BRITISH AUTHOR WILL SELF’S 2010 satirical short story, “Very Little,” describes “the inexorable rise of Sherman Oaks, the artist,” who sculpts giant versions of his own body in iron, bronze, steel, stone, wood or clay and gives them such names as Behemoth.1 The artist sites these effigies in increasingly outrageous locations—atop Machu Picchu, in the River Seine or straddling the Athabasca Tar Sands. “That Sherman was also a person of restricted height lent a greater poignancy to his monumental works, which, twice and three times life size from the outset, grew still larger as soon as he got the funding.”2 This fictional characterization of a sculptor (whose dwarfism is an ironic inversion of his inflated ego) is a sharp swipe at 21st-century art, in which the entwined expansions of artistic production and exhibition venue are elevating the status of the individual artist ever higher. As the art world narrows around a pantheon of big names, the presentations of the select few are supersizing and becoming massive events of crowd-pulling spectacle.
For example, unless you have been on the moon or had your head in the sand for the past six months, you will no doubt be aware that Damien Hirst recently colonized all 11 branches of the Gagosian empire for one multipartite, tentacular exhibition: “The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011” (which took place this winter in New York, Beverly Hills, Paris, London, Rome, Geneva, Athens and Hong Kong). Of course, no one is quite sure how many of Hirst’s serial dot pictures are in circulation, although there are certainly many more than the 300 it’s possible to fit into nearly a dozen decently proportioned galleries. Even the 1,000-page catalogue raisonne╠ü, which will be published in June, may not be big enough to assemble every work in this indeterminate, ongoing series. While Hirst’s global gathering could be seen as a megalomaniacal move or
the sine qua non of a never-ending succession of paintings, this inclination for artists to install a barrage of works, across numerous sites, all at once, is gaining momentum in the upper echelons of the commercial art world.
Tim Marlow, exhibitions director of White Cube (Hirst’s gallery in the UK), was magnanimous in praise of rival Gagosian’s bravura block-booking of spot paintings: “Damien hasn’t had major museum shows in London. He’d produced substantial bodies of work, so it made sense both culturally and commercially to do it across a number of sites. People would get tired if you took every major artist—Warhol, Koons, Picasso—and did fragmented shows all over the world that no one could ever see, but as a conceptual gesture, I think it worked.”3
Hirst had taken over two White Cube spaces in London for “Beyond Belief” in 2007 and “Nothing Matters” in 2010, and it was initially rumored that his forthcoming Tate Modern retrospective would take over Tate Britain as well, but the phenomenon of concurrent solo displays is not something the greedy Mr. Hirst can copyright. A specialist in art-as-marketing if ever there was one, Barbara Kruger was an early exponent of the double show, unusually occupying the spaces of two different dealers in New York, Mary Boone and Jeffrey Deitch, in 1997. Artists have routinely held commercial exhibitions to coincide with museum surveys, or occasionally, like Hirst, staged near-simultaneous international openings. In 1997, Sebastia╠?o Salgado showed his “Terra” body of photographs in 40 countries around the world. More recently, just before Hirst opened his gargantuan “Spot” project, Paul McCarthy had a sweeping presentation, “The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship,” that spanned Hauser & Wirth’s two spaces in London, featured an outdoor installation in the city’s St. James’s Square, and coincided with an exhibition at the gallery’s New York branch.
“We aim to raise the bar with every show we present,” said Hauser & Wirth cofounder Iwan Wirth, “but the works Paul created were so diverse that the only way we could do them justice was to present them across the many different spaces we have.” Both he and Marlow were quick to deny any hint of industry one-upmanship behind these sprawling, transatlantic displays, even though having more than one branch is a key signifier of success and this collective will to expand is clearly set to continue. Hauser & Wirth will open a second major space in New York this year, and White Cube has just added a Hong Kong outlet, after having recently converted a giant warehouse in South London into an art space, which this win- ter hosted an enormous Anselm Kiefer exhibition: “Il Mistero delle Cattedrali.” Of Kiefer, Marlow remarked, “He works on such a vast scale—his studio is 35,000 square meters [approx. 375,000 square feet]—that he could reconstruct the South Galleries at Bermondsey and work out the show he wanted, before then deciding to knock down a wall and include the largest painting [Dat Rosa Miel Apibus, 2010-11, approx. 11 by 56 feet]. I asked Kiefer about scale, and he laughed and said, ‘If my galleries keep making bigger spaces I’ll just fill them.’” [This spring, White Cube presents “Gilbert & George: London Pictures,” which occupies all four of its venues.]
IN 1867 E╠üDOUARD MANET remarked that “to exhibit is to find friends and allies for the struggle.”4 Only a few years later, his friend and contemporary Edgar Degas suggested that his fellow Impressionists shouldn’t hang each other’s pictures so close together in “salon” style, but instead in two horizontal rows to avoid overcrowding. This suggests how quickly bonhomie and solidarity can be eclipsed by selfish demands. The very emergence of the mega-monographic exhibition couldn’t have happened without the steady rise in individual artists’ celebrity status (and the concomitant waning of groups, allegiances and movements).
Of course, art stardom was nothing new even in the 19th century, considering the pulling power of such mononymous Renaissance artists as Leonardo, Titian and Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s celestial ceiling for the Sistine Chapel prompted writers from Giorgio Vasari to Goethe to wax lyrical, the former calling it “a beacon of our art,”5 the latter claiming that “without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one cannot form a true picture of what one person is capable of.”6 Today, however, the focus seems to be less on supposed genius than on immediate name-brand recognition and prolific production, with bankable artists deemed “too big to fail”—the Cattelans, Hirsts, Murakamis, Kapoors, Gormleys and Serras—flooding markets with outsize works and solo museum-scale spectaculars.
The artists I spoke to differed wildly in their stances on scale and production. Thomas Schu╠?tte believes a reliance on large scale is less hubristic or commercially driven than one might imagine: “It’s fear, not money. I think artist colleagues fear that they will be pushed in the corner and forgotten. It’s competing with Hollywood: Who has got the biggest? Who has the longest? Who is the richest?”
On the other hand, Scandinavian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset—who created two huge installations for the Danish and Nordic pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale—deny that they are under any market- or peer-led pressure to make ever-bigger work. “You always have the option to say no to exhibitions which don’t seem logical in relation to your working method,” they wrote in a joint e-mail, specifying the theme of a show, the physical conditions of a venue and the overall profile of an institution as important factors in deciding whether to participate.
The artists’ recent gargantuan, double-headed project, “Celebrity—The One & The Many” (2010–11), involved their filling first the atrium of the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and then the atrium of the cavernous Submarine Wharf in Rotterdam (a 50,000-square-foot-plus structure by the city’s docks) with realistically scaled apartment buildings and other structures. Inside the spaces, hired actors played impoverished teen mothers, drug dealers, street hustlers and other roles. “Part of the concept was to populate this artificial ‘bad neighborhood’ that we had created. The scale of a single human being was important in this setting. Large spaces differ in character and while some big-scale venues can trigger great ideas for new projects, others won’t,” the artists said. “You always need to take the spatial features into consideration when preparing for an exhibition, not only in relation to size. If the space gets all the attention there might be something totally wrong with your idea for that space.”
Schu╠?tte said he generally shuns such big productions involving numerous assistants: “I prefer the opposite: crystallized spaces. I’d rather work with small institutions such as the Serpentine Gallery in London. [A survey of his portrait works opens there on September 25.] Only rich artists can do a big show, because if you don’t bring some money or some organizational help, then the institutions can’t do it.” Although Schu╠?tte did admit that the heavily staffed commercial galleries he is critical of can also provide invaluable services to artists that museums can’t afford, he noted that “the art industry is becoming an entertainment industry: it does the same thing.”
ART HISTORIAN HAL FOSTER’S 2011 collection of essays, The Art-Architecture Complex, addresses this very issue of art’s creeping proximity to entertainment, paying special attention to its symbiotic relationship with the surrounding structures, whether physical, social or fiscal. “Recent art is hardly a passive object . . . ; sometimes its expanded dimensions alone have prompted the transformation of dis- used warehouses and factories into galleries and museums,” writes Foster.7 He goes on to say that the architects of many new museums might be at fault, too, for attempting to compete with the work they are meant to be housing: “Some of these buildings are so performative or sculptural that artists might feel late to the party, collaborators after the fact.”8
In discussing his book with me, Foster went further, suggesting that art and architecture are currently locked in attri- tional “space wars”: “Rosalind Krauss coined the phrase ‘the expanded field’ to suggest how sculpture had exceeded its own limits. But now it is simply becoming confined by ever-grander architectural frames. These buildings are not only massive icons but also produce spaces that are sublime and intense, which can also lead to an experience of intimidation.” This follows, of course, from 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke’s early definition of the sublime in esthetics as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible.”9 Foster continued: “So rather than the old virtue—you can call it modernist, you can call it Minimalist—whereby one is made reflexive about a body in space, there’s a way in which much architecture now wants to overwhelm you as a body in space, to use the space to overwhelm you.”
Citing Dia:Beacon, the Guggenheim and Tate Modern among examples of this menacing accrual of institutional real estate, alongside the corresponding gigantism in the work of James Turrell, Bill Viola, Olafur Eliasson and others, Foster notes “a strong tendency in both contem- porary art and architecture toward the creation of atmo- sphere and effect.” He believes that “this spatial sublime has become esthetic experience for many people,” given that nowadays we expect to be continually awestruck or hyperstimulated when watching blockbuster movies or visiting the latest mega-malls. In other words, architects are also feeding the spatial boom in art creation and appreciation as part of a wider “experience economy.”
I put some of these charges to Rem Koolhaas, cofounder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, who describes himself as the builder of around a dozen soccer fields’ worth of art spaces so far, among them Kunsthal Rotterdam and the Guggenheim Las Vegas and not including two schemes currently under way for London’s Design Museum and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. “In the past two decades museums have become larger and larger; they have expanded in exact proportion to the escalation of Wall Street,” Koolhaas said, gesturing to a neat graph that he shows at lectures to prove his point. “Museums are now reaching a scale at which they can be understood no longer as buildings but only as small cities.” Consequently, his competition models for a new, sprawling, avenued National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing resemble the organic urban zonings of a town planner rather than the usual form-over-function plaza-fillers favored by today’s other star architects.
Even though his ideas for NAMOC were rejected (Koolhaas is not shy about referring to the 34 other soccer fields’ worth of unrealized museum projects he has designed), he has come to believe that “architecture is currently terror- ized by the impetus to create landmarks.” He added that art, however, “also has to seduce, please and exhilarate,” and that he doesn’t think the current direction constitutes progress. He described a continued proliferation of Tate Modern Turbine Hall-style structures as “a chilling prospect,” naming a shipyard conversion for the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk, Poland, and the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam as two among a number of such venues in construction.
CLEARLY, ARTISTS, ARCHITECTS, museums and galleries are all complicit in fueling a “space race,” but what about us, the beholders? What role do we play as visual consumers hungry for the next jaw-dropping behemoth of art and architecture? The rise of “destination art” since the Land art movement of the 1960s and ’70s and the “Bilbao effect” on tourism, spurred by Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim building in northern Spain, suggest that we are also partly to blame. Indeed, Guy Debord’s 1967 Situationist tract, The Society of the Spectacle, opens with the assertion: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived is now merely represented in the distance.”10 The only surefire way to create a noticeable cultural offering in our age of chronic attention deficiency still seems to be to build it bigger than the last.
While the notion of erecting ever-larger totems of art seems anachronous during a recession (even in the Far East, where the relatively cheap labor market in China made it possible for Ai Weiwei to manufacture 100 million porce- lain sunflower seeds for a huge Turbine Hall installation), the mere existence of such boastful projects means they will attract column inches and, therefore, visitors. Nothing courts attention like grandiose descriptors such as: the biggest- ever exhibition of so-and-so, the most pieces by such-and- such and the largest-ever steel thingamajig. Yet conversely, any glimpse of sculptural or architectural bravado in these straitened times is just as likely to invite public criticism as it is appreciation—indeed, Anish Kapoor’s tower for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, has already been nicknamed in the press as the “Mangled Helter Skelter,” the “Eyeful Tower” and the “Hubble Bubble.”
Before Kapoor’s commission, aptly named Leviathan, for the Grand Palais’s “Monumenta” series opened last year, I asked him why he insisted on working in such large scale. (“Monu- menta” works are conceived for the building’s nave—an almost 150,000-square-foot space, with nearly 150-foot-high ceilings.) “These major projects are risky,” he said, “but also really interest- ing, as one doesn’t know what’s going to happen. At some levels scale has a bad name in art, but as one of the problems of sculpture it becomes an integral issue in dealing with space.”11
Another of the sculptors associated with such grand projets (and a fellow alumnus of the “Monumenta” series), Richard Serra, was more bullish about his ability to counteract any negative space asso- ciations: “People call my works monumental but I was never inter- ested in making Land Art, as most of it was shot from the air and so was essentially graphic. If I deal with landscape at all, it’s in elevation and bodily movement.”12 In other words he, like Kapoor, sees such spaces as challenges to be mastered. He believes that ultimately the artists themselves will solve the problems of art’s aggrandizement and of spectacular architecture. In a quote at the end of Foster’s book, Serra explains that “art has always found ways to intervene, to critique architecture, to transform and transgress space. Artists will continue to do that. They understand the contradictions.”13
Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern, also had a response to the Turbine Hall effect on the future of art: “I definitely have problems with size, but I’m interested in scale. Artists and architects are starting to think about the differences and to come to terms with scale.” There’s an obvious distinction between staging a spectacular performance in the Turbine Hall, as envisaged by a choreographer such as Michael Clark or an artist such as Tino Sehgal, and simply trying to fill the space, and thus the world, with more objects. Koolhaas pointed to a more sinister endgame emerging from the spread of such giant art containers: “More and more former industrial spaces are being converted into museums, which need larger and larger art,” he said in a lecture last fall at the Barbican, London, gesturing to a slide that made a visual connection between Kapoor’s Leviathan and—in the manner of a world expo of aviation—an airborne zeppelin inhabiting the same space at the Grand Palais a century ago. “I have come to the conclusion that only apocalyptic art is capable of exhibiting enough power and strength to take over these reverberation chambers.”
The Apocalypse. It calls to mind Hollywood disaster flicks, and that such an over-the-top esthetic might be the one best suited to today’s preferred venue style perhaps underscores an increasing accep- tance of art as entertainment. A blatant refusal just might be the only solution to all this overproduction. One such rejection is offered by the controversial political artist Santiago Sierra, whose ongoing public art project “NO, Global Tour” has a more impressive international itinerary than Hirst’s spots (having visited close to some 40 towns and cities so far) and is becoming one of the world’s most viewed contemporary artworks. Towing two giant black letters—N and O, in plain Arial font, together weighing about half a ton—from place to place amounts to “a multicontextual, universal symbol that looks good everywhere,” says Sierra, with not a little irony.14 His negation urges us to speak up when art does not fulfill a social function. As such, it serves as an act of protest against the tyranny of size, spectacle and reach. It shouldn’t be the size of your work, or how big a name you are, but what you’re saying that ultimately counts.
1 Will Self, “Very Little,” in Walking to Hollywood, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, p. 9.
2 Ibid., pp. 10-11.
3 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from interviews the author conducted by e-mail or in person between September and December 2011.
4 Quoted in Bruce Altshuler, Salon to Biennial—Exhibitions that Made Art History, vol. 1, London and New York, Phaidon, 2008, p. 11.
5 Quoted in Michelangelo: Complete Work, edited by Frank Zo╠?llner, Christof Thoenes and Thomas Po╠?pper, Taschen, 2007, p. 72.
6 Quoted in ibid., p. 78.
7 Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, London and New York, Verso, 2011, p. ix.
8 Ibid., p. xi.
9 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 36.
10 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Ken Knabb, Canberra, Australia, Treason Press, 2002, p. 6.
11 Anish Kapoor, quoted in a published conversation with Richard Serra and the author, “Size Matters: Anish Kapoor and Richard Serra,” Time Out London, Oct. 16-22, 2008, p. 53.
13 Quoted in Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, p. 244.
14 In conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lisson Gallery, London, Jan. 31, 2012.
OSSIAN WARD is an art critic and visual arts editor for Time Out London.