Years ago, Steve and I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. Among the works in the modern art exhibition wing was a conical pile of small grey stones, about three feet high. Steve rolled his eyes.
‘It doesn’t speak to you?’ I asked.
‘It’s gravel,’ he said, his voice full of disgust. ‘I can see it in my driveway.’
Now whenever I’m at a museum and see any pile of rocks, I send Steve a picture, so he knows he’s missing out.
National Gallery of Victoria, 2018, artist unknown
When I visited White Rabbit Gallery recently, I went with a friend. I was delighted to see a large pile of rubble spread across one floor, and even more delighted when I noticed the pile gently rising and falling, as though it were breathing.
My friend flitted among the exhibitions like a hummingbird. ‘I don’t like modern art,’ she said. ‘These artists do stupid things.’
On the second level, a museum volunteer stopped us. ‘I need to warn you that one of the exhibits here is very graphic, so you may want to avoid it,’ she said, gesturing to the space behind her. ‘The rest of the floor is fine.’
I went straight to the work she’d pointed out. My friend followed a little slower. It was a series of photographs and a video featuring the artist He Yunchang.
He had asked his friends to vote on whether he should have an incision cut from his knee up to his collar bone without anesthetic. They voted yes, by a narrow majority (some abstained).
The series of photos showed Yunchang naked, undergoing the procedure, his friends in the room. He did this, he said, to represent the suffering of the people under the Chinese government, titling the work ‘One Metre of Democracy’.
‘It’s stupid to have yourself cut open while your friends watch, to take pictures of your wound bleeding,’ I said. ‘But if you do it to make others think about something important, I think that’s interesting, at the very least.’
Even a pile of non-breathing gravel is interesting, I think, even if it doesn’t directly symbolise injustice or ruthless self-interest or the corrupting forces of capitalism.
Though if I were a visual artist, I’d be more inclined to create works like Shen Shaomin’s ‘Laboratory – Three-Headed, Six-Armed Superman’.
Shaomin envisions a future in which animals will take the place of humans, ‘and the world will be dominated by strange or mutated life-forms.’
I might not have three heads, but some days it feels like the world is dominated by strange and mutated life-forms already, and for some reason we keep voting them into office.