Art and money have always been inseparable. As Andy Warhol declared almost four decades ago, “Business art is the step that comes after Art.” During the past several decades, however, this relationship has been transformed by the appearance of a new form of capitalism: finance capitalism.
In previous forms of capitalism -- agricultural, industrial and consumer -- people made money by buying and selling labor and material goods; in finance capitalism, by contrast, wealth is created by circulating signs backed by nothing other than other signs. When investment becomes more speculative, the rate of circulation accelerates and the floating signifiers, which now constitute wealth, proliferate.
The structure and development of financial markets and the art market mirror each other. As art becomes a progressively abstract play of non-referential signs, so increasingly abstract financial instruments become an autonomous sphere of circulation whose end is nothing other than itself. When the overall economy moves from industrial and consumer capitalism to finance capitalism, art undergoes parallel changes. There are three stages in this process: the commodification of art, the corporatization of art, and the financialization of art.
Virtual Versus Real
At the end of these interrelated trajectories, the real seems to have become virtual and the virtual appears to be real. But just when the circuit seems to be complete, the system implodes and the real returns.
When Warhol proclaimed art to be business and business to be art, he was acknowledging the overwhelming importance of postwar consumer culture. Not only had the center of the art world shifted from Europe to New York, but the U.S. had become the world’s dominant economic and military power. The work of many of the most influential artists of the era both reflected and promoted American values and power at home and abroad. Warhol’s artistic appropriation of the images and icons of consumer culture put on display both the machinations of consumer capitalism and commodification of art that was so vigorously promoted by the burgeoning gallery system.
With increasing economic prosperity, art, whose collection and exhibition had long been limited to the church and aristocracy, became the social marker for individuals aspiring to rise above the middle class. But even Warhol could not have anticipated the explosion of the art market by the turn of the millennium.
According to reliable estimates, by 2006, the private art market had reached $25 billion to $30 billion. Christie’s International and Sotheby’s, the two leading auction houses, reported combined sales of $12 billion, and more than two dozen galleries were doing $100 million in sales annually.
This phenomenal growth in the art market was not limited to the U.S. Global capitalism created a global art market. From 2002 to 2006, this market more than doubled, from $25.3 billion to $54.9 billion. This astonishing growth was fueled by emerging markets in Russia, China, India and the Middle East. The price of individual works escalated as quickly as the purported value of the financial securities with which they were being purchased. In 2006, Ronald Lauder, honorary chairman of the board of the Museum of Modern Art, purchased Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for $135 million, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a single painting. One year later, Jeff Koons’s “Hanging Heart” sold at auction for $23.6 million, which was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist.
Koons is the poster boy for this frenzied commodification of art. What began in Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s ends in Koons’s factory, where his cast of assistants fabricates whatever he imagines. Whether pornographic figurines or cute flower puppies, remarkable craftsmanship characterizes Koons’s art. Just as Warhol, reacting to abstract expressionists, removed hand from work, so Koons further mechanizes the means of production.
There is, however, a critical difference between Warhol and Koons. Neither Koons nor his art gives any hint of the irony and parody that lend Warhol’s art its edge. While Warhol’s work unsettles, Koons’s art is crafted to reassure. Unapologetically embracing banality and freely admitting his ignorance of art history, Koons sounds more like Joel Osteen than Marcel Duchamp: “I realized you don’t have to know anything and I think my work always lets the viewer know that,” he once told a reporter. “I just try to do work that makes people feel good about themselves, their history, and their potential.” What is surprising is how many seemingly intelligent and sophisticated people have been taken in by this erstwhile stockbroker.
Having learned his trade on the floor of commodity exchanges, Koons does not move beyond the commodification of art. His exquisitely crafted works have become precious objects whose worth is measured by their rapidly rising exchange value. The next stage in the development of the art market -- the corporatization of art -- can be understood in two ways.
First, in the past two decades, many major corporations have appropriated the age-old practice of attempting to increase their prestige by purchasing and displaying art. In many cases, companies hire full- or part-time advisers and consultants to develop their collections. Second, and more interesting, a few enterprising artists have transformed the corporation itself into a work of art.
High and Low
The most interesting example of the corporatization of art is the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Like Warhol and Koons, Murakami collapses high and low by appropriating images from popular culture to create oversized sculptures and his signature “Superflat” paintings.
But he has also expanded his artistic practice to create a commercial conglomerate that is functionally indistinguishable from many of today’s media companies, advertising agencies and leading corporations. In 2001, he created Kaikai Kiki Co., which currently employs some 70 people. According to the company website, the goals of this enterprise “include the production and promotion of artwork, the management and support of select young artists, general management of events and projects, and the production and promotion of merchandise.” The products marketed range from more-or-less traditional paintings, sculptures and videos to T-shirts, key chains, mouse pads, cell-phone holders and even $5,000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags. His 2007-2008 exhibition, “© Murakami,” at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art included a fully operational Louis Vuitton boutique.
Having formed a hybrid of a media corporation, advertising company and a talent agency, Murakami dubbed his for-profit corporation a work of art. One of the primary functions of this novel entity is the organization of a biannual art fair in Tokyo, “GEISAI,” which allows clients (young artists) to exhibit their work for a fee. As the artist and photographer Walead Beshty has observed, “the delirious intricacy of Murakami’s unrepentant entrepreneurialism” is hard not to appreciate. Kaikai Kiki’s “tentacles extend into a network of alliances spanning the entertainment industry, corporate image consultation, toy manufacturing and high fashion -- this aside from the production of art objects. His ability to mold productions (and services) to varying scale into an ornate constellation is as mesmerizing as his willingness to almost selflessly dissolve his own business complex.”
Yet Murakami’s corporatization of art does not express the fundamental economic transformation that has taken place since the late 1960s. As financial capitalism expands, the production of tangible goods is increasingly displaced by the invention of intangible products. This is as true in the art market as it is in the stock market.
In ways that are not immediately obvious, today’s overheated art market can help us understand the recent collapse of the overleveraged global economy. Though few have made the connection, developments in the art market have been following the changing investment strategies in financial markets. The global growth in the art market parallels the worldwide spread of finance capitalism. In recent years, the value of art assets has often risen faster than the value of real estate or financial assets.
This growth has, of course, been driven by the exponential increase in wealth among those who benefit most from the new financial system. Each week brings another account of a newly rich hedge-fund manager buying art at a ridiculously inflated price. This preoccupation with “celebrity” collectors, however, obscures a more interesting and important development: The titans of finance capitalism are also transforming the art market through the financialization of art. They manage their art collections in much the same way they manage their portfolios.
Speculating in art is not, of course, new. In one of the most intriguing investment schemes in recent history, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito purchased van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” in 1990 for the then-record price of $82.5 million. Immediately after taking possession of the painting, he secured it in a climate-controlled vault where it remained for seven years. By 1993, Saito’s financial empire had fallen apart. Since his death in 1996, the location and ownership of the painting have remained a mystery.
This investment strategy treats art like any other commodity purchased for speculative purposes. The investment game changes significantly when art is regarded as a financial asset, rather than as a consumer good. Speculators in the art market have recently established hedge funds and private equity funds for the purchase and sale of art. These funds extend the principles of finance capitalism to art. Take the example of mortgages. As we have seen, since the early 1980s, mortgages have been securitized as collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs) so that they could be bought and resold in secondary and tertiary markets. While the value of these derivatives is supposed to be determined by the value of the underlying asset (the price of the real estate), in a rising market the value of the derivative increases relative to the collateral on which it is based.
With the growing volatility of financial markets, investors attempt to hedge their bets by trading derivatives using different variations of portfolio theory. When mortgages are bundled and tranched, the evaluation of risk has nothing to do with the value of a particular asset but is calculated using mathematical formulae to determine the statistical probability of defaults of the underlying mortgages. With this practice, the derivative drifts farther and farther from its underlying asset until the virtual and the real seem to be completely decoupled.
Some enterprising investors are applying this model to the art market. London financier Philip Hoffman, for example, has established Fine Art Management Services Ltd., which speculates in art rather than stocks. Bloomberg’s Deepak Gopinath explains Hoffman’s strategy: “Melding art and finance, art funds aim to trade Picassos and Rembrandts the way hedge funds trade U.S. Treasuries or gold -- and collect hedge-fund-like fees in the process. Hoffman’s Fine Art Fund, for example, charges an annual management fee equal to 2 percent of its assets and takes a 20 percent cut of profits once the fund clears a minimum hurdle.”
This strategy securitizes works of art in the same way that CMOs securitize mortgages. Just as mortgages are bundled and sold as bonds, so works of art are bundled and sold as shares of a hedge fund. In other words, rather than owning an individual work of art, or several works of art, an investor owns an undivided interest in a group of art works. In these schemes, what is important is not the real value of the company, commodity or artwork; what matters is the statistical probability of its price performance within a specified time frame relative to other portfolio holdings. Furthermore, insofar as investors hedge bets by using portfolio theory, the value of any particular work of art is determined by its risk quotient relative to other works of art held by the fund.
Like investors in CMOs, who know nothing about the actual real-estate holdings whose mortgages they own, investors in art hedge and private-equity funds know nothing about the actual artworks in which they are investing. Investors in art funds could conceivably sell their shares, thereby creating secondary and tertiary markets. As trading accelerates, derivatives (fund shares) and underlying assets (works of art) are once again decoupled, creating a quasi-autonomous sphere of circulating signs in which value constantly fluctuates.
This financialization of art is a genuinely new phenomenon that even Andy Warhol could not have predicted. The most prominent representative of the financialization of art is Damien Hirst, who is notable for his creation of works of art specifically designed for new financial markets. A newspaper editorial in 2007 observed that Hirst “has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art.” The most ostentatious example of his strategy was the production and marketing of his $100 million diamond-studded skull ironically titled “For the Love of God.”
The financial machinations surrounding the sale of this work were as complex and mysterious as a high-stakes private- equity deal. One year later, Hirst mounted his own sale at Sotheby’s in London at the precise moment that global financial markets were collapsing. Though the sale was an enormous financial success, it is clear that this unlikely event marked the end of a trajectory that had been unfolding since the end of World War II.
There are, predictably, some critics who argue that Hirst, like Jeff Koons, is, in fact, satirizing or criticizing the market from which he nonetheless profits so handsomely. While this argument is plausible in the case of Warhol, the art of Koons and Hirst, like the critics who promote it, has lost its critical edge.
If each era gets the art it deserves, then the age of finance capitalism deserves the carcass of a rotting shark that no amount of formaldehyde can preserve. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” harbors a lesson worth noting: Reality might not be completely virtual after all, and far from impossible, death is unavoidable.
The commodification, corporatization and financialization of art represent the betrayal of principles and values that have guided artists for more than two centuries. The notion of modern art and related ideas of the avant-garde emerged in Germany during the last decade of the 18th century. In the wake of the failure of the French Revolution, idealistic philosophers and romantic poets were forced to reconsider the interrelation of religion, art and politics. When religion and politics failed to realize what many imagined as the kingdom of God on Earth, artists and philosophers fashioned new strategies, which more than two centuries later continue to shape our world.
The commodification, corporatization and financialization of art subvert the artistic mission that the 18th-century German critic Friedrich Schiller memorably described as the desire to transform the world into a work of art. When the artist becomes a commodities trader, corporate executive or hedge-fund manager, criticism gives way to complicity in an economy that absorbs everything designed to resist it. With asset values rising at an unprecedented rate, the market seems to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. But just at this moment of apparent triumph, the bubble bursts and everything must be re-evaluated. Though profoundly unsettling, the collapse of finance capitalism creates the opportunity for a reassessment of values that extend far beyond money and art.
The crisis of confidence plaguing individuals and institutions is a crisis of faith. We no longer know what to believe or whom to trust. At such a moment, art might seem an unlikely resource to guide reflection and shape action. If, however, God and the imagination are -- as Wallace Stevens insisted -- one, then perhaps art can create an opening that is the space of hope. Perhaps, by refiguring the spiritual, art can redeem the world.
(Mark C. Taylor is the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University. This is the second of two excerpts from his new book “Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy,” to be published March 20 by Columbia University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Originally published by Bloomberg Media
The titles of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings give them a slightly menacing, as well as a dangerously attractive, air: Cocaine Hydrochloride, Morphine Sulphate, Bovine Albumin, Butulinium Toxin A. Their relentless, insistent brightness feels almost bad for you. No wonder one group of paintings is called Controlled Substances. Yet they have no discernable secrets, and that’s part of the deal. Nothing more is revealed, however long you look. They’re as unsatisfying as cigarettes, calming but addictive. Avoid prolonged exposure.
Opening today at all 11 Gagosian galleries around the world, including two in London, Hirst’s spot paintings are taking over the planet. Hirst has produced almost 1,500, and currently has a team of assistants working on one with a million spots that will take over nine years to complete. You gasp at the labour, if little else.
So here come the spots: a quarter century of two, three, four and five-inch circles, with some as big as 40in across, and others just a couple of millimetres. Never mind the shifts from imperial measurements to metric: they’re all just spots. Clean and flatly painted circles of household gloss on white or off-white backgrounds, they cover canvases large and small in unremitting grids. No two spots touch, and no colour is repeated on the same canvas, although some are close as dammit to being the same hue.
There are tiny one-spot paintings, paintings with spots at their corners, ones covered with rank after rank of hundreds, if not thousands, of little circles. There are big spots that go BAM! and others that recede, their pallid colours melting into the background. There are fields of tiny spots that give the overall impression of a greyish muted field, and great blasting walls that go on and on, blinking away as you move about them. Because the colours never touch, there’s no real conversation or friction between them. Everything is insistently frontal. I long for a black spot, a wobble, a smear.
Some paintings might look perky, others dour, but somehow it doesn’t matter, except to those who want a particularly early painting, an over-the-sofa one, one that goes with the curtains, or one with no purple in it (it’s my unlucky colour). It may turn out that, taken all together (and one journalist, I hear, is intent on making the rounds of every Gagosian gallery to see all the paintings), the work of one or another of Hirst’s assistants may have produced the best spot paintings. But is there a best or worst? How can we tell? Each has the same pictorial and optical efficiency, the same immediacy, even though they are so laborious and painstaking to produce.
In London, There are 60 paintings at Britannia Street and 48 in Davies Street. The latter has paintings small enough to carry under your arm or hide in a pocket, if they weren’t screwed to the wall. Hirst’s earliest spot paintings, I gather, are at the Madison Avenue gallery in New York. His first one was all hand-painted blobs, jostling, dripping and crowding an 8ft-by-12ft panel, painted while he was at Goldsmiths college, London, in the 1980s. It had a crowded, rhythmic yet open look you could get lost in, a bit like the early 1960s work of British painter Bernard Cohen, himself no stranger to the blob and spot.
But Hirst’s spots soon acquired a clean and emphatic air. These were take-it-or-leave-it paintings, without problems or doubts, painted directly on the wall. He was doing lots of other things at the time, including painting on discarded cardboard boxes and producing his first medicine cabinets. The variety and inventiveness was evidence of an enquiring and lively mind. Lots of artists could make a whole career from such an apparently limited repertoire of forms and effects. But Hirst, of course, keeps several artistic modes running at once. This spring, a retrospective opens at Tate Modern, while Hirst intends to open his own museum in London’s Vauxhall some time soon.
No matter how many spot paintings there are – tondos, triangles, squares, rhomboids and rectangles with corners cut off – there will always be more words spilled over them. The works look as if they were generated by machine, their cold random repetitions generating endless sameness. It is only the very small works, some with just half a dot on a tiddly canvas, that have a more sprightly, human feel.
All are structured on the grid. The grid, wrote the US critic Rosalind Krauss, is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. The pleasures of Hirst’s pharmaceutical paintings, as the spots are generically titled, are as artificial as chemicals and drugs. Showing them all over the world at the same time becomes part of their content and meaning: they’re infiltrating everywhere, their field expanding to cover the world.
For a while, coloured spots signalled a fresh, sophisticated, zesty new Britain. Whether Hirst had much to do with this is uncertain. No one owns the spot, although designer appropriations always remind you of Hirst, or of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who has been covering her work, and her body, in polka dots for 60 years. (Kusama is at Tate Modern next month.) US artist Ellsworth Kelly was also arranging grids of colours in the 1950s, while Germany’s Gerhard Richter has been painting colour charts and squares for decades. Hirst just ran with an unoriginal idea in an original way. Which, pretty much, is what art always does.
© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited
Mary Heilmann, Rosebud, 1983
I love lines, dots, drippy brushstrokes, polygons, blends, morphs and swirls. I love sticks with stripes on them. Looking at abstract art is for me like doing non-verbal philosophy, symbolic logic or non-number mathematics. It is like music, because it has a narrative without a story, without people: a drama without words.
My studio work is, for the most part, just me sitting, thinking and looking at what I have on the wall. Squares, dots, squiggles made of clay. There are shaped planes of wood or stretched canvas arranged not parallel to the ceiling and floor. I look and think, and I do a kind of obsessive measuring, cutting, dividing, adding, subtracting, sometimes with numbers; division and multiplication that I do in my head. No calculator. No pencil and paper. I imagine the images of other artists. These days I tap into Google to find something on the internet. My current obsession is Malevich, which is why many of my shaped canvases are slanting up and down the wall. I look at the everyday objects around me and mentally take them apart, cut them up and put them together in new ways. All of this is done in my imagination, until I finally get busy and actually make something.
I am happy to see Peter Young’s work being shown in the Tate St Ives ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’ exhibition. He is one of my early heroes: dots, lines, yes! That he was a part of the Los Angeles avant-garde as a child in the 1950s makes a lot of sense. His father, who studied with Albert Einstein, moved from Pennsylvania to Pacific Palisades with the family to work for the Rand Corporation.
There was a wonderful and significant group of post-war artists living in Los Angeles: designers, architects, film-makers, and composers that included Charles and Ray Eames, the architect Rudolph Schindler, artists John McLaughlin, Helen Lundeberg and Frederick Hammersley, as well as Arnold Schoenberg and the young John Cage. Young’s family was a part of this milieu. I lived there in the 1940s and 1950s, when that sophisticated high-culture was seeping into the southern California mainstream – so it was an influence on me, even as a child.
I love Andy Warhol’s Eggs (1982). This kind of generic abstraction is also of interest to me. I think that it often comes out of a discourse with the social community of art as much as out of aesthetic rumination. Warhol was primarily a figurative artist, and it makes sense. The abstract paintings, such as Eggs, as well as his “oxidation paintings”, are the result of his, (probably) non-verbal, engagement with social and critical aesthetic discourse. I have loved Warhol because I have always liked popular culture as much as high art, and was happy when I found that they were part of the same world. I saw his Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) when Irving Blum showed them in Los Angeles at his Ferus Gallery in 1962. And I saw The Velvet Underground at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966.
David Reed is another favourite artist of mine. Again, it is about reference. For example: David often has the brushstroke as his subject. Using it as an image of a beautiful thing, that makes one begin to ruminate linguistically, to have a nonverbal mental conversation about everything, about painting and art, unless, of course, there is someone else around to talk to.
A great survey of painting such as ‘The Indiscipline of Painting’ is for me a huge conversation, and this is the way I love to engage with art. I like to talk about it with other people, but I am also very happy to sit and look all around at painting after painting and allow them to speak to me, as I silently but verbally or non-verbally talk with them, say things to them and to myself. I can do this for a long time. And when I have a show of my work I hope that the people there will do the same thing. That is why I’ve started to make the chairs. I want people to sit down, hang out and look at the work for a long time, and talk to themselves and other people about it.
The human body, by far the most classic theme in art history, strikes a chord with us because it defines our humanity, our physical and emotional being-in-the-world, our being alive. It’s the Pièta’s dangling limbs, the lines of Picasso’s nudes or Michelangelo’s touching hands that convey the feeling captured in the work. Hence, the ‘revival’ of the human form in contemporary art can be called an overstatement, as it is only one new phase of a tradition that’s been going strong throughout centuries. The depiction of the (human) body, gives us a lense into the time in which the artwork was made, and the way people looked at the world and themselves at that moment. Also today, it’s interesting to see how artists work with the body in new ways, and are at the same time part of the continuum, referring to shapes that came before. I would like to shed light on two artists from the lower countries, one from Belgium and one from the Netherlands, to illustrate how today, the human form takes centre stage in different ways.
What Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen does, goes beyond designing clothes: through the use of 3D printing techniques, in which tiny particles of any material can be printed into a 3D form, she creates new forms that are even for her at first ‘unthinkable’: her crossing of oldschool craftmanship and hi-tech techniques result in new extraordinary shapes, with the body (human or not) as a central given. She explains “I have a vivid imagination and can think up many new ideas, but I need the restriction of the human body as an instrument to work with, that’s why I chose fashion.” Van Herpen’s show ‘The New Craftmanship’ at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht last summer, was not just impressive because of the 3D-printed garments on show, her multiple collaborations with internationally renowned artists, or her use of sculptural materials and intricate craftmanship; I was mostly touched by an installation of two interlocking human bodies hovering above the ground, dressed in a tight bodysuit of laced up leather, that appeared to have been caught in an intimate dance, arrested in the material. Being a dancer herself, Van Herpen has a lot of affinity with the dance world, so the collaboration with choreographer Nanine Linning happened fluidly. Mostly, Van Herpen likes to take inspiration from many fields outside of fashion: medicine, biology, architecture and old crafts are often at the basis of the idea for a collection: “I don’t go hunt for far-fetched inspirations, I am inspired by very small, daily things. For ‘Radiation Invasion’, for example, I thought of all the rays and radiations that invisibly surround us every day: the waves of the microwave, our cell phones, wi-fi...I then tried to make a form for it, enclosing the body.”
Van Herpen first creates silhouettes directly on the dummy, sculpting paper into her dreamt-up shape, which she then transfers into a 3D drawing that’s sent off to the company that makes her 3D prints. With the most cutting edge technologies, even the fragilest skelet design becomes a solid structure. Her production methods are high-tech mixed with ancient and time-consuming crafts, which collide into majestic, biomorphic silhouettes with a futuristic feel.
Her ability to convey meaning, emotion and human existence through clothes make her a rare talent, at the tender age of 27, changing the game of fashion design: in a world of fast fashion and an elitist and protective haute couture world, she’s been invited as a guest member of the French Couture Council and continues to show her collections at Paris Couture fashion week, the summum of the fashion world. Her personal motto ‘Normal rules don’t apply’ is a telling phrase applicable to both her work and her personality: blurring the lines between science, biology, fashion, dance and architecture in her creations, and at 27 she’s already working on a major retrospective exhibition at the Groninger Museum next year.
Berlinde De Bruyckere, the Belgian artist working with watercolours, installations and sculpture, sculpts wax bodies (human and other) that narrate stories of love, life and death, even if they are head- or limbless. Her work is often associated with pain, both physical and existential, but to see only the pain is to do injustice to the tenderness of her work.Many of her figures are surrounded, or placed on, pillows, wooden supports (Pièta), covered in blankets (V. Eeman) or display cases, all showing gestures of protection and care. The bodies she creates look fragile and uneven, with crevices and cracks revealing the abyss beyond the skin. The absence of heads, the part of the body used for speech, understanding and emotions, which makes us human, (eg in the Schmerzenmann figures), does not fully dehumanize the bodies but makes them impersonal, expressive only in their being, not in individual expression. Asked about the reason for the absence, she says ‘my images have to function based on their general existence and quality, not based on the recognisable form of a head’.Hence, there’s no specific reason for a head, nor is there for the absence. She lets the figures do the talking. Berlinde De Bruyckere takes her inspiration from figures, human and non-human, which she finds interesting. Her sculptures are often molded directly on those figures, making her work process very unique.
The model, once put into position, is covered in silicones, onto which a plaster is cast. Once the mould has been removed, thick layers of wax are painted into it. When assembling the different parts, the wax is manipulated into the desired form.When doing so, several joints appear. It is only during this creation process that decisions are made about whether or not to cover these, or to exploit their strength.Unaware of the exact end result of the shape, she creates and decides instinctively how to manipulate the wax into it’s final shape. Without pre-set notions, she sculpts, paints and moulds her way meticulously through the work. Meanwhile in her head, she sees all the stories of the world passing by, boiling down into one still shape. As spectators we are confronted with veins and crevices that are left bare, unsolved endings of a story, directly coming from the body. De Bruyckere’s sculptures are headless yet self-explanatory, oozing with raw emotion enough to fill one with horror, compassion or wonder.
The works of these two women, although wildly different, are both results of their imagination and of the work process itself. Both artists state that they have no idea what the work will finally look like when they start, even when it is based on a pre-envisioned body. This leaves a lot of room for reworking and re-sculpting the final shape for as long as it takes. Both artists also incorporate elements of their national artistic traditions: Van Herpen works with gold leather (Capriole, FW 2011) that was also produced in Holland’s Golden 17th Century and De Bruyckere’s work shows affinity to the Flemish late renaissance masterworks. Their merging of traditional techniques with contemporary processes result in individual translations of the human form.
The two seem unstoppable: Berlinde De Bruyckere says were it not for her husband and kids, she would work without end. Iris Van Herpen, too, needs the restriction of fashion and the human body to frame her ideas and the possibilities crossing her high-wired brain. Their hard work does not go unnoticed, as the future looks bright for both: after being on show this year in the ‘New Sculpture’ exhibition The shape of things to come in the Saatchi Gallery London, Berlinde De Bruyckere is also touring the show ‘Mysterium Leib’ (her work in confrontation with that of Lucas Cranach and Pier Paolo Pasolini) to different locations, and working on new shows.
Iris Van Herpen, after a succesful collaboration with Björk for the album cover of her youngest release ‘Crystalline’, continues to work with A-list artists, commercializes her couture shoes with Rem Koolhaas’ shoe brand United Nude, and works on her retrospective solo exhibition for 2012, next to her ‘dayjob’ creating couture collections.
In their own specific ways, these artists incorporate living bodies into the central axis of their work, integrating past and future stories that shape our collective view of the world and ourselves in it. They show us how we define humanity and being alive at this moment in time, connecting us to those that came before and those who will come after.
Photo Credits for the works by Berlinde De Bruyckere: Feminine Habitat
, 2008, Photo: Mirjam Devriendt / Piëta
, 2008, Photo: Mirjam Devriendt
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