Selling Nothing 0

Ieva Raudsepa
06/11/2014 

A month ago, the Canadian CBC Radio reported that a 27-year old artist named Lana Newstrom had exhibited - and sold to collectors for incredible amounts – ‘invisible art’: works that actually were not there. Newstrom had commented on her own ‘creations’ in the following way: ‘Art is about imagination and that is what my work demands of the people interacting with it. You have to imagine a painting or sculpture is in front of you. Just because you can't see anything, doesn't mean I didn't put hours of work into creating a particular piece.’ As the news spread, it caused a sensation: many were shocked to hear that invisible ‘art’ can be sold for millions.

The whole thing eventually turned out to be a huge hoax. Tricking and faux reports are the specialty of the particular CBC radio programme. And yet the question, asked in the Guardian Newspaper by the British art critic Jonathan Jones following the revelation, was not why people had believed the report (everyone is aware that contemporary art can sometimes be quite extravagant) but rather –what it actually was that they found so shocking afterwards.

Jones points out that there is nothing new about ‘invisible art’ or ‘the art of nothing’, citing the well-known 4’33’’ piece by John Cage, which is actually four minutes and thirty-three seconds’ worth of complete silence.

The art critic is completely right in that this sort of conceptual strategy is hardly a rarity. One of the most influential art theorists of the 20th century Arthur Danto examined exhaustively the art phenomenon that is often referred to as ‘the problem of indiscernibles’: the question of how to discern between two objects that share the same physical qualities yet are completely different content-wise. In this case, Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Cans or the above mentioned musical piece by Cage are excellent examples to said problem of indiscernibles: the cans are physically identical to the ones that can be found at a supermarket, just like Cage’s silence does not differ from ‘normal’ silence. What turns them into works of art is context and the potential of interpretation. Put in a context of art, the cans are no longer simply cans: they have transformed into objects of interpretation – unlike their twins at the supermarket where they have been placed with a different intention. This was Danto’s way of declaring that the artist had been liberated since anything could now become art – although, of course, not everything actually is art. And so even ‘nothing’ can become a work of art and an object of interpretation. The historical context in this case is necessary to emphasise that there is really and truly nothing new about showing ‘nothing’.

The Guardian art critic explains the brouhaha surrounding the ‘invisible art’ thing with people being shocked by the estimated sums of money for which Newstrom’s works had been sold and the fact that the über-rich are ready to buy complete rubbish in the name of their status, provided that it comes complete with the stamp of high art. That is a valid argument, and clearly the art market is full of surprises. And yet I find the technical side of the selling and buying of this sort of art more intriguing than Jones’ criticism of the consumerist society. What does it actually mean to purchase ‘invisible art’?

In 1958, when Yves Klein creted his Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility), he sold emptiness in exchange for gold. As a result of the deal, the customer received a cheque that confirmed his purchase – the emptiness he had bought. If the buyer was prepared to burn the cheque and become the full owner of emptiness, Klein threw half of the gold into the Seine. If the customer was not ready for that, Klein kept the whole amount of gold.

Klein was inspired by the ideas of Zen; in this case, he saw the attainment of emptiness as a positive state of existence; thus the emptiness on sale represented adherence to a certain religious faith. At the same time, of course, it was also a conceptual comment on the nature of art in general. Although Klein sold seven of these works, it seems that the question as to what he really was selling was intended as part of the work of art. If a cheque only confirms the purchase, not being the work itself, then – where is the work of art proper? In fact, the question of the ‘location’ of a work of art is not only becoming more complex regarding works that have relinquished corporeality; it is also relevant when we think of what it means to buy something that has no firmly established boundaries of materiality. There are quite a few works today consisting of more than just canvas and paint, and the question often is raised when discussing the art of top-level artists.

A vivid example to that is the German artist Tino Sehgal. Although the exact term describing his work still has not been found, some describe his creations as ‘constructed situations’; the renowned curator Hans Ulrich Obrist calls them ‘living sculptures’ but others refer to them simply as ‘questions’. Sehgal, a professionally trained economist and choreographer, has recently become a superstar of the art world. He invents and stages certain ‘situations’, which are then exhibited at museums. The situations can be different: they can involve the viewer or allow him to remain just an observer. Obviously, the artist does not spend his days at the exhibition, acting out the situations: it is done by the ‘translators’, as he calls them, of his ideas. In Sehgal’s Kiss, a man and a woman are passionately kissing each other while lying on the museum floor; their positions are reminiscent of famous kiss depictions from the history of art: from Gustave Courbet to Jeff Koons.

Sehgal’s ‘situations’ cannot be considered as performances: they both are and aren’t unique – the works of art ‘work’ every day from the opening until the closing of the museum while the exhibition is running. It is strictly forbidden to record his ‘situations’ in any way: they must not be photographed or filmed so as not to spoil the authenticity created at the particular place and time. When pictures of Sehgal’s Kiss from the show at Guggenheim New York appeared in the papers, the artist was dismayed and criticised the publications that had printed them.

Sehgal’s works, of course, can be bought (and at quite impressive prices at that). Someone who obtains his work theoretically buys a permission to reconstruct the ‘situation’; there is a special condition, however: either the artist or an official representative of his has to be present at the ‘installation’ of the piece. Otherwise it cannot be considered an original work by Tino Sehgal.

Unlike the examples discussed earlier, Sehgal’s works, of course, are not ‘invisible’. When we visit the exhibition at the museum to view his Kiss, we can have a proper look at it; it is also not hard to distinguish from the setting, as it appears to have been the case with Newstrom’s invisible paintings. At the same time, it is not a work of art that can be taken away by a thief – unlike a 17th-century Vermeer, at least theoretically. Sehgal’s work is not just a pure idea or just the realisation of this idea. And yet its specific location in space cannot be exactly determined, as was the case with Klein’s emptiness.

Returning to the question of where these works can ‘really’ be found, we must come to the conclusion that the problem is actually moot. The question of how do you discern between ‘common’ emptiness and the one created by Klein cannot be answered – but then again, that was never the artist’s intention. Danto praised conceptualism for liberating art from the duty to evoke in the viewer sensual gratification – which also means that often these days a work of art cannot be identified as a constant physical object. The dilemma – is it or is it not art? – just isn’t relevant anymore. And yet the case with Lana Newstrom proves that the question ‘In which cases is it actually possible to create high art from this hardly fresh idea?’ is not going anywhere anytime soon.