In this year's summer show at London's Royal Academy of Arts, "Exhibit 1201" is a large rectangular tablet of slate with a tiny barbell-shaped bit of boxwood on top. Its creator, David Hensel, must be pleased to have been selected from among some 9,000 applicants for the world's largest open-submission exhibit of contemporary art. Nevertheless, he was bemused to discover that in transit his sculpture had gotten separated from its base. Judging the two components as different submissions, the Royal Academy had rejected his artwork proper--a finely wrought laughing head in jesmonite--and selected the plinth.That's just classic. It's sort of a reverse of that story from a few years back about the janitor who threw out some art display that looked like a bag of trash.
Moreover, the Royal Academy denies having made an error, for the plinth and hastily carved wooden support were, according to an official statement, "thought to have merit."
You know, I can't look at the word "plinth" and not think of the old Dan Aykroyd character, Leonard Pinth-Garnell. Remember him? He'd be all pretentious and tuxedo-clad, he'd introduce "Bad Conceptual Theater," "Bad Playhouse," "Bad Cinema," "Bad Opera," "Bad Ballet," "Bad Red Chinese Ballet," or "Bad Cabaret for Children," and then he'd inform us how terribly bad that was. I can't visualize the sketches well enough to remember why they amused us so much, but I think it was that the art was so blatantly bad that it was ridiculous to have a fancy expert explain the badness. Or were we laughing at the way art critics are so damned narcissistically pleased with their ability to perceive badness and he was showing things that were so bad and so pornographically pleasurable to him?
But about that plinth....
What more is there to say? I saw this news story a while back and thought about doing a blog post, but decided against it. It's too obvious. Yeah, yeah, there's that. That happened. If someone were making up fake stories to get people to blog them, that would have been one. But it really happened. Shouldn't you take note of something that perfectly bad when it happens?
So Lionel Shriver -- a novelist -- has decided to take on the too-easy topic, so let's see how she -- if she -- manages to make the story her own:
For those who despair that artists these days seem to have lost the skill of fashioning meticulously crafted objects, don't blame Mr. Hensel. While the slate base took only four hours to hack from a mortuary slab, and the little boxwood prop less than an hour, he had painstakingly carved and polished that laughing head for two months. But alas, the sculpture itself has--shudder--emotional content. It was originally christened "One Day Closer to Paradise," a far too expressive title; Mr. Hensel would have been better off with the portentously enigmatic "Exhibit 1201." His laughing head is not only fatally well rendered, but exudes a sense of joy and hilarity, and the overtly evocative is declassé. How much more sophisticated, a stoic square of slate that speaks of--well, ask the viewers.Well described, don't you think?
But why should the amount of time spent making an object be a good test of the value of art? "A finely wrought laughing head in jesmonite" sounds perfectly awful. Oh, oh, but it's jesmonite. And it's finely wrought. I haven't seen this acrylic resin laughing head, but it sounds rather stunningly bad, monumentally ill-advised, and exquisitely awful. I'm guessing the Royal Academy got it right when they rejected that.
But they fell for the plinth. Hey, unlike the oversized noggin, it was made of a traditional material: stone.
[T]he Royal Academy's exaltation of that plinth recalls many a misapprehension in galleries, where visitors are wont to coo over the fire hydrants, ventilation grates and trash cans, all of which are more durably and fastidiously crafted than the works on display. For that matter, one gift that contemporary art seems to have given us viewers is a way of seeing every object in our surround--as I look about my study now, the powerful yet precarious piles of paperbacks, the airy, ephemeral flutter of bank statements--as art. But in that event, we not only don't need commentators; we don't need artists, do we?Ah, so there's my question. Did we need a novelist to tsk over the Royal Academy's gaffe, or was the story already too complete in itself? Well, go read the whole thing. I think Shriver performed a nice riff -- enough to make me pick up her novel and give it a glance the next time I'm in a bookstore.
And let me just add that I love the internet. Writing this post, I decided to make a very perfunctory attempt to find a link for the old story about the janitor who threw out the art. I googled "janitor throws out art," and the top hit was exactly the story I wanted, in precisely the best form: the BBC.com report of the incident (which took place in London):
The bag filled with discarded paper and cardboard was part of a work by Gustav Metzger, said to demonstrate the "finite existence" of art.Hmmm.... I see that this happened back in August 2004. I was blogging then. So did I blog about it (or did that fall afoul or my too-obvious rule)? I search my blog. No, I skipped it at the time, but I mention it here, after a commenter prompts me, in an update to a post about... a plinth!
It was thrown away by a cleaner at the London gallery, which subsequently retrieved the damaged bag.
The 78-year-old artist replaced it with a new bag. The gallery would not reveal whether he would be compensated.