Art: What a Concept

I was really first exposed to conceptual art by my brother-in-law, Chen Zhen (in the Chinese way, family name first).

When first my wife and I visited him and his family in Paris, he took time to tour us through the big three of Parisian art museums: the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay and Georges Pompidou Centre.  As a professor of art and an increasingly recognized conceptual artist himself, he gave us an unequalled description of art history as we toured each monumental collection.

Each museum covers successive epochs of the history of art, and it was in the last, the Pompidou, the museum for modern art, that he generously tried to explain to this country boy from Quick, British Columbia (a place so small it can only be found on local maps) how wrapping a toilet in canvas or placing melted plastic in a picture frame made what we can call art.

It did broaden my mind.  In my brother-in-law’s case, I know he was an artist of the most serious intent, yet quite capable of playfulness.  His own monumental works have been shown all over the world from the UN in New York to Israel to the Vienna Biennale.

To mention in passing only one of Zhen’s works, Round Table (1995) he “collected chairs from every continent and embedded their seats in the tabletop of a large round wooden table. Extremely varied in shape and size, the chairs were an effective metaphor for the U.N.’s diversity, while the table intentionally evoked the large communal tables so often found in Chinese restaurants. At the same time, this hopeful promise of cross-cultural communication was undercut by the fact that no one could actually sit in chairs locked into a tabletop. Thus, the message was ambiguous, simultaneously promising and denying everyone a seat at the table.”  He died tragically young at 45 of cancer probably resulting from the treatment for his chronic autoimmune condition.

We deeply appreciated his kindness in escorting us through the art venues of Paris.  It was educational.  But I thought, and still think, that a lot of what is proclaimed as conceptual art verges on the work of con artists at worst and mere whimsy at best.

I remember reading books on conceptual art at Zhen’s place.  There was one book devoted to close-up black and white photographs of its author in the nude from top to bottom.  I have thankfully forgotten that artist’s name.  Then I read of the artist who recorded his solitary path around a large meadow, made a rough map, and got the rest of the art world to accept it as a wonderful piece.

In the 1960s, Iain and Ingrid Baxter exhibited the contents of a four room apartment wrapped in plastic bags.  That same year, another ‘artist’ announced that all the shoe shops in Amsterdam just as they were, all by themselves, constituted an exhibition of his work.  Around the same time Piero Manzoni exhibited tins of his own excrement.  He put the tins on sale for their weight in gold.  This was a comment of some kind.

Of course, there are the works of Christo for which I have a sneaking admiration.  He likes to wrap things or spread fabric around, on a truly grand scale: the quite beautiful Running Fence, a fabric construction which stretched across 24 miles of northern California landscape in 1976; the project where he surrounded 11 islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay with floating hot-pink fabric (1983); in 1995 he wrapped the entirety of Berlin’s Reichstag in silvery fabric.  That was a sight.  Most recently, in 2005 in New York City’s Central Park, Christo and his wife created The Gates, a meandering installation of 7,500 saffron-hued rectangular vinyl gates. Each sheet was enormous and hung halfway down to the ground with a pleated nylon panel colored to match, which blew with the wind and shifted color with the changing light.

In this context, what is art?  The best description I’ve heard is attributed to Francis Bacon: the purpose of art is to deepen the mystery.  What mystery, like the fish asked, bewildered, what water?  The mystery of why a work by a Christo or by a Chen Zhen or a Van Gogh affects us in the undefinable ways they do.  They speak to the mystery of our existence here as human beings. We are embedded in the finally inexplicable, from the physical to the metaphysical.  Art celebrates that.

Software art

It seems to have taken me quite a while to get where I wanted to go originally with this.  That was the idea of software art as exemplified on the website

This takes conceptual art in another direction I think.  Projects veer from the contemplation of elegant and ugly algorithms to web server scripts which resample websites (based, among others, on Markov chain algorithms) to generate sites which can be aesthetically passed off as “”.

There is Joe Petrow’s blog-related project Blog Bitch where he randomly mixes up a variety of blogs to see the result.  His intent, he says, was to create a blog not written by a human being.  He’s not very keen on human blogging.

There’s Noumena, by Wayne ClementsNoumena is software which removes everything from web pages but the punctuation.  In another project, Edwin Brady and Chris Morris created a programming language called Whitespace which uses white space characters (spaces, tabs and newlines).

Who can overlook The Suicide Letter Wizard for Microsoft Word by Olga Goriunova. “Suicide Letter Wizard for Microsoft Word helps you to create a suicide letter according to your preferences. Use professional design. Choose from a variety of styles.  Make your letter look great.”

Finally from the site let me mention Schmoogle. When you type your query into Shmoogle, you get Google’s results but…. in random order.  Talk about mystery.


Lastly, let me mention, if you are as far behind the Internet curve as I am, one trend in cool Internet stuff, the mashup, which has connections to this whole subject of conceptual and software art.  This is where one commonly available Web utility or program is piggybacked with another by some able programmer which is then made available more widely.  For instance Schmoogle above is a kind of mashup, as is Cyber Nations, a game which is mounted on Google Earth, a mapping program.

One of the best sites to learn about what mashups are going on is Programmable Web.  Most of the mashups are pretty utilitarian like the Bikram Yoga Studio Finder based on Google Maps. There’s a lot of shopping mashups for particular items and where to find them.  Many mashups are based on the various Google programs or on YouTube.

Some of them are conceptual art though: there’s the Where’s Tim Hibbard mashup that lets you see where Tim is now.  He always carries a Global Positioning System-enabled cell phone.

And of course, the Dig to the Other Side mashup that answers the question, where on the other side of the Earth would I end up if I dug a really deep hole?

I’ve probably dug a deep enough hole myself.  Let me end here.

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9 Comments on “Art: What a Concept”

  1. bloglily Says:

    Wow. Where did you find all those sites? I had no idea there was a community of conceptual web artists out there. (What a concept that is!)

    I don’t have any training to speak of in art history. I slept through the one class I took, despite the fact that the professor spent the entire 90 minutes whacking his pointer on the screen where the slides were being projected. It was dark, so I slept, that’s all I know.

    Still, I do wonder why there’s so much interest in WRAPPING. Is it some kind of gesture toward materialism — all things are really nothing more than products? Can you give Big Sur as a gift? And what’s with those umbrellas?

    Thanks for another great, thought-provoking piece.

    Best, BL

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Lily,

    My formal art education didn’t get as far as yours… I don’t know where that wrapping inclination comes from. Concealing and revealing? Gift wrapping the landscape or buildings? Part of it I think is framing things in a different or large way.

    Is that Christo’s umbrella project you’re referring to? Where he set up all those blue and yellow umbrellas simultaneously in California and Japan? According to Wikipedia, the project cost $26 million and people used the umbrellas for weddings and picnics. Whimsy on a large scale!


  3. bloglily Says:

    Yes, that makes sense: framing things in a different way. I was thinking about Christo. I had no idea those umrellas cost $26 million! Good heavens. xo, BL

  4. Eliza D Says:

    Fencer, this is the first I’ve heard of software art and I don’t think I grasp what it is yet.

  5. fencer Says:

    I’m not completely sure always either…

    Here’s one definition from the ‘runme’ (mentioned above) FAQ:

    “… software art could be generally defined as an art:
    – of which the material is formal instruction code, and/or
    – which addresses cultural concepts of software…”
    Florian Cramer, Concepts, Notations, Software, Art

    Here’s an example of software art I just discovered which I like, and has enough similarities to our usual notion of art to make it casually appealing: . There’s a short description of the concept on the associated page:

  6. qazse Says:

    LOVE dreamlines! freaky and fun. (Not recommended for anyone alone and on a hallucinogen.)

    Speaking of lines, love this one: “What mystery, like the fish asked, bewildered, what water? ”

    Conceptual art can be challenging just as avant guard jazz can be. Sometimes I dig it but often not. However, I most often respect it.

    Taking a poop in a mason jar will never earn my respect. (However, maybe in a thimble it would. ) Otherwise, the many times I have relieved my bladder in the pristine snow with a whimsical pattern would qualify me or my dog as legit artists. But then again, who is to say

    As always, a mind expanding post.

  7. fencer Says:

    Yes, Dreamlines is great, isn’t it? I like the idea of it too, that it looks for images on Google that correspond to words submitted and does its thing with them…

    I really like some of the images it creates. I’m going to try and take some screenshots of those I like, don’t seem able to save by right-clicking.

    Your artful pattern in the snow would take one heaping part chutzpah, one part skillful ‘framing’ (in the wider sense of museum style presentation), and two parts rapport and knowledge of contemporary art critics and criticism to take its rightful place as a biting commentary on art and culture.


  8. Tim Hibbard Says:

    I’ve never heard my website be called art!! Thanks, I think :)

  9. fencer Says:

    Hi Tim,

    This is very interesting… I’m kind of in the position of the ‘artist’ noted above about the shoe stores of Amsterdam… Your geographical initiative became a kind of found conceptual art to me.

    But you may have an opportunity here, if you chose, to frame or couch your activity in terms an art critic could relate to, and become an instant artist, if you’re not one already.

    No intention to take your name in vain, only to note one instance of an interesting conception… Thanks for your visit!


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