of his own trademarks while taking on the mantle of avant-garde oppositional artist. Like Warhol, Hirst plagiarises himself, rebranding his own image by recycling, for instance, his own spot and spin paintings. Tracey Emin on the other hand has marketed her traumas, creating self-confessional works in a language of primitivism laden with a certain victimhood bravado. Both court a notorious celebrity that has become part and parcel of being an artist.

The fixation of the artist as self-promoter is not confined to the Anglo-Saxon cultures but is dramatised in German artist Martin Kippenberger’s short life. Recreating his Paris Bar, the centre of his manifold operations, we are given an insight into the freneticism with which he employed a real eclectic mix of styles and movements, taking on performance (a stint in a band) and installations as well as paintings, photography, and posters to declare himself an artist and to declare the passing of art - for his was essentially a valedictory energy. His production of self-critical self-images has been likened to an epileptic fit since he was continually parodying himself and other artists, for instance the aged Picasso (in Y front underwear) but equally Beuys for his pseudo martyrdom in the name of a Germany cleansed of its Nazi past. What makes its mark in his case is that besides or despite the multi-sidedness of his artistic career he continued to paint and to sculpt.

Kippenberger was much loved and much mourned when he died in his early 40’s. He was seen as West Germany’s heir to Warhol having his own version of Warhol’s factory which he dubbed “Kippenberger’s Office.” Takashi Murakami, on the other hand, is very much alive and busy with his mercantile retail production, which goes from Louis Vuitton luxury handbags to smiley flower stickers selling at £1.96 in the Tate shop. His manga inspired cartoon vision is designed both to shock and to celebrate popular Japanese culture and completely blurs the frontiers between fine art and merchandise. The life-sized fibreglass school girl Hiropon (2001), at the entrance of the show, from whose ample breasts streams forth a skipping rope of milk, is no longer accompanied by her masturbating punk companion Lonesome Cowboy (1998) which sold at Sotheby’s for $15,161,000. Murakami is so over the top that he defies good taste and yet continues to seduce with his oriental gentleness and self-directed humour. His work even seems to reassure, and prompted quite a few giggles and smiles as if part of the “anything goes” appraisal of the contemporary art scene.

Pop Life begins on the main thoroughfare of New York and ends in the Akihabara district of Tokyo. High Art, having long abandoned its ivory tower, has taken to the streets. The first room opens with a video of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 2007 that featured Jeff Koons’s Silver Rabbit, which now stands guard beside a red tinged blown up image of Andy Warhol. It may be my imagination but both seem to radiate something malevolent. The last room, devoted to Murakami, features the Hollywood actress and pop singer Kirsten Dunst as a giant fairy princess showering fairy dust on bemused passers-by in Akihabara, the centre of Manga production. Carnival and fantasy, once disparaged as kitsch, are now elevated as a high art form that can produce “a feel good factor” in our societies of the spectacle.

The original title of the show was “Sold Out,” which proffers an intimation of the curator’s intentions. It is difficult, however, to assess to what degree Pop Life is compliant, complicit, critical, or death wish celebratory. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as long as the wheels keep on turning – or would that not constitute a crass abdication of belief in the potential of critical virtues and values which continue to inform an aesthetic experience of art?

© Anna Leung 2009


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

The exhibition Pop Life: Art in a Material World will be at the Tate Modern, London, from 1 October 2009 – 17 January 2010. For more information, visit