Jonathan Monk's ICA show is the best of a type of work that is not meant to last. If the art world still liked isms, this idea would be called ephemeralismby Ben Lewis / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Nowadays in the world of contemporary art it is necessary to be able to distinguish between the slight and the ephemeral. The slight is a quickly and easily made work of art that costs a lot of money and makes a small or tired point. The ephemeral is a quickly and easily made work of art which uses the aesthetic of the transient and makeshift. It’s the conceptual art version of the doodle and of Cartier-Bresson’s photographic “decisive moment.” It’s such a distinctive and recent genre of artistic activity that, were it still a fashionable thing to do in the art world, it would have been given its own “ism”—ephemeralism.
How can one tell the difference between the ephemeral and the slight? I admit I am still practising, but Damien Hirst’s spin and dot paintings are clearly slight—a machine-made mass-produced range of art works, which hammers home once more that a work of art is not by definition the product of the artist’s hand and imagination. So, probably, is Sarah Lucas’s frozen chicken stuck between her legs and Tracey Emin’s beach hut. These works are familiar in their approach and obvious in their content. The new ephemeral works of art are different—they are epitomised by the temporary sculptures of Swiss artist-duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, which date back to the early 1980s. These are sculptures that balance forks, bottles, chairs, brooms and sausages in daft precarious constructions that are quickly photographed before they collapse. Like slight works of art, they make fun of the lofty claims of art to significance, but unlike the slight works they really do say something significant; they are original and beautiful takes on the genres of memento mori and still life.
The godfathers of ephemeralism are John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler, examples of artists who are legendary in the art world and more or less unknown outside it. From the 1960s, they produced work using words, photographs, readymades, collages or just ideas. Huebler’s best known work is Duration Piece #14—Global, in which he offered a reward for the capture of the bank robber Edmund Kite McIntyre. The purchaser of the work had to assume responsibility for the reward. And Huebler made perhaps the most influential statement in the last half century of art history: “‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting: I do not wish to add any more.”