....Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish Citizen and artist Matt Baker

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Wondering about Iconic Art

I have had reason to ponder the idea of ‘Iconic Art’ of late – by Iconic I mean art that has achieved what, in a human being, would be called celebrity status.
This question has been on my mind whilst thinking about the advertised intent to create a new Iconic Artwork on the Scottish/English border at Gretna 
From what I understand, the aim of the project is to create something that becomes an attraction in it is own right; the kind of thing that people will be inspired to be photographed next to.
I am beginning to question if, in achieving this ‘iconic’ status, an artwork ceases to be ‘real’ – rather it starts to stand for something other than itself and its relationship to it's context (often it's own fame or celebrity). I wonder if this shift in meaning is what is unsettling me about the often stated ambition to create something iconic from the outset of a project?
I was in Paris at the weekend with my family and we paid a visit to the Louvre – I was expecting the surreality of the crowds around the Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ 
Crowd around Mona Lisa 16.10.10
 – but I was then shocked to be asked to move away from another (moderately well-known) painting because a couple wanted to be photographed beside it. As I looked around it was obvious that this was now a common phenomenon in the gallery – something that was utterly new to me.
It was as if the very ‘idea’ of art had become something to be photographed next to.
The last time I experienced something like this was in Madame Tussauds waxworks museum in London. 
 Beyonce and partner  March 2010
The previous time I was there (admittedly approx 35 years ago) I do not remember being able to touch the waxworks – rather they were strange otherworldly things that made a strong visceral impression upon me. On this recent trip people were climbing over each other to be photographed with their arms around their favourite celebrities – it was an exquisite form of hell….one which eventually I could not resist
A wax model of Pablo Picasso and me
This odd mixture of simulated celebrity/icon was something that I remembered Umberto Eco writing about in the 1980’s:
‘Between San Francisco and Los Angeles I was able to visit seven wax versions of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’. Some are crude and unwittingly caricatural; others are more accurate though no less unhappy in their violent colours, their chilling demolition of what had been Leonardo’s vibrance…..the philosophy is not “:We are giving you the reproduction so that you will want the original,” but rather, “We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel the need for the original.”
Travels in Hyperreality (1986)

This is the concern for me with respect to attitudes to Art in Public Space.... ie that there is an attitude amongst some people commissioning this work that first and foremost the work will be an ‘attraction’ and will become an attraction because it is ART.
I was in the Roman section of York museum last week (researching for a new project)  when I came across this life-size stone head.
unknown god or 'genius loci' (Roman - Northern English)
I did not find it especially appealing as a sculpture in the gallery sense, but the text next to it was intriguing. It explained that this was an ‘unknown god’ rather it was a ‘genius loci’- a spirit of a place. The text went on to explain that sometimes ‘famous’ gods were attached to specific places but that it was also common to find a figure that was made simply to represent a particular place and was not a 'named god'.
This seemed very relevant to my unease concerning the desire for Iconic Art (aka ‘Angel Envy’….after the ‘Angel of the North’ in Gateshead). It is as if ART itself has become one of the pantheon of big gods……a god that is big enough make their site secondary and thus become a reason to visit a place on their own (an attraction)…..the only criteria for success in this enterprise seems to be being BIG enough and having enough volume behind the cry of ‘I AM ART’.
Of course there is still the other alternative – the alternative of starting with a place and honestly seeking it’s spirit to make an ‘unknown god’ that quietly does it’s job of bringing forth something of the ‘genius loci’. This is not a shortcut to celebrity but it is actually art in my book.