The Belgian conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers once pondered about the question of how art contains meaning for its viewers. When looking at his beautifully fragile eggs exhibited at Hauser & Wirth at this year’s Frieze, one might wonder whether such meaningful art might be discovered beyond the spectacle of London’s renowned art fair.
A good starting point in the quest for meaningful art might be the variety of performance-based and participatory practice that one can find at Frieze this year. These art forms invite the viewer to take part in the construction of meaning so that one might suspect that they contain a high degree of meaning for the viewer when doing so. Given that these practices originated in the desire to create un-sellable art outside of any institutional contexts, it is surprising that Frieze incorporates these practices, which manifests somehow a reductio ad absurdum of their origins. Yet, does it work?
If one has a look at the re-staging of James Lee Byars’ performance ‘Four in a dress’ (a group of four performers is united through the same piece of cloth that connects all of them with each other) at Michael Werner, one quickly realises that it does not. Whilst Byars originally invited the audience to participate in the performance, a pedestal now separates the performers from their audience. The pedestal almost functions like an artificial value enhancer: the performance is declared to be an artwork of high value through the pedestal it is put on. This ignores the fact that the meaning of this piece might only be realised through the interaction with the audience. The irony is that the pedestal that was employed to emphasise the meaning of this artwork at the same time destroys it by drawing a gap between the artwork and its viewers.
Another piece that promises meaningfulness is Pilvi Takala’s ‘The Committee’, the recipient of the Emdash prize. The artist delegated her authorship to a committee of children from Bow who could decide what to do with her prize money. The committee concluded: “We want to build a five star bouncy castle” (http://the-committee.org). Takala’s work is certainly a nice and politically correct attempt to democratise discourse structures, but somehow the ‘Bouncy Castle’ evokes allusions to Angelo Plessas’ ‘Temple of Play’- a spectacular-sized word for ‘playground’ commissioned for the kids of those who can afford the exorbitant entry prices to Frieze (so probably not the children of Bow). Both promise easy entertainment and distraction. Is this why Plato was so worried about the shallowness of this kind of art that prevents us from understanding a significant meaning beyond mere appearances?
The work that best captures the spirit of Frieze is Dan Graham’s ‘Groovy Spiral’ at Lisson: spectacular and expensive. It directly captivates and engages the viewer and fulfills the promise of being entertaining. Probably exactly these pieces that prompt brief excitement work best within a context in which the spectacle rather than meaning counts.
Maybe, Broodthaers was right to wonder: Has art been drained of meaning, like an eggshell minus its egg?
Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld
The annual Frieze London exhibition was in Regent’s Park from the 17-20 October 2013.