14 March 2016
Valuing the Ephemeral
by Loren Nosan
WASSAIC, NY — In western Washington state there is a park called “The Ape Caves.” Formed 2,000 years ago from lava flows off Mt. St. Helens, these underground tunnels were first explored by a Boy Scout troop called “The Mt. St. Helens Apes” in 1952. Like most National Parks, you arrive via a paved road, buy a day pass at a kiosk, and park in a parking lot. From there, you follow a marked path to the entrance of the caves. A sign at the entrance notifies visitors that they will be in complete darkness, and advises they bring a lantern. It notes that parts of the trip through the cave will require crawling, and that if you wish to exit on the other side, you must be capable of pulling your own body weight up over a ledge, and also climbing a steep ladder. Then, you enter the cave, and you are shockingly, gloriously on your own. The experience of navigating these tunnels is incredible, but even more impressive is the unusual degree of liberty given to the visitor. It is rare that a sublime, but also potentially dangerous–or at least uncomfortable–experience is offered so blithely to the generally fearful and litigious American public. No signs, no guides, no barriers–the Ape Caves can be experienced in much the same way that those intrepid Boy Scouts did, years ago, in a world that in some ways is quite different from our own.
There is no doubt that the imagination and the soul are sparked by an authentic experience of discovery. An older friend, deeply skeptical about modern and contemporary art, once told me that what he hated about minimalist sculpture (he didn’t call it that) was that it was cordoned off and labeled in a gallery, and he was being directed to appreciate it. Its significance was a given, and he was the one who was forced to measure up, based on his ability to comprehend and appreciate it. The intelligent viewer is left either validated or excluded (and shamed)–a self-perpetuating cycle of engagement or rejection. My friend noted that if he came upon the same sculpture by chance, during a walk in the woods, he would surely be delighted by it.
One of the many functions of the museum or gallery space is to protect and preserve the objects of value that they house. Historically, longevity is equated with power. The ability to build something that will last far beyond the human lifetime was the province of the ruling class, or the god/s who spoke through them. When that history is deemed by the next ruling party to have value, it is preserved and cared for. If it is threatening, it is destroyed, while the innocuous or irrelevant is left for nature to take its course. In protecting and preserving, we are fighting against the natural forces of time and decay–the grander narrative of natural history. The construction of a narrative of power over history and over nature itself requires the promulgation of an illusion of control in a chaotic, entropic universe.
The desire for this condition is apparent in the convention of the white-walled gallery space. It is sheltered from the elements, but equally, in its blankness and lack of external reference points, it wishes to be sheltered from time. It is a vacuum–a controlled space within which objects are arranged, manipulated, included or excluded, in the service of the creation of the desired narrative. Over time, as the longevity of human-made objects became firmly equated with their value, art itself has, for the most part, developed a survival strategy of paying attention to how long materials will last. Paper should be archival. Works should be properly matted and framed. Foamed-out wooden crates should be built to protect the object as it moves from narrative to narrative. In this way, the artist tries to preempt history by taking the power of longevity into their own hands, and thus implying that their work is “valuable.”
Most luxury commodities partake in this strategy of promising longevity. Fine clothes and accessories, furniture, cars, etc… are made to “stand the test of time.” In contrast, affordable and more widely available goods are mass-produced, disposable, throw-away, strategically obsolescent. As always, the means to obtain that which is long-lasting is in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, while the masses are relegated to the position of onlookers who can engage either in a futile scramble to catch up, or in the wholesale rejection of the “culture” they feel rejected by.
Those artists who are interested in attempting to address the class divide that is predicated in part on the ability to lay claim to that which denotes permanence and power have explored many strategies. Performance, “happenings,” installation art and earthworks are all intended, in one way or another, to address art’s status as a fixed, transferable object or commodity. In each case, the work is to some degree fluid, ephemeral, or exposed. But working counter to this urge is the coincident evolution of the convention of documentation, which ensures that even if the work itself is ephemeral, its life in the the world need not be limited to a particular time and place. Photos, videos, drawings, scripts, scores, and, perhaps most ingeniously, legal contracts become the concrete object-record of the work’s existence–in their own ways, as defiant of the passage of time as the Taj Mahal. The market demands it be so.
And what of the experience my friend longs for–a pure encounter with art that is surprising, unmediated, and empowering for any person who stumbles upon it. I would argue that what is key here is that this type of experience turns the viewer into the creator–the agent who of their own volition brings together disparate elements and finds beauty and meaning in them. There is a moment of synthesis–a point of fixity and recognition in an ever-turning world. There are many ways to own something. These slippery moments that defy categorization have the power to impact us because of the mystery of connectedness that they fleetingly hint at. When one feels comfortable, it is as possible to have this type of experience in a gallery or museum–not often, but every once in awhile. Their magic, after all, lies in their rarity, and it might be that this quality of evanescence is the best medicine against the countervailing urge to fix, to own, to pin down, and to preserve.
How can we make the experience of viewing art feel more inclusive and welcoming? Is there a way to dispel the illusion of separateness, the veil of privilege that alienates the many and entitles the few? My friend’s comments lead me to believe that the way forward is definitely not through the educational model that uses ropes and wall texts to control every aspect of the viewer’s experience, telling them where to look, and what to think, how to “see.” Choice, agency, and discovery give the viewer the space to navigate seeing on their own terms. I think we can do better. I hope so. And I cling to this hope in order to move forward despite feeling deeply conflicted about my vocation as a peddler of creation.