Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Notes On Materiality

by Adrian Clement

12 Apr 2011

Francis Alÿs showed us that "sometimes making something leads to nothing" in a performance piece involving pushing around a block of ice in Mexico City. In 1983, David Hammons set up alongside street vendors in Manhattan, New York to sell snowballs of various sizes for different prices. The performance can be read as a critique on commercialism in the art marketplace, but for me it is more just a beautiful and humorous gesture that says, as an extension of Alÿs’ work that exchanges are often made between money and something that eventuates into nothing. Hammons’ piece has often made me think about monetary value and impermanence, and I read it as an attempt to undermine materialism.

Where art involves dealings with physical materials, artists enter a process of purchasing materials, arranging and manipulating them and producing a final work, which is often object based. This is evident with mediums such as painting, drawing and sculpture, although their physicality has been under continual challenge. When physical materials become objects through this process, they have the potential to be sold, which can change the game for artists.

While there are many possible reasons for the purchase of an art object, I believe they generally fit into one of two categories. The first category is the historical purchase, in which case the purchaser is interested in preserving the work and its meaning within a larger social and cultural context. The second category is the materialistic purchase. This kind of purchase can be made for a number of reasons including the establishment of exclusive access to the art object or as a form of monetary investment. The materialistic purchase is generally limited to work that is object based because it can be sold (and resold). This might explain the shortsightedness of some towards mediums such as performance or conceptual art, which by their very nature default outside of commercialism.

In 1972, the Tate purchased Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre. The purchase led to a lot of controversy that stemmed from the belief that bricks themselves could not be art, because they haven’t entered a traditional process of arrangement and manipulation. But Andre was misusing an industrial material for artistic and aesthetic purposes, and so his arrangement defied the original material. In 1976, the work was daubed in paint, and it didn’t return to their collection until the following year. Whether the work was restored, or the bricks were simply replaced is something I do not know, but I’m guessing that they were replaced. If so, the incident proves that the materials themselves were not valuable and that they only represented artistic worth.

Stuckists Childish and Thomson wrote in 1999 that “Artists who don't paint aren't artists.” Erecting such boundaries are an extension of materialistic thought that denies the importance of expression in the creation of an artwork. Hammons’ work reminds us that all matter is inherently impermanent, and that, at the end of the day, after all materials have gone, all we have left are ideas and concepts.