Essays by James Hyman

Up in Smoke: The Art of the Impermanent

Up in Smoke: The Art of the Impermanent


Essay by James Hyman
Art Review
April 2003


In January 2001 in one of the most extraordinary events in recent British art, Michael Landy destroyed all his possessions or rather he obsessively catalogued, classified, broke down and then recycled everything that belonged to him. Although this event took place in a disused department store in central London - emphasising the project as a critique of the materialism of our consumer culture - it could hardly have been more personal. Walls bore a list of every possession, from the artist's teenage music collection to his own artworks and those of his friends. Meanwhile in the centre of the shop a conveyor belt carried the artist's possessions, which were taken apart by assistants and classified into their constituent materials for recycling.

This extreme act of self-effacement was one of the most radical examples of what may be called an aesthetic of decay, an attitude to permanence or rather impermanence that has led to some of the most moving works of recent years. At the heart of such work is a changing attitude to time.

Today, especially at a moment of extreme instability, it often seems that immediacy - a heightened present - is everything. The past is distant, the future uncertain. Let's live for the moment! As our sense of time has changed, so, too, have attitudes to art. In the past Empires were built for millennia, values were universal and timeless, and the task of the painter, sculptor or architect was not just to aggrandise the patron but also to leave behind monuments that would bestow immortality. Today, however, values are different and art exists between two poles, two psychological extremes - on the one hand an acute sense of catastrophe has discredited past belief systems and undermined the notion of producing permanent art for future generations and on the other an extreme belief in the individual's responsibility to oneself and one's own experience has led to work that engages with the here and now with a seeming disregard for the future. The poor materials used by so many artist's in the 1940s and 1950s exemplify the former, the powerful topicality of Sarah Lucas's table bearing fried eggs and donner kebab the latter. Nonetheless, in each case it may be argued that the art system that embraces such objects are more concerned with preservation than with celebrating their ephemerality. Conservation departments, collectors, art dealers all play a part in seeking to preserve works, arresting their inevitable decay.

However, such works are not what I principally mean when I write of this aesthetic of impermanence, for it is as an aesthetic of entropy that it is most radical, not least because at its most extreme, as in the case of Landy's recycling project, such work is as near to being uncollectable as it is possible to get in today's commodified and commercialised world. Indeed such works have as part of their formulation and meaning an engagement with time in which change, decay and even destruction are not to be arrested but are crucial to its power. The deliberate anti-monumentality of such work and the vulnerability it embodies make it amongst the most prescient created in today's unstable world.

To understand the nature of this work it is instructive to contrast the polarities represented by two of the major British artists of the last decade: Rachel Whiteread and Anya Gallaccio. All of Whiteread's work has been about memorialising, preserving, capturing and ultimately aggrandising her surroundings. Her powerful Ghost (1990), a powerful impression of a domestic space, and House (1993), a moving memorial to family house, are both very much part of a sculptural 'tradition' of elevating the subject. The use Whiteread makes of photographs to capture the urban environment from distant high-rise blocks to pavement detritus reinforces this project of recording, aggrandisng and preserving for posterity. The resulting sculptures and the related photographs preserve her subjects in a moment of time, forever.

The aesthetic of Anya Gallaccio could hardly be more antithetical and is in some ways allied to that of Richard Long, whose walks in nature remain amongst the most moving responses to the land in twentieth century art. Gallaccio's projects may possess, for a time at least, a similar formal grandeur to those of Whiteread, as with Gallaccio's floor of ten thousand red roses, Red on Green (1992) or the massive block of ice that she installed at Wapping Pump Station in 1996. But these are works whose very raison d'etre is to decay. In each case beauty fades: the fragrant red tea roses turn from red to black as their stems rot and their petals turn to dust, and the ice sags and turns to sludge. If Whiteread's work is about preservation then Gallaccio's is about decay: a contrast between imperial dreams of immortality and a fragile reminder of vulnerability in a hostile world. This distinction is all the more acute if one compares the use these two artist's make of photography. Whilst Whiteread's photographers are a parallel, complementary project, Gallaccio does not seek to preserve her subjects in this way. Projects are photographed by others and as a record are often extremely misleading since these photographs are commonly taken when the work is created, not when it is in the process of decay.

In fact Gallaccio follows a line of memento mori still-life paintings that flourished particularly spectacularly in seventeenth century Holland, in which flowers and fruit were shown at the height of their beauty but with suggestions of impending decay to suggest the transience of beauty and of life. Sam Taylor-Wood's beautiful recent video Still Life (2001) - using time lapse photography to record the decay of fruit - follows such a tradition but whilst Gallaccio's decaying flowers memorably ally form to content, Taylor-Wood's use of the latest flat-screen technology - which allows her video piece to be presented on the wall like a painting - instead engages with the medium to set up a dialogue between painting and film.

This aesthetic is not, then, just dependent on the choice of materials, although as the above examples suggest, this is often fundamental. Rather it depends on their use. Whilst Gallaccio allows natural processes to take their course, others such as Damien Hirst with his shark, fish and cows preserved in formaldehyde or Marc Quinn with his blood-head and flowers kept frozen in refrigeration units seek the opposite, to arrest time rather than deal with its effects. The fact that Hirst's shark is now shrivelled and that Quinn's blood head became bloated and jowly was surely unintentional, although in each case the technological limitations of their chosen media do provide a telling commentary on their aspirations for immortality.

Ultimately, then, differing attitudes to permanence provide a revealing insight not just into our times but also into the radicalism of many of our leading artists. It is an indictment of our age of cynicism that within days of destroying all his possessions, Michael Landy began to receive telephone calls from museums across the world requesting the work!

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