The Collected Works: Art column comprises short introductions to visual artworks created between 1965 and 2016. This roundup is a summary of all the Collected Works: Art articles published in 2017.
Having a laugh
Staring down the camera with indifference, Ai Weiwei drops a priceless urn to the ground. Falling from his outstretched hands, it smashes into smithereens. Ai’s action, caught in three photographs – before, during, after – serves as both a provocation and a catalyst for debate about traditionalism and preservation. In a twist, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn inspired a copycat to break another urn – albeit one decorated by Ai.
As much fun as Ai may have had, his expression doesn’t betray this. Geng Jianyi’s work The Second Situation shows no such restraint. Its four paintings portray the artist guffawing, the reason for his glee unknown. In its colourful freneticism, Chicago Board of Trade II, a photograph by Andreas Gursky, seems just as joyous – until we take a closer look. The scene is crammed full of stockbrokers, bustling activity, and clutter.
Arcs and angels
In New York’s Federal Plaza in the early eighties, a 120 foot long metal colossus towered over passers-by. Leaning at a precarious angle and obstructing business people’s paths to work, Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc provoked anger, its fate eventually decided by a public hearing. Advocates and detractors had their say, with moral, artistic, and even therapeutic arguments put forward. Critics of the sculpture won in the end; it was removed in 1989.
Antony Gormley’s behemoth Angel of the North was met with a similar backlash from the community of Gateshead. Standing on a hill overlooking the A1 road, though, it was spared the wrath of commuters, and came to be a proud emblem of Tyneside culture and tribute to its history. With Venus of the Rags, Michelangelo Pistoletto showed rather less respect to the past, giving a classical statue the backdrop of a mountain of laundry.
‘Within a five-foot recess lies a fragmented human body, its parts scattered across sixteen monitors of various sizes’: a foot, an ear, and a groin lie side by side. This is Gary Hill’s deconstructed video self-portrait, Inasmuch As It Is Always Already Taking Place. Instead of presenting himself in his entirety, as might be expected, Hill tears himself limb from limb, drawing attention to the many constituent elements of his physical form.
Cindy Sherman may depict herself in full with her photograph Untitled #97, but we still sense that something is being hidden. Posing in a bathrobe, Sherman meets our gaze without hesitation, defying objectification. Here, she finds a kindred spirit in the androgynous figure of Nan Goldin’s Ryan in the Tub, a friend of the artist who reclines in dingy bathwater, her face illuminated.
Flowers and fireflies
For Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, thirty-nine places are meticulously set out at the dining table. In front of each seat is themed crockery and tablecloth, all handmade, paying homage to a particular woman of prominence. Honoured attendees include Sappho, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf, while the names of a thousand more female innovators are inscribed onto the tiled floor, willing history not to forget them.
Takashi Murakami’s grinning floral sculpture Flower Matango may strike viewers as frivolous frippery, but its tackiness didn’t stop it being shown in the Palace of Versailles. While Flower Matango’s regal stint seemed designed to subvert and distract from the grandiose surroundings, Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored room Fireflies on the Water immersed visitors completely, their peace disrupted only by the desire to take a selfie.
MC Escher’s tessellations and illusions are often viewed as ‘divertissements’, neat little tricks that provide entertainment but not much else. With the ambitious woodcut Metamorphosis III, the artist turns this slight to his advantage. Its series of transformations – ‘insects, lizards, fish and fowl, ships and buildings’ – include a city morphing into a chessboard, perhaps insinuating that life itself is built on such diversions.
Other artworks that draw on such visual playfulness include: Etel Adnan’s Untitled #209, a beguiling painting of a sun on the horizon; Cao Fei’s multimedia series COSPlayers, which positions a legion of costumed role players against the backdrop of urban China; and Janine Antoni’s performance piece Gnaw, in which huge blocks of chocolate and lard are chewed up and spat out by the artist, then moulded into gifts.