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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!

Bibliography – Part 1 – The Researcher & Books

Embarking on an academic research does not go without the inevitable constitution of a bibliography. As far as I know, there’s no exception to this rule, regardless of whether the research in question is in hard sciences or in humanities, and regardless of the level you are at. In order for our work to be considered credible by our peers, we must inevitably learn about what has already been done, about all the research that preceded us. It’s not just to show that we know what’s out there, but to use it to advance our topic.

The bibliography of a researcher is therefore essential, important and even formative. However, many researchers, beginners or even sometimes the most experienced, encounter or have encountered difficulties in the elaboration of their own bibliography. While not everything is perfect for me, I have finally found a number of proven methods for me, and I will try to share them. Since this is a very broad subject, I will not make a long article that will take several hours to read, but divide the task into several articles, this one is the first.

© Gabriel Sollmann

Find resources

Before you even think about reading, you have to find something to focus on. And if today it seems easy because the internet makes many things more accessible, it’s not yet won.

I think the first step is not to be afraid to listen to other researchers. Of course, consult the books recommended by your research director, but also by all the people you find inspiring and who work on a topic close to yours. Of course, their publications will need to be carefully analyzed to identify the books or articles that are relevant to your research.

When searching for something on a specific subject, especially when starting from scratch, I would be highly advised to use search engines and library catalogues (see National librairies’s), using the keywords of our search (article on how to find your keywords soon) to see what they propose. Yes, it can sometimes take half a day per catalogue to select all the books that may be interesting, but it’s necessary. At this point, I usually make a list of all the books I found relevant in my research (that doesn’t mean I’m going to read them all).

Then comes the deep excavation. That is to say that this time, starting from the already well-fleshed corpus, it’s a matter of searching for other relevant sources, which are found in the bibliographies of the resources already selected. It’s long, tedious, but it’s worth it. All the books you select at this stage ensure that you do not forget anything essential to your research, for example an article or a book that would have been centuries old and that would have been more or less forgotten.

Of course, you can always wander the shelves of the libraries you love, in a chivalrous quest to find the Grail of books. And, even if I practice this method myself on occasion, it’s more effective in specialized libraries, or if you really enjoy spending endless afternoons contemplating shelves of books, perhaps in vain.

I would like to point out that I think it’s also important not to neglect daily life in your search for interesting resources. The «pleasure» readings or academic ones, but which can be focused on another topic, can be nice surprises if you think about it with your subject in mind. As for the management of books to read, I created two different lists for myself: one with books that I absolutely want to read and that are waiting for me, and the other with books that could be interesting (if I find time, motivation, a flash of revelation, …).

Buy, borrow or read on site

It’s sometimes impossible to have this choice, because some books are only available on site in a library (part II of this series of articles will deal with note taking, etc.). However, in some cases, nothing stands in the way of on-site reading if the book is small, you have time ahead of you, and enjoy the library atmosphere.

Some people would tend to buy a book systematically, because it’s a pocket book, or it’s cheap. But, unless you want to encumber your home with useless books or have already read it, of course, I would strongly advise against it. Of course, if it’s a book that is close to yours, a reference book or a book that inspires you for your research, just borrowing it’s going to be frustrating. In that case, it’s better to buy it.

And in this case it can quickly happen that the purchase of so many books explodes your budget. But you must not be afraid of the used books. Apart from that, if a book you want is expensive, agree to waste time in used bookstores to save money, some books are sold here for 150€ and there for 15€, especially when they’re old, because some booksellers rarely consult the prices that are made elsewhere for all their items. If the book is rare, don’t hesitate to put alerts on book sales sites, post ads, or ask for it to be ordered, even if you have to wait longer.

Finally, choose to have a good relationship with your local bookseller rather than an impersonal relationship with an online sales site. In the long run, since your little bookseller will often see you with several half dozen books, he will be more likely to make reservations and/or orders for you. And if you are really polite and kind to him, after a few months seeing you regularly, he will be more tempted to give you a discount, while the big brands will never do it.

© Laura Kapfer

As for the quarrel between paper books and digital books, I would say that I’ve long been firmly opposed to digital books, by comfort and affection. Nevertheless, it seems to me indispensable today, as a researcher, to be open to both formats. Some resources are only available in digital format, they’re sometimes less expensive (or even free for some articles), and, especially for reference books, in which we often return, it’s sometimes nice to be able to consult the digital version while continuing to read a paper book. It also goes without saying that your research days will also go without about fifty open books, pages maintained by other books above, and the ground became invisible (yes because all this does not fit on a table), if you choose from time to time a few e-books…

I hope I was able to help you in this great enterprise which is finding resources (books, articles, etc.) in your research. Part II will focus on taking notes for the curious ones.

Good reading & see you soon!

Mauss, Gifting and Society

One of the most interesting concepts to study in societies or micro-societies (from my point of view, of course), is Gifting.

Anthropologists, ethnologists and philosophers have already discussed this issue at length. Gifting is an action, that of giving. It is distinguished from sale, which involves an agreement between buyer and seller, as well as the concept of money. The gift is also not a barter, the action of one who gives one property to obtain another. Finally, the gift also differs from the theft, since the theft is at the expense of the owner of the property.

So here we are with some of the characteristics of gifting. Gifting is free, selfless, and voluntary. At least that’s what it seems at first. Because in practice things are far from being so simple. It’s for this reason that so many authors are interested in this question, which is, again, far from being exploited in every way.

© Kelly Sikkema

Today, we will focus on Marcel Mauss’s opinion on this issue. This sociologist observed that in the societies he studied, giving was very important. He notes that some members of tribes, when they meet others, give them what seems to be gifts. These gifts are clearly distinct from barter, and seem to respond to a specific structure of society. Indeed, when an individual A received a gift from an individual B, then individual A inevitably ended up making a gift to individual B in turn. He’s talking about a phenomenon of “donation and counter-donation”.

Marcel Mauss even notes that, in some cases, individual A did everything possible to ensure that his gift to Individual B was of a greater value than the one he had received in the first place. In this case, we are talking here about agonistic donation, that is to say that the donation becomes competitive, and even, to some extent, aggressive.

Some cultures actually push this form of gifting even further by literally destroying what they “give”. This is the case, for example, of some First Nations in America, which held large celebrations, during which they offered large amounts of food, drink and entertainment to their audiences. At the end of this feast, sometimes, instead of offering a large quantity of material goods, the giver destroys all the goods thus gathered (often all or much of what he possesses). This practice is called Potlatch, although it’s not always as destructive.

The Gift is therefore not a peaceful and generous phenomenon (or at least not only). These implications are numerous in the society that adopts it, in whatever form. For Mauss, gifting is a “total social fact”, meaning it has an impact at all levels of society.

This small (very succinct) introduction to gifting, as Mauss sees it, is essential to understand how the phenomenon of gifting has a significant impact on the structure and functioning of the society that adopts it.

In the near future, we will be able to go into detail and observe the concept of the Gift in practice.

See you soon !

For those who want to know more about Mauss’s ideas: Marcel Mauss, The Gift : Forms and functions of exchange in Archaic Societies, 1925.

Why research on artistic creation and micro-societies?

Describing a thesis topic can quickly become a nightmare. Especially for Phd students who have just started their research. Of course, there’re also students who in one sentence sum up all their theories and the interest of their research brilliantly. Of course I don’t. I usually start with a grimace and I continue with a long speech which my interlocutor (who wonders why he had the idea to ask the question) and I, come out exhausted.

It’s not that I’m a bad student (am I ?). Before starting the great adventure that a phd represents, I was successively a party and rebellious high school girl (I still wonder how I got my high school diploma), a bachelor’s degree in political science, cinema, fine arts and literature, then I also got my master’s degree and others in literature, cinema, art aesthetics and so on. You’d think I’d know what it’s like to be a student by now. Yet, and this is probably the reason why I continue tirelessly, each experience is different, each material brings with it its share of surprises and unexpected obstacles.

Likely to be distracted, I saw in the creation of this blog several interesting perspectives. First, make me write regularly and stay focused on the subject of my thesis. But also and above all (because otherwise I could have remained alone locked at home and write for my cat only), because my subject deals precisely with human interactions. It seemed imperative to me to include, at least in part, a participatory dimension to this study, which I hope you will be inclined to join.

This is anecdotal, but the genesis of this thesis preparation goes back several years. At that time when I was still this young high school girl. I also happened to be very excited about the 1970s, the hippie movement, etc. (youth you know…). One day publicly deploring the disappearance of this era, I happened to learn about the existence of a festival on the other side of the Atlantic: the Burning Man (yeah, you see, we talk about it in the News from time to time, a week when a lot of people gathering to burn a giant wood man). At this time, I was presented with it as a space-time that took up all my optimistic and epicurean ideals (rightly or wrongly, we will probably discuss it again). I was enthusiastic about it for a while, but then it passed into this place of memory where you dispose the tender and crazy memories of your teenage youth.

At least, that’s what I thought. During my master’s degree in aesthetics and art philosophy, I was primarily interested in ephemeral art. You know, the one that is destroyed or allowed to be destroyed by nature. In any case, an art that does not last. I was wondering, but why create something, go to so much trouble, if in the end it would be destroyed? And then, I ended up going back to the Burning Man. After all, artworks are built there and they are destroyed at the end, right? However, my thesis work goes far beyond this one festival. It is only the tip of the iceberg. What I saw was a whole world of people from different backgrounds coming up to create something together. Something new, something beautiful. Obviously, sometimes these micro-societies have fun destroying what they create (not without reason, we will see it), but this universe is far from being just that.

And so we’re back here. Of course, it will serve so that I can clarify my ideas and write about subjects that I will meet but that I could not deal with in my thesis. But it will also be a place of exchange and sharing, since you’ll be able to participate by responding to all kinds of various surveys, which will focus on your personal vision of what is : gift, community, art, creation or destruction, society, culture, etc.

To learn more about the subject(s) that will concern us, you can go to the « About » page that goes into more detail about what will be discussed.

See you soon !