This text is related to an open letter sent out by the author on 9 October 2007 to the media and other parties. It deals with the Crawford Open, but the points raised are of more general relevance.
It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does . [ 1 ]
The above preamble is from A Brief history of infinity – the quest to think the unthinkable by Brian Clegg. It struck me that the physics lecturer could quite easily have been talking about contemporary art, for like mathematics, both encapsulate conceptually difficult thoughts that often seem impenetrable and incomprehensible even to the practitioners. Frustratingly, as one gets closer to the meaning of art or maths, the further it seems to recede, for paradox is essential to each, whilst both also have a ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ aspect.
In 1999 Martin Creed won the Tate’s Turner Prize with a light turning on and off in a gallery. Without mentioning Creed, Clegg illustrates how in physics, a light being infinitely turned on and off is sometimes used to describe a condition where a particle, whilst remaining unobserved, can exist in two states simultaneously. The light is both on and off! This is called ‘superposition’ and it exists only until the particle is observed, upon which the ‘superposition’ collapses and one of the two states is identified . Art also exists in a similar dual state for it is defined by its context. If it is a light alternating on and off in Tate Britain it is seen as art, but in the kitchen it is probably just a faulty bulb. The same object in two different states. It is the where, how and with whom art is seen that creates its cultural identity.
Duchamp’s urinal changed it all. It is when art to some extent became arbitrary and it is no coincidence that the position of the curator and institution has evolved from one which formed an explanatory link between artist and public to one of definer and with that, of powerbroker, in an increasingly commercialised institutional ‘art-world’. They ‘command and control’ it. Simply by attaching their ‘brand’ status to the ‘thing’, they can actually make it art, which quantifies the ‘thing’s’ cultural value and, depending on the status of the definer, it also has commercial implications for both the art and the artist.
This brings us to the Crawford Open . My understanding is that ‘open’ means open to all . Aside from this and the major monetary prize, its rationale, according to Crawford Director Peter Murray, is to progress“a discourse on contemporary art practice that is meaningful for Cork artists and assist them in assessing their own work in comparison to what is happening abroad. A key way of doing this is not to interfere…” [ 2 ] That is; the curators are invited to make the selection without any influence from the Crawford. For this year’s Open, the selectors were the prestigious Frances Morris, Head of Collections (International) from the Tate Modern, and Enrique Juncosa, the Director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).
It is the Crawford Open I want to write about here. However, I believe many of the points I make and analyses I have undertaken are of more general validity. To what extent, eg, are the issues raised here also relevant to ev+a, Iontas, Éigse, and all the other open-submission shows that come and go?
Curatorial / institutional expertise and their imprimatur are essential and we expect it to be rigorous, scholarly and above reproach, especially in this era where access to video and computers has changed art practice and the proliferation of ‘museums’ of contemporary art is increasing the demand for new work. Integrity is vital because the new technology allows everybody to have the magical ability to create and record descriptive images and so anybody is potentially a producer of art and any ‘thing’ can be used in the making of art. We need respected curators and their institutions to tell us what it is that is ‘authentic’ and why it is worthy of our precious time, for we can’t afford to see and understand everything in our finite lives. How do they do this? Well, things deemed worthy of attention are invited into the institution, contextualized into history through scholarship and labelled contemporary art. The other things are excluded and their status is downgraded. However, this has political and problematic consequences, for it is a form of censorship. A censorious approach we accept on condition it maintains its integrity.
Whilst some may argue it has always been this way, the curatorial role is now, more than ever, critical, because our trusted institutions provide a shortcut to the quality we expect and demand, even if it perplexes us. Therefore it needs to be regularly articulated that selected art is not a freedom of expression, and we should not hesitate to question the selection criteria of our art institutions, to assist in maintaining their good governance. The Crawford Open is a prime example, for paradoxically, it is not ‘open’. For how can it be? It is an exclusive selection by censors. But it is open to all – isn’t it?
Lets look at the maths. Morris and Juncosa selected 15 (+ 1) [ 3 ] artists for the exhibition. Peter Murray recently confirmed the selection took place in 1 day over an 8-hour period. Unlikely as it may seem, we will assume no breaks were taken, and calculate that the 750 [ 4 ] submissions, were assessed in 480 minutes or 28,800 seconds. Given that the artists could submit up to 3 artworks, the work under review could have been as high as 2250. However, let’s be conservative and estimate that on average the 750 artists submitted only two artworks each. This makes for 1500 art works to be evaluated. 28,800 divided by 1500 shows us that 19 seconds is the average time each artwork was viewed, and this figures leaves out scrutiny of the required artist’s statement and the one-page CV. 19 seconds to be understood critically (knowing that anything can be art), and then accepted or rejected. If you deduct time for changing the CDs, DVDs, it might be reasonable to reduce the evaluation time even further. In comparison it probably took you longer than 19 seconds to read this paragraph!
Currently ‘Video’ dominates contemporary art practice, as seen in the Biennales and museums of the world. The Crawford selection would seem to accurately reflect the medium’s dominance. A Google search will reveal that 9 out of the 15 selected artists (approx. two-thirds) utilise time-based ‘video art’ in their broader practice. You can also use Google to view some of the selected work already, like David Theobald’s Greensleeves, which runs for 5 minutes and 5 seconds; Michelle Deignan’s Red cheeks, a 9-minute-26-second video, and Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi’s selected Infinity movie which is listed as “4:37minutes” – is that 4 hours 37 minutes? If two thirds of the 1500 artworks were time-based ‘video’ pieces and were critiqued with a view to inclusion, it would seem necessary to actually watch them from beginning to end and, if they loop, then possibly more than once. Even if the last of the three selections was a mere 4 minutes 37 seconds, it becomes clear it was mathematically impossible for all the submissions to be viewed in their entirety. The maths doesn’t add up, and this raises the general question: does one need to watch video art to engage with it?
Let’s follow the path of one selected video and see where it leads.
Paths are made by walking – In order to determine whether the above phrase was actually true, Yamashita and Kobayashi kept running in a park for 5 days. In the fast-forward movie compiled from digital photographs taken one per second, a path in the shape of ∞ (infinity) gradually emerges. [ 5 ]
‘Video’, like our light bulb, is not inherently art, for it can be advertising, documentary or even simple entertainment. Yamashita and Kobayashi’s reason for entering Infinity into the Crawford exhibition is probably the reason most of the artists did; they wanted their work to be seen by highly professional jury members. [ 6 ] In Clegg’s book, he discusses Zeno’s paradoxes, one of which derives from trying to cross a room using a sequence of fractions added together; 1, 1-1/2, 1-3/4, 1-7/8, 1-15/16 and so on – a set of fractions that goes up infinitely but never quite reaches number 2 (so theoretically you never reach the other side of the room). Coincidentally, Yamashita and Kobayashi do not add up to 2 either, for they are counted as a single artist, hence the ‘+1’ above.
If, as the maths suggest, the two curators could only glance for a few seconds at the work in the time available, we might deduce a reason for why they selected artists already familiar. For it can be shown that 8 (+1) of the artists are connected through both direct and indirect means to the institutions that the curators represent. [ 7 ] Of the other publicly ‘unconnected’ artists, nearly all are London-based art students, some of whom were recently exhibited on the prestigious college exhibition circuit in London. Major collectors, galleries and influential curators often hunt this circuit looking for the next ‘big thing’. By adding a group of graduates to the established artists, an impression of ‘openness’ is created but is it simply trompe l’oeil? It is also problematic that no current Cork-based artists are included*, as they made up a significant percentage of the paid submissions, an important contribution to the funding of the exhibition (750 x 12 = €9,000).
The Crawford Open is for Cork-based artists one of the rare opportunities to exhibit in Cork city’s major public gallery space. It is not much, but it is all we have because other institutional galleries in Cork, the Glucksman for example, have an exclusive curatorial remit and do not invite submissions – in fact they state openly they want a discursive relationship [ [ 8 ] with artists and this does not mean a discussion. Another large space is the National Sculpture Factory, which does not actually exhibit sculpture and rarely seems to do what it says on the box. This leaves only the Triskel with its three small galleries and a dozen slots per year to service an amazing array of talent in a city that only two years ago was the 2005 European Capital of Culture!
Cork artists are deprived of spaces to exhibit, and now we have been censored out in favour of a number of London-based art students and artists connected in some way back to the institutions of the two curators. Two of the artists who may have been already familiar to Frances Morris’s would have been Yamashita and Kobayashi, with their work Infiinity . This is because earlier this year they exhibited at the Tate Modern in I am future melancholic, organised by tank.tv. Another connection is made and the lights illuminate the gallery and much more than art is revealed. [ 9 ]
Tank.tv is part of the Tank group of companies. [ 10 ] Tank promotes brands and the Tate acknowledges itself as a brand. It also encourages exhibitions to promote brands, which encourages artists to interlink their ideas with websites who promote brands. To simplify this, think of a path that loops, crosses and re-connects, which could be illustrated visually with a logo that looks something like ∞.
The Tate blurb describes I am future melancholic as a vision of tomorrow . Unfortunately, ‘Video’ records the past and can’t see into the future. What may seem futuristic is that advertising agencies are organising exhibitions in public art institutions that command, control and define what art actually is. It is so logical, a perfect match, for ‘video art’ is the medium uniquely suitable for ‘product placement’ even if simply to create a fetish for the slick technology and the artists and institutions delivering it. However, there is a problem with this. For we all trust our art institutions and curators to ‘command and control’ and then censor from a scholarly position, unfettered by fiscal influence. It is why advertising is not art, simply because it is hopelessly compromised by its commercialism.
Advertising and ‘branding’ in general is about selling for profit. It works by using familiarity, created by repetition in various media. In the late ’90s we saw how the UK government, using art and music, re-branded the country as Cool Britannia . London art schools benefitted from this coolness by attracting large numbers of overseas students willing to pay small fortunes for the chance to be discovered by the like of advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. It is a branding campaign that the Tate has been involved in through its publicity for, amongst other things, the Turner Prize. The Tate in turn benefits with increased interest and audiences in their own coolness which feeds into Tate’s desire to make money and lots of it. This is not my opinion, just look at their web site: “Money – Our objective is to secure enough money to support our ambitions…” [ 11 ]
What are their ambitions? Well a major part of their mission statement [ 12 ] is to promote British art and they do it extremely well. In Tate Modern they often juxtapose contemporary British artists into their international collection presumably “to progress a discourse on contemporary art practice that is meaningful for [British] artists [and audiences] to assist them in assessing their work in comparison to what is happening abroad.” The juxtaposition also promotes British artists onto the world stage using the Tate’s global brand credentials to give the art immediate international recognition, something smaller countries, galleries and museums simply can’t do.
The curatorial, ‘branded’ expertise is also exported internationally, including to the chronically under-funded Crawford Gallery (eg, their bookshop still does not accept credit cards) that relies on artists’ fees to help fund the Open . Unfortunately, the respected curators have in effect censored Cork artists. Why? The answer lies in the maths, unless of course, we think the unthinkable and these important and respected curators are actually saying we don’t know much about (Cork) art but we know what we like!
This essay is in no way intended to be critical of the works of individual artists, international or Irish. Nor am I saying that the selectors have in any way operated in bad faith. It is the selection process, in its full context, that is at issue, for as we know, ‘art’ is actually arbitrary. However, if any meaningful discourse is to occur then the Crawford needs to juxtapose Cork artists against the international, not unlike the way the Tate Modern does for British artists.
Through birth, immigration and heritage, John Kelly is an Englishman, an Australian and an Irishman; an artist, he lives in County Cork; for further information see www.johnkelly.eu .