16. Art as Kidnap

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“In these days of fast moving technological advancement, we seem to find ourselves all too often content in our flighty attitude of continuous-partial-engagement; that uninspiring residence of stupidity that is constantly on the alert for the next sliver of gratification.”

Following on from Jeanette Winterson’s recommendation that artists need to smuggle their art across unsuspecting audience’s horizons to prevent the usual slaughter at the gate, we come across another problem: the attention span of the audience. It seems these days that even if an artist can get their art onto the doormat of the audience’s mind they still aren’t guaranteed to make an impact. So even though the ‘must have’ item on the list of personal abilities, cherished by the chattering classes is knowledge about culture, there is the decidedly annoying problem of getting them to pay attention.

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Whether culture is gathered by watching a TV series in easy-to-manage chunks, or by buying a ticket and sitting down to witness a contemporary jazz version of ‘120 days of Sodom,’ we desire the experience of something outside the mundane, which we can later relay to our nearest and dearest. Sometimes, it is as if we need to stock up our larder with cultural tit-bits in case unexpected guests arrive and need entertaining. At others, it is because we fear being judged that we haven’t kept up to date enough with current trends. Reliance upon anecdotes from glorious days past, before the children stole our lives when we used to strum a guitar in a ‘band,’ will undoubtedly bore our friends / acquaintances / boss and drive them from our door. Rarely, then, are the activities we pursue ends in themselves. Instead, our pursuits on the eternal pitch of culture are quite trivial, trite and transparent. Being there and fully imbibing the unique treat that we have before us, is unfortunately something peculiarly alien to most of us.

In these days of fast moving technological advancement, we seem to find ourselves all too often content in our flighty attitude of continuous-partial-engagement; that uninspiring residence of stupidity that is constantly on the alert for the next sliver of gratification. So, rather than turning off our tracking devices and giving ourselves over to the spectacle in view, we gaze absent-mindedly at the portable devices of addiction and long for an interruption via text or social media. Then we, in turn, can interrupt our friends with it as well in a bizarre attempt to upstage Don Giovanni. Humility and patience do not sit well with coffee-fuelled frenetic sloppy thinking. Consequently, trying to get anyone to ‘sit down and enjoy the show’ is a deeply troublesome and unrewarding task.

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In the face of such a futile and seemingly thankless undertaking, it’s not hard to notice that certain artists have got wise to the fact that their once thoughtful and emotionally susceptible audience is probably now going to send a text, take a selfie or laugh at the latest item trending over Twitter, whilst standing in front of their life’s work. (Inside, one’s heart beats perceptibly slower as this blight shadow embraces our so-called ‘cultured masses.’) Some artists, indeed, seek to rally themselves and resist the creeping miasma of contemporary dull-headedness and actively fight back with high explosive counter measures and a range of consciousness disorientating techniques to prevent such disinterest, vapidity, and moronic behaviour as we, their dubious audience, fumble in our pockets and bags to mute or answer pointless phone calls. No real weapons are employed, but all the same within the space of a couple of vibrating cricket chirps, we are kidnapped.

One such kidnapping took place in Colchester, Essex, where originally an artist had been commissioned to install a video piece within the town’s new art gallery; a second generation lottery project. However, due to capital project delays, the decision was taken to install her piece in a very different space. Influenced by the work’s content, a contemporary response to the 16th Century historical figure, William Gilberd, who is reputed to have discovered magnetism, a more fitting location emerged: the empty and no-longer-active church where Gilberd was buried. Holy Trinity Church as a space had not been opened to the public for fifteen years, even though its central position in the main shopping area had thousands of people trawling past its padlocked gates everyday.

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Opening for just two weeks in September 2009, time was in short supply to transform the dusty, hidden shell of a once flourishing and sanctified building into a public venue. Marketing and promotional activity was galvanised to publicise the exhibition but more interesting from our perspective the building, conceived many centuries past to allow the maximum amount of light into its otherwise cold, damp, and dark enclosure, had to be ‘blacked out.’ When visiting the site prior to the installation of her work Kathleen Herbert realised, along with the gallery’s curatorial and technical team that her low lit, dark palette, film would be compromised by streams of daylight pouring in from the many arched windows of the gothic space. Consequently, in an effort to allow the film to be seen, black self-adhesive plastic needed to be cut, trimmed, and placed over every window, stained or not. Scaffolding to the ready and armed with sheets of plastic the interior of the church was gradually cast into the permanent dead of night.

Arriving as a member of the audience meant first gaining access to a previously locked cemetery within the town’s centre and then edging along a small path to the main entrance of the church. Bespoke wooden doors filled the stone arch in which they are set, but allowed entry into Holy Trinity’s portico. From here, an invigilator was positioned to inform you of what was to be expected inside the church; make you aware of health and safety matters; open the inner doors to grant you access; and then finally closed the inner doors behind you. Unbeknownst to you, of course, partaking and agreeing to all the preceding activity has swiftly delivered you into the kidnapper’s grasp. Every movement and interaction that went before has led you to a place that could not be walked away from with any simplicity or ease.

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Unlike standing in front of a painting in a museum and then moving on to the next without a moment’s thought, a trap silently awaits your entrance and then quietly closes behind you just at the moment when you begin to grapple with the realisation that you are in an extremely dark space and have no real knowledge of where you are. At first you can’t even make out your own hand in front of your face and you have to wait for your eyes to acclimatise in the darkness so that you can meekly shuffle forward across the smooth cold stone floor, which gently undulates beneath your feet. The artist due to the diligent execution of their kidnap plan has triumphantly gained your attention and you are effectively blindfolded whilst you agree to their demands. Once inside the church and having taken a few faltering steps toward what you dimly perceive as the film screen, your commitment becomes total. You will now watch the film and not simply walk away as you would from a painting in a museum.

Image by Doug Atfield for firstsite
Image by Doug Atfield for firstsite

Congratulations and full marks, of course, to the artist in terms of kidnapping you and ensuring that their art is seen and respected and not just gazed at absent-mindedly whilst you contemplate the next interaction with your handheld bundle of lights, wires and plastic. Capturing the culture-dabbler physically is certainly a way to ensure that one’s work is examined on its own terms. So, hats off to Herbert for her ‘full body kidnap’.

There are, of course, many other types of kidnap. Tate Modern’s Unilever series of dramatic works that filled the Turbine Hall specialised in such kidnaps with works such as Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, Carsten Höller’s Test Site and Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds to name a few, all acting to immerse the spectator completely within the presence of their art. The artist, though, can kidnap the audiences’ hearts or minds just as conveniently as their full body. It purely depends on the type of environment the artist creates around, through, or with their work. In addition to hearts and minds, wallets and trust can also be added to the range of kidnap methods. The list is probably endless, but to build a fuller idea of the power employed it is perhaps worthwhile exploring one further illustration in detail.

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Sometimes, it is only through example that one can comprehend the measure of someone else’s thoughts and the gravity that they might have. So, with swift abandon, let me coax you into an orbital position from where you may gracefully circumnavigate my thoughts.

In February 2005, New York City found it’s much beloved Central Park the subject of intense activity over the course of a few months prior to a grand unveiling which, as the saying goes, ‘the like of which had never been seen before’. Two artists, the husband and wife team that was Jean-Claude and Christo, finally managed to activate a long held ambition for the city of New York and, contrary to their more ‘usual’ practice of concealing national landmarks, put into place a spectacular artwork that stretched the length and breadth of the city’s largest park, spanning 843 acres with 23 miles of footpaths. The installation of The Gates, Central Park, 1979 – 2005 was an immense tour de force, which, as its title highlights, took 26 years in the making, from conception to completion.

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Gaining permission from the city of New York, via the Mayor, at the time Michael Bloomberg, on the 22nd January 2003 acted as the re-animation point for a project deferred for over twenty years. From that date on the realisation of Christo and Jean Claude’s overdue desire to give something back to their adopted home could finally move from concept to installation. Mobilising manufacturers across New York and neighbouring states and even procuring fabric from Germany, the artists project managed a Herculean task to fulfil their dream. 7,500 gates, each twelve feet tall with a five foot saffron coloured fabric panel hanging beneath a cross bar attached to two uprights posts, would be spaced at ten to fifteen foot intervals throughout Central Park’s winding pathway system. Because each gate would be free-standing and not penetrate the park’s surface at any point, over 5,000 tons of steel were needed to make the base plates, each individually weighing between 750 to 835 pounds depending on the individual gate’s crossbar span, in order to provide the necessary inherent stability for the structure. Fitting in-between low lying branches, tree root surface penetration and the different widths of footpaths meant that there were twenty-three different widths of gate, ranging from six to eighteen feet. To manufacture the five inch square uprights and crossbars, 60 miles of saffron colour-matched vinyl had to be extruded through bespoke moulds to create the 22,500 poles needed to assemble the gates. 15,000 steel upper corner sleeves were made to connect the two vertical poles to their horizontal counterpart. A further 15,000 steel sleeves were manufactured to connect the uprights to their base plates, with over 165,000 bolts and self locking nuts provided to secure the ‘goal-post’ frame to the base footings. 119, 556 miles of saffron thread were woven in Emsdetten, Germany, to make the 1,092,200 square feet of recyclable rip-stop nylon fabric.

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A wall plan eight feet high by thirty feet long was drawn up with precise architectural drawings which divided Central Park into 73 sections to aid the visualisation and project management of this undertaking. Finally, 650 installation workers were employed to install the base plates, connect the uprights to their horizontal partners, and then erect all 7,500 gates for their unveiling for their all too brief lifespan of sixteen days in what would be a picture postcard, snow covered, winter for Central Park. To ensure that their dream was actually a gift from themselves, absolutely every component and wage for the entire project was financed by Christo and Jean-Claude through the sale of drawings, originals and lithographs: perhaps the most remarkable fact in this array of remarkable facts.

However, admiration in terms of scale, technical ability, and generosity need to be rested on the side-lines because on 12th February 2005, after all of this activity, Christo and Jean Claude’s audience trickled through the many entrances to the park and began to walk among the gates themselves. Their experience was akin to being eight years old, waking up on a cold winter’s morning to discover that it had snowed deeply outside. Getting one’s coat, boots, hat and gloves on and then running out to see and touch the dreamlike landscape that had been magically transformed overnight and take in every tree, rock, and surface as if they had never been seen before is the idealised memory cherished from one’s youth and, as soppy as it is to say it, the gates provided this feeling afresh. To wander through those gates on that first day and discover how their vibrant colour and shape re-animated the already beautiful park was breath-taking. The feat of engineering and project management had yielded its payoff and delivered to thousands an experience that changed the most hard-nosed and cynical native New Yorker into a wide-eyed child, once again filled with wonder, curiosity, and the possibility of hope.

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A few days later Manhattan, as well as the rest of New York State and most of the Northern Eastern Seaboard, succumbed to a recent vogue for deep snow in February and the magic was doubled. Any park in snow is a special place that disrupts the normal grind of daily routine, but to have the gates intertwined within such a setting was a unique encapsulation of beauty and it induced child-like wonder in all. However, getting lucky with the snow in no way should overshadow the achievement of the gates upon their audience. The experience of the gates themselves in their execution was awe-inspiring, and it is this quality that belongs solely to the artists because they managed that rare thing of kidnapping hearts.

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Shameless subjective emotive writing is, of course, to be despised and should be left in the ‘Disneyfied’ assembly line for plots that is the genre of romantic comedy. However, gushing at the resultant experience that the gates affected is required because we need to grasp the context of this form of kidnap. Just as with the ‘full-body kidnap’, the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ inducing art-forms that capture hearts is one that doesn’t easily let you go. Instead of physically impeding your exit, the ‘heart kidnap’ infects you with positive emotional responses designed to overrule all other cognitive / critical / cynical outlooks. One is taken over, just as completely as the mere thought of Christmas overtakes a small child going about their usual daily activities: all other thoughts are put on hold whilst a period of euphoric dwelling and reverie ensues.

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Gates, then, aren’t all bad. As well as being smuggled past they can be artistically used for widening audiences experience, perception and understanding. Placing aside my wordplay, I like to think that Gadamer would have approved of Jean-Claude and Christo’s use of play within their installation because it worked. It got audiences to engage, to forget their usual ways of understanding the world and it got past their barriers, their internal gates.

Our aesthetic interlude is over, however, and in the next post we shall return to Gadamer.

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