4 Pieces of Modern Art and a Monkey

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andy

By Andy Luttrell, Eastern Illinois

During my brief stint at art school, I felt like Jane Goodall. I spent time interacting with a strange species: artist. Artists are weird. Even though I have respect for them and what they create, I still get confused when I look at some "artwork." In a tribute to strange pieces of art that are hard to appreciate and seem like nothing more than the work of a wild animal, let's take a look at some crazy ideas that have been masquerading as art.

DISCLAIMER: I don't mean to imply that these should not be considered art. I'm just saying they're weird.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp "“ 1917

fountainIn 2004, five hundred British art experts decided that the most influential piece of art of all time was"¦a urinal. Notable French artist Marcel Duchamp purchased a standard Bedfordshire urinal, turned it on its side, and wrote: "R. Mutt 1917" on it. That year, he submitted the piece to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition.

Now, years later, art experts place it above the works of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Henri Matisse. I'll be honest, though; when I see a urinal, my first reaction is "Hey, I kind of have to pee," but a 1917 issue of the Dadaist publication, The Blind Man justifies the piece when it writes:

"Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view "“ created a new thought for that object."

Valley Curtain, Christo and Jeanne-Claude "“ 1970

valleyThis piece proves just how persistent artists can be in the executions of their crazy visions. What began as a simple idea turned into an expensive and frustrating ordeal. The idea was to hang a really big orange sheet in the mountains.

The 142,000 square foot curtain—that's 12,780 square meters to the artists (Christo having been born in Bulgaria and Jeanne-Claude in Morocco)—was made of woven nylon fabric and hung gallantly between the mountains at Rifle Gap, seven miles north of Rifle, Colorado.

On August 10, 1972, thirty-five construction workers and sixty-four volunteers finished erecting the bright curtain. Just twenty-eight hours later, however, a forecast of a 60 mph gale storm forced the artists to take the curtain down. The culmination of twenty-eight months of effort (according to the artists) was a big orange curtain that hung in Colorado for a little while. It's no urinal, but at least it's exciting.

Today (series), On Kawara "“ 1966

todayOn Kawara is a Japanese conceptual artist living in New York City. Ever since 1966, Kawara has worked on a long series of paintings titled the Today series. The paintings consist of the date the piece was painted on, and that's it. If he does not finish the painting by midnight on that day, he destroys it.

Kawara stores each of these paintings in its own homemade cardboard box along with a newspaper clipping from that day. These date paintings have been created in more than 112 cities worldwide, and each painting reflects the language and calendar conventions of its respective country.

Another super-simple series that Kawara has taken part in is I Am Still Alive. In the 1970s, he sent a series of telegrams to friends and colleagues. Each telegram bore the same message: "I am still alive." Thank goodness.

Twelve Square Meters, Zhang Huan "“ 1994

Finally we branch into the area of performance art! Chinese artist Zhang Huan had a brilliant idea. In 1994, Huan sat naked on a toilet in Beijing's East Village art colony. Drenched in honey and fish oil, he exposed himself to swarms of flies and insects. Avant-garde photographer Rong Rong was taking pictures of the artist in the act until a villager walked onto the shoot and called the authorities.

This crazy idea has proved lucrative, however. According to an article for China Daily, photographs of the bug-covered Huan sell for more than $10,000 each. If I had a spare ten thousand bucks lying around, I'd definitely buy a picture of a naked Chinese man dripping with honey. The picture is maybe not safe for work, but if you're at home (or work at a really laid-back company), you can check it out here.

Examples of Huan's other works include getting nine people to strip naked on a mountain peak and lay on top of each other to reach a height of one meter (1995) and handing out live doves in New York City while wearing a body suit made of meat (2002).

Untitled, Pierre Brassau? "“ 1964

monkeyIf you've ever looked at a piece of art and thought, "a monkey could have made this," you might actually be onto something. In 1964, writers for the Göteborgs-Tidningen (a Swedish tabloid newspaper at the time) had a cunning plan to make a mockery of the art community. They took a 4 ½-year-old West African chimpanzee from Sweden's Boras zoo and gave him a brush and oil paints. The chimp painted all over the floor, his keeper, and a few canvases. An article for TIME notes that he even ate whole tubes of cobalt blue, a color featured prominently in his work"¦presumably because of its tart taste.

Claiming the paintings were made by an artist named Pierre Brassau, the hoaxers submitted the pieces to a gallery for exhibition. Monsieur Brassau found an enthusiastic audience. Art critic Rolf Anderberg said: "Pierre Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer." One of the paintings even sold for $90—that would be more than $600 in 2008 money.

Do you think you're smarter than Anderberg? See if you can differentiate monkey art from people art with this quiz.

June 8, 2008 - 10:45am
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