Social Art Practices and Identity

This was my last essay written for my 2021 history class, as if the year wasn’t hard enough, this essay was a pain to get through. It was a response to the question “What are the problems and opportunities presented by socially engaged art practices?”, but I added a little wrinkle by talking about identity, and anonymity in social art practices.

I’m usually pretty nervous about posting my essays, and this is no exception. Mostly I’m worried I’m talking about things I really don’t understand, but that’s why I would really appreciate any feedback from people who know more than me about these topics!


A social practice, when in the context of fine art, refers to an art making ethos guided by social justice, community and charity. Moving away from an art practice that revolves around the capitalist notions of product and consumer, a social practice would see the artist engage with community, blurring the lines between activist and artist. In this essay I will be addressing the problems and opportunities that a social art practice contains.

Social practices are largely concerned with human relations, and critiquing or investigating society. There are many ways to engage in this practice, some make ephemeral art, others art that resides in galleries but defies the auction block, and other practices are so steeped in activism that they’re indistinguishable from an activist organisation. A common way artists are framed in a social practice as aiming to aid, educate and improve the conditions in a society through acts of service (Phaidon 2021). Though a social practice by no means has to be generative, but instead could be destructive; artists challenging the status quo through outrageous public stunts and messaging. In this essay I want to focus on three art practices that revolve around questioning and critiquing society, with work carried out in public spaces. In answering this question I want to focus on how identity, or the lack of identity affects a social practice, how it affects the message, and the message of the art.

A social practice provides a framework for artists to create work in public spaces, this presents an opportunity to reach people who most need to see the message, and confront the people whom the message speaks out against. The Guerilla Girls are a group of female artists who perform public acts of fact spreading through posters, stickers and action, all while wearing gorilla masks. Instead of appearing as a collective of named women standing up for their own desire to be represented, through their anonymity they become representative of all women, meaning they cannot be appeased individually, or as a collective. Their work speaks out against injustices towards women, and initiates conversations around feminist issues, particularly in the art world. They began pasting up posters in the mid 1980s, calling out galleries and exhibitions where female artists were underrepresented. De Certeau describes how the powerful create a sense of place in society that is beneficial to them, while the weak and underserved have to take up space within this greater ‘place’ (Matzkin 1997). The Guerilla Girls found that invading this patriarchal ‘place’, spreading their message forcefully and with wit, was a far greater solution than attempting to affect change from the inside. While the guerilla girls rely on statistics as the basis for their message, humor is also another important aspect, both in their work and personal presentation. The Guerilla girls present themselves as gorillas, donning large black hairy masks, some with eye holes cut for their glasses to poke through. Wordplay aside, representing themselves this way separates them from feminine stereotypes that are so often used against women to devalue them. In their work The Advantages of being a Female Artist, one of the tongue in cheek points states that no matter what you create it will be labeled feminine. This use of humor had its drawbacks though, The group worried that their message could come across wrong, not be taken seriously, or be too aggressive, with one proposed poster asking for male artists to surrender their genitalia. Humor is often harder to agree on than sincerity, an earnest message is relatable and something most people can empathise with, whereas humour is a fickle complicated medium, Leng (2020, p.  123) notes “The text’s profanity and injunction to violence caused considerable internal dissent”. It’s difficult to comprehend how The Guerilla Girls are affected by the pros or cons of having a social practice, as utilizing this practice may well have been the only way to force their way into the art sphere. To exactly what degree they opened up the art world to women is hard to determine, but they did help to reframe the reasons why women weren’t in galleries from a function of women being inferior artists, to an issue of entrenched patriarchal systems (Babu Paul 2020).

INDECLINE is an American art collective whose practice involves defacing public property, such as tearing down billboards to make shelters for the homeless, public graffiti questioning policies and politicians, and covert installations in hotel rooms. Their work is highly illegal, and defamatory, and as such they require anonymity to maintain their practice. They first rose to prominence through defacing pubic billboards with the phrase “a clown can get away with murder  -Gacy” alongside a naked clay and silicone statue of Donald Trump wearing clown makeup. This project was undertaken during Trump’s presidency, an incredibly volatile time in America, and this work likened the president to John W Gacy, notorious serial killer, after Trump said he could shoot someone in the street and still get elected. Their anonymity acts as a shield to protect their personal lives, and allows them to continue spreading their message. Authorities and lawmakers make the distinction between two types of graffiti, one imitates the aesthetic of traditional art, and is palatable for a general audience, the other being defined by tagging, scrawling, gang signs and a lack of permission (Gomez 1993). This distinction rests on antiquated ideas of what art is, 65 years earlier Duchamp exhibited his readymade piece Fountain, so I find this distinction of what is and isn’t art very narrow minded. It draws a line between two forms of graffiti, painting one side as desirable and the other as undesirable, the question becomes though, undesirable to who? IDECLINE focuses on messages such as housing inequality, class struggles, and political tyranny, which are uncomfortable conversations for those in power, but life defining for those affected. With Make Kids Disappear – I.C.E they have defaced a public billboard overlooking a highway, transforming an advertisement for a junk removal service to indictment of the government’s treatment of immigrants. The illegality and defacement frames the message as a form of protest, that the artists are dissatisfied with the current establishment. While it would be a stretch to say all graffiti is purposeful, when considering how to frame street art done in a social art practice, it’s important to consider the location and the time in when it was created, as the work inherits meaning and context from these two factors (Chackal 2016).

An artist maintaining a social practice, and speaking out against a system, has to decide whether they are going to operate within the legal confines of that system, and to what degree. This can cause a complicated dilemma, if you choose to operate outside the law then you run the risk of the established powers using your law breaking as a way to devalue your message, but it is also sometimes the only outlet for impoverished and downtrodden people (Chackal 2016). We’ve seen this in action these last few years in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. When George Floyd was murdered, his drug use and criminal record were used to paint him in a negative light. Three days later when protests broke out in Minneapolis, which later led to rioting and looting, the media reported on the protests as filled with ‘thugs’ and violence, undercutting the original purpose for the protests (Brown 2020). Choosing to work within the system, or outside it, both have pros and cons, though a way INDECLINE mitigates this dilemma is to separate their processes. IDECLINE the group is chiefly involved with carrying out the public art interventions, while they commission other artists to create work, such as the piece The Emperor Has No Balls from artist Joshu Monroe. This separates the illegal action taken to display the art, from the actual art being made, giving the message a better chance to not be tainted by its association with a crime.

Ai Wei Wei is a contemporary Chinese artist, and son of poet Ai Qing. He is known for his outspoken political opinions, and harnessing modern communication platforms like blogs and twitter to criticise the Chinese Comunist Party’s policies and practices. Unlike the other two artists I’ve talked about in this essay, he does not hide his identity, which affects how we receive his message. His political criticism poses a problem for Ai, as China is concerned that letting people openly express their political opinions breaks down the hold the CCP has on its position of power (Associated Press 2020). In a way that is almost diametrically opposite to how The Guerilla Girls hide their individuality to represent all women, AI position as an individual is integral to his message being communicated. Historically the concept of individuality in China is different than in western society, in the west the individual is singular and defined by how it exists separate from society, whereas the merit of an individual in China is defined by how they serve the greater systems they inhabit (Brindley). In this way Ai’s identity and the action of speaking out work together to strengthen his message. This power that comes from his identity would not be possible without performing it in a social sphere, It’s through his social practice that the work gains its ability to affect change. A downside to gaining global attention though is that others place upon him their own ideas of democracy and liberal thought, that Ai is a weapon for the west to use against the CCP, instead of an individual critiquing how he thinks the government could serve the people better (Sorace 2014). In a sense this takes away ownership of his identity away, he becomes a tool used by the west to push their own agenda against China’s global position.

After examining this question in relation to the artists above, I feel framing a social practice in the context of it’s merit seems disingenuous to how a social practice comes about. It becomes clear that there is no other way their practices could operate outside the realm of social practice, so debating the efficacy of the approach seems futile. These three artists all have engaged with society at large, and have had to make deliberate decisions about how they want to be perceived. Like all of us though, how you are perceived and how you wish to be perceived are not always the same. This public aspect of a social practice means the artist’s identity is under more of a spotlight than other artforms. Systems within which you operate affect the ability to convey a message, the intersection of your identity and your environment defines what is possible through social practices.

References

  1. Phaidon, A Movement in a Moment, viewed 10 october 2021, <https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2016/april/25/a-movement-in-a-moment-social-practice/>
  2. Babu Paul, S 2020, ‘Art Against Art: Looking at Selected Posters of Guerilla Girls in their Resistance Against Sexual Politics’, Navajyoti, International Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Research, Vol. 5, Iss. 1. 
  3. Matzkin, J 1997, ‘Masking feminism: A cultural analysis of the Guerilla Girls, a feminist art movement’, Masters thesis, University of Wyoming, Wyoming. 
  4. Miller, M, Wolf, J 2021, Feminist Street Posters, Beyond the Streets, viewed 10 october 2021, <https://beyondthestreets.com/blogs/articles/guerrilla-girls>
  5. Leng, K 2020, ‘Art humor and activism Art, Humor, and Activism: The Sardonic, Sustaining Feminism of the Guerrilla Girls, 1985–2000’, Journal of women’s history, vol. 32 no. 4, pp. 110-134.
  6. Gomez, M 1993, ‘The Writing on Our Walls: Finding Solutions through Distinguishing Graffiti Art from Graffiti Vandalism’, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, vol. 26, pp. 663 – 709. 
  7. Make Kids Disappear – I.C.E., Streaming Video, INDECLINE, viewed 11 october 2021, <https://thisisindecline.com/flicks/make-kids-disappear-i.c.e>
  8. Sorace, C 2014, ‘China’s Last Communist: Ai Weiwei’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, pp. 396–419.
  9. Associated Press 2020, ‘Orwellian’ China silencing dissent at home and abroad, says human rights chief’, The Guardian, 15 January, viewed 11 october, <https://www.theguardian.com/law/2020/jan/15/orwellian-china-silencing-dissent-at-home-and-abroad-says-human-rights-chief>
  10. Brindley, E, ‘Individualism in Classical Chinese Thought’, Internet Encyclopedia of Phylosophy, viewed 12 october, <https://iep.utm.edu/ind-chin/#H3>
  11. Rajghatta, c 2016, ‘Anarchist artist tests limits with nude statues of Donald Trump’, The Times of India, 19 August, viewed 13 october, <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/Anarchist-artist-tests-limits-with-nude-statues-of-Donald-Trump/articleshow/53775625.cms>
  12. Chackal, T 2016, ‘Of Materiality and Meaning: The Illegality Condition in Street Art’, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 74, Iss 4, pp.359-370.
  13. Brown, D 2020, ‘Riot or resistance? How media frames unrest in Minneapolis will shape public’s view of protest’, The Conversation, 30 May, viewed 16 october 2021, <https://theconversation.com/riot-or-resistance-how-media-frames-unrest-in-minneapolis-will-shape-publics-view-of-protest-139713>

Ólafur Eliasson and The Weather Project

click here for an audio reading of this essay!

The following is an essay written as an artwork analysis for Eliasson’s Tate Modern installation The Weather Project. I’m not the biggest fan of writing essays, unless I really like the topic. This was actually a bunch of fun to research though, I like the way Eliasson talks about his work even if a lot goes right over my head!

If you’re interested in more work from Eliasson, head over to his website olafureliasson.net, It’s really interesting and he has catalogued all his work in tremendous detail.

The Weather Project

Ólafur Eliasson is a Danish artist, born 1967 in Copenhagen, Denmark. His work as an artist is varied, including painting, sculpture, film, photography and installation, but it is the latter that he is best known for. In this essay I will be talking about Eliasson’s work The Weather Project, more specifically the conceptual methods he employs, and how we see these methods in his other works pre- and post-his 2003 work.

The Weather Project is a site-specific installation held at the Tate Modern in London. Eliasson was asked to install a work in the Turbine Hall, this is an entry way into the Tate Modern, and as such is a semi-public space. Upon entering the Turbine Hall, visitors were met with a large circular screen suspended three quarters up the wall on the far end of the space. Aluminum lined the tops of the walls, while the roof was covered in mirrors, the room was flooded with a light mist, and a viewing platform, with a staircase leading up to it, was in the center of the room. The screen was backlit with 200 mono frequency lights, producing a yellowy orange hue, giving the appearance of a large indoor sun.

The combination of light, fog and mirrors serve to overwhelm the senses. Visitors to the space are first met with the image of the sun, as they move down the gentle slope of the turbine hall. The viewer can then move towards the sun, and either ascend a set of stairs to a small viewing platform, or remain on the lower floor. Ascending the stairs to the platform creates an illusion similar to moving up a hill towards the sun. Alternatively, if the viewer stays below, they can rest under the man-made canopy of the viewing platform, or move up to underneath the screen, revealing how the artificial sun is made.

This choice illustrates that Eliasson (2004) believes his medium not being light or the weather, but instead his medium being people and how they interact with his work. Eliasson (2015) said of the Weather Project, that people would arrive into the work and have a singular response to it. This would often contrast the response that person’s neighbor was having, reactions ranged from apocalyptic to serene. Despite this difference he noted, and hoped, that they would share in each other’s experience and enjoy and learn from the others’ differences in viewpoint.

Figure 1 The Weather Project, Ólafur Eliasson, 2003, Mono-frequency lights, projection foil, haze machines, mirror foil, aluminum, scaffolding

Further evidence of people as a medium is Eliasson’s use of mirrors, a tool that reflects the viewer back to themselves. Figure 1 shows an interaction between the visitors and the installation, this photograph is taken of the mirror hanging above the viewer, and we see them creating the iconic peace symbol. Eliasson (2008, p. 48) laments that “some museums simply don’t empower the visitor”, this work challenges that, drawing them into what he calls “looped participation”, an event where the interaction with the work is observed by the participant, and evaluated by them (Eliasson 2004). We see here a direct, and quite on the nose example of people participating and evaluating that participation with the work. In a video of the installation, people can be seen wriggling and moving while laying on their back, even the act of recording yourself through the mirrors on the roof is an act of evaluation.

Figure 2 Your Sun Machine, Olafur Eliasson, 1997, Aperture cut into existing roof, daylight

Despite believing his medium to be people, his work does utilize the sun and more specifically light as a tool (Figure 2). In his work Your Sun Machine 1997, Eliasson drilled a small aperture into the roof of the LA located Marc Foxx Gallery. As the sun passed over the gallery, a ray of light would stream through the aperture, creating a patch of light that moves through the space. Eliasson noted that if you stood still and watched, you could see the movement of the sun, creating a sense of alignment with the cosmos (Eliasson, 2015). This work is a precursor to The Weather Project, in its attempt to capture a natural weather phenomenon, and bring it into the gallery space. The Weather Project differs in it’s decision to replicate the sun, instead of attempting to harness it.

Figure 3 Dream House, Ólafur Eliasson, 2007, Wood, mirror, di-bond, lenses, plastic, cotton

The Weather Project also plays with the notions of inside and outside, as it is held in a semi-public space, and a replication of a natural environment. An entry in the journal Interiority took a close look at how Eliasson plays with the inside-outside relationship, they observed that with his work there is rarely a hard line separating the two. Instead inside and outside function as abstract concepts, melding, winding around, and intersecting with each other (Dincer, Brezjek & Wallen 2019). Eliasson’s 2007 work Dream House (Figure 3) shows how he nests ideas of inside and outside within each other, standing inside the work you will see reversed images of whatever environment the construct is located in. The Weather Project does this not through any form of projection, but through conceptual means, by replicating the outside and bringing it inside, he disrupts the act of viewing art as art, and creates an experience familiar to the viewer. This approach also changes as the outside changes, say the weather is actually quite gloomy when you visit, the reaction you get will be different to if you visit on a sunny day. Through its placement in the entrance hall of the Tate, it also blurs the line between inside and outside, as you enter you can see the work through the glass doors, and inversely the outside world as you leave, creating a smooth transition from a natural outside to an artificial outside.

By delving into the conceptual methods Ólafur Eliasson has employed in his work The Weather Project, we are able to get a more detailed view of his design philosophy, and his approach to art creation. This work, more than a technical replication of a sunny day, represents a common human experience, and a desire by Eliasson to create genuine human connections, and conversations through our varied responses. We also see how the traditional installation gallery relationship can be subverted, and manipulated, expanding a work beyond the walls that contain it.


References:


⦁ Zumtobel Group 2015, Ólafur Eliasson about “Light is Life”, YouTube, 20 April, Zumtobel, Festspielhaus Bregenz, Bregenz, Austria, viewed 28 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlMYFybnWfs
⦁ Eliasson, O & Obrist, H 2008, The Conversation Series, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, Cologne
⦁ Ólafur Eliasson, viewed 28 April 2021, https://olafureliasson.net/
⦁ The Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, TATE, viewed 03/05/2021, https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/turbine-hall
⦁ Ólafur Eliasson, Your Sun Machine 1997, viewed 01/05/2021, <⦁ https://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK101686/your-sun-machine#slideshow&gt;
The Weather Project, by Ólafur Eliasson, at Tate Modern. 2012, YouTube, viewed 22 April 2021, <⦁ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsT9vEpfNq4⦁ &⦁ ab_channel=OlaM>
⦁ Dincer, D, Brezjek, T & Wallen, L 2019, ‘’Designing the Threshold: A Close Reading of Ólafur Eliasson’s Approach to ‘Inside’ and ‘Outside’’, Interitority, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 46-91 https://interiority.eng.ui.ac.id/index.php/journal/article/view/48
⦁ Ólafur Eliasson, Dream House, 2007, viewed 03/05/2021, https://olafureliasson.net/archive/artwork/WEK100440/dream-house