The dubious art of clearing up rubbish

The final event in the exhibition, much like a huge bring-and-buy sale, was cheerful. But was it art?


Nothing in Tomoko Takahashi's Serpentine exhibition became her like the leaving of it. The exhibition, which had created a mild splash of interest, not more, during its run, suddenly at the end became a gigantic, rip-roaring success.

Nothing in Tomoko Takahashi's Serpentine exhibition became her like the leaving of it. The exhibition, which had created a mild splash of interest, not more, during its run, suddenly at the end became a gigantic, rip-roaring success.

Miss Takahashi has made a career out of exhibiting found objects, specifically rubbish; objects thrown out and left in skips. She has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize in the past, and at the Serpentine, she showed the usual piles of detritus. At the end of the exhibition, it was announced that anyone could descend and take away three things.

That, at least, was enormously successful. Alison Baker, of Watford, had left home at 8am to be at the head of the queue, and took a mini- bike, a football net, and a Scalextric track. Seven-year-old Holly Heywood succeeded in carrying off a set of plastic horses. The final event, much like a huge bring-and-buy sale, became immensely cheerful. But was any of it still art?

The Serpentine Gallery, and, one supposes, the artist herself, was in no doubt. "Tomoko's brilliance is to rearrange [objects] and give them order. But they were not valuable before she put them together and now they are being recycled back to the public they return to what they were." In case anyone thought of selling any recovered object as a work of art by Tomoko Takahashi, a stern note was handed to all participants: "Please note that these objects are not works of art - they are gifts from the artist to you and souvenirs from her commission."

All this raises an interesting philosophical conundrum. The objects, when found by Miss Takahashi, were not works of art. They became works of art when she declared them so to be. That process we have become familiar with since Duchamp. However, Miss Takahashi goes further. She declares that, as well as turning an object into a work of art, she is capable of removing that status.

If a collector on Sunday decided, for instance, to take away three adjacent objects from the installation, and reconstructed them in his own lovely home, exactly as Miss Takahashi had arranged them, that would still not bear any relation to a work of art by Miss Takahashi, since she had declared that the objects were no longer art. One would like to know how far this assumed power extends.

For instance, if she is able, as many artists are, to turn objects which she has not made into works of art, and turning such works of art back into objects, is she also capable of turning works of art which she has not made into mere non-aesthetic objects, like Circe and her herd of swine? Could she usefully declare, for instance, that Fragonard's Coresus Sacrificing Himself To Save Callirhoe is now no longer art, and that anyone can take it away from the Louvre? That might be nice.

The interesting thing about all of this is how far it starts to resemble quite another brand of abject nonsense, the transfigurations worked by a priest at communion.

Some forms of religion, I understand, hold that the wafer and the wine literally turn into Christ's blood and flesh at the moment of ingestion. However, it must also be true that the miracle of transubstantiation reverses itself at some point - it can't be supposed that Christ's blood and flesh goes through the processes of chewing, swallowing, digestion, peristalsis and excretion.

Basically, the artist now resembles the priest, in that he presides over a miraculous and inexplicable alteration of substance into Art. And, like the priest, no especial skill or quality is required to work this miracle. To believers, a shabby provincial priest with smelly vestments can work the miracle of transubstantiation as well as a great cardinal-archbishop, wise in theology. Similarly, the miracle of transformation may be worked in art by a great thinker; or it may be attained by some hopeless idiot on the Becks Futures shortlist. After that in the case of art, it is rather up to us to decide whether the transformation has resulted in anything worth looking at.

Artists these days generally get quite irate when they find that their work has escaped their control. When some likely lads claimed to have found a discarded painting by Damien Hirst in a skip, his gallery threatened to sue.

If someone brainy exhibited Miss Takahashi's own household rubbish, I'm sure the response would be very similar. And there was a case, quite recently, of some artist who lost her cat, and found the heart-rending notices she pinned up all round the neighbourhood taken down and sold as "works of art".

What's wrong with all of this is that it completely refuses to acknowledge one of the chief characteristics of all art; the fact that it entirely escapes the intention of the creating artist. As the audience, we are quite free to find meanings in Raphael, Manet or Picasso which the artist would not have understood, and which he might find quite objectionable. The point is that the work of art has a life of its own which the artist can't control.

These artists, on the other hand, insisting on their complete control over what does or does not constitute the work of art, are actually limiting its range severely. I understand that Miss Takahashi's main motive was to discourage people from profiting from her work of art. The incidental result, however, is to diminish the effect and possible meanings that such a work of art can possess.

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