Material of Controversy
By David Rosen, Ph.D.
Kendall College of Art & Design
A bisected cow and a bisected calf suspended upright in formaldehyde? A depiction of the Virgin Mary painted in part in elephant dung? Both art. Both winners of the prestigious Turner Prize, the hoary English honor named after J.W. Turner and given by that bastion of English heritage, the Tate Britain, with the intention of promoting “public discussion of the developments in contemporary British art."
Controversial? Yes, but that’s the point. Perhaps this is true of all awards, but art awards provoke a level of controversy that is unusually intense. Art itself refuses to be delimited by subject or medium and so talking about achievement is fraught with a difficulty that honoring an achievement in chemistry, let’s say, is not. Moreover, judges of art prizes understand the impossibility of escaping controversy and so often provoke it. Not so well known (yet), but with similar aims and the largest monetary award in the world ($560,000 in prizes) is ArtPrize. ArtPrize happens each year in Grand Rapids, Michigan—a city whose combined statistical area holds almost one and half million people and a surprising center of art and design—think the international design headquarters of Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Haworth. ArtPrize is “an international art competition, open to any artist ... promoting critical dialogue.” Having been born in an innovative area, the approach is innovative too. The public, first-time art viewers and critics alike, has eleven days in late September and early October, to see the 1,500 plus works on display throughout the city and vote for their favorites. After the field is narrowed to the top ten vote-getters, the public selects one of the top ten as their favorite. The top public vote getter receives $200,000, while the second and third place winners garner $75,000 and $50,000 respectively. The results are, to say the least, controversial, not just because of how the awards are selected, but also because of what they reveal about public taste in art.
Next year, September 18 to October 6, Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids will serve as an exhibition site and will hand out the juried grand prize. Kendall, home of the largest academic Material Connexion library, will face the controversy with an exhibition entitled “Designed to Win.” Of course, such an exhibition will be unlikely to produce any winners, but it will produce the “critical dialog” that is the underlying purpose of the event. Kendall is following the natural arc from its experience in 2012, when it served for the first time as an exhibition center and saw within its own walls how innovation bridges medium and concept to create disruption and, of course, controversy.
Short-listed by both the public and the critics, Mexican artist Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus no. 18 was a three-dimensional installation using nothing but regular sewing thread, webbed tightly and closely across the corner of a room in a parametric design. The bright, spectrum-colored thread fragmented light against the walls in an effect that blurred the boundaries between the light, the thread, the wall. Using simple methods, a new, surreal effect was produced that probably had never been produced by those elements before. That is the power of art as an exploratory practice.
Michigan native and Seattle artist Mike Simi also used re-purposing as his fundamental strategy for innovation. His work Mr. Weekend, also short-listed by the jury, used an unemployed Nachi robotic arm from Chrysler as the interior armature of a 15-foot-tall animatronic, motion sensitive sock puppet that whined to passing viewers about his nostalgia for his previous job and complained about the tediousness of working as a piece of art.
It seemed that many artists explored and took their limits with various materials and media in the exploration of their ideas. Jarod Charzewski, Canadian artist, built the landscape of Western Michigan out of rolled and mounded pieces of clothing borrowed from the local Goodwill to express both the natural and social geography of place. Jamey Grimes, an Alabama artist, hung a ceiling with sheets of simple, semi-translucent corrugated plastic. Bent, punctured, and cauterized by heat, layered and lit from above, the result transformed a corridor into a cool immersive natural space—woods or underwater--dappled by light.
Outside Kendall, work made from recycled materials also abounded. Some were remarkable like “Beary Big Ball,” a nine-foot ball made out of teddy bears, and “Out of the Woods,” an eight-foot bear constructed entirely out of pine needles. “The Dragon,” an 18 foot, suspended sculpture achieved its holographic effect from ambient light reflecting on 40,000 golden buttons hung from flourocarbon lines.
The exploration of materials to produce statements that transform our understanding of basic elements of our world has always been a feature of art-making from earliest times. Those explorations have brought with them changes in the materials themselves, changes that not only altered the way art was practiced but also how the technologies of civilizations developed.
In those long-gone and foggily viewed times, the disjunctions between the spheres of culture, social institutions, technology, and nature were not as wide as today and so the controversy that such explorations brought were likely to have been fierce. Yet today, in events like the Turner awards and ArtPrize, where artists explore and innovate and discover technique, material, and expression, those spheres impinge on each other and sometimes collide to produce controversy. And they produce gains, because it is always on the frontier of art-making and meaning-making that the new comes into being.
The ancients did not know that through their art- and tool-making they were laying the ground for something like chemistry. We may not know what innovations will arise from our explorations. All we know is that the innovative spirit, embedded in the human genome (another interesting materiality that we are beginning to explore), has found in art the place where creativity is kept alive and where exploration can lead to knowledge, discovery, and technology not yet imagined. So while an award in chemistry might not be a cause for controversy, without that controversial thing called art, there might be no chemistry at all.
As is sometimes said about other types of strenuous activity—no pain, no gain. For human society the pain of the controversy that surrounds events like ArtPrize may just be the price for something that we call progress.