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Tuesday 27th October 2015Political Satire Installation Accidentally Thrown Away

All is not quite right in the halls of the Museion modern art gallery in Bolzano, Italy. Only the artist behind the piece in question will know exactly for sure, but perhaps even that might not save the installation, because it was accidentally gathered up by cleaning staff and meticulously and carefully cleaned away. When you stop and hear the story, however, it begins to take on a surreal, ironic hilarity all of its own that might actually make it a better piece than it was originally - if the Milanese artist duo Goldschmied & Chiari can capitalize on the opportunity instead of being caught up in anger.

There had been an opening the previous night, and as most of you who've been to your fair share of gallery openings will know (and the smaller share of those that got a bit out of control, of course, the floor of a gallery can look something like a cleaner's nightmare. That's surely what the staff must have thought when they arrived the morning after the opening, only to be greeted by a room literally covered with bottles, cigarette butts, clothes, shoes, and other detritus that you might expect to find after a particularly wild party. The cleaners set about restoring the gallery to it's properly cleaned state, only to realize after they were finished that the refuse they had spent so long cleaning was actually the star of the gallery opening the night before.

Entitled 'We were going to dance tonight', the exhibit was supposed to be a political sendup of the over-the-top parties that were apparently classic pastimes of previous generations of Italian political elites. It should be no surprise, then, that the average person was left to clean up the mess - even if they were the only ones who wanted to bother to do so.

As hilarious as it may sound to those who are somewhat skeptical of the value of modern conceptual art, this is not the first time this has happened. We recently wrote about hotel cleaning staff who accidentally cleaned away a piece of artwork intended for an upcoming auction, although police still haven't determined if that was just a clever smokescreen for a theft. Numerous other accounts have amused and delighted readers for years, but perhaps we in the art world should actually be taking it as a criticism of just how far our conceptual reaches have gone.

Posted on October 27th 2015 on 03:35am

Monday 26th October 2015Ai Weiwei vs ... Lego?

It seems like Ai Weiwei cannot catch a break lately. First Chinese authorities essentially kidnapped him for 81 days of gruelling interrogation and revoked his passport, and then when they finally returned it to him, he was denied the proper visa by British authorities that would have allowed him to attend his first exhibition of his own work since his passport was revoked years ago.

Eventually the whole mess got straightened out, and he was able to attend the event, but things haven't stayed rosy. Currently in Melbourne, Australia working on a group show about political dissidents, Ai was hoping to construct his portraits of a wide range of jailed and exiled dissidents out of the popular construction toy, Lego. Ai previously held a similar exhibition in Alcatraz Prison, San Francisco just the year before, and was hoping to recreate something similar for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, but apparently the company shut the project down by informing the museum that its product could not be used for artworks that contained "any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements".

Naturally, Ai was less than pleased about this development. "As a commercial entity, Lego produces and sells toys, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe. As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values. Lego's refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination." he said, taking to Instagram to vent his frustrations and call out the corporation.

A Lego spokesman with the unlikely name of Roar Rude Trangbaek was naturally quick to distance the company from the specific issues raised by Mr. Ai, but did comment to the effect that it has always been Lego company policy to refuse bulk sales of Lego to customers who are expected to use the toy in any political works.

"Lego is giving us the definition of what is 'political', and all the big corporations are telling us what to love or hate", Ai tweeted. It does sound a difficult situation from a public relations perspective, but Ai has explained his suspicions about Lego's true motives by mentioning the fact that the company is hoping to build one of their popular Legoland amusement parks in Shanghai, China, and probably don't want to ruffle the feathers of Chinese officials as a result.

Posted on October 26th 2015 on 02:00am

Friday 23rd October 2015Lenin? Is That You?

Ukraine has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the much publicized struggle going on between nationalists and pro-Russian separatists, but that's not all it's been making headlines for. Back in April of this year, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that has become commonly known as the 'de-Communisation Law', an attempt to retrofit the public culture of modern Ukraine to more accurately match the views of its citizens. A large part of this effort revolves around the removal of Communist-themed public artworks and art installations, from sculptures to plaques to murals to statues.

Enter Ukrainian-based artist Alex Milov, who was actually born in the Soviet Union and has watch the rise and fall of Communist power in the region. He provided a truly unique twist on a sculpture of Soviet-era dictator Vladimir Lenin by transforming the statue into that of Darth Vader, the equally iconic fictional character from the Star Wars film franchise. Located in Odesa, the newly improved statue received a number of upgrades in addition to its cosmetic enhancements, which include the classic cape and helmet combination that helped make Vader so iconic in the first place.

In addition to this new attire, however, the statue was also reinforced with new construction materials to ensure that it withstands the tests of time, a helmet constructed of a titanium alloy and the whole lot painted black with a fresh coat of paint to complete the outfit. As if that wasn't excellent enough, there is also a Wi-Fi internet router located in Vader's helmet which provides free connectivity for anyone in the area. It still gets better, though. Like Han Solo trapped in carbonite, the original bronze Lenin statue is still there, inside Vader's outer trappings. "The bronze Lenin was left inside, so that the grateful or not-so-grateful descendants could exhume him if needed," Milov explained to the Ukraine Today newspaper.

"I wanted to make a symbol of American pop culture which appears to be more durable than the Soviet ideal," Milov said, speaking to the BBC. Ukraine, it seems, has managed to maintain its sense of cultural irony throughout the trying times it has seen recently, something hopefully all of us will be able to do through the power of our artwork.

Posted on October 23rd 2015 on 02:41am

Wednesday 21st October 2015Crashing the Fourth Wall

If you're at all into theater, cinematography or even media studies in general, you've probably run into the term 'the fourth wall' before. In case you haven't, it refers to the illusion that we experience while watching a movie or a play, where we can see at most only 3 walls on the stage, and the fourth wall is represented by our gaze, whether it's at a screen or at the edge of a stage. "Breaking the fourth wall' is what happens when an actor from the production breaks the illusion that the viewer is only passive, and not actually an integral part of the performance.

There are a number of examples of how this is used to great effect; the critically-acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards uses it between the main character and the viewer, as does the even more recent USA Network show Mr. Robot, between the narrator and the viewer. Typically, however, this is an obvious and intentional decision made by the writers and producers of the show as a narrative device, but this isn't always the case.

The show Homeland concerns the trials and tribulations of a CIA agent and her various struggles with Iranian and other Middle Eastern intelligence assets, but it's not shot on location anywhere in the Middle East. As a result, when recreating some of the scenes they need as studio sets, they decided to hire a group of graffiti artists to replicate some of the defiant urban feel - but all in Arabic script. Unfortunately for the set designers, none of them were fluent in Arabic, and the artists decided to use the chance as a moment to speak out about the way the show depicts the Arab world, crashing right through the fourth wall without looking back.

A number of subversive graffiti tags were chosen and used on set, and the artists were lucky enough to get their tags shown on screen. "Homeland is racist" is a fairly obvious one, but another one read "Homeland is a watermelon", which is apparently a common Arabic idiom to describe something as silly or meaningless.  

"In this graffiti we are trying to call for a more differentiated view of the region, and we're also trying to say that things aren't as simple as they seem on this show," said Caram Kapp in an interview with the BBC. Hard to find anything wrong with that! For those of you who want to learn more about the reasons they took this opportunity, a full statement has been published here:

Posted on October 21st 2015 on 02:24am

Friday 16th October 2015Instagram as Art

Perhaps the most popular image sharing application on the planet, Instagram has taken the world by storm. With over 400 million users around the world, and over 30 billion photos shared as of September 2015 (yes, that's billion with a b), it's impossible to deny the popularity of the app. Most serious photographers have scoffed at the usage of Instagram, probably driven by the nauseating filters that were the hallmark of the app at the beginning of its tenure as an internet fixture. Since those vintage days, Instagram has matured incredibly and has even been at the center of a massive copyright scandal involving artist Richard Prince.

Many people don't regard the photos posted to Instagram as art, but yet when Prince took a series of images from random Instagram feeds, enlarged them, and published them as his own work, all of them sold for an estimate $100,000 apiece. Due to some complex legal trickery, this procedure apparently constitutes a derivative work, and therefore is protected speech in the United States and thus no legal challenges can be successfully made to stop him.

If people are willing to treat Prince's "derivative versions" of Instagram photos as art, does it not then logically follow that the originals themselves have artistic merit as well? Or is the controversy surrounding his work what gives it artistic value to the collector? The provenance of a work often increases its value to collectors, but it doesn't usually create it from the start.

One of the strangest elements about Instagram is its role as a social media magnet. Not just about photographs exactly, there is an entire community built up which has the power to make and break careers. Instagram celebrities hardly seem like a real thing, but some people - typically women, and typically attractive women at that - have built up such loyal followings that they actually get paid for photographs showcasing certain products despite having no traditional modeling experience. Do their photographs count as art? What if they haven't been paid?

The traditionally defined lines between the art world and popular photography are becoming more and more blurred, but it's hard to form an opinion about whether or not this is a bad thing. Instead of a closed world, perhaps it's about time that the art world developed its own meritocracy, instead of having gallery and collector kingmakers decide who succeeds and who doesn't.

Posted on October 16th 2015 on 11:29pm

Wednesday 14th October 2015Fighting Forgery with DNA

Forgery is one of the most prominent and destructive problems affecting the art world today. When it's impossible to go a single week without a new headline about record breaking auction sales that are then trumped the next month or even the next week, there is a huge amount of incentive for forgers to practice their illicit craft. Conversely, of course, there is also a huge incentive for artists, auctioneers, and insurance companies responsible for proving provenance of various works to combat the forgeries using every possible means at their disposal. Sometimes, that means inventing brand new technologies that outside the capabilities of most forgers.

The newest of these technologies? Using synthetic DNA as a uniquely trackable chemical signature.

It sounds like a story out of science fiction, but we're now living in a time when technology is starting to push the very bounds of credulity. Synthetic DNA is not particularly a new idea in academic circles, but the prospect of using it in practical applications is on the very cutting edge of science at the moment. The idea of using it to prevent forgery is the brainchild of the Global Center for Innovation, a part of the State University of New York at Albany. After two years and $2 million USD of investment funds from ARIS Title Insurance Company, an insurance firm that specializes in art authentication, they finally have a procedure that may soon begin to be used in commercial applications.

“We wanted a marker that was very hard to locate and not prone to environmental issues or tampering,” said Robert J. Jones, president of SUNY Albany, speaking to the New York Times. Due to the rapidly increasing technical capabilities of forgers, many companies who used to regularly perform authentications have stopped providing that particular service, as the legal consequences of making a mistake can be staggeringly expensive. With this new technology, the synthetic DNA will permeate the work and can then be read later by authenticators. The information encoded in the DNA will create an encrypted link to a database that contains all the relevant information about the piece in question.

No matter how incredible it seems, it begs the question that as DNA sequencing technologies become more and more common, how long will this particular approach protect artists from fraud? Perhaps it's always been the case, but it seems like nothing more than the next step in the technological arms race between authenticators and forgers.

Posted on October 14th 2015 on 11:11pm

Friday 09th October 2015Even Venice is Not Immune

One of the more disturbing trends we've been seeing lately in the West is a surprising yet sinister one, a fairly rare type of thing to discover in the art world. As cities grow, develop and change with the changing tides of the global economy, many cities that were built around highly specific industries suddenly find themselves strapped for cash and scrambling to find ways to balance their books.

Most problematically, many of these cities were previously extremely well off due to the boom of their specific industry, no matter whether it was automobile manufacturing or tourism, and when cities are well off they tend to invest in great public cultural works, including their own municipal museums. When the bottom falls out of their industry, many myopic - and arguably spineless - politicians look around desperately for any chance they have to offset even the most temporary of budget deficits, all as a way of propping up their own flagging efforts at financial management and appearing to be strong and decisive.

For some reason, these politicians often look towards the art collections their cities built up during the boom years as a resource to be spent rather than a treasure to be protected. We saw it during the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, as the American automotive manufacturing sector collapsed, and the emergency relief managers seriously considered selling off some of the works from the Detroit Institute of Art collection to fill up their budget issues. Probably the last place we would ever expect it to happen is in one of those gems of artistic and cultural history - Venice, Italy.

The floating city (or the sinking city, depending on who you ask) has always been a tourist haven, and perhaps overdependence on this primary industry is part of the reason that they are now in such dire financial circumstances. However it came about, the new mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro, seems to feel it is acceptable to auction off the artistic works accumulated by the city's civic museums. The works in question are by Gustav Klimt and Marc Chagall, and could raise up to 400 million euros at auction. The reason he attempts to give to justify the sale of these works? The artists have nothing to do with Venice, and therefore don't need to be house by the city's museums but should belong in private hands.

It may start there, but what happens the year after when there has been no improvement in the city's financial situation? How many more works will be "justified" as saleable?  

Posted on October 09th 2015 on 08:15pm
Labels: museums, venice

Wednesday 07th October 2015Virtual Reality Art

Ever since the early 1980s when virtual reality technology was initially developed, people have been waiting for it to revolutionize the world, whether it's in the world of computers, art installations, films, or more esoteric applications like data visualizations. Time and again, users have been generally disappointed by the various virtual reality offerings, however, as the technology itself has been unable to keep up with the demands of the users. This may be all about to change with the upcoming commercial release of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

The Oculus Rift headset is actually one of the most successful results of the recent crowdfunding phenomenon that has completely shaken up the world of product startups, originally being put forward as a project on the website Kickstarter. It's not quite ready for consumer purchase yet, but the manufacturers are hoping for a release in the first quarter of 2016, with preorders beginning towards the end of this year. Luckily for all of us consumers, developer versions of the headset have been available for quite some time now, which means that interested parties have been able to get a hold of a prerelease version of the equipment in order to begin creating content for all the rest of us, and this includes an impressive number of artists who have been salivating at the chance to start exploring what the technology can do.

We have already discussed the relative merits of the idea of video games as art, but the Oculus Rift completely changes this entire dialog and dumps it on its head. Suddenly the idea of just what a video game really is begins to change, as the (virtual) realities of interactive films force us to re-evaluate our preconceptions.

One artist who is exploring these exciting new virtual realities is Canadian artist Jon Rafman, who has had a recent exhibit at the Zabludowicz Collection in London. The overall exhibit hasn't met with resounding success, but by far the most popular element of the show is his exploration of the Oculus VR headset. The piece is entitled Sculpture Garden (Hedge Maze), and takes the viewers through a bizarre surreal world populated by eerie moments and unexpected fears. We're going to take a closer look at his work in the future with one of our upcoming Artist Spotlight pieces, so be sure to keep an eye out for that. You can also be sure that he won't be the only one working with the Oculus Rift, so expect to start finding more and more of the sleek black headsets in galleries around the world.

Posted on October 07th 2015 on 06:32pm

Friday 02nd October 2015Artist Spotlight: Scott Kelly

Typically in our Artist Spotlight series, we do exactly what it says on the tin: examine the careers, works, and lives of prominent or emerging artists from around the world. In today's edition of the Artist Spotlight, however, we're going to look at an artist who is literally out of this world (for now, at least): Scott Kelly, an astronaut currently residing on the International Space Station. While some may argue that he may not be an artist in the traditional sense, it's hard to look at his stunning photographs of the Earth's surface without seeing echoes of modern abstract art.

Having resided on the International Space Station for the last several months, Kelly has been populating his Twitter feed with photographs of the Earth since he first docked and went aboard. The photographs are truly incredible, all the more beautiful for the fact that the medium he's photographing is the topography of the entire planet.

The latest series of abstracts he's been posting are from his passage over the continent of Australia, which is already somewhat famous for its impressive topography. Some of the oldest rocks on the surface of the planet can be found here, and perhaps that's partly to credit for the impressive quality of the abstracts Kelly captures.

He photographs from the observation cupola of the International Space Station (ISS), a multi-windowed bubble on the Earth side of the station. Ostensibly, Kelly's mission is to spend an entire year in space, to help NASA and the other space agencies involved in the product understand the effects of long-term space habitation on the human body. If his photographs are anything to go by, it's clear that extended time in space doesn't prevent or limit human creativity in the slightest, which will no doubt be excellent news for the cultural development of any future interplanetary colonies.

To keep up with Kelly's photographs during his entire year aboard the ISS, be sure to follow his Twitter account, which can be found here: Kelly has been tagging all his photos with the hashtag #EarthArt, which was first used during a Google Earth project that scanned the globe for interesting and appealing topographical features. Stay tuned for more photographs as he passes over other continents during the rest of his #yearinspace mission, and get a truly unique view of the world we all know and love.

Posted on October 02nd 2015 on 06:00pm
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