Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Geography of an Exam from a student’s point of view

6:00 – waking up, assessing the beyond-critical situation. Heart burning, stomach churns and general feeling of weakness or fainting
6:15 – getting ready. Taking papers, pens, notes to put in various places for inspiration, as if you’re allowed with the whole library in the exam room
6:30 – realizing the uselessness of the event that occurred at 6:15. Re-evaluating the situation and taking just one pen and a few papers.
6:40 – setting off so that you’d get on time, before others so you can sit in a good place, behind somebody who knows more shit than you… that is, anyone at all to say the least.
7:15 – getting to the exam room and realizing that all of the seats you wanted are already taken by people who know far less than you do and have been in the exam room since half past five in the morning. Last choice, sit in front without possibility to copy or chat to anyone who might help you pull through a D-
8:00 – the teacher and the supervisor/s enter the room (first reactions of the students: stirring, anxiousness, various information regarding close relatives, especially mothers of the teachers closely linked to public nudity or rape)
8:01 – handing of the subjects
8:01:30 – reactions (again, closely linked to mothers, luck, physical harm and death)
8:02 – “I think it’s time to hand in the exam. Should we stay a bit more just for the sake off it?”
8:30 – Calamity plan : write anything you can think about, even if it’s not on the subject, perhaps you’ll get a passing grade
8:31 – finished writing everything
8:32 – Calamity plan reloaded – self-encouragement (“I shouldn’t worry, I think everyone is doing the same thing”)
10:00 – Time for the exam is up. Handing in the papers to the examining teacher, with a smile that is closely correlated with the first two reactions. The smoking area is governed by the question : “ how did you do? “ with answers closely linked to reproduction organs of the male homo sapiens sapiens.
10:30 – saying goodbye to everyone, with notes like “I didn’t want to come to this stupid university anyway, I’d have been better off doing something else”

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Quote i came across

“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

T. E. Lawrence , The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

(To Stefan. Pretty much you'll get the point of the quote)

Monday, 12 May 2008

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Damien Hirst’s “The physical impossibility of death
In the mind of someone living”

Art has developed throughout time at the same pace as human evolution. From the cave drawings in Africa dating back 25 000 years to modernism and postmodernism, art has been shaped and has helped shape the world we live in. Furthermore it has been a source of infinite questions and variable and uncertain answers regarding its use, its influence on culture and way of life, its quality and manner of appreciation. Perhaps its slippery and uncertain nature, permanently evolving, changing and contradicting it’s self has left most people in the position of not being able to define it and an entity.

Damien Hirst, born 1965, is a British artist who works with installations. He went to study at the Goldsmith College, during which time he had a series of exhibitions, of which “Freeze” was one of the most noted. One of his first big breakthroughs was an installation entitled “A thousand years” which featured a rotting cow’s head, a number of flies and an insect-o-cutor. The whole purpose was the creation of a small life cycle, where the tiny insects would fly around the cow’s head, lay eggs which would hatch, then new insects fly around the steel and glass box, reproduce and lay eggs, after which they would finally run into the insect-o-cutor and die. This work was an instant hit, being bought by Charles Saatchi, who later on was the financial support for the artist and his creations. His work has been focused mostly on death, not as much as the event it’s self but the side effects of ending life, the possibilities that arise from death, the exploration of the body and the anti-thesis of life and death. This installation, together with “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” and a few others comprised the body of work that would bring him the Turner Prize in 1995, after he was nominated for the second time.

Installations of the kind that Hirst uses have been introduced sometime before the middle of the 20th century, as part of the Fluxus movement, which was a subcategory of conceptual art. Following Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” statement, art has suffered from a series of modifications, of which, the most important was the fact that, as Le Witt states in his “Sentences of Conceptual Art”:

“Rational judgements repeat rational judgements. Illogical judgements lead to new experiences”

What the quote was trying to emphasise at that point in time, was the fact that the long period of descriptive art has ended, and now artists have entered a world where the idea is king. No longer will there be need for the perfection in manufacturing the work of art as much as there will be a demand for ideas that will dazzle, confuse and entertain people with the use of new materials, new processes and last but not least, new rules.

One of the most prominent of Damien Hirst’s work has been “The impossibility of death in the mind of somebody living” which featured a 17-foot tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. Like most of his works, it was displayed as a vitrine, trying to isolate the concept of art into an airtight space that would be timeless, and although available for anyone’s analysis, unavailable for a thorough understanding. This would refer to works like “Love’s paradox”, “Lost love” or “Mother and Child divided”. “The impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” was unveiled at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992, together with “A thousand years”.

Coming from a conceptual art background, Hirst tried to impress with this first attempt that critics called “pickled shark” or “£50 000 for fish without chips” but reactions, as any conceptual art object would get, were very contradictory. A simple and basic analysis of the name would lead you to only think that, because of the position of the shark, it’s wide-open mouth and the fact that it’s in a tank, recreating the natural environment that the predator lives in, forced the viewer to take into account the impossible probability of the beast still being alive.

Now the first problem that comes into mind is “What did the artist actually do?” It is quite obvious that he didn’t actually catch the animal, nor built the cage, because as the artist himself stated, Charles Saatchi funded the whole project. So, since the whole project was fully and undeniably dependent on technology and outside people and Hirst had very little involvement in the actual production of the piece, can he be considered artist only for being the father of the unusual idea? Also, another point of view on the name would be the complex insight that Hirst has on death, and the underlining of the fact that humanity still cannot fully understand the act of dying and the events that occur with the person after death. Like most of His work, the names that Hirst gives to his installations are strange and uncommon, forcing the viewer to find a connection between the work and the name (This was also the case with his first exhibition, Freeze, where the work presented were a bunch of coloured dots named after chemical elements of medicinal pills from every and any drug store).

“The impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” was in it’s self a simple but effective concept. The vitrines that have by now become his trademark housed a rare sight for an ordinary person. To some extent, the work’s design can pretty much be the key to it’s immense success. The fact that he decided to use the limitating concept of vitrines somewhat traces back to J. Beuys and his own vitrine installations in the 1960’s. Quite curious that they should use the same installation methods, even if Hirst’s are far more radical, since Beuys was the person who stated the fact that “Anyone can be an artist”. From his exhibitions and actions in the art world a first conclusion of Hirst’s art would be that it has the tendency to follow the Fluxus concepts, of which Beuys was a prominent figure, if not the most prominent one, which stated in their manifesto that they would:

“ Promote living art, anti-art, promote non-art reality to be grasped by all people, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals”

Why should a container with a pickled shark be a form of art? And immediately the anti-question arises: “Why not?”. The main purpose of art is to transmit feelings, informations, thoughts or fears. Perhaps some artists used the opportunity of being able to work with a practically infinite range of media to send out strong reactions through visually shocking the viewer. Some would state that this activity is not art, but then what is it? In the world of conceptual art, paintings like the ones by On Kawara, of dates and newspaper clippings or Mel Ramsden’s black painting entitled “Secret painting” are art. So can the shark. Perhaps there have been trends throughout the 20th century that suppressed some form of expressing oneself through a certain media in favour of another, but, as years went on, the survival of each current would be judged by its quality in the final art product and its ability to reinvent and question its self in order to keep public interest at a constant rate and not fade away.

“The impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” cannot but be considered a piece of art. Looking at the idea of putting the tiger shark in the vitrine, I tried to find an explanation. One of the interesting things is why have a tiger shark in the tank? Tiger-sharks are not common at all in the UK area, mostly being found in the southern hemispheres, off the coasts of Central and South America, Africa, Asia and northern half of Australia. UK’s coasts are home to about 21 species of sharks of which hammerheads, porbeagle (which is the most common), blue shark and rarely Great Whites. The tiger shark used for Damien Hirst’s installation was caught off the coast of Australia by a contracted fishing boat and shipped over to England for the price of, then, £6000. Research into the shark’s lifespan and habits showed an interesting fact. Because it is such an aggressive predator, it has the tendency to attack almost anything, resulting in accidental swallowing of car parts, fire extinguishers and various other man-made items, which led to it being called “the ocean’s trashcan”. Now the question that arises from this fact is whether Hirst was aware of this feature of the animal when he contracted the boat to fish it out from the other side of the globe.

Another reason for choosing this particular species could have been its sheer size. The fact that the viewer, who was in a very formal and limitating space ( that of the gallery ), was put face to face with one of ocean’s deadliest animals, who survived for tens of thousands of years because of its simple but effective nature, basic understanding of the world around it and pure and extreme aggressivity, could have been another logical reason for the choice. It somewhat resembles a simple explanation of the world we live in, where one feels safe mainly because he encloses possible threats and dangers in a sealed container.

It is quite obvious, as previously mentioned, that Hirst made exhibiting in vitrines a trademark. Now we are faced with the question “Why vitrines? And why not some other ways of exhibiting such objects?”. Not going away from “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” we turn towards some of his vitrine-based exhibits that did not contain liquids, exhibits like “Concentrating on a Self-Portrait as a Pharmacist”, “ The Aquired Inability to Escape ” or “ The Asthmatic Escaped ”. Why would the use of vitrines be necessary? The explanation would be isolation. As Michael Collington stated in his book “Blimey”

“Nowadays […] the nothing look would be good. Today someone else might easily do the Silk Cuts (referring to the ashtray full of cigarette butts used in “The Aquired Inability to Escape “) and ashtray without the vitrine, and everybody would be able to tell it’s some kind of art”

Hirst has also exhibited some other work which had absolutely nothing to do with vitrines or installations, like “Authopsy with sliced human brain ”, “Lost Love” or his most recent, most expensive and most talked about piece, “For the Love of God”, the £22 million mould of an 18th century skull, covered with 8601 diamonds from non-conflict areas. At this point, it is without doubt that he can only be considered a mixed media artist.

Until not so long ago, artists would work in one single media, these kind of artists that express themselves through a wide range of mixed media were quite rare. Like the founder and first Director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius stated:

“The old dualistic world-concept which envisaged the ego in opposition to the universe is rapidly losing ground. In its place is rising the idea of universal unity in which all opposing forces exist in a state of balance”

This was one of the revolutions that would change the public’s views on mixed media artists, giving them the freedom that lies with expressing themselves through various forms of art depending on the subject they wish to portray or the I feeling they want to transmit.

Furthermore, his whole body of work stands against some of the avant-garde theories. Even if it is governed by individualism, less in it’s conceiving than in its viewing, analysis and critique, Hirst’s work stands against the theory that Burger fathered:

“ When art and the praxis of life are one, when the praxis is aesthetic and the art is practical, art’s purpose can no longer be discovered, because the existence of two distinct spheres (art and the praxis of life) that is constitutive of the concept of purpose or intended use has come to an end ”

In this particular case, the body of work has very little to do with the praxis of life that avant-gardistes hailed, being ermetic towards it. It goes without saying that, even if the work is difficult and rather complex in it’s simplicity, it provides the viewer with a good baggage of emotions that can be contradictory at times but it comes down to a simple and rather logical conclusion to what does one conceive as art and that is:

“If it makes you think, it’s art”