Stars in my eyes (three artists I admire)

Art & Language is a group founded during the golden era of conceptual art. They have produced some of my favourite artworks, such as ‘Painting-Sculpture’ (1967) which consists of two identical pieces of hardboard painted grey. Text is used to delineate the two pieces from each other. One is christened a painting and the other, a sculpture. This timeless concept still excites me today. When does something stop being a painting and start becoming a sculpture? I understand that paint was first made from crushed stone. Historically, stone was originally the main element for sculpture. So, what’s the difference between an impasto painting and a relief sculpture? Is it down to the physical state of the medium? I explored this idea last year using dried paint taken from mixing pallets in a series I called ‘Painterly Sculptures’ that sits on my hard drive today. If there was just one unlabelled piece, would it be a sculpture or a painting? I believe it is what the artist says it is. This is the Duchampian thinking that liberated so many works and raised so many important questions.  

Another work from Art & Language that was truly pivotal for me was ‘Secret Painting’ (1968). It is a black square next to a piece of text which states the content of the painting is invisible and known only to the artist. Like ‘Painting-Sculpture’, this work simply encourages the viewer to think for themselves, there is no definitive answer. However, instead of prescribing a meaning, ‘Secret Painting’ stirs the viewers imagination; humans are regretfully excited by secrets. Of course, this is all entirely theoretical. I doubt there is anything physically concealed in this work, instead, the work relies on the power of thought and concept. ‘Secret Painting’ was a major source of inspiration for my series ‘Black Cat’.

Piero Manzoni was working at the same time as Art & Language and there really isn’t a work of his I dislike. ‘Artists Shit’ (1961) could be related to Art & Language’s ‘Secret Painting’ in the way that it requires viewer participation. The basic premise of the work is that its value is dependent on the tin staying closed. Today, it is still unknown if the tin does contain Manzoni’s excrement but to find out would ruin the whole concept. It is similar to Schrödinger's cat theory. Schrödinger stated that if you place a cat and something that could kill the cat (a radioactive atom) in a box and sealed it, you would not know if the cat was dead or alive until you opened the box, so that until the box was opened, the cat was (in a sense) both dead and alive. In the same way that Schrödinger’s theory toys with quantum mechanics, Manzoni plays with the art market. Most recently in August 2016, at an art auction in Milan, one of the tins sold for a new world record of €275,000. The work is everything and nothing simultaneously. To me, it’s a joke at the art markets expense, but essentially, it says: ignorance is bliss, believe what you want.

‘Socle du monde (Base of the World)’ (1961) is another work by Manzoni which is so eloquently straight-forward it’s hard not to enjoy. An iron block is engraved with text that read’s “Base of the World” upside down, so, hypothetically, if you saw it from space or done a handstand, the world would be resting on this iron block, similar to a pedestal in a gallery. To have such a complex hypothesis and articulate it so simply is remarkable. Even if you don’t subscribe to the theory that everything in the world is art, you have to appreciate the artist’s clean execution in this example.

If you know me, you know I couldn’t conclude without mentioning Damien Hirst. He is perhaps my biggest influence and it’s certainly evident in my work. I love the hysteria surrounding his integrity as an artist and I admire his indifference to these accusations, because when all's said and done, it doesn’t matter. He is a landmark in contemporary art as an artist who is both successful and alive. A rare feat. To me, he represents forward thinking. He is the antithesis of the starving artist which is so strangely romanticized, still today. Hirst is famous for his animals in formaldehyde, but in my opinion, these pale in comparison to ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990), where the artist embodies the life cycle in a box.

Newly hatched flies are in one half of the vitrine, while a cow’s head and an insect-o-cutor are in the other half. Science and nature do the rest. Consequently, the wall between art and science, which are typically seen to be juxtaposing, is demolished. For the same reason that I love Manzoni’s ‘Base of the World’, Hirst’s unambiguous summary of such an intricate theory is incredible, and it exists as a work of art that needs no explanation, which is perhaps the best quality any artwork can have. ‘A Thousand Years’ helps the viewer to make sense of the world by laying it out bare in front of them. It is beautifully simple yet philosophically profound, and the best part is, the viewer can choose which one. There is no obligation to enjoy it any more than at face value, while there are also no limits on how much one can theorise over it. This work was an immense incentive for my series ‘Life Studies’.

Another visually minimal yet conceptually wealthy work is ‘The Fragility of Love’ (2015), which competes for the title of my favourite artwork of all time. A beach ball hovers above a bed of knives. The illusion of levitation is already rife within fairgrounds and this particular setup is nothing special, however, the addition of knives puts a twist on the situation. The ball relies on a flow of air to remain safe from the knives. It’s a trust exercise, similar to Marina Abramović & Ulay’s ‘Rest Energy’ (1980) (another one of my favourites), except by using the chosen title, Hirst has explicitly alluded to love in this instance, but I think it could also be applied to fame and how a celebrity is only a celebrity as long as their followers remain. Back to Hirst’s concept, I think a loving relationship demands trust which comes with the chance of getting hurt and if the airflow stops, the ball falls onto the knives. Pop. Hirst has used an accessible visual which a child could enjoy, while using the power of the title to open up a world of contemplation for adults. To me, Damien Hirst simply embodies the ethos that art is for everyone, an idea I feel most passionately about.