The Impermanence of Art
Who among us has not stood in a museum and marveled at the 3000 year-old statue of a Greek god? Or watched Werner Herzog’s documentary about the Chavet Cave in France, its walls painted with feline faces so real you could hear them purr and growl? Herzog tells of their being painted in 32-30,000 BC! “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is a fascinating and privileged look at the human impulse to make art.
However, the effects of time and the instability of materials on art are well-documented: the ancient broken vase, the crackled surface of an old landscape, the muted colors of a painting, faded because it was hung in the sunlight. Aging can affect art.
Contemporary artists have played with this theme, saying, “We will make art that is not meant to last at all!” So, installations go up and come down! Now you see it, now you don’t. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates” in Central Park is a fond memory from February 2005. Twenty-three miles of blazing orange fabric, hung like flags between upright poles along the paths. They flapped in the (really cold) winter winds and glowed in the (really cold) sun. After 16 days, it was dismantled.
Another example of impermanence fills the corner of a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled - Placebo” Two huge mounds of hard candy wrapped in silver foil, sit on the floor. Thousands of candy pieces glint in the lights, a visual treat if there ever was one. And (are you ready for this?), you are invited to take one! And eat it! Interactive art that could eventually disappear! What fun, as well as another nod to the impermanence of art. The mound changes shape from day to day because the proportions shift, depending upon the size of the crowd and where they gingerly stepped up and chose pieces of candy.
Take that, people who want art to last forever! We took our first pieces in 2001. When saw it again in 2012, the silver mounds were there. Hmmm…did the artist specify replenishing the candy or prefer to have it disappear?
When I make art, I want it to last until either I decide to destroy it or am not alive to care anymore. That’s about as permanent as I need my art to be. Up until a few months ago, I thought I had figured this part of art making out to my satisfaction.
In Judy’s Journal (2011 July), I wrote about a potted fig tree that had not survived winter. I was bereft, because I had enjoyed eating figs on the day they ripened. So did the chipmunks. I also loved the way her branches were shaped like dancers’ arms. With or without leaves, she made lovely gestures.
We determined that there was no life left in her, so I mixed paints and had a joy-filled afternoon transforming her from a dead fig tree into a colorful sculpture. The person who gave her to us laughed and loved her new raiment!
I thought, “She is now a piece of art! Her life of giving figs is over, but she will provide a different kind of happiness.” During two winters, I watched her through my studio window, a pledge of color standing in the snow.
Spring came, and it was possible to walk to the patio. One of her branches was dangling. John tried to mend it, but it disintegrated in his hands. She had become a set of delicate painted hollow limbs.
With heavy hearts, we gently dismembered the fig tree and thanked her for the joy she had given to us. We imagine the deer in the field, sniffing at the purple, orange and red fragments, then moving on.
We have pictures of the fig tree. But never again will we have the surprise of seeing the cardinal sit on one of her branches, as if he were asking, “Don’t I look good here?”