Ephemeral art

My main body of artwork strives for (semi)permanence, but delving into the conceptual experience of hinged and partially-revealed artworks encourages me to ponder ephemeral art.

In ephemeral and performance art the use of permanent forms of documentation papers over the gap between the ephemeral and the traditional fine arts.  Without photographs, monographs, and documentaries, how many people outside of the United Kingdom would know about Andy Goldsworthy?  Would verbal descriptions suffice to record installations by Motoi Yamamoto, or is the photographic documentation a critical part of the artwork?  How long will it take reverse graffiti walls to become obscured with dirt once more?  Tanbo art (rice paddy art) lacks even the permanence of a wall.  Does the art cease to exist if there is nothing to show for it later?

Even in oil painting, there is a distinction between art as process and art as product.  The outrage surrounding Monet’s Impression Sunrise was not about the stylistic qualities of his painting.  His impudence lay in demanding that a landscape study be treated with the same gravitas as a “finished” painting.

Dave Myers, a improvisational jazz pianist, recently related an interesting perspective.  From time to time, groups of artists have engaged musicians to play while they paint.  MP3 players are ubiquitous (and isolating) in art studios, but happens when the music is live or even improvisational?  Would this be a collaboration, and what sort of art or concepts would be best served by this process?

The process can be either of its creation, its experience, or both.  Any art involving time, such as kinetic art or film art, also has an ephemeral quality.  Consider stop-motion animation shorts featuring a French press or latte art by Rachel Ryle.

Such animation is in a sense permanent because it can be replayed an infinite number of times, but it is also ephemeral in content and form.  Like books, the animation as remembered or understood is distinct from what is visible at any particular moment in time.  Animation is the combined experience of many artworks, and in a way never has a tangible existence.  With no singular moment in which it fully exists, could we consider films (like kinetic art) as ephemeral?

The subject matter of Ryle’s animated shorts also relate to the concepts of aesthetic transience.  The spectacle and novelty of latte art (which wouldn’t endure even if unconsumed) is probably almost never considered “fine art.”  Is this not part of the struggle to recognize impermanent art as truly art?

Ellen Dissanayake’s ideas about the way art functions to make things or moments special has been helpful when considering this disparate body of artworks.  As she puts it, “[art] may or may not be beautiful; although making special often results in ‘making beautiful,’ specialness may also consist of strangeness, outrageousness, or extravagance” (Homo Aestheticus 58).  Many of my preceding art examples were odd or needlessly elaborate.  Their ephemerality negates normal artistic myths of utility or marketability.  That pointlessness emphasizes the idea that something about the concept is more important than the sum of its parts.

With this in mind, the absurdity of ephemeral art is one of its virtues.  To quote Dissanayake again, “Throughout human history the arts have arisen as enhancements, special behaviors shaping and embellishing the things we care about.  Without extravagant and extra-ordinary ways to mark the significant and serious events of our lives, we relinquish not our hypocrisy so much as our humanity” (139).

I retain an intuitive fondness of the tangible artistic memento, but only as a sign of something else.  Perhaps my work will forever relate less to ephemeral art than to how the process and context add to an artwork’s content.  (I am convinced that my art is strikingly different as a consequence of where it was created, the type of music playing, and whether or not I wore shoes while painting.)  I am not done with this concept.  Someday I hope to better understand film as art (as well as entertainment).  Maybe tomorrow?

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