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June 20, 2006

Exhibit 1201 — Or, portrait of the artist (British sculptor David Hensel) as a dejected man


Here's how it went down, as related by Lawrence Van Gelder in his "Arts, Briefly" column in the June 16 New York Times.

    Case of the Headless Plinth

    As the British artist David Hensel understood things, his sculpture "One Day Closer to Paradise," depicting a very large laughing head [below],


    would be part of the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London. But when Mr. Hensel, 64, attended a preview, all he saw on the plinth that was to display the heavy sculpture was the little piece of wood [top] that was intended to support the head, the BBC reported. The Academy said the judges had assumed that the wood and the head were separate pieces, and they preferred the wood. In a statement, the academy said, "It is accepted that works may not be displayed in the way the artist might have intended." The head is in storage, and the organizers of the show may reconsider.


Word gets around.

In today's Wall Street Journal English novelist Lionel Shriver weighs in on the kerfuffle; that article follows.

    'Thought to Have Merit'

    Once in a while a news story so speaks for itself that it threatens to put commentators out of a job.

    In this year's summer show at London's Royal Academy of Arts, "Exhibit 1201" is a large rectangular tablet of slate with a tiny barbell-shaped bit of boxwood on top. Its creator, David Hensel, must be pleased to have been selected from among some 9,000 applicants for the world's largest open-submission exhibit of contemporary art. Nevertheless, he was bemused to discover that in transit his sculpture had gotten separated from its base. Judging the two components as different submissions, the Royal Academy had rejected his artwork proper -- a finely wrought laughing head in jesmonite -- and selected the plinth. "It says something about the state of visual arts today," said Mr. Hensel. He didn't say what. He didn't need to.

    Moreover, the Royal Academy denies having made an error, for the plinth and hastily carved wooden support were, according to an official statement, "thought to have merit."

    For those who despair that artists these days seem to have lost the skill of fashioning meticulously crafted objects, don't blame Mr. Hensel. While the slate base took only four hours to hack from a mortuary slab, and the little boxwood prop less than an hour, he had painstakingly carved and polished that laughing head for two months. But alas, the sculpture itself has -- shudder -- emotional content. It was originally christened "One Day Closer to Paradise," a far too expressive title; Mr. Hensel would have been better off with the portentously enigmatic "Exhibit 1201." His laughing head is not only fatally well rendered, but exudes a sense of joy and hilarity, and the overtly evocative is declassé. How much more sophisticated, a stoic square of slate that speaks of -- well, ask the viewers.

    "The sculpture is a mixture of heavy stone with a light piece of wood on top," the Daily Telegraph quoted a Dane as explicating last week while admiring the plinth. "I like the total effect. It is a really nice contrast." A Londoner rejoined, "If it was in more of a minimalist show, it would definitely seem more beautiful." Presumably these folks would find an emperor clad in a "minimalist" manner equally stunning.

    Me, I just put a brick on my desk. I gaze in wonderment at the contrast in textures -- the smooth, unyielding sides of the brick, the rough, almost sexual crumble on its chipped corner, the humbler, more submissive sensuality of the scarred plywood desktop. I marvel at the fierce, affirmative perpendicular of the brick, in firm opposition to the languid, taciturn serenity of the lateral . . . But that's not even funny, is it? Joseph Beuys has piled bricks on a floor of the Guggenheim and called it art. How exasperating, a field so far out in la-la-land that it is impervious to parody. You see what I mean about being out of a job.

    Of course, the Royal Academy's exaltation of that plinth recalls many a misapprehension in galleries, where visitors are wont to coo over the fire hydrants, ventilation grates and trash cans, all of which are more durably and fastidiously crafted than the works on display. For that matter, one gift that contemporary art seems to have given us viewers is a way of seeing every object in our surround -- as I look about my study now, the powerful yet precarious piles of paperbacks, the airy, ephemeral flutter of bank statements -- as art. But in that event, we not only don't need commentators; we don't need artists, do we?

    Or the Royal Academy.

June 20, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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