Ai WeiWei’s A Ton of Tea, recently exhibited in Bristol, conjures up Chocolate Gnaw and Lard Gnaw (1992) by Janine Antoni. Although the two pieces address different topics, they coul be perceived as following the same metaphorical discourse, with Ai’s work retrospectively expanding on the interpretation of Antoni’s.
In an interview with MoMA, Antoni explains that “[Chocolate] seemed to embody desire for the viewer, and what happens if you succumb to that desire? You get fat. So I used fat as the material to make the second cube … The lard will begin as a cube and as the exhibition goes on, it will collapse on to the floor”. By extension, her cubes could be read as a comment on consumerism, saturation of greed overindulgence and the eventual collapse of capitalism.
As if following in Antoni’s steps, Ai’s A Ton of Tea “makes reference to post-war art history and globalisation, through the humble substance of tea, China’s oldest export” (caption), thus alluding to today’s economy, with the Sleeping Giant now waking up to take over in the lead.
Photos of Antoni’s work: foodforanimals.com, batcountryx.blogspot.com
Photo of Ai’s work: my own
Up to the late 19th century, a person’s identity was defined by external factors such as their family background, gender and job. Then psychoanalysis turned the “who am I?” question inwards, changing our self-perception from a mere piece that must fit in the social jigsaw to a unique being with buried secrets. The new search for the subconscious inspired artists of the early 20th century to explore spontaneity as a new technique, leading to the wildest forms of abstraction that the world had seen to date and which cannot be surpassed in their radical break from the past.
Gone were the days of objective representation. The Surrealists embraced Freud’s theory, experimenting with automatic writing, painting and drawing (Masson, Miró), then in turn inspired the Action Painters (Pollock, Kline and de Kooning) and Tachists (Soulages, Mathieu). Creating was now all about the direct manifestation of the subconscious pouring out on to the canvas – to the amazement or contempt of viewers to this day.
Although the lack of structure and coherence of such works may not appeal to all, early 20th-century abstraction has undeniably and irreversibly broken the restrictive barriers of the conventional and predictable while celebrating freedom and individuality wholeheartedly.
Photos: musee-lam.fr, atlantidezine.it, surrealismfall2012
Translating texts about art, especially those intended for the media, can be challenging, not just because of the specific terminology (as with any specialist area) but also because some texts can be as abstract as contemporary art itself. Art speak, or “International Art English” (IAE), is unmistakably elitist: you are meant to understand that the person talking or writing is an initiate – whether they genuinely are or not, and whether their use of IAE is apropos, is another matter.
Predictably, IAE relies heavily on French vocabulary – what better language to draw an aura of philosophical intellectualism from! – with long Latin words that express absolute concepts suitably detached from the mundane. Just like modern art, it’s conceptual. You get it and you’re part of the club, or you don’t and you’re not.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that everyone involved with the arts wallows in this abstruse language. Partisans of the grandiloquent clique are far outnumbered by those striving towards the democratisation of art. Many – if not most – of those working in the field are as aloof to IAE as anybody else, or use it, like some translators, simply because it is part of the job.
Having said that, we should be grateful to the IAE speakers, especially to the true art lovers amongst them who can afford to commission or buy art as, without them and their common posthumous donation of entire collections to the public, there would be very little art to see. As for me, I relish the challenge of getting my teeth into some seriously abstract text and re-creating an equally obscure translation whenever the chance presents itself.
Duchamp – anti-art attitude à la French
The Internet TESL (Teachers of English as a Second Language) Journal in Canada suggests the use of modern art as a topic to help students learn English because “[m]any consider contemporary art simplistic, perplexing, and just plain weird, which makes it a perfect topic for generating discussion and language learning in the ESL classroom”. The debate around the validity of modern art is nothing new, yet, like any typical no-win argument, it keeps going.
Since early Romanticism, art works have regularly been the object of the now hackneyed question: “is this art?”, or even: “what is art?”, the answers to which will vary from one individual to the next. The truth is that art is no longer defined by technical skills only. Nowadays, art is a personal experience first and foremost. No one can tell you what is and what is not art – or, for that matter, what art is and what it’s not. Ultimately, a piece of art is what you see in it and if you like it, if it talks to you, strikes a chord, triggers a positive emotion or simply leaves you with a good feeling, then who cares what definition or price others might give to it. Art is so subjective that the debate is pointless.
However, trying to explain to someone why we feel a piece is or is not worthy of the term “art” can be both challenging and rewarding because it makes us analyse our personal reactions and may help us become more acutely aware of what makes us tick. Modern art can act as a mirror of our subconscious. It is a thought-provoking challenge that pushes us out of our comfort zone and requires us to look inside ourselves.
And finding the words to express how we feel can be tricky, let alone in a language that we do not master.
Paintings: Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach; Adam and Eve by Marc Chagall