Approaching conceptual art

A definition

Let’s start simple – what is conceptual art?

Conceptual art can be defined as Art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object.” This definition comes from the Tate Modern, from where we will derive our conceptual art examples. How convenient!

The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern is one of the Northern Hemisphere’s premier contemporary art museums, and it shows works from the 20th and 21st centuries. It is housed in a former power station on the southern banks of the Thames, in London. I had the opportunity to visit for the first time in about a decade in July 2019, and is the site of the first conceptual art installation I truly ever remember seeing and appreciating.

My first visit (in 2010) coincided with Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) when Ai Wei Wei filled the entire floor of with hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds.

When I stepped into the atrium, I had hardly even heard of Ai Wei Wei, even though not long after I would leave for six years living in Asia – where his name would become more and more familiar to me.

Approaching the work, I marveled, looking at the sunflower seeds. I couldn’t possibly comprehend that each one of the almost 100 million sunflower seeds had been painted by hand. The scale of the numbers seemed completely out of reach of the human mind. The millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds literally filled the floor from one end of the museum to the others like pebbles on a beach, yet they were manmade. The markings on them were brushed on. With light streaming into the huge atrium, and voices echoing quietly across the hall, I recall being completely dazzled by the exhibit.

At the same time, what you’ve read above is all I took away from that experience. I didn’t read what the artist or curator had to say about the installation. I didn’t discuss it very much with my dear friend, Emma, with whom I visited the exhibit. Certainly, I was perfectly within my right to take away that simple positive experience, but what if I hadn’t liked it? Should I have looked at all those millions of sunflower seeds, rolled my eyes and walked away?

Now, as the owner of my own art gallery, I’ve seen a great deal of conceptual art in the decade since Ai’s installation piece. And some has made me roll my eyes and want to walk away. Some I’ve liked, some I’ve disliked, and other pieces I haven’t understood at all, despite any attempt to do so.

And while I’m not perfect, and can’t possibly understand nor appreciate all art, nor all conceptual art, I’d like to think that I’ve picked up a few methods that help me. Perhaps if you follow them they’ll help you appreciate conceptual pieces when you encounter them at museums or galleries in the future.

Back to the Tate… and The Tanks

My second visit to the Tate came after 6 years in Asia, 3 years back in the United States, the opening of my own art gallery, and with two small boys in tow, all meaning that I didn’t know what to expect… would I even get to see any art? (As an aside, we visited the permanent collection after The Tanks, and the only piece I recall seeing before my children fell apart was Matisse’s The Snail)

The following tend to be my best pieces of advice when going to see conceptual work.

  1. Take time to fully walk around and observe. What do you notice? What is familiar? What is different? What do you understand or not understand right off the bat?
  2. Read the statement by the artist or curator.
  3. Think about what you know about that time and place in history when the piece was made (especially if the historical context isn’t listed) What were you doing then? Where were you? Or (if it was before your time) what was happening in history?
  4. Talk to someone in the gallery – a friend, a companion, a docent – see what others see or appreciate as well. Sometimes a different perspective can bring something new to a work.

Rebecca Horn

Ballet of the Woodpeckers

Entering into the Tate, we immediately headed to the “Tanks” where Rebecca Horn’s work “Ballet of the Woodpeckers” (1986) greeted us. Ever the narcissists, my boys of 5 and 7 were mesmerized by the mirrors and the images of themselves. They needed no more than the mirrors and themselves to enjoy the artwork.

The number of mirrors are startling. We are all fascinated by our own reflection – it’s hard not to catch ourselves looking as we pass by, and at the same time, an eerie “tap” is heard as the mechanical “birds” peck the mirrors. An echo of our need to look, the birds are compelled to peck over and over again, just as we never stop looking at ourselves whenever we pass our own reflection.

Ballet of the Woodpeckers, 1986
Ballett der Spechte
Glass, metal, transformers, motors, coal and egg
This video shows the “tapping” of the mechanical bird on the mirror

Here’s the informational card from the Tate:

Many of Horn’s work reference or mimic animals. Here small hammers tap mirrors like birds startled by their own reflection. It was originally installed in a psychiatric hospital in Vienna. Long-term patients experienced it alongside external visitors. To recall the presence of the the patience when the work was moved, Horn added two glass funnels filled with mercury. The liquid metal shivered in response to the vibrations of footsteps. Mercury is highly toxic and was later replaced by reflective foil for safety reasons.

The Tate Modern
More Rebecca Horn – another aspect of Ballet of the Woodpeckers.
The egg being slowly covered in coal dust.

Although I already was fascinated by the work just upon initial observation, reading the informational card gave me an added sense of appreciation. Knowing that this piece was originally installed in a psychiatric hospital gave the added dimension of allowing me to picture how it would have been originally seen.

While I didn’t use the context of time period in the past to fully appreciate the piece, the coal-covered egg clearly demonstrates that time does affect how one perceives artwork. This is a piece that is never the same from one moment to the next, as more and more coal is mechanically chipped off the contraption top, dropping over the egg.

After marveling over the mechanical hammer-birds with my children, we moved towards the next space.

Concern for Anarchy

Horn’s other piece on display was called Concern for Anarchy (1990). It is essentially a piano suspended upside down from the ceiling. This also fascinated the children and adults alike.

Concern for Anarchy

Reading the descriptions of the pieces added to my appreciation of the work, although I did initially find myself more perplexed by the work. .

This is an example where the steps given at the top and taken together can help to take a piece that may seem inscrutable and give it more “context” and meaning. A broken piano, suspended upside down, may seem to be only that… Yet, when one reads the quote one realizes that there is so much more.

The upside-down grand piano occasionally comes to life in a noisy outburst. The instrument was used as a prop in Horn’s feature film, Buster’s Bedroom, 1990, set in a psychiatric clinic. Horn has described how, having freed itself from the psychiatric clinic the piano is now composing its own music. The piano acts like a living thing. It gets upset and slowly regains its composure. This might mirror our own experience of being startled by the sculpture.

Horn’s machines often appear to act like living creatures. She has compared their behaviours to those of human beings. ‘They react as we react. My machines are not washing machines or cars. They have a human quality and they must change. They get nervous and must stop sometimes. If a machine stops, it doesn’t mean it’s broken. It’s just tired. The tragic or melancholic aspect of machines is very important to me. I don’t want them to run forever. It’s part of their life that they stop and faint.

– The Tate Modern

Reading this information about the anthropomorphization of Horn’s machines can really help one to more fully understand her work and its intention.

Applying the four steps above…

Walking around the piece, and realizing this is a real piano, marveling at it being suspended upside down can create added appreciation for such work. Reading the statement, where one realizes the layers behind Horn’s intention where she was creating a “living machine” yet one not meant to live forever. (And that this was a machine escaped from a psychiatric hospital!) There was a sense of melancholy yet exuberant freedom in Concern for Anarchy that I sensed after reading about the work.

Considering the timeframe of its creation also gave me a much greater appreciation for her concept. Looking back to 1990, this was the cusp of the internet age, where computers were just starting to be used, and mobile phones were still a thing of the future. The concept of a “living machine” was truly ahead of its time. And, the idea of a machine that would become obsolete, that it could “faint”, stop working (and then restart), all of these concepts mirror the future of the computer age, but with a mechanical object.

When you next encounter conceptual art…

So, when you next encounter a piece of conceptual art, take the time to really look at it. Read any information on the wall, and think about what the artist might have been trying to say. Speaking with another person (or writing about it) can assist in making these sorts of connections between an item and its context as well. Conversation around art is important – the meaning we ascribe to it is as important if not moreso than that originally intended by the artist.

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