Salvatore Garau and There Is No Original Avant Garde Art After Marcel Duchamp
In the second installment of this informal “Why I Hate The World I Live In And How Society Has Fucked Up Art Or The Other Way Around” I bring you week-old news of a recent artwork sale in Italy by an Italian artist.
Why is this newsworthy?
BECAUSE IT PHYSICALLY DOESN’T EXIST.
The Immateriality of the Sculptural Phenomenon as Defined Through its Non-Corporeality of Existence
Sometimes things happen in the world that make you wonder whether the author of the event was making a huge practical joke that everyone fell for so he decided not to let the cat out of the bag. In this case I’m not entirely convinced that’s the case. I genuinely think that the art world (and world en general) has degenerated to such an extent that we’re in Brave New 1984 and there’s no getting out of it.
So, an artist named Salvatore Garau recently sells an artwork entitled Io Sono (which translates from Italian to “I Am”) for a cool €15,000. He says:
"You don't see it but it exists" 
But in terms of spatial and physical existence, it definitely doesn’t.
Duchamp: The OG Granddaddy of Contemporary Art
You know the name Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was perhaps the single most innovative artist of the 20th century. That we know of. But given that he’s a White Man (ew, gross amirite?) that’s probably to be expected. Duchamp is famous for having given the world such marvels as Three Standard Stoppages (1913-1914), In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), Fountain (1917), and L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), amongst others. 
If you were to take them at face value, which obviously you have to do at first, your eyes would tell you that you were looking at nonsense. These were (paintings aside) very clearly generic, mass-produced objects that one random nutter was calling “art”. But the whole point of the Readymade was in its designation by the artist as a work of art. So Duchamp deliberately chose items that were neither beautiful to look at nor unique and then applied the attribution of high art to them.
He turned the art world around. That’s why we constantly use him as the benchmark for analysing contemporary artwork: could so-and-so be the Next Duchamp? To which the answer will always be a firm NO; authentic subversion of art began and ended with the OG Granddaddy. All this contemporary “controversial” today is a very pale imitation of Duchamp’s original idea because artists have run out of ideas and talent.
Duchamp, Twombly, Koons: From Genius to Bullshit?
Understand that the art world is subject to the same vicissitudes as the natural world: just as there was the Ice Age, so there was also Impressionism. Not that I’m linking them by some weird, mystic tangent. My point is, each artistic era tries to outdo its predecessor either disingenuously, like today’s lot, or authentically, like literally every artistic movement until the 21st century and the YBAs. Duchamp was the milestone in the 20th century, and his deliberate attribution of random crap as works of art has influenced what we’re seeing now. Not because it’s a deliberate and genuine attempt to undermine the artistic elite, but because it damn easy and if it’s crazy enough then you get money out of the same idiots you’re trying to rip off.
After Duchamp, and I’m not being very scientific here, you got Cy Twombly who, aside from having a very Mortal Engines name, produced massive canvases full of painted hoops. Then fast forward a bit more and you’ve got Jeff Koons who effectively carbon copied Duchamp’s concept and gave us vacuum cleaners in glass cases.
The only diff between the two is that literally everyone uses Marcel Duchamp in reference to Jeff Koons. Of course the difference now is that Marcel Duchamp was derided for his idea and Koons made his name off it. Which leads me, the eternal cynic, to believe that there is no such thing as original avant-garde art after Marcel Duchamp. Everything you see is pale imitation or blatant copying. Both of which would imply a lack of artistic inspiration, intellectual depth, and/or moral fortitude.
If You Say It, It Must Be
The problem with art lies very obviously in its subjectivity.
The saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” could not be more apt. If you looked at a urinal on a pedestal and thought to yourself, “This is blatantly bullshit”, fine. If you looked at that same urinal on a pedestal and thought to yourself, “Duchamp had a brilliant mind”, also fine. I fall into the latter camp, but I’m intellectually flexible enough to realise that while I’m admiring a urinal, I’m literally admiring a urinal. I will also point out at this later stage that Edward Weston took stunning photographs of… his toilet.
You have the same approach with Koons. You can look at his set of vacuum cleaners in a glass case and think it’s an enormous pile of bullshit and an example of someone gaming the system (and I simultaneously agree and think more power to them if someone’s dumb or desperate enough to fork out any amount of dosh over it), but at the same time appreciate the ironic commentary on protecting from dust and dirt the very instruments that are designed to hasten their removal. Brains can do two things.
However, a plinth of air is pushing things a bit far. But, according to Garau, the plinth, or Io Sono, isn’t even empty:
"The vacuum is nothing more than a space full of energy, and even if we empty it and there is nothing left, according to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that nothing has a weight. Therefore, it has energy that is condensed and transformed into particles, that is, into us." 
Don’t you just hate articulate artists who claim complex and esoteric theories to justify their work? It’s one thing for an artist to fall back on overcomplicated bumf and generally vacuous waffle, which is an inevitable standard in the art world, it’s a whole other thing for an artist to have done his homework. It should entice you to give them a little more
rope leeway and in a way it kind of does because it gives the impression of at least some ideological and intellectual investment in the creation.
What’s killing me here is that all of this resonates because I understand the logic behind the words; I understand that there is something in nothing because nothing is still something. It’s like when someone asks you what you’re thinking about and you say “Nothing”, well, that’s something! It’s a definable thing even if you can’t define it.
So I get the argument. I just don’t agree on a strictly moral level and I’m left with some bare issues:
- Even if this statement true, you’ve still just designated air as artwork
- If air is artwork then nothing is off limits because this sets a precedent
- How has no one thought of this before now?
- Who would be dumb enough to pay any amount of legal tender for this?
I doubt I’ll get an answer to number 4. Or number 3 for that matter.
In his defence, Garau has form for this kind of art although he hadn’t sold a piece until Io Sono. His last revelation, actually only in February, was called Buddha in Contemplation and featured a square that had been demarcated by tape on the cobblestones at the Piazza Della Scala, in Milan. You read that right; a square of tape. Then only last week he “installed” another work entitled Aphrodite Cries outside the New York City stock exchange. It was a white circle. 
Some analyses of Io Sono have interpreted the “artwork” as existing solely within the imaginatio of the artist, Garau; only he knows what it looks like. But Garau’s artist statement would seem to contradict that slightly; at least, if it’s a vacuum of nothing that’s nonetheless full of energy, well, energy doesn’t really take a subjective form. Does it? Although having said that the nothingness that currently occupies the space of Io Sono will be different to the nothingness that occupies the space when Io Sono gets installed in the buyers house. So it could be said that its identity (you knew that was coming) mutates according to the location in which it, Io Sono, finds itself. But then how can you know that the Io Sono which gets installed in the final destination has the same identity or weight as the Io Sono which you purchased?
My head hurts.
However, there is some good news for the buyer of Io Sono; aside from that €15,000 that’s no longer burning a hole in his pocket, he does receive a Certificate of Authentication. Though one wonders what use that is. How do you describe air? How do you quantify nothingness? How do you insure it? How do you file an insurance claim if Io Sono is stolen? How would you even know? Would you just “sense” that the weight is different?
If you play Garau at his own game one wonders whether you can even create nothing from nothing.
Participation Trophies and the State of Society Today
Some people don’t understand how this can be art and I sympathise with those people because they can see what’s in front of them. Or not, as the case may be. I, like many, have for a very long while contemplated the current state and predicted future of art. I, like many, don’t understand what happened to craftsmanship, penmanship, draftsmanship. Although it’s probably sexist to use words with “man” in so they’ll need to be cancelled. Craftspersonship? Craftsnonbinaryindividualship? HELP ME.
Obviously there are still skilled artists in the world, that much isn’t contentious. But they aren’t newsworthy, not really. So maybe it’s a reflection of the softness of society today: no criticisms, no rebukes, no raised voices, and trophies all round. Because life is that much easier, at least mostly in the Western world although we’re still fighting for the soul of culture and morality, there doesn’t seem to be much of an impetus to develop any technical skill.
Why invest any effort in anything skills-based when you can stick a used tampon in a cup, claim it simultaneously protests the unfairness of gender boundaries that the patriarchy has imposed and the biological burdens that women are forced to bear because of lack of access to abortion and be relatively assured that you’ll be lauded for weeks to come. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, it just seemed to me to be the most ridiculous concept of which I could think. It’s no Meret Oppenheim, that’s for damn sure.
Or you could paint a perfectly ordinary wooden board in a cow-type pattern, place it over a piece of perfectly ordinary artificial grass, and call it a contemporary conception of a cow in a field. 
Or engrave a perfectly ordinary fire extinguisher with the words of a precocious 16 year old environmental activist who’s received an amount of media attention that is directly improportionate to her knowledge or experience. 
I’m not shitting on every single artist, OKAY? Just those that discover how easy it is to game the system. Ride the coattails of the innovators who came before you and you never need to have another original idea ever again. Everyone wins except society and culture, both of which get further diluted until it’s too late to realise that we’ve actually finally sunk to the very bottom of the murky pit of despair, depravity, and dross.
Name one artist whose artwork lives permanently rent-free in your house. I’ll go first…
- Taylor Dafoe, “Italian Artist Auctioned Off Invisible Sculpture for $18,300. It’s Literally Made of Nothing“, Artnet Online, June 3rd, 2021: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/italian-artist-auctioned-off-invisible-sculpture-18300-literally-made-nothing-1976181 [last accessed 10th June, 2021]
- “Marcel Duchamp Artworks”, The Art Story: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/duchamp-marcel/artworks/ [last accessed 10th June, 2021]
- G00gle image search for “cy twombly jeff koons”, screenshot: https://www.google.com/search?q=cy+twombly+jeff+koons&sxsrf=ALeKk01jYJYPJRu65gpluh8YBXx_uDjo_A:1623431318863&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwizps_4iJDxAhXGCmMBHY88Dg0Q_AUoAXoECAEQAw&biw=1368&bih=769&dpr=2 [last accessed June 10th, 2021]
- The Daybooks of Edward Weston, fig. 22, n.p.
- Dafoe, “Italian Artist Just Auctioned Off An Invisible Sculpture”, 2021
- Salvatore Garau Instagram, video: https://www.instagram.com/p/CO8mtPMKJiN/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link [last accessed June 11th, 2021]
- Artsy, Oscar Figueroa, “Cow in a Landscape, 2013”: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/oscar-figueroa-cow-in-a-landscape [last accessed June 11th, 2021]
- Artsy, Jared Bark, Gold Book Stack, 2018: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/jared-bark-gold-book-stack [last accessed June 11th, 2021]
- Artsy, Oscar Figueroa, Blue Toilet Brush, 2020: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/oscar-figueroa-blue-toilet-brush [last accessed June 11th, 2021]
- Artsy, Steven Spazuk, Untitled (Fire Extinguisher): https://www.artsy.net/artwork/steven-spazuk-untitled-fire-extinguisher [last accessed June 11th, 2021]
- Artsy search for “Toilet Brush”, Artsy Online: https://www.artsy.net/search?term=toilet%20brush [last accessed June 11th, 2021]
- Artsy search for “Fire Extinguisher”, Artsy Online: https://www.artsy.net/search?term=fire%20extinguisher [last accessed June 11th, 2021]