Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Misuse of Objects

by Adrian Clement

18 May 2011

It is common to treat and approach the use of materials within a design practice for the purpose of realising both aesthetics and functionality. Many artists, however, use materials for their work despite their functionality. The materials they choose are a way of directly realising their personal visions.

Because we have emotional and psychological associations and attachments to objects and their uses, people who do not make art themselves often find it strange to observe the ways in which artists misuse them for their own purpose.

Much like René Magritte’s 1930 painting Interpretations of Dreams, where the image of one thing is juxtaposed with the name of something else (for instance, the image of a shoe has the word ‘moon’ written underneath it), there is, to quote Hayley Hill, “a dislocation of the object’s original reality” and given associations. When objects fulfill the use of something they were never designed for, they take on a new meaning.

I find this very similar to Craig Stecyk’s observations on skateboarding:

Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artefacts of the technological burden [...] in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of. 

The misuse of objects and materials is evidenced throughout the work of artists from all practices, disciplines and genres. Here are a few that I am familiar with: Rachel Park (who uses toilet paper), Margaret Roberts (adhesive tape), Marlene Sarroff (bubble wrap), Carl André (bricks), Michael Johansson (miscellaneous—often site-specific—objects), Julien Mijangos (elastic straps), Francesca Mataraga (Ikea furniture) and Melanie Khava (picture frames).

I find it a paradox of sorts that artists who attempt to comment on something other than what exists in our world still rely on the objects and materials in our world to do so. My partner James Gatt believes that the work of ‘minimalist’ sculptors portray an artist’s idealised view of the world. Often, it is a view that cannot exist presently because it conflicts with the current state of the world, and yet the utopian or futuristic image is ironically constructed using the tools and resources currently available to us.

Society has grown accustomed to the image of an artist akin to someone like Jackson Pollock: an abstract-expressionist painter with an eccentric or troubled persona to match. However, the majority of art exists outside of this cliché. As a result, artists who constantly search for new ways of doing things often find themselves at the mercy of unfair criticism because they challenge our perception of an ‘artist’ and their ‘artwork’. (Prime examples include the so-called ‘Young British Artists’, such as Martin Creed and Damien Hirst, who caused controversy amongst the art world and the public for their radical new approaches.)

Artists who present their misuse of objects to audiences as artworks ask audiences to let go of any preconceived emotional and psychological attachments. If they do, they are presented with a beautiful opportunity to experience objects anew.

Adrian Clement is an artist, designer, musician and writer based in Sydney.