A Proposal on Meaning and How to Talk About it.
I don’t like what I feel is the commonly held definition of “meaning” as is pertains to works of contemporary art. I believe that most often when an artist has spoken about the meaning of their work in the 2000s they have been engaging in a passive form of fiction, and presenting the results as fact.
The first clue on the path to these beliefs was the frequent repetition of some form of the phrase phrase “I realized later what the work really meant.” I’ve heard strings of words like this one from many people across the strata of professional practices and from many people I still deeply respect. This phrase implies a few things.
1. There is at the very least a hierarchy of meanings for a work of art, and at most a correct or best meaning which the artist has put forth. From here on out i’ll use the phrase “real meaning” to mean the artist’s proffered meaning in this context.
2. Real meaning exists before the artist is aware of it.
3. Real meaning exists before the work.
For me meaning is the result of interpretation. This implies a few things which run counter to the the implications above.
1. Meaning is plural being made up of many interpretations by as many viewers. The “sum meaning” as I’ll call it, made up of all of these interpretations will, unless undermined, likely not be known to any one person.
2. Meaning is relative and subjective, therefore any value placed on an interpretation of the work by the artist is arbitrary, egotistical, or tactical.
3. Meaning can not exist before a work is at least finished, and at most placed in a display context.
I believe that a real meaning view of art is destructive in three main ways.
The limiting of the experience of a piece of art by a viewer. It is my belief that interpretation is an important part of art appreciation. Some work naturally has a narrower sum meaning. Think for example of a painting that simply consisted of the words “I am embarrassed by Donald trump.” In the case of this painting the sum meaning and real meaning are not terribly different in all likelihood, but that isn't the case with most artworks, and telling a viewer the real meaning of a piece with infinitely broad sum meaning cut off 99.9% of intellectual interaction with the work for any viewer who takes the real meaning as fact. Once more it trains viewers to need those facts, and atrophies their abilities to interpret work for themselves.
Perhaps more pessimistically, I believe real meaning has eroded the quality of art objects over the last two-plus decades. Systematically real meaning has been placed on equal ground with the quality of the art object. It’s my belief that even if you believe ardently in real meaning this equality is indefensible. If the real meaning is as or more important than the art object, then is is an art object in the form of the written word. If it is an art object in the form of the written word, then it should be able to stand alone. If it can not, then it is a part of the artwork, which implies the artwork can not stand alone from it or is at the very least materially lessened by its removal. It’s my belief that there are too many artworks which can’t stand without their real meanings, and that simultaneously most of those real meanings are not deserving the status as art objects on their own. Real meaning opens the door to pandering, lazy curating, and indulgence in back patting for “raising awareness” of causes that are widely accepted and supported in the art viewing world to begin with. In addition I would argue that if the real meaning of a piece of art is truly championing a novel and worthwhile cause, then the written word is likely a better format within which to do so because of its clarity and ability to be easily circulated. One exception to this may be an artist who has an existing substantial platform through which their artwork and its associated real meaning can be amplified and widely dispersed, but even in this case the art object is still nothing more than a kind of currency for the real meaning to trade in. Real meanings, posted on the wall for viewers to read, often before looking at the work, are an opportunity to buy sympathy for an art object that cant create a connection on its own merits, and ironically, because most people agree with the basic tenets of the subjective understanding of meaning, artists are free to say whatever they want about a piece of work no matter how tenuous the connection to the art object may be without raising questions of authenticity even within themselves.
I think embracing sum meaning is a way to ensure that art objects are valued for qualities that exist within the objects themselves and to create a system in which artists are allowed to think and talk about their work more broadly and fluidly, but the transition between the two schools of thought requires a redefining of the process in which the artist releases work into the world.
My first instinct on how to handle this release was to say nothing. In strict reading of the definition of sum meaning my own personal interpretations and relationship to the work carry no special value, and in fact carry the overwhelming potential to undercut the work, so saying nothing is a natural response. In truth I hope that in the future formally saying nothing about the meaning of a piece of art is a viable solution, that being the case would indicate to me a healthy culture of thoughtful viewership and a broad acceptance of the theory of sum meaning. In practice, however, saying nothing about your work in 2020 is a severe handicap on the professional career of an artist.
My second instinct was to say everything. If sum meaning is massively plural than the broadness of the potential understandings of a piece of work can be demonstrated by writing about a number of disparate subjects and relating them back however loosely to the work itself. As an academic exercise this was personally satisfying, and as a mid-point between the two theories it had merit, but in the end on its surface it was simply pluralizing the accepted practice of the presentation of real meaning and had more to do with pushing back on that practice than it did establishing a more effective alternative.
My solution as of this moment is to say more, and use precise language to keep what I say within a conversational/informational tone and try to make clear what exactly I think value of my interpretation of the work is and isnt. What follows would not, in true practice, be intended for a viewer directly, but rather for art professionals only. The information would be passed on to a curator, dealer, critic, collector, or someone of the like and it would become their responsibility to tailor it to their public. I’m aware that many of these professionals would, at present, turn what I’m about to share into something that would look like a real meaning on the wall next to the work, but it is my hope that the practice of presenting work in my proposed manor would lead to a shift from that proclivity. What I’m passing on doesn’t look much different from what may get passed on from artist to galleries in many cases as is, but what I hope the slight format and language shifting would accomplish is a shift in tone from Oration to Conversation, and a depedestalizing of the artists interpretation of the work.
Title: To Sigh, Again and Again
Explanation of Title
A. To Sigh is homophonic with To Cy (Twombly). Twombly’s “marbles” were the inspiration for the all white motif in this work.
B. To Sigh; infinitive meaning an audible gesture of exasperation. The use of “To Sigh” rather than “To Cy” is done for two reasons. The first is to broaden the potential understanding of the work through the use of a more general or abstract titling, second is to reference the sense of exasperation throughout the word as a result of the current pandemic and my personal exasperation with the response of my country and country mates to the aforementioned pandemic and ensuing realities.
C. Again and Again is a reference to both the scale of the aforementioned exasperation and to the fact there piece is made of three individual sculptures.
Size: 3 pieces, each measuring 180 x 40 x 40cm
Explanation of size: I think when a piece is taller than its viewer it unlocks a more cautious response. Something in the brain tells a person to take heed of something larger than themselves and can lead someone to look a bit longer or respond a bit stronger than they may with something just 10% shorter. For that reason when I make larger work I tend to aim for it to be a half head taller than myself at a minimum, working from the (very possibly false) assumption that I am of average height. The width of the pieces was set by the upper limits on technical constraints based around the firing of the hollow box forms which create the pedestals to 1300c
Materials: Porcelain; 3 unique bodies. Letters are made from “High White,” while the tubes and feet are made from one “middle white” body, and the boxes are made from a second “middle white” variation. Each clay body was selected for its ability to benefit in the making of each part. There are also two separate glazes on the work. A white is used predominantly with a pale celadon used sparingly at the bottom of each piece. All glazes and clays are fired to 1300c.
Production: September 2019 - May 2020.
Production of the “tubes:” tubes are coil built by my hand and single fired.
Production of the “letter flows:” For the first time in the “fountain” series these letters were cast (vs being press molded from 2016-2018 and originally being cookie-cut) the pieces are made of roughly 7000 individual letters. The letters are made, bisque fired, then glazed individually, arranged into forms in the kiln, and fired to 1300c at which point they become solid glazed-fuzed objects.
Production of the “boxes:” The boxes are made in collaboration with Li Hui Cheng, a slab maker based in Jingdezhen. The forms have interior structures and vent holes on the bottom. They are single fired on a shrink slab to 1300c.
Production of the “feet:” The feet are press molded, glazed on their tips, and single fired to 1300c.
Genesis of the “Fountain” series: The series originates with a simple fountain in a park/cemetery in Copenhagen in 2012. The concept of a park/cemetery, the odd angles and seemingly minimal support of the spigot, and the cement bowl all struck me at the time and I kept the image I took of it on hand
Genesis of the “tube:”I first recreated the spigot in ceramic form in 2013. The specific coil building technique used is one I learned from Trevor Bennett in 2010 and had used on my “Stool” series previously. An extreme cantilever was introduced to try to capture to precariousness possessed by the real fountain in Denmark. The tubes have stayed mostly the same throughout the series except the occasional adornment placed on top to reference the valve of the real spigot.
Genesis of the “letter flows:” The first letter flow was made in 2015. I had started working with the letters themselves in 2012, first to replace in-gallery artist statements with commentary, and later as a medium for public graffiti. The first letter flow was made during a time when I was challenging myself to carry out bad ideas to test myself. I had conceived of the letter flow when the first tube was made in 2013 but thought it was cliché, and would be too overpowering conceptually.
Genesis of the “box:” After a fountain series piece was broken in a museum in 2016 I decided I wouldn’t continue the series in China until I found a way to make them able to withstand impact. When adapting the series for a public sculpture proposal in 2019 I realized that using a permanent pedestal would allow me to fix the work firmly together (previous pieces had be assembled on site on longer “boardwalk” platforms). Li Hui Cheng and I had worked together previously on my “Side Salad” series and he was able to sort out the technical requirements of a box large enough to allow sufficient surface area and provide enough aesthetic weight.
Genesis of the “feet:” The feet are necessary functionally and formally to lift the box from the ground. The form is based directly on a Zimra Biener piece made in our studio in 2017. The feet were originally designed for the “Non-Specific Monuments” series.
Artist’s Interpretation Upon Completion: To me these pieces most reflect the constant flow of undesirable words I’ve confronted myself with over the past 4 months. I’ve talked in the past about the works being reminiscent of the hum of conversation in a language I don’t understand that has been common in my life over the past half-decade, but they don’t carry that association for me anymore. The brand of language they connote for me now is uninformed and unrequested opinion. It physically hurts me to read American news, and out of a need to know about the situation my fiends and family are confronting over the last few months I have not been able to turn off the tap. The blatant biases all around, the cherrypicking of facts, the piling on of widely agreed upon “bad guys,” and the seemingly ubiquitous business model of pandering to confirmation bias all come together to make me wonder if I’ve lost touch with my home country or if it has lost touch with the world and with genuine thoughtfulness. Because the letters flowing in these works don’t reach the floor there is an implied loop, or recycling of the “water.” That loop is, to me, similar to the reverberation and amplification of commonly held beliefs created by a conversation and media landscape that is increasingly tailored to individual consumers. Just as the letters reach their lowest point they begin to be refreshed by the distance from their source and turn a healthier blue from their oxidation or interaction with the outside world, only to be sucked back in, whitewashed, and sent down the same never-ending path. The ramification of the application of the pedestal to the works is that unlike previous works in the series these pieces are separate from one another and lifted from the floor. The isolation that is created, in the context of everything I’ve laid out here, is meaningful to me as both self reflective and possibly indicative of the current state of American nature.
Price: 300,000RMB for the set. 130,000RMB for an individual piece.