The art of artistic gesture
Here we make an overview of the "kingdom of concepts" - conceptualism as an art movement — and give examples of the artworks with different meanings and subtexts as in modern art the external aesthetics alone cannot be enough.
Conceptualism, or conceptual art (lat. conceptus —thought, concept) is the literary and artistic direction in postmodernism, which proclaims the concept or idea involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic, technical, and material concerns. This art movement originated in the late 1960s to combine the artist’s work and viewer’s research of the artist, to change the usual ways of communication of the viewer and the artwork.
Art historians believe that the foundation of the art movement was laid by Marcel Duchamp
, the theorist of Dadaism and ,
who was the first to invent ready-made things as works of art. Inviting the viewer to search and find the unusual meanings in ordinary things,
Duchamp presented his provocative art objects (
including the famous Fountain urinal) accompanied by a detailed description of what he actually wanted to convey to the public. With his unexpected "works", the artist provoked the viewer to search for the answer to the question "what is art?", leaving aesthetics beyond the scope and filling usual objects with new meanings.
One of the first and most important issues that the conceptualists questioned was the general assumption that the role of an artist is to create special types of material objects, such as paintings or sculptures. They believed that in an ideal world, like the Platonic one, art can be embodied in a physical form, such as a mathematical proof written on a blackboard, but at the same time relate to the objects existing in mind, to concepts, and not to physical objects.
The idea is alpha and omega of conceptualism. The art movement gained momentum in the late 1950s when many modern painters and sculptors began to massively excite the public with their rather shocking versions of answers to the eternal "what is art?". Artists began to hew to conceptualism, and significantly expanded their techniques, using photography, video art, performance art, land art, installations. Some spaces in which objects were created became part of them and received their own meanings. The site where the demonstration of an action or objects took place could be a road or a forest, a street or a sea coast (the so-called site-specific art), and materials from the natural environment were often used as the medium.
One of the founders of conceptual art was Joseph Kosuth
, a contemporary American artist,
and journalist who became famous for his work One and Three Chairs
. The piece consists of a chair,
a photograph of the chair,
and an enlarged dictionary definition of the word "chair". The photograph depicts the chair as it is actually installed in the room,
and thus the work changes each time it is installed in a new venue. In his "Art after Philosophy" (
Kosuth noted the inconsistency of the traditional artistic and historical discourse and suggested exploring the means and motives by which art gained its cultural significance. "Being an artist today means asking questions about the nature of art,
" the artist claimed.
In line with the English art group Art & Language, Kosuth developed the ideas of abandoning the traditional art object in favour of the documented critical research. Conceptual art criticized modernism for its bureaucracy and historicism, and minimalism, for its philosophical conservatism. The practice of conceptual art, especially in its early years, was based mainly on theory and its form, expressed mainly in texts. And although the use of text in art was not an absolute innovation, the artists Lawrence Weiner, Ed Ruscha, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry began to create art exclusively by linguistic means. The text used to be presented as a kind of visual elements and, along with others, be subject to a comprehensive composition, whereas conceptual artists began to use it instead of brush and canvas.
Photo of Lawrence Weiner’s Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole
Walker Art Centre,
Photo: GearedBull. The source.
In the 1960—70s, the international multidisciplinary community of artists, composers, designers and poets Fluxus arose and developed, known for its experimental contribution to various artistic media disciplines and the creation of new art forms. Big fans of Dada, in their experimental representations, the members of the group emphasized the advantage of the art process over the finished object.
The performance Coyote. I Like America and America Likes Me (
1974). The source
The conceptual artworks can be very different and completely unusual, and even, according to some viewers, completely unacceptable in the usual sense of an art object. For example, the "Grapefruit" book by Yoko Ono is considered one of the brightest works of early conceptualism. The book consists of some two hundred imperative sentences, each of which is uniquely describes the work of the subconscious and cannot be met in the surrounding reality. This is not an easy task even for an experienced copywriter, the harder it was in the 1960s. "Listen to the sound of the earth turning", "Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in" — the whole book is filled with such kind of appeals, invented throughout Yoko’s previous life. This book has no practical purpose, only the aesthetic and linguistic ones.
Performance Cut Piece by Yoko Ono, 1964 Photo source: www.mca.com.au
The process began with Yoko sitting on the floor with her legs tucked under her. As a rule, she was wearing one of her best dresses. The performance participant (a visitor) had to cut off any piece of her dress at his discretion with the scissors given to him. At the end of the action, when there was not much left of the dress, they might cut what was under it. The performance record is on display at the permanent exhibition of the MoMA Museum of Modern Art (New York).
"Many people don’t like performance because they saw a lot of bad performances. To tell you the truth, a person actually doesn’t have enough good performances in life," says the "grandmother of the world performance" Marina Abramović. She received her first performance lesson precisely thanks to her father. At the age of 14, Marina asked her father to buy her oil paints. He fulfilled her request, but the dad’s friend decided to play a trick on the teenager. He mixed some paints on a canvas and blew the mix with a firecracker. All the participants remained safe and sound, and then Marina realized for the first time that the process may be more important in art that the result.
The artist’s plans for 2020 include the premiere of the theatrical performance "Seven Deaths". The project will see Abramović play her lifelong hero Maria Callas dying in seven operas. The opera is be staged at the Bavarian State Opera and at the Royal Covent Garden Theatre in London.
Christo Javacheff. The Wrapped Reichstag project
(1971−1995). Photo: © Wolfgang Volz/Christo
One of the first works by the famous conceptualist Christo Javacheff and his wife and colleague Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon was Iron Curtain (1962): the artists created a wall of oil barrels on a narrow Parisian street, which completely closed the street and blocked all traffic. The art object in this case was not the wall, but the traffic jam — kind of protest against the construction of the Berlin Wall. Subsequently, Christo became famous for his land art projects, in which he wrapped gigantic buildings and architectural objects (for example, the Berlin Reichstag) with long fabrics, and his floating installations. Thus, he created the Floating Pier object (2016), covered it with a yellow-orange nylon fabric, which changed its colour and surface texture depending on the time of day and weather conditions. The total length of the installation was 3 km.
In 2019, the 83-year-old land art classic received permission from the French authorities to fulfil his long-held dream of wrapping the Arc de Triomphe
in Paris with fabric. He planned to create this project together with his wife and creative partner Jeanne Claude, but she died in 2009. The work on
wrapping the Arc with fabric is expected to begin on 6 April and end on 19 April 2020.
Photo — christojeanneclaude.net, Wolfgang Volz © 2016 Christo
Chinese artist and sculptor Ai Weiwei
often uses his works to criticize the Chinese authorities. For example,
Ai Weiwei filled the huge Turbine Hall of the London Tate Modern Gallery with hundreds of millions of sunflower seeds made in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen called the porcelain capital: they have been producing ceramics for 1700 years here. Thousands of people were hired to make perfect copies of what nature created. With his installation,
Weiwei touched on the problem of modern mass production practices in China,
where much is still done manually,
machines are expensive,
and labour (
and human life in general) is cheap.
Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most famous and interesting artists of our time. The artist is called Chinese Gandalf for his breath-taking pyrotechnic shows and pictures "painted" with gunpowder, while his grandiose installations without smoke and fire are no less exciting. The Black Ceremony (2011) is one of his spectacular and famous undertakings. In Doha, the capital of Qatar, in 2011 Cai Guo-Qiang staged the first-ever daily salute. Smoke rings appearing after explosions of military shells formed the fireworks.
Behind the "iron curtain" of the Soviet Union,
conceptualism developed in a different way. After all,
the classical conceptualism that arose in the West was a "response" to the consumer realities,
and in the vast expanses of the USSR there was no consumer society. But there was an ideology,
dictatorship and some absurd component of being. The conceptualism was formed in these territories as a response to all this.
thanks to Boris Groys’s article "Moscow Romantic Conceptualism", this artistic direction in literature and art acquired its distinct outline for the first time. "In the art of Moscow conceptualism, a certain period of recent history, i. e. the history of the communist project implementation, finally becomes a form."
One of the bright pages of Moscow conceptualism was the so-called apt-art — apartment art,
when the space of an apartment became both a stage and a world constructed by the artist. The most famous master of "apartment installation" was Ilya Kabakov
Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, 1985 Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris.
Photo: Andrew Dunkley © Tate © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, www.theguardian.com
Ilya Kabakov. The Boy, 1965 Oil, enamel on masonite. Photo source: www.moscowart.net
The Boy is one of the very first installations of the Moscow conceptualist Ilya Kabakov: the image seeks to "go beyond" the canvas, break through the artistic tradition, become an independent object. This is a parody of the geometric clarity of the Renaissance ideal and a response to the authorities' attempt to tailor a person according to the imposed standards. The first version of the work was created in 1961.
Moscow conceptual artist Pavel Pepperstein, a son of Viktor Pivovarov, who was one of the "founding fathers" of the art movement under consideration, calls his style psychedelic realism. In the distant 1980s, Pepperstein founded and led a group of artists called the Inspection "Medical Hermeneutics", which found its own style close to conceptualism. The basis of this style is the synthesis of images and text. According to the artists of the group, it is precisely the style that allows the artists to express any, even the most fantastic ideas.
Famous artists representing conceptualism
Among the outstanding masters of conceptualism
are Joseph Kosuth
, Yves Klein
, Robert Rauschenberg
, Joseph Beuys
, Piero Manzoni Christo Javacheff
, Marina Abramović
, Damien Hirst
, Ai Weiwei
, Ilya Kabakov
, Viktor Pivovarov
, Pavel Pepperstein
, Леонид Войцехов, Oleksandr Roitburd
Main illustration: Main illustration: Pavel Pepperstein. Three old men talking and the broken suprema. 2015 Acrylic on canvas
Artists mentioned in the article