Art & ephemerality

In principle, when we speak of art, most people have first in mind images of treasured paintings in museums, or ancient sculptures that are exhibited there. Yet, and many people have noticed, art is not just that.

We’ll be interested here in the intersection of two notions : art and ephemerality. Because yes, these two notions have to see together. And there is even art that can be called «ephemeral art». But then, what can this idea really mean? One guesses that it’s there first of all an art that does not last. But let us take a closer look at this idea.

The art lasts far too often too little time. This painting that you see proudly hung on the wall of the Louvre, it’s not eternal. Oh sure, it’s older than you probably. But it’s not immortal. It’s made of wood, perhaps canvas, its paint fades, insects may gnaw it from the inside, or bacteria, or time. The varnish that covers it yellows, making its colors indistinct and distorted. Of course, there are brilliant restorers. The talent of some of them is indisputable. But despite all the efforts made, all work will inevitably deteriorate. Even the prehistoric paintings that were believed to be preserved forever fade and disappear little by little. Nothing is eternal, not even Art.

© Eric Terrade

So what do we really mean by «ephemeral art» in this case? To be described as ephemeral art, one must generally have been built as such. The artist already knows that his work will have a short life when he created it.

These works are incredibly diverse. There’re some works of the Arte Povera, this artistic movement that came from Italy in the 1960s, which uses waste materials, natural materials, and which are therefore subject to the inevitable degradation of this waste. We value instead the «traces» of his works, the videos, the photographs, everything that can make it possible to keep «alive» these creations with a deadline of contemplation. You have to see the works of Penone, Merz, or Torres.

There are also other forms of art that are preserved by photographs or videos, because in their very essence, they are ephemeral works. There are, for example, the temporary installations which started again in the 1960s, notably the works by Zhen or Boltanski. But also performances and other happenings (which will be the subject of another article), or, closely linked, works that engage the body of the artist in itself (another article will detail this). They’re artists like Klein or Yoko Uno, who then demonstrate examples of what this kind of work can hold of beauty.

© Wolfgang Hassel

However, among the works that are filmed or photographed, but that do not last, there are others that deserve to be lingered longer. Land art for example, these works made in nature, with natural materials, often in very poetic dispositions, also ends up disappearing. Carried away by the wind, animals, or other elements, by nature itself in any case. This time, the dimension of disappearance is included in the work as soon as it is thought, imagined.

The disappearance of the work comes back. For some artists, the work must always last. But for others, it must register the idea of its end. Contemporary art in general does not lack examples of works whose destiny is not to last. Here it’s Banksy who plans to include in his work a device allowing to destroy it under the eyes of the astonished assembly in Sotheby’s, there’re paintings that are torn, on which one shoots with guns, others that are burned. Contemporary art has not invented anything with regard to the destruction of works of art. For thousands of years, Tibetan monks have been building sand mandalas. A work of incredible precision, amazing beauty, and that requires several hundred hours of concentration. But all this will go away in one breath.

© Random Sky

Ephemeral works of art are interesting of course. However, the ones that I think deserve our full attention are the ones that know they’re going to die before they’re even created. We humans also have an end, and we know it. We’re all ephemeral art.

An article arrives specifically on destruction of works of art. Thank you for continuing to read me and see you soon!

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