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.”
The ICA has had numerous slight exhibitions in recent years—the nadir being reached in October when some fool decided to re-create a pub from Hoxton in the gallery as a readymade. But now it has an ephemeral show with the work of Jonathan Monk, a thirtysomething British artist who lives in Berlin. Monk’s work is unexpected, neat, funny, moving, disciplined and light. Like much of the most important contemporary art, his work displays a cheeky over-familiarity with canons of conceptual and minimalist art. In 1-50 Monk has arranged a pile of 50 old photographic portraits he bought in a Berlin flea market so that each photograph contains an increasing number of people, from one to 50. It’s about our feelings of anonymity, of the sale of history and nostalgia. What Monk is doing—and this is a widespread strategy for making art nowadays—is extending the principles of minimalist sculpture to other less highfalutin areas. In The Distance between me and you, Monk’s 16mm camera films the journey between his house and the film lab—exactly the length of time to shoot one roll of film. This is a play on the late modernist claim that a work of art need refer to nothing but itself, and a filmic version of Escher’s geometric and perspectival tricks. The ingenious installation says it all; the downstairs gallery is a storeroom for all the works in the exhibition, from which individual works, changed on a daily basis, are installed in the exhibition which takes place upstairs. This room is of course a reference to how most art ends up stuffed away in boxes in collectors’ warehouses and museum basements, not as we see it, nicely lit with a big white wall all to itself.
If all there was to this work were japes about minimalism and conceptualism, then it would be navel-gazingly slight. But Monk uses the structures of these ponderous old art movements to say things that are endearing about the everyday. In the slide-piece I do not know who I am, I do not know who I am with (2004), Monk asked his mother to go through his father’s slides to find 40 that showed people she didn’t know and places she didn’t recognise. This is a lovely Sophie Calle-ish statement about the limits of intimacy. In another work, my favourite, Monk has translated an old aphorism into many languages: “A man climbs a mountain because it is there; a man makes a work of art because it is not there.” Each translation is typed up on a piece of headed paper from a corporation offering translation services—the Bilinguagroup, Choice Language Services, Rosetta Translation. It’s typically ephemeral. Just a bit of type on a few pieces of office paper, a bit of a joke really, but because of that a kind of monument to the dreams of the individual in a grid-like society of corporations and institutions.