Two visits to the Guggenheim

The last time I visited the Guggenheim was just over a year ago. I don’t actually remember the name of the artist exhibiting or much of their work for that matter, but I think that says more about how hungover I was than the artwork itself. The night before (and the first of my month long trip) I was formally introduced to Spain with a large dose or five of kalimotxo, and so my walk to the museum from the hostel felt more like the end of a week long pilgrimage rather than an introspective and intellectually rigorous morning.

But this inscrutable fogginess also afforded me a certain insight, a more detached perspective, informing my perceptions of these superbly large structures in ways that would not have been possible, I am sure, with my usual everyday clarity (in comparison, at least). In this state of childish wonder I did not read the descriptions on the placards, or even the biographical information of the artist, but instead stood mesmerised by these huge slabs of material (steel – I have just found out, from looking up online. The artist is called Richard Serra, also, and a link to the work is here.)

This state of mind could not have been more different from my feelings of pure disinterestedness when walking into the Jeff Koons exhibition at the same museum, only a few weeks ago. This was the piece that faced me, titled ‘Chainlink’:

chainlink

I am not suggesting that we must be hungover to fully appreciate art: the works of these two artists are hugely divergent, not least because of their aesthetics. Koons wanted me to work hard to understand, Serra allowed me to stand in awe and wonder.

But if Koons needed me to understand then what I needed was an audio-guide. The last and only time I had seen his work was online and embedded in a facebook cover photo which elicited a laugh and then was gone again in favour of another clickbait-y image on my newsfeed. Perhaps if I hadn’t have succumbed to facebook’s persistent attention seeking I would have been more equipped for that which confronted me.

And so I depended on this audio-guide to do some explaining, to go against all I had been taught about critically engaging in works of art, in all that I had read about there being no understanding, no “getting” it, just experiencing, letting the artwork seep into a &/higher state of consciousness/&. I wanted to understand what exactly was going on with that inflatable turtle and hippo chained to a fence. Why were they there? What did it mean? Does it have to mean anything at all?

The audio-guide first told me this:

‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats.

 Koons returns to the readymade, but creates these hybrids in which his sculptures are placed against a fence.’

 These concepts were not totally mind-stretching, not yet at least. He continued:

 ‘We don’t know whether the fence is trapping them like a web, or whether they are trying to cross over it, climbing to get to the other side. They are life preservers that keep us afloat, that save our lives, but here they are immortalised on the metal fence.’

 You can see why I began to get frustrated. Bringing words in like ‘immortalised’ only adds to the incongruity of the text with the image I had in front of me. It was peculiar.

I stopped the audio and looked back, to the image. The audio, of course, persisted, but I started it from the beginning so that I could get this all in one go. It went, of course, like this:

 ‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats. Koons returns to the readymade, but creates these hybrids in which his sculptures are placed against a fence. We don’t know whether the fence is trapping them like a web, or whether they are trying to cross over it, climbing to get to the other side. They are life preservers that keep us afloat, that save our lives, but here they are immortalised on the metal fence.

 Once again, Koon’s sends an ambiguous message. It is another way of showing us the dark side of transformation of self, of the ambiguity that any change entails.’

 Pause. Now these grand notions of “ambiguity” just feel pretentious. This is the point at which I began to scribble the audio down onto my scrap piece of paper, as quickly as I could. So I could show it to someone else and know if I was just reading into it or if it was, really, utterly ridiculous. It meant listening to the words six or seven times, the beginning more than the end. It had a strange effect on me.

What happened was that, by hearing these words again and again, I began to feel almost comfortable with them. They weren’t unfamiliar, grand statements about aesthetics; but sensible, reasonable, even interesting findings.

Read it again and see if you feel the same:

‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats. Koons returns to the readymade, but creates these hybrids in which his sculptures are placed against a fence. We don’t know whether the fence is trapping them like a web, or whether they are trying to cross over it, climbing to get to the other side. They are life preservers that keep us afloat, that save our lives, but here they are immortalised on the metal fence. Once again, Koon’s sends an ambiguous message. It is another way of showing us the dark side of transformation of self, of the ambiguity that any change entails.’

Perhaps it would work best if I split it into chunks like so, to imitate more closely what I myself heard. Keep an eye on the original image:

 ‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats.

*

 ‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats.

 Koons returns to the readymade, but creates these hybrids in which his sculptures are placed against a fence.

 *

 ‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats.

 Koons returns to the readymade, but creates these hybrids in which his sculptures are placed against a fence.

 We don’t know whether the fence is trapping them like a web, or whether they are trying to cross over it, climbing to get to the other side.

 *

 ‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats.

 Koons returns to the readymade, but creates these hybrids in which his sculptures are placed against a fence.

 We don’t know whether the fence is trapping them like a web, or whether they are trying to cross over it, climbing to get to the other side.

 They are life preservers that keep us afloat, that save our lives, but here they are immortalised on the metal fence.

 *

 ‘Koons again invites us to reflect on breathing, which makes it possible to give the objects its volume, and also on the water on which it floats.

 Koons returns to the readymade, but creates these hybrids in which his sculptures are placed against a fence.

 We don’t know whether the fence is trapping them like a web, or whether they are trying to cross over it, climbing to get to the other side.

 They are life preservers that keep us afloat, that save our lives, but here they are immortalised on the metal fence.

 Once again, Koon’s sends an ambiguous message. It is another way of showing us the dark side of transformation of self, of the ambiguity that any change entails.’

 Has your perspective changed?

If it hasn’t, it may be something to do with the difference in experience; between being there and hearing this, and looking at both side by side on a screen, scanning the words with the eyes rather than them filtering through into the ears. It’s a less sensory experience via screen, for sure (or you can go to the Guggenheim and see for yourself).

But still — when things seem to others total rubbish but to you, pure golden Truth, it is perhaps because you are surrounded by it (and things like it) to the extent that you are numbed to its ridiculousness. Like reading criticism all the time you must become desensitised to some of the bullshit wool they drag over your eyes.

Regardless of the eureka I may have felt after listening to the audio-guide, the attempt to explain away the image in front of me felt, in hindsight, almost wrong. And anyway – what if the inflatables are just about his last summer holiday in Corfu?

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Two visits to the Guggenheim

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