Translator: Betty C
Reviewer: Robert Tucker You ever look at a work of art, like a giant chalk sculpture
on the ground, or a pile of candy on the floor, and think to yourself, “So, this is art? What exactly is the purpose of this, and, more importantly, why should I care?” Well, before we start having
this conversation, I just want to talk
about exactly what I mean today when I use the word “art.” I’m specifically addressing
the discipline of the fine arts as opposed to applied arts,
performance arts, or the liberal arts. But, as I hope you’ll come to realize throughout the course
of this conversation, that the fine arts
is actually a discipline that’s very interdisciplinary, and its ideas tend to spill over
into many other fields anyway. So, for the past three years, I’ve been volunteering
as an art gallery docent at the Art Gallery of Ontario. And some of the things
I hear most from visitors is that they have
a hard time figuring out exactly how they should engage with art, what they can do to understand art better, and, more importantly, what they should
be getting out of the experience. Well statistically, actually, art museums
have been experiencing a decline in visitor attendance for decades. Research shows that this trend is continuing
in most major institutions. There have also been significant declines in arts- and crafts-related
fairs and festivals, and research shows
that over one third of museum attendees are actually over the age of 60, and now less than 10%
of museum and gallery attendance is composed of people under the age of 30. So, I wonder why does the younger generations, specifically millennials, seem to have such disengagement
with the fine arts? Is it because we feel like art institutions traditionally
are stuffy and old? Or do people tend to think that art inherently
is elitist and exclusive? And then I ask: Is this still the case? And can this generation of people redefine the public’s relationship
with the art world? Because let’s face it, today an art piece can be anything from a public performance
to a community event to a social media posting. We need to stop looking at art
as just something somebody else creates that we later just go look at. The art world, we need to realize, is something that we’re all
actively participating in, contributing to, and reshaping over time. So, how do we contribute? What can we do? Let’s go back to what I mentioned earlier about how some visitors feel that they have a hard time
engaging with art. A lot of this is due to the fact that art, many people feel,
specifically contemporary art, is kind of not always
straightforward messages, kind of hard to understand. Artist statements don’t always
make a lot of sense, and, basically, even artworks
that have wall labels, a lot of people feel
it’s filled with confusing jargon. And so these can, of course,
be major barriers for people to understand art. Some artworks, they require
context and backstory, and those are important to put into words, but not every single artwork is easily
translated into written language: art in itself is a language that we use
when written and spoken words fail us. If an idea can be perfectly summed up
into written and spoken words, then I could argue:
what exactly do we need the art for? That’s why it’s crucial for you,
as the audience, as the viewer, to actively engage with the artwork. Your experiences, the emotions you feel,
and the ideas you have, are just as much a part of the artwork
as the artwork itself. Let’s take a look at some examples. The works by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres are often known to be quite mundane
and minimalist in nature. I’ve heard people
on numerous occasions say, “How exactly is this art? And these are just mundane objects. Anybody can buy this at a hardware store
and be able to place it on the ground.” I’ve even heard people get angry that such absurdity,
such absurdly mundane objects, are even in an art gallery. Well, lets take a look at one example. This is a work he created in 1991, and it’s a pile of individually wrapped,
multicolored candy on the ground. Now, unlike traditional artworks
where you’re not supposed to touch it, with this, visitors are encouraged
to take a piece with them as they walk through the exhibition, and leave with it,
as they leave the exhibition. So this makes the artwork
change in shape and size over time, and then, periodically, the pile
is supposed to be replenished so this process can start all over again. This is interesting because it makes
the artwork change in size and shape depending on visitors’
interactions with it. But that’s not even
the most interesting part. If we look at the subtitle of this work, it’s called “Portrait of Ross in L.A.” Ross was Gonzalez-Torres’s
long time partner, who unfortunately passed away
due to AIDS complication in 1991, the year this work was created. So we can look at the continual
stripping away of the candy pile, the loss of weight in this candy pile, as a metaphor for Ross’s weight loss
and continual suffering leading up to his death. Then perhaps,
the replenishing of the candy pile is another metaphor for a symbol of hope, a symbol of memories of Ross living beyond in the memories
of his loved ones beyond his death. That’s my interpretation anyway, and you are encouraged
to come up with yours. The feelings of loss and grief are something that we all struggle
to put into words. This was a way that Gonzalez-Torres chose to express his own feelings
of tremendous loss and grief. His works are great examples of how contemporary art,
instead of being alienating and sterile, are actually in fact incredibly relatable
and thought-provoking. So, some people also feel
that going to art exhibitions, engaging with art,
and participating in art, is only really useful for somebody
who is an artist himself, or somebody in the creative industries. What would somebody who is a sciences,
humanities, engineering student – what would somebody in another discipline
or profession have to do with art, and what exactly can they get out of it? I think about this a lot, and about a year and a half ago I started a web series
called ARTiculations where I explore the interdisciplinary
nature of the fine arts. About how art can in fact help us
develop interpretation and critical thinking skills, how it can relate to other disciplines
such as music, linguistics, or even astronomy and mathematics. There are endless ways the fine arts can relate to and explore
the ideas of other disciplines. Here’s just one example of how one artwork can be used to explore
the ideas of history, materiality, geology and be a tool of civic
and social engagement all at the same time. Artists Jennifer Allora
and Guillermo Cazadilla are known for exploring materials. In an ongoing work from the late 1990s, they created these gigantic,
oversized sculptures made of chalk. They were interested
in the practical nature of how chalk can be used to pass on ideas,
such as from teacher to students, and how chalk can be – and they were interested
in the symbolic nature of the geological material
of chalk itself, and how it’s ephemeral
and fragile in nature. After creating these sculptures, they decided to place them
in public areas all around the world. The first location they put this in was in front of government
buildings in Lima, Peru. These government buildings were known for having
protesters there all the time with messages and demands. After seeing the chalk
placed on the ground, people realized this was another way
for me to visually express my ideas. So they picked up the pieces of chalk
and started writing big words, physically and metaphorically
on the ground. There were political messages, commentary, people would write
the political parties they supported, then others would come and cross it out, and put the parties
they supported instead. There were even expressions of love, and messages that don’t
directly have to do with politics. This really created an atypical setting
and disrupted the norms of the space. Well in the end, the cops had to come, and apparently arresting
people wasn’t enough, they had to arrest the actual sculptures,
like the chalk pieces on the ground. I mean they didn’t handcuff the chalk,
they put it in a truck and pulled it away. But it’s interesting to see how a piece of sculpture, a piece of art,
can really disrupt a space. Since then, this project has moved on
to many other locations around the world, such as New York, Paris,
and most recently Sydney, Australia, attracting participation and creativity from all kinds of people
all around the world. In a recent study conducted by the National Endowment
for the Arts in the US, they surveyed and asked people: what are the major barriers for you in
attending an art exhibition or project? And so four of the highest results were:
lack of time, the cost, access – physically not being
able to get there – and feeling like they have
no one to go with. Well, a lot of these problems
can, in fact, be solved if we stop thinking about art
as just going to museums to look at art. There’s – With the speed of online
and mobile communication, the changing nature of contemporary art,
there are so many new and different ways, for all of us to engage with the art world
and participate in art projects. We are literally no longer bound
by the boxes of traditional institutions. An example of this is Art Prize. Every year since 2009,
downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, gets turned into a big, public,
free art exhibition. Artists from all over the world
– anybody over the age of 18 – can submit to this exhibition, and they can be
from anywhere in the world. There’s usually over 100 different
exhibition locations, all around the city, hosting thousands of artworks. Some of these locations
are traditional art galleries and museums, but the majority don’t typically host art. It can be anything
from streets to city squares, parks, shops, and businesses. This really changes the dynamic from people having to go to the art
into the art coming to the people. And, in addition,
half the prizes every year are actually determined by a public vote. Well, speaking of public engagement, “The Art Assignment”
is a PBS digital studios web series hosted by contemporary art curator
Sarah Urist Green. What she does, is she goes around
the world commissioning artists to assign projects to the general public. It can be anything from make a gif,
to become a sci-fi character, to make a rug out of old t-shirts. Earlier this year at VidCon, a physical convention for people
of the online video community, The Art Assignment put out
a message to their followers saying, “Hey, bring your [t-shirt]
to the convention and then maybe a bunch of us
will make a rug together.” More than a bunch of us showed up, there were probably thousands of people that came over the course of three days
with their used t-shirts, and together we made, I would think, the world’s biggest rug
on the convention floor. And this was great, because it was fun, it was collaborative,
we made new friends, we bonded with each other, most of us got to learn a new skill; I mean I didn’t know how to make a rug
before this and now I do! while people have been
collaboratively making art probably since the beginning
of human history, a spontaneous, large project of this scale
was really made possible with the existence
of digital communication. Speaking of digital communication, Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist
who’s probably most well known for his critiques
of the Chinese government. You probably didn’t need me
to even explain that, this picture kind of just says everything, but he actually has a diverse body of work that spans from filmmaking,
to photography, to public art, performance art, sculptural installations, but, I would argue, most importantly,
Internet-based and community-based art. In 2005, he started blogging prolifically on China’s largest
blogging platform, Sina Weibo. Then, in 2009, he started
a crowdsourcing project after seeing what happened
in the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. So, to this day, government officials
still refuse to acknowledge exactly how many students died, or even that any died due to shoddily
constructed government school buildings. So, after seeing this lack
of acknowledgment and investigation, Ai Weiwei launched his own investigation
with the help of his blog followers, collecting names of over 5,000 students who did die that day
in the government school buildings. To this day, he continues
to call out the government on their human rights violations
and lack of transparency. Authorities did not like this, so they shut down his blog
shortly after launching this project. So, whatever, he turned to Twitter, and he began prolifically
posting tweets there. As you can see, this was actually
two weeks ago when I took a screenshot. He has over 125,000 tweets, but even as I was doing this,
he was furiously tweeting, so that number’s probably way higher now. So then, recently,
he started another project where he’s making portraits of people
out of pieces of Lego. But then he hit a snag. The company Lego
started to refuse selling to him, and he’s now banned
from purchasing further Lego pieces because they cited this corporate policy, “Oh, we don’t sell to people who use
our products for political agendas,” whatever that means. So after posting
about this problem on Instagram, his followers began to actually donate
their own Lego pieces to Ai Weiwei directly, and hashtags like “#legogate”
and “#legoforaiweiwei” began trending on Twitter
and other social media platforms. People have even since set up
their own local Lego drives in support of him. If you want to help,
we actually have a drive here in Toronto! So, it’s interesting because Ai Weiwei has not only
sparked participation and people speaking out
from all kinds of places, he’s redefined the boundaries
and traditional definition of communities, he’s expanded it beyond
traditional geographic boundaries. I often think about how, when I was a kid, I was interested in artmaking,
drawing and doodling for pretty much as long as I can remember. And then I think, “Wait, weren’t pretty much all of us
this way as children?” Artmaking and artistic expression
is such a universal language. It comes to us before even learning
how to read, write or speak. And so there’s no reason to throw away
that creative ambition as we get older. The modernist artist,
Joseph Beuys, once said, “Everyone is an artist.” Now some people took this
literally to mean: everyone can be a commercially
successful artist making lots of money and being represented
by major art galleries around the world. That’s not necessarily going to happen. What he probably did mean
is that everyone can be – everyone should exercise
their inherent creative ability, and that artistic expressions
are actually all around us, and if we just took a moment
to pay attention to them, perhaps we can learn to appreciate them
and maybe even become a part of them. Once upon a time,
there may have been an “ivory tower” where the artistic elites sat, with no place here on the ground
for the rest of us, That ivory tower has been shattered. Gradually, people have begun
to pick up the fragments, bending and twisting
in their own unique ways, Which fragment will you pick up? Thank you very much. (Applause)