Leaving a Mark

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To confront Anish Kapoor’s Adam is to be met with a wholly unnerving void cut into the organic curves of monolithic sandstone. The sense of unease produced by the assertive, regimented lines of the void is magnified by deep anxiety about what might lurk inside the apparently bottomless recess. The rough-hewn stone has a scattering of markings across its flat surfaces, which are suggestive of hieroglyphs or cave drawings, subliminally linking the viewer to our anthropological past. The stone is not simply an object isolated in time, but an enduring marker of earlier civilisations, its name Adam, reinforcing those links with our past and evoking the creation of man.

While the sculpture’s void is unsettling, the stone itself is human in size and proportions, being only a little taller than the average person. The work has been carefully placed in the gallery so that is possible to walk towards it from a distance as though greeting an old friend, thereby reinforcing its familiarity. Close-up, however, one has to look up to view the entire sculpture as a whole, and its apparently familiar lines are instantly defamiliarised by the geometric cut-out space where a face might have been expected to be. The void appears to have been created by machinery, an aspect that brings both modernity and strangeness to the ancient form. Because of this, there is an unnatural blurring of recognizably ancient history and the alien future. The anthropomorphic stone is familiar but the void within it is unnerving. In this way, the sculpture has an uncanny quality, combining both that which is homely and known, with that which is strangely unknown.

The fathomless interior space of the stone is coated with blue pigment. Its surface is velvety and completely unreflective, instantly disrupting our perceptions of depth. The viewer experiences an almost overwhelming desire to reach a hand into the space in order to break this spell of uncertainty. That urge to enter the void brings both a feeling of dread about what might be found inside and a sense of the subversive, since artworks in a gallery are there to be seen, not touched. There is also an aura of religiosity to the sculpture, since the action of placing a hand within the cavity in order to conquer doubt about the parameters of the space, mirrors the action of the disciple Thomas in the New Testament, who placed his hand in Jesus’ side to dispel his doubts about Jesus’ identity.

The depth and richness of the deep lapis lazuli colour of the pigment, set against the pink stone, evokes images of Renaissance religious painting, yet the work’s references are more universal than specifically Christian or even religious. Historically, blue has been a colour used for restoring feelings of calm, harmony and peace. However, in this instance, the pigment has been confined to a dense, interior space and is more redolent of an infinite night sky whose limits cannot be known. The extent to which the piece must remain unknowable does not, however, render it meaningless. The void does not appear to represent emptiness, but exudes a more powerful sense of endless possibilities. For this reason, it is a work of infinite but strange richness rather than a nihilistic gesture towards nothingness. Ultimately Adam appears both monumental and strange, puzzling yet inviting. As a perfect demonstration of its mesmerizing nature, on my last visit to see the piece I found evidence that someone had failed to resist the void’s allure. On the stark white wall behind the sculpture, a single navy blue handprint had been stamped, like fingerprints at a crime scene. Someone had dared to enter the abyss and in wiping off the blue pigment on the gallery wall had left a post-echo of his encounter with Kapoor’s sculpture.

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What is Art?

It is an age-old question, but there still does not seem to be any definitive answer. It is a question I’ve struggled with myself, more often than not when looking at the controversial work of Marcel Duchamp, the unofficial creator of tongue in cheek art. Take, for example, Duchamp’s assisted readymade, “Bicycle Wheel”, which features a disembodied bicycle wheel placed on top of a stool. The entire purpose of the work seems to annoy, not least because the only possible uses for either object, movement in the case of the wheel and stability in the case of the stool, are cancelled out by the fact of them being placed together.

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But this is not to say that I do not appreciate “Bicycle Wheel” for what it is. Duchamp used skill as well as innovation in order to create the piece, just not the kind of skill we usually connect with artistic endeavours. There is very little evidence of craft present, except for the obvious act of drilling a hole through the seat of a stool to fit a bicycle wheel into it, and it is doubtful that Duchamp spent more than a few hours executing it. Indeed, when looking at the artwork of the so called ‘greats’ such as Michelangelo or Titian, craft and man-hours are held very highly because of the simple fact that it took a great amount of time and an even greater amount of skill to create the magnificent Sistine Chapel fresco or the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’. However, just because it seems ridiculously easy to place a wheel on a stool as opposed to conceiving the divine creation of man with only empirical tools, is it fair to say that Duchamp is not a great artist?

I would disagree with this statement, not least because Michelangelo and Duchamp were aiming for completely different ideas and effects. Duchamp was trying to ridicule the art world and move away from the rigid meanings of what is and is not considered to be art. Art is a human endeavour, but by creating platforms for artists who we think are better than anyone else, we can fall into the trap of thinking that the only thing that makes art great is technical skill and precision. At this point in time we have to ask ourselves, do we regard the craft as a higher good than the concept, and if so, why do we not use art as furniture so as to put it to practical use? It is ridiculous to say that skill must be inherent in art in the same way that skill must be inherent when building a lamp. Duchamp created ideas and feelings, which, in the end, is what art is all about.

The Uncanny Kapoor

Sigmund Freud, in his 1919 essay, The Uncanny, described the uncanny, or unheimlich, as “that class of the frightening which leads us back to what is known of old and long familiar.” In other words, it is often those things that remind us of things safe and homely (heimlich) that when distorted can be the most frightening. For example, a human face with gouged-out eyes or a dilapidated and deserted theme park.

Darkness can also play a large part in the feelings of the uncanny. First of all, darkness is something that we experience every day of our lives, and so it is heimlich, but at the same time, it is completely unknown to us because it is not possible to see through it. Darkness is the supplement for the unheimlich, as when invisible things become visible, that creates feelings of the uncanny. For example, the sense of unease we get when we know something is about to come to light. It does not matter whether this thing is good or terrible because that ambiguity and uncertainty only adds to the uncanny feeling. Therefore darkness is a very powerful medium, not only because it can create such a strong sense of fear, but also because the ambiguity that it presents will almost always lead to curiosity and intrigue.

Because of these powerful feelings that darkness inspires, many modern artists use the medium in their work. For example, Anish Kapoor, the British-Indian sculptor, who has created several sculptures utilising darkness and spatial allusions.

‘Marsupial’ is an example of Kapoor’s work with darkness. The sculpture shows a smooth reflective surface with a large inverted pouch placed at the centre of it. The name, ‘Marsupial’, meaning a mammal similar to a kangaroo, refers to this pouch, which alludes to the uncanny quality because a kangaroo’s pouch should feel homely and safe. However, the presence of the hole does not make you feel homely or safe because of the fact that anything could be lurking inside its dark interior. But at the same time, there is a definite urge to place your hand in the hole in order to conquer its ambiguity.

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Another sculpture by Kapoor that can boast this same feeling of unease is ‘Descent into Limbo’, which features a concrete square that can be entered though a small door on one side. Inside this square, a black hole takes up most of the ground space. The darkness of the seemingly never-ending pit immediately draws your eye because of its dense nature. Again, you feel both repelled by uncertainty and fear, and attracted by curiosity. These contradictory feelings create a compromise in your brain, and instead of running from the pit or drawing closer to it, all you can do is stand and stare at it, as if waiting for something invisible to pop out of it and reveal itself.

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Kapoor’s sculptures perfectly broadcast how irrational the sense of the uncanny is, because the fact that such strong feelings of fear and unease can be created from looking at a small dark space in the ground is indeed irrational. But this only adds to their appeal, as surely the point of modern art is to create pieces that will leave a lasting impression on the soul, whether that impression be comforting or disturbing. Without this indisputably important factor, ‘Descent into Limbo’ really is just a boring hole in the ground.

The Human Body – in all its ugliness

Jenny Saville is an artist who makes a story out of flesh. Her often gigantic paintings show off what she calls “the down and dirty side of things”. The viewer is confronted by undulating rolls of fat and shockingly realistic panels of sinew and tissue. Saville has no qualms about revealing the female form in a less than flattering light. She actively attempts to move away from the regular societal practice of trying to beautify everyone and everything. In other words, Saville paints it as it is.

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This idea of painting it as it is that Saville so staunchly adopts is oddly similar to the practice that the early Egyptian artists employed. If you’ve ever wondered why the figures portrayed in Egyptian art look so strangely proportioned, it’s not because the artists believed that people actually looked like that or because they did not know how to draw properly. Instead, there existed an absolute set of rules that dictated that an artist’s job was to preserve everything as clearly as possible. Indeed, when a King was sent off into the afterworld, everything and everyone they needed would be painted on the walls of their tomb. Any misconceptions as to what was being portrayed would result in the divine King not having his precious slaves and belongings with him.

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What was most important was not beauty but completeness, which could only be achieved if an object was drawn from its most recognisable angle. A head is best recognised if it is in profile, but a torso is best recognised if it is facing forward. Therefore, even though it is not very realistic for a person to stand facing forward with their head to the side, it was how an artist was forced to depict their subject.

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On the surface, a Jenny Saville painting and an ancient Egyptian painting have absolutely nothing in common, and yet they share a similar theme. Saville wants to reveal the human body as it really is rather than attempting to make it aesthetically pleasing and the Egyptians wanted to portray it in a way that, whilst not being particularly pretty, will leave the viewers in no doubt as to what they are seeing. The connections I see show just how universal thoughts and ideas can be, and how they will always be recycled and reused. 

Picasso’s Palimpsest

palimpsest

ˈpalɪm(p)sɛst/

noun

  1. a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.

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Standing in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was drawn in by the striking colours and equally striking figures. But at the same time I was oddly uncomfortable, both with the shocking subject matter and the harsh glares of the almost inhuman women. I found myself squirming under their confrontational gaze, feeling as if I should be apologising for disturbing the peace. Despite this, it was the memory of seeing the first pencil study of the five prostitutes several months earlier in Amsterdam that made me stand my ground.

In Picasso’s first draft – the one I saw in Amsterdam – he portrays the same five women in the same five positions, but the feeling is drastically different. The women have no faces, so their accusatory expressions are gone. However, instead of the study comforting me by removing the painting’s feelings of confrontation, I am greeted with a new elephant in the room. Two men stand out amongst the women. It is unclear whether they are customers, staff, or even doctors (the latter suggestion holds perhaps more weight due to Picasso’s irrational fear of catching an STD), but their occupation does not matter. What matters is the fact that I am suddenly being shown women who are prisoners to their own livelihoods, who have become anonymous because of what they do.

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The men are given clothes and props, but the women have become items of furniture, completely devoid of all individuality and power. In this first draft, I see the real truth in all its seedy glory. I see that just because the prostitutes are portrayed as powerful and glamorous in some instances, as in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, this does not mean that the true story is powerful and glamorous.

Picasso has constructed a palimpsest in that he has created a narrative, and then added an alluring film over the top. In doing so, a separate palimpsest has been brought into focus. The palimpsest of a society that tries to hide a difficult topic by glamorising it and removing all of the tricky meaning behind it.

When I looked at the two works of art I saw the portrayal of female power and in the other I saw the true gritty nature of prostitution. I superimposed my own meaning on top of the study and the final piece and came away with a different view of both. So have I created my own palimpsest, not from paper and paint, but from feeling and thought? Is it possible to add to a classic work of art by creating your own meaning from it?

I believe it is possible to carve your own rocky trail from a more refined section of a major motorway, or in less convoluted words, add to a classic work of art by conjuring up your own meaning from it. After all, the very reason why I created this blog was because of an urge to understand art without having to be a world renowned genius. 

The real question still remains, however, and I find myself asking whether I will ever be able to stand in front of the Desmoiselles without feeling guilty for looking them in the eye.