Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain at Tate Modern – how to display a revered object

The current exhibition of work by Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali in the Royal Academy features Duchamp’s most famous work, Fountain, displayed in an arrangement in which it rests on a large table-like display stand on which in jostles with many other pieces of three dimensional art by the two artists (including Dali’s lobster telephone and Duchamp’s bicycle wheel).
This is in huge contrast to the way in which the work has (until recently) been displayed in Tate Modern, where it has stood in glorious isolation like a revered religious relic. The photo below hopefully gives some impression of the reverence that the work inspires.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain displayed at Tate Modern

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Olafur Eliasson at the Frieze Art Fair, London.

I’ve been a regular visitor to the Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regents Park for many years now.
In some years one particular work of art will stand out as my favourite.
This year it was a work by Olafur Eliasson.
Last year it was a work by Olafur Eliasson, and the year before that it was a work by Olafur Eliasson too.
In none of those years did I know that the work that I was admiring was by him when I first saw it – it was only when I looked at the labels afterwards that I realised that they were all by the same person.

Here’s this years example, titled The hinged view, exhibited by the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

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Mirror-based art with infinite reflections – Oxo Cube

Mirror based contemporary art - OXO cube

This is a piece of contemporary art that I’m working on composed of a cube in which the vertical sides are all mirrors with their reflective surfaces facing inwards.
The multiple reflections that are created by the mirrors make the patterns on the floor of the cube seem to form the word ‘OXO’ in each corner of the cube, with the word itself then multiplied many times by the process of infinite reflection that is set up when mirrors are facing each other and are parallel.

The design on the base of the cube is shown below. The word ‘OXO’ doesn’t occur at all. It is the fact that the word OXO is symmetrical about both its horizontal and vertical centre-lines that allows the shapes in the cube’s base to be reflected and then reflected again to generate the word.

Base of mirror based contemporary artwork - OXO cube

The infinite reflections set up within the cube can be seen in the image below.

Mirror based contemporary artwork - infinite reflections

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The Path by Michael Puett, and the fallacy of the True Self

Harvard professor Michael Puett, who runs a course in classical Chinese philosophy, has recently co-authored a best-selling book, The Path, along with author and journalist Christine Gross-Loh

The Path presents ancient Chinese philosophy as a guide (or path) to how to lead a fulfilling life in the modern world,

It sounds like a standard pseudo-spiritual self-help book, but Puett insists that if anything it’s the opposite: it’s an anti-self-help book (although its very title, The Path, and its subtitle, What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, makes me have my doubts). It does however stand against the current self-help trends for promoting atomised individuality and self-centred solipsism. The book is also critical of navel-gazing ‘mindfulness’, the authors pointing out that in Buddhism, mindfulness was originally intended to break down the self, but that in the western version of Buddhism it’s often been distorted as a way of looking inwards and embracing the self.

One of the concepts that is pursued in the book is the fallacy of the authentic self.  I’m a big fan of this concept (the belief that the authentic self is a fallacy, that is – not the concept that there is such a thing as the authentic self), so here are a few of my thoughts on it.

The concept of the authentic self postulates that everyone has a core being or self that is somehow their true self – a self that is invariably superior to the version of themselves that functions in the everyday world (The everyday functional self is, after all, inevitably corrupted by the messiness of the real world, while the true self is in a state of pristine and pure isolation).

This is a nice conceit, with its attractive inference that everyone is at heart nicer than they seem. However, the very fact that this concept implies that we’re all quite pleasant people underneath should ring a few alarm bells in the self-delusion department.

The truth is, I think, that people are the sum of their interactions with the world: without the world we are nothing but a mass of cells and bio-electrical circuitry. Our ‘selves’ are an accretion of reactions to phenomena outside ourselves, such as our environments and our relationships with other people. It’s true that our reactions to these phenomena are laid down onto individual brains that are all structured differently to each other due to genetic variation, meaning that each individual will have a propensity to react differently to the world and to the experiences that it throws at them. I like to think of this genetically determined structure within the brain as a sort of ‘mind skeleton’ that is used to support the mind or self as it is constructed over the years as the result of experience, in a similar way to how the physical ‘body skeleton’ supports the body as it develops over the years (for better of worse). So I’m afraid that underneath the functioning self with which we interact with the world we don’t have a core ‘true self’ at all, just a rather fancy arrangement of scaffolding.

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Here’s a cartoon that I drew in 1994 on the subject of finding your ‘True Self’ (I’ve held opinions on this topic for quite a few years). It was published as a greetings card by Paperlink.

true-self-cartoon

Here’s another cartoon on the subject:

magic-mirrors-dorian-gray-true-self-cartoon

There’s a bit more on this subject in my book, Where Are We, Why Are We, What Are We? (And Why do we Want to Know?) , as detailed here.

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What are the odds that you exist? The fallacy of your specialness.

What are the chances that you exist? That is, you personally.
I’ve heard this question posited many times.
I think Richard Dawkins mentioned it in one of his books, or maybe in an interview, and I’ve recently seen it on the back cover of the new book by Dr Alice Roberts titled “The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being“, (the book that gets my prize for the wittiest book title of the year, being based, in case you don’t know, on the book title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera).

The question is usually asked in something along the lines of: what are the chances that your mother and father would meet? Maybe your mother turned left instead of right at a street corner and bumped into the man who was later to become your father. What are the chances of that?
And what are the chances that your grandparents met, and that their parents met, and that their parents met before them?
The chances are surely vanishingly minute.
Yes they are.
Your existence is statistically almost infinitely unlikely.
(Hence the title of Alice Robert’s book, The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being.)

However, as incredibly unlikely statistically your own personal existence is, it isn’t actually incredible in the sense of being beyond credibility.

As far as I can work out, the statistic concerning the likelihood of one’s own existence is a trivial or mundane statistic – in that it may be true but it has little significance.

Here’s an analogy to show what I mean.

I’m going to type a list of thirty random numbers.

386720635284219760463584372974

There it is.
Now, what are the chances of that row of numbers being those particular digits in that particular order?

The chances are one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

(A simpler example of the same principal is that the chances of writing any specific list of digits that’s only two digits long is one in a hundred – the combinations being from 00 to 99, or in other words a hundred possible combinations.)

You probably don’t think that it’s incredible that I’ve just written down a list of numbers that has only a one in a million million million (etc) chance of existing. I had to write down a list of thirty digits after all, and every list of thirty digits has the same incredibly low chance of being written. But one of them is inevitably going to be written.

It’s the same with people.
The chances of you existing may be almost vanishingly unlikely, but if it wasn’t you who existed it’d be someone else, in the same way that if it wasn’t that list of thirty digits it’d be a different one. (Your mother may have turned right at the street corner instead of left and bumped into a different man who would father a child who wasn’t you, while your father (who now wasn’t bumped into) continued on his journey to a work appointment at which he would meet his future wife).
We’ve got to end up with someone rather than no-one. It just doesn’t have to be you.
Or if it doesn’t have to be someone it has to be something. Maybe a descendant of the dinosaurs (because the asteroid missed), or more likely something that we can’t even envisage because there are just so many possibilities – just as there are so many possibilities when it comes to writing random thirty digit lists of numbers.
We haven’t even considered random million digit lists of numbers yet. Let’s not bother – just because something’s vanishingly unlikely doesn’t make it special.

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Yayoi Kusama: The Passing Winter at Tate Modern

One of my favourite pieces of work in the new Switch House extension to Tate Modern is The Passing Winter by Yayoi Kusama.
This had a lot to do with my fascination with art that is based on mirrors.
The work is a hollow cube about a metre square, with the walls being composed of mirrors both inside and out. The mirrors are pierced with circular holes that allow the observer to peer into the cube and to see the internal mirrors. The internal mirrors reflect each other, and thus each reflection in each mirror reflects the reflection in the mirror, which is reflecting the reflection and so on, creating a sequence of reflections that would continue infinitely were it not for the physical constraints on the mirrors (such as the fact that with each reflection a small amount of brightness is lost, making each reflection slightly dimmer than the previous one).

A recent visit to the gallery confirmed that it’s not just me who’s fascinated by mirrors.
The room that houses The Passing Winter contains a fair few other worthy pieces of contemporary art, but none of them drew the gallery-goers’ attention in quite the way that Yayoi Kusama’s work did. It was the one piece of art around which people hovered in small animated crowds. People studied the other art in the room in quiet contemplation, but when the same people approached the The Passing Winter their moods changed to ones of outward engagement. And out came the cameras.

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One of the lures of The Passing Winter is obviously that the spectator is reflected in the artwork, thus effectively becoming part of the artwork itself. Everyone’s interested in themselves, so everyone’s interested in this artwork. Especially when they themselves are part of it.
I’m sure that some critics may dismiss the work because of its crowd pleasing tendencies – accusing it of being dangerously close to a fairground attraction, with its appeal being partly to the audience’s baser narcissistic tendencies – a criticism that’s sometimes levelled at Anish Kapoor’s distorting mirror pieces.
But then quite a lot of art panders to the narcissistic tendencies of its audience, if only to massage their feelings of self worth, so I don’t see that as a problem.

The photo of The Passing Winter on Tate Modern’s own web site shows the work in isolation, with no one looking at it. This makes the piece look a bit inert and doesn’t convey anything of the dialogue between the work and the audience. I hope that my photos show the enlivening effect of the work.

When I first encountered this work I wasn’t aware of who the artist was, so I was pleased when I discovered that it was Yayoi Kusama, an artist whom I already greatly admired. She’s probably best known for her ‘polka dot’ artworks – her obsessive application of coloured dots to everything that she encounters (In 2012 Tate Modern staged an excellent exhibition of Kusama’s work, their only mistake being to stage it at the same time as an exhibition of Damien Hirst, forcing an inevitable comparison between Hirst’s dot paintings and Kusama’s polka dots. Rightly or wrongly, Kusama’s obsessive polka dots made Hirst’s ranks of uniform dots look rather lazy).
It was probably at that exhibition that I first came across Kusama’s mirror rooms which, as with The Passing Winter, used the device of parallel facing mirrors to create the effect of infinite regression. It’s a common enough phenomenon (you can see it in mirror lined department store lifts any day of the week), which I remember being fascinated in during by student days many years ago, however Kusama was the first person whose work I’ve seen who’s been able to harness the effect at the level of the sublime.
I suspectt that it’s because of her mirror based artworks that I’ve embarked on my own explorations of the genre, complete with infinite regression, as you can see here – mirror based art.

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Contemporary art: mirror based art

Mirror based contemporary art

A study of mirrors and reflections using everyday objects, in this case screws from a hardware shop, to create interesting formations.
The screws are arranged in a quarter circle in the right angle between two mirrors to form a dynamic circular configuration.
Screws lend themselves to this study partly because of their physical qualities – being large at one end and tapering away at the other, with their interesting screw thread along their lengths – and partly because of their intended purpose, which is to hold things firmly in place (which is the exact opposite of the dynamism that they hopefully exhibit in this work.

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