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Embedded Art and the Perils of Patronage

Former artist Sean Ashton strays into the realms of patronage—and gets more than he bargained for

I’m not an art collector but, like most people involved in the art world, I’ve acquired a number of works—gifts from artist friends and students I’ve taught—that constitute a collection of sorts. These are clustered together over my desk into a salon-style arrangement of paintings and drawings that incorporates lots of other non-art stuff. I seem resistant to the idea of giving art its own space.

 

 Among the post-it notes and press clippings, the snapshots and postcards, the jottings and blot- tings of failed literary projects, is my latest acquisition: a drawing of a slow worm by Edwyn Collins. The drawing was one of many produced by the former Orange Juice frontman while recovering from a brain haemorrhage in 2005. I read of his plight in the Guardian, which featured the (mainly) ornithological studies done during his convales-cence. That same day, I happened to see a slow worm for the first time, warming itself on the pavement. I thought nothing of this till I saw Collins’ ‘Slow Worm’ at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Gallery earlier this year. The coincidence was enough to make me finally reach for the chequebook.

 

 If any artwork deserved its own space it was ‘Slow Worm’. If anything demanded to be hung in the candid view of dinner guests, it was surely the semi-fossorial burrowing lizard that Collins had striven so manfully to render. But something in me refused to give even this pride of place, and I hung it with the freebies over my desk.

 

The thing is, as an artist, I was always a white-cube fanatic: everything had to be surrounded by hectares of floor space. As a patron of the arts—if I may dignify my recent activities thus—I seem to hold the opposite view. I share John Dewey’s scepticism at the division of aesthetic experience into ‘transcendent’ and ‘concrete’ modes, whereby ‘Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other human effort, undergoing and achievement’. [1] In his 1934 book Art as Experience, Dewey advocates restoring the ‘continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognised to constitute experi- ence’. [2] Although, since then, we have seen many practices that depend on the notion of embedding artworks within a quotidian context, and many do not endorse Dewey’s freeing of art from a sphere of elite appreciation. A sub-category of site-specific art, ‘embedded art’ might rather be defined as that which must go ignored by the majority in order to gratify the minority who do see it.

 

But mere inconspicuousness won’t do: the work must be visually native but conceptually alien to its surroundings, or conceptually native and visually alien. A good example is Tim Bailey’s 2004 work ‘Sustainable Forest’, which can be found in the Hare, a pub in East London. This framed A4 document is easily mistaken for a piece of pub tat, the slanted handwriting and stained paper recalling an old shipping manifest or a bill from some Victorian tradesman. It is actually a facsimile of a 19th century manumission certificate (a document given to emancipated slaves by county probates in America) with the protagonists’ names altered. Thus, the lawyer is renamed Colonel Harland Sanders (the founder of KFC), and the slave owner as Walt Disney of Orlando, who ‘in consideration of one dollar paid to me, and for my other good and sufficient consid-erations, before these present, emancipate and set free my slave, Britney Spears’.

 

Adam Chodzko’s Flasher, a series of works made during the mid to late 1990s, is probably one of the most celebrated works of embedded art. Every so often, when he ‘was feeling exasperated and bogged down with other more lugubrious artworks’, [3] Chodzko would go out into a forest at night and film himself letting off a red distress flare. These sequences would then be recorded onto the ends of films rented from video stores, and the cassette returned to the store. As with ‘Sustainable Forest’, the audience is tiny; it is also divided—between those in the know and those who discover Chodzko’s détournements by chance. Each ‘Flasher’ lasts about a minute: after the credits of the ‘host’ film have stopped rolling, there is a short pause, then the black screen flickers into life again, illuminated by the artist’s nocturnal activities. Technically the work is somewhere between a coda and an entr’acte: it’s an aesthetically autonomous creation appended to an existing work; but it’s also an interlude, occupying a gap between the cultural space of the rented movie and the domestic space of the viewer’s home.

 

Chodzko sees these interludes as ‘actions performed in people’s living rooms’. He made around 60 ‘Flashers’, five of which were bought by collectors—who acquired no physical object, only information of the cassette’s whereabouts. And of course the collector could only view ‘their’ piece when the cassette was not being rented by someone else. With the advent of DVD, one assumes they cannot view it at all now. Although, in cases where VHS films have yet to be issued as DVDs, it’s possible that some ‘Flashers’ may still be at large, one imagines that the collector, sensing the impending obsolescence of VHS, was faced with a choice: rescue the cassette before it vanished or accept its disappearance as central to Chodzko’s critique of art’s commodification. Clearly, it’s a Hobson’s choice, since the first option denies others the opportunity of experiencing the work by accident (thus negating its embedded character) and the second consigns it to oblivion. Joe Scanlan’s ‘Nesting Bookcases’ have a similarly playful attitude to art’s mercantile status. Scanlan has said, ‘Many artists today are keen on blurring the distinction between art and design, and rightfully so, since once you admit that anything is grist for the art mill, the next logical thing is to design your own products as works of art’. [4]

 

Since 1989, he has produced a series of collapsible wooden shelving units that, when shown in galleries, present as standard readymades. The idea, however, is that when purchased they are not given pride of place but subsumed into the collector’s domestic environment. Far from being objects around which other possessions are deferentially configured (the artwork’s totemic prerogative), these works disappear completely. Indeed, that is a prerequisite of the ‘Nesting Bookcase’, which, far from standing aloof from those possessions, is designed to facilitate a psychological reinvestment in them. The implication, here, is that the decisions the owner makes—what objects to put on the shelf and how to arrange them—are more significant than those they would make with a shelf that was not an artwork; moreover, the knowledge that the in situ work may later reappear as a photograph in the art world—that these private juxtapositions may be recorded for posterity in a sanctioning art context and come to stand as canonically representative of the work’s character—further dramatises the use of Scanlan’s ‘product’.

 

And don’t forget, there are several users of this product, so the work’s character is collectively consolidated. As Michael Newman writes:

 ‘While the structure of the ‘Nesting Book-cases’ and the permutation of their modes of display remain constant—they may be shown [in a gallery setting] nested or braced,  empty or used, against the wall or free-standing—when they are in use the particular ways in which they may be filled will remain unpredictable, specific to each user and situation. Repetition—the sameness of each example of the ‘Nesting Bookcases’ to each other—is allied with a singularity that is outside the artist’s control. In this way the limits of the work, where it begins and ends, and its traditional identification with the agency of the artist, are thrown into question.’ [5] 

 

I wonder how Dewey would have viewed this devolving of artistic agency to ‘each user and situation’? We must remember that, for all his desire to restore the continuity between ‘refined’ and ‘everyday’ experience, Dewey was writing at a time when the artwork was still seen as a fixed, sovereign expression of artistic will, rather than something that could be subject to a form of itinerant ‘postproduction’. To say that his theories are a blueprint for art’s steady integration of other methods into its vocational lexicon is claiming too much, but his dissent from the prevailing discourses of his era does make him seem proto-postmodern. Even as modernism was establishing its formal hegemony, Dewey could assert—contra Greenberg’s insistence that art should eliminate all references to the outside world—that ‘the sense of an extensive and underlying whole is the context of every experience, and [is] the essence of sanity… For the mad, the insane, thing to us is that which is torn from the common context’. [6] Late modernism—even at its most antiformalist—was nothing if not a programme of sustained decontextualisation: from the readymades of Duchamp to the sundered imagery of pop art and the industrial surfaces of minimalism, we see things ‘torn from the common context’ and reconstituted as ‘refined’ expression.

 

All this is far from saying that Dewey was writing for an art of the future, but much of Art as Experience, particularly the chapter ‘The Common Substance of the Arts’, anticipates what Rosalind Krauss later termed art’s post-medium condition. Of aesthetic experience, Dewey writes that ‘Things, objects, are only focal points of a here and now in a whole that stretches out indefinitely’. [7] By the late 1970s, art’s exploration of the contextual nature of aesthetic experience meant that the work was often no more than a focal point in a wider situation. As the limits of aesthetic experience—where the work began and ended—became harder to define, medium became detached from the core disciplines of painting and sculpture, reinventing itself as a contingent force, changing its form to suit the context. For Dewey, ‘A work of art elicits and accentuates [the] quality of being a whole and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive, whole which is the universe in which we live’. [8] Chodzko and Scanlan do not merely accentuate the artwork’s ‘belonging to the larger, all-inclusive whole’, but construct their art within it. In both cases, patronage is the prime mover—we might even say the medium—of the work. Both promote the patron from passive benefactor to active executor. The terms of the patronage, however, are still dictated by the artist.

 

Which brings me to my recent curatorial experiment. The terms of my patronage were simple: I would commission a work only when I needed something mending. In so doing, I hoped to embed the work at its inception in the private exigencies of the patron, rather than deferring to the artist. The repair of the object and the creation of the artwork were to be coterminous: the broken thing had to be fixed and fixed well; it was up to the artist how they reconciled this with their own concerns.

 

I expected this proposition to be met with ambivalence, and the first artist hasn’t disappointed me. As well as repairing the hole in the right-hand pocket of my leather jacket, Harry Meadley has added an extra one, hidden within its lining. Into this secret pocket he has inserted a 1g wrap of white powder. The white powder was taken from an earlier work, ‘24Kg’. For this piece, he sanded the wall of a gallery and collected the dust that fell to the floor. The result, 24 bags of white emulsion powder, resembles a consignment of cocaine. The idea is that I am to act as an agent for this work, revealing my ‘stash pocket’ to interested parties and offering its contents for sale at £10 per wrap. I get to keep the profits. I have been given a back-up stash of five wraps to replenish my supply, with the promise of a ‘re-up’ in the event of further demand.

 

So my jacket is now an artwork. It is also a mediator between two other artworks, the multiple ‘1g’, and the work ‘24kg’, both 2009. Its title, ‘Sterna hirundo’, is the Latin name for the common tern, and refers to the RSPB badge that happened to be on the jacket at the time of its repair. The roaming instincts of this bird—known to ornithologists as the ‘swallow of the sea’—perhaps echo the anticipated movements of the jacket’s wearer.

 

Accompanying the work is a certificate of provenance explaining all of the above, which I am advised to carry when wearing the jacket. Of particular interest is this sentence: ‘It is the wearer’s discretion to divulge information about the work “1g”, its relation to the work “24kg”, 2009, and about the work “Sterna hirundo” to a potential buyer.’ This could be taken to mean that it’s up to me whether I sell the wraps as art or as drugs: I could take ‘1g’ on the gallery circuit, dutifully supplying the backstory to the work, or I could hit the clubs, flooding the dance floors with counterfeit cocaine. Or perhaps I could present the wraps as genuine cocaine to the art crowd, while encouraging the clubbers to invest in an edition of conceptual art—though it’s unlikely that clients will be convinced by my reassurance that there’s no need to conduct business in the toilets. The bouncers, for their part, will just see one man offering something iffy to another; and later, down at the station, the certificate of provenance—this meticulous document typed in 8 point—will do little to mitigate charges of wasting police time.
 

These extrapolations are only semi-facetious. As its physical arbiter, I feel duty-bound to try the Law’s patience in order to consolidate ‘Sterna hirundo’ as art. If I don’t reap what I have sown and embrace the ethical dimension of the context into which the work has been embedded, then the transposition of the production and trafficking of drugs onto the production and trafficking of art is no more than a rhetorical exercise. But what will be gained from actively seeking trouble? As I emerge from the cell and the custody sergeant hands me back my shoelaces, will I punch the air in triumph at another victory for institutional critique? And what institutions will I be critiquing exactly, artistic or penitentiary?

 

From its ecclesiastical origins, to the courtly pomp of the Renaissance, to the bourgeois status symbols of the current epoch, art patronage has always been a vain affair, and my reduction of the creative act to a mere ‘service’ is an attempt to explore this vanity. Commissions always end up turning into portraits—not of the patron, but of the relationship between artist and patron. This is where vanity operates: in the difference between what the patron expects and what the artist delivers. I wanted a scientific way of calibrating that difference, a way of measuring the artist’s resistance to the patron’s expectation. The patron expects something to be mended, but also knows that something will be added to confound that expectation. How will these two things—the artistic supplement and the practical solution—cohabit the same object? Hopefully, that question will receive enough answers to warrant an exhibition.

 

Sean Ashton is a writer and former artist living in London


 

1] John Dewey, Art as Experience, New York: Perigee, 2005, p. 2

2] Ibid, p. 2

3] Chodzko quotes interview with author, April 2010

4] Quoted in Michael Newman’s essay ‘After Conceptual Art: Joe Scanlan’s

Nesting Bookcases, Duchamp, Design and the Impossibility of Disappearing’, in

Rewriting Conceptual Art, ed Michael Newman and Jon Bird, London: Reaktion,

1999, p. 207

5] Ibid, p. 207–09

6] Dewey, ibid, p. 202

7] Dewey, ibid, p. 201

8] Dewey, ibid, p. 202