Walking can be art— but must it be?
These books suffer from the belief that art alone can confer cultural value
By Benjamin Eastham. From Frieze daily edition
Published online: 17 October 2013
In 1999, British Sky Broadcasting introduced an innovative new accessory to its coverage of Premier League football: “PlayerCam”, which enabled the television viewer to track the movement of a single player as the game played out around him. “PlayerCam” was initially exciting to enthusiasts eager to replicate the experience of watching a game live, during which one often keeps an eye on an influential player irrespective of his proximity to the immediate action, but its popularity dwindled as it became clear that the isolation of a single protagonist from his team could not properly represent his engagement with the field of action. Allied to which, it was boring to watch. Seven years later, Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon released the feature-length film Zidane: a 21st-Century Portrait, which used 17 cameras to track the eponymous sporting genius through the course of a single match.
It was galling for the football fan to read accounts of the film that suggested it provided new ways of “reading” football and “elevated” sport to the level of art, when sport is in no need of any such elevation (as anyone devoted to both codes will know). The notion that an object, practice or activity gains cultural value only when a curator or critic deigns to confer the status of art upon it is one that has long, and justly, irritated those beyond contemporary art’s coterie. This frustration (which, importantly, is directed at the theoretical appraisal of the work of art rather than the work itself) often comes to mind when reading a selection of new books that are symptomatic of this tendency.
In Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, the curator Stephanie Smith claims that the exhibition catalogued by the book “activates senses—touch, smell and especially taste—that have historically been devalued or simply considered irrelevant to high culture”. Which might surprise gastronomes. In fairness to Smith, her focus is less upon the study of food than on surveying an “important category of contemporary artistic practice: the artist-orchestrated meal”, from the heavily choreographed dinners hosted by the Italian Futurists to works such as Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (Food Truck), 2012, for which the Iraqi-Jewish artist served food cooked by US war veterans and Iraqi immigrants. There is no denying her assertion that hospitality can be a “source of aesthetic inspiration” and “break down barriers”, but the eagerness to claim another arena of human activity for art seems to me to obscure the fact that the best work here is successful for reasons beyond its inclusion of food.
In a similar mode, David Evans introduces The Art of Walking: a Field Guide by citing recent US governmental research into using individuals’ gaits as a means of identification. The (abandoned) project, he contends, “confirm[s] the ongoing significance of bipedal motion”. One might imagine, were one considering this from anything other than an art-theoretical perspective, that the fact of seven billion people employing bipedal motion to perform such tasks as going to the toilet, getting to the shops, hauling water and so on might be sufficient to confirm its significance. The unpromising grandiosity of this statement is, however, mitigated by his decision to prioritise pictures over text in documenting art “in which the act of walking is an integral component”, important examples of which include Richard Long’s ground-breaking A Line Made by Walking, 1967, and Francis Alÿs’s wonderful The Collector, 1991. The effect is, as Evans promises, a book that blurs the lines between exhibition and publication and, in doing so, feels less overbearing in its determination to convince the reader that the process of walking is art in and of itself.
Christoph Ribbat’s Flickering Light: a History of Neon takes a different tack. Neon signs are, the art historian contends, a “new craft product” and thereby refute the general assumption (buttressed by the above publications) that art is no longer concerned with the material. Leaving aside the stilted narrative structure and clumsy language (“our culture has become increasingly less concerned with the material object”), this survey of a century-old material is pleasingly unconcerned with reclassifying the greatest neon commercial signage as art, as if that were to somehow ennoble it. Presented against the work of neon artists such as Bruce Nauman, Lili Lakich and Dan Flavin (who used mass-manufactured fluorescent tubes), we see how the same material can be a means to different and equally satisfying ends. His point is that commercial signage is not neon art, and neon art is not commercial signage (or should not be). To conflate the two misrepresents both art and commerce.
Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, Stephanie Smith, ed, Smart Art Museum, 380pp, $45 (hb); The Art of Walking: a Field Guide, David Evans, ed, Black Dog Publishing, 192pp, £16.95, $24.95 (hb); Flickering Light: a History of Neon, Christoph Ribbat, Reaktion Books, 224pp, £19.95 (hb)
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