Questions such as *why is there always someone having massive diarrhoea in the university library* and *what is art* aren’t as simple to answer as it might seem. I recently read that Phil Collins (the visual artist, not the originator of the whopping in the air tonight drum solo) answered the latter question by describing art as the “most extraordinary visual encounter of your day.” In his opinion, this might as well be someone falling over in a supermarket. I was quite content with this interpretation. This also justifies some of the most out-of-this-freakin-world artistic outcomes as a result of curious art materials. And they sometimes lead to exceptionally hilarious curatorial implications or conservation policies. In this context, I’m seizing the desire for a countdown of what I find the most unusual art materials used in art history after the Fountain. Despite the evidence that this up-side-down urinal attributed to Marcel Duchamp, was actually created by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, it’s still the watershed moment in art history catalysing artists to push the boundaries of what art can be. Sidenote, there won’t be any performance art included, because they would hijack the entire list (Marina Abramovic carving her stomach anyone?) but a focus on the material, not the medium.
#10 Martin Creed, No. 360 Half the air in a given space, 1998
This list starts quite innocent with Martin Creed’s lovely balloon installation. The British artist Martin Creed, winner of the Turner Prize in 2001, is famous for his immersive installations. The visitor’s experience is a key element of Creed’s practice, as he has stated, ‘the separation of the author and the audience is artificial. The world isn’t like that. We’re all mixed up.’ The work needs its visitors to exist. I think it’s hilarious that pick up 2000 pink balloons was listed on the to-do list of the curator.
#9 Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1924
One of my favourite things in art: weird juxtapositions resulting in a da fuck moment; and Meret Oppenheim rules them all. “Art […] has to do with spirit, not with decoration,” she said. She allegedly got the idea of covering a cup, saucer, and spoon with fur during an art-historical trope: the Parisian café. With Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar nonetheless. Admiring Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet, Picasso remarked that one could cover anything with fur, to which Oppenheim replied, “Even this cup and saucer.” Of course, this is the type of object art theorist indulge in: from sexual connotations to nightmares and bougie guilt. Whatever you think: combining incompatible materials stirs things up.
#8 Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ multi-layered installation defies to be explained in a bunch of sentences but I’ll try my best. The artwork is a pile of candy, wrapped in shiny vibrant coloured cellophane and visitors are allowed – even encouraged – to take a piece of candy. Gonzalez-Torres needs the viewer to take away the pieces of the pile because the decline of the pile mirrors the artist’s deceased boyfriend Ross who was suffering from AIDS. The candy pile starts with 80 kg – Ross’ weight before he was sick – and it gets smaller and smaller until it vanishes. Just like Ross’ life. The pile gets perpetually replenished after its disappearance. Again, I wonder if the institutions presenting this work have a standing order on amazon for the candy pieces.
#7 Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Free), 1992
Spoiler alert: this won’t be the last food-related artwork in this countdown. Although I have to admit this piece by the Argentinian artist could easily be defined as performance art, I couldn’t keep my dear readers from discovering it. In the original iteration, the artist converted 303 Gallery in New York into a kitchen where he served rice and Thai curry for free to the visitors. The artist pinpoints its practice’s heritage by stating: “It goes back to when I was a younger artist thinking about Duchamp’s urinal. What do you do after the readymade? After everything could be claimed as sculpture? My answer was to take the urinal, reinstall it, and piss in it. It’s the idea of reanimating an object, to put it back into use, to put the urinal back on the wall.”
#6 Kader Attia, Untitled (Ghardaïa), 2009
There are many personal and cultural reasons why this artist uses couscous for his artworks. Untitled (Ghardaïa) is a scale model of the ancient city Ghardaïa in the M’zab Valley in Algeria made from a staple food of North Africa. The model is accompanied by three works on paper: portraits of the modernist Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965) and of the French architect Fernand Pouillon (1912–1986) and a print out of the UNESCO Advisory Body Evaluation of the M’zab Valley as a world heritage site. It challenges the conventional narrative of how the West influenced the East since these aforementioned architects were influenced by this ancient city. Kader Attia’s personal history is implied in the work by the mentioning of Pouillon, who designed some of the first social housing projects, the banlieues, in France. in which he spent most of his childhood. To explain this artistic practice the artist has stated: “architecture is an archive, and like any other archive it is ‘authoritarian’ because it excludes what it does not show and extols what it does show. But this authority has a vulnerability that art can reveal. And that’s what I try to do in my art.”
#5 Pope.L Claim (Whitney Version), 2017
The most recent artwork in this list is certainly the most reeking one. For the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the artist created an immersive installation with 2,755 slices of bologna that, over the course of the show’s run, cured and gradually leaked juices into basins. No baloney! He fixed a photocopied picture of a New Yorker photographed at random on each piece of meat. Supposedly, this would represent the percentage of Jewish citizens in New York, Claim was meant as a reflection on how communities and their identity can turn abstract through numbers and statistics. The artist deals with issues of consumption, social class, and masculinity as they relate to race. He is quoted as saying of his own work: “I am a fisherman of social absurdity, if you will… My focus is to politicize disenfranchisement, to make it neut, to reinvent what’s beneath us, to remind us where we all come from.”
We’re crossing into the realm of bodily dispersals. In this piece, the in Beirut born artist of Palestinian parents collected pubic hair over the years for this piece. She explained: “There is a triangle of pubic hair that looks like it is growing out of the holes in the seat. Incidentally, this work was the result of discovering that the words “public” and “pubic” come from the same etymological source.” While playing with surrealism, minimalism and conceptualism, it’s a literal objectification of a pun. Furthermore, about her work, she has stated “Each person is free to understand what I do in the light of who they are and where they stand. I can talk about the origin of my works, but no more. I don’t want to pin a single meaning on each one.”
#3 Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998
This infamous work by British artist Tracey Emin was one of the shortlisted works for the Turner Prize in 1999. After a sexual albeit depressive phase in the artist’s life when she had remained in bed for several days without eating or drinking anything but alcohol, she looked at the vile, repulsive mess that had accumulated in her room, she suddenly realised what she had created. “I realised that I had to move the bed and everything into the gallery space.” And so she did, and presented My Bed in its entirety, including newspapers, a half-squeezed tube of K-Y Jelly, a used tampon, soiled tissues, empty vodka bottles, cigarette cartons, underwear stained with menstrual blood. This seminal work is referred to as an uncompromising self-portrait of the artist. I really wonder how they’ve conserved this piece for 20 years.
#2 Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961
Yup, it’s as straightforward as its title. And if you think it can’t get crazier than this, watch me. It was the spring of 1961 and while living in picturesque Milano, Piero Manzoni produced ninety cans of Artist’s Shit and numbered them. A label on each can, printed in Italian, English, French and German, reads ‘”Artist’s Shit”, contents 30gr net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961. The artist wrote: “if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit, that is really his.” At this point in his career, the artist was focussing on the fetishisation and commodification of his own body substances. These included marking eggs with his thumbprints before eating them, and selling balloons filled with his own breath. But how do we know (if we even want to know), if it contains the artist’s shit? Well, we don’t.
Some honourable mentions: Dan Flavin (1933–1996) and his minimalist light fixtures of commercial fluorescent bulbs into differing geometric compositions; Joseph Beuys (1921–1986) who used hare’s blood, beeswax, and chocolate, Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) who used found objects on the streets of NYC to paint them black, and Damien Hirst’s (1965) cows, shark, flies, sheeps, etc preserved in formaldehyde.
#1 Marc Quinn, Self 1991, 1991
A sculpture. Made. With. A. Shitload. Of. His. Own. Blood. Uncanny indeed. Self is a self-portrait, but one that literally incorporates bodily fluids as the material since the cast of Quinn’s head, immersed in frozen silicone, is created from ten pints of his own blood. The artist created the work at a time he was an alcoholic, and this notion of dependency is reflected in the work since it needs to be plugged in/ needs electricity to remain frozen. Since it needs to be carefully maintained, it can remind the viewer of the fragility of existence. Think about the conservation policy for institutions? NPG, how do you do it? He creates this sculpture every five years, showing the passing of time. “I was interested in making art that was about real life … and I thought I would start with myself,” he said, “You explore the world from yourself outwards, that’s the arc of all my work.”
And that’s that.