rebecca vipond brink


The Aura of Artworks

Art, RhetoricRebecca Brink

I visited the massive Magritte exhibit at AIC today and am still trying to process it. I spent two and a half hours in it and had to take a break about 2/3 of the way through to go on Twitter and give my brain a break.

I try to bring a notebook and pen with me wherever I go so that if I have a brilliant thought I can write it down, but I particularly make a practice of it when I'm going to a museum, not so that I can write, but so that I can take notes:

I don't know that much about Magritte. I could tell you a lot about Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lynda Benglis, Gustave Caillebotte; a fair amount about Robert Morris and Donald Judd, and a smattering about Manet. So if I have the opportunity to learn - and the artworks themselves are the best teachers, although great wall text is certainly helpful - I will take it.

The note at the very top of the second page reads "I am lucky to be here." I wrote that in front of Magritte's The Human Conditiona spectacularly famous painting of his. I felt the same thing in front of Starry Night at the MoMA, not to mention in the presence of Kara Walker's sugar sphinx, or MoMA's Lygia Clark retrospective, or Tony Smith's Die at the National Gallery of Art, or Rodin's The Burghers of Calais at the Met or the Rodin Museum in Philly, or for that matter every time I get to stand in front of Caillebotte's Paris Street, Rainy Day, which I have the opportunity to do fairly frequently.

I recall Christopher Hitchens (I believe) saying that as a matter of principle he didn't believe that luck exists because events don't arrange themselves around our lives. I think he was describing fate, not luck. Luck is the good or bad things that happen to us as a matter of chance. It's a matter of chance that I am white and decently prosperous, was encouraged to pursue the arts as a child, live in Chicago and have the means to buy a yearly membership to the Art Institute and the physical ability to get there, plus the schedule to be there at my leisure and dedicate two and a half hours of my day to it. Those are things that are not entirely in my control.

I feel lucky to be in the presence of great works of art because they carry what Benjamin called an aura. I don't entirely agree with his thesis - Rodin's works were reproduced and because it was programmed into the medium I don't think they lost their aura - but it stands that original works of art carry the marks of the artist's hand or mind in a way that commercial prints of artwork do not.

I'm getting around to my point here, which is about how we value artworks. Not monetarily, although that follows in a capitalist economy, but in terms of what we consider "great." A work of art is an idea, and the way it's manifested physically. So the quality of a work of art depends both on the quality of the idea and on the quality of its execution. Great works of art are novel, intelligent, probing ideas that are put into physical forms that are skillfully created or conceived. They are the physical products of the most rigorous imaginations humanity has to offer.

And emphasis on rigorous. The majority of an artist's job is to think and think hard. To create not just a great idea, but a great way of expressing that idea to the public. It holds true over visual art, writing, poetry, dance, theater, and music.

So artworks are sort of like talismans. Their aura comes from the quality of the mind and the skill of the hand that produced them. You really cannot understand an artwork until you've seen it in person. I've seen art critics absolutely fail to understand a painting because - and it's obvious when it happens - they never saw the paint on the canvas with their own two eyes. Even with an artwork like Portrait of Ross, by nature, you can't understand until you've encountered the object and decided to take or not take a piece.

And when you see them, you are lucky to be there. You are lucky to have the opportunity, because a lot of artwork is produced in the world, but very little of it is truly great. Mastering your understanding of a great artwork brings you closer to the heart of humanity. Unfortunately I haven't done that with Magritte yet - I will have more to say about his way of tackling representation and language once I have some time to really think on it.

What do the clocks mean?

Rhetoric, Narrative Non-Fiction, ArtRebecca Brink

Since it's summer, this tattoo is visible the majority of the time, and it's an intriguing tattoo so I get asked about it. A lot.

"What do the clocks mean?" I'll give you guys a fuller answer to this question than I'm able to give people on the street. 

I'm a fangirl for the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres in the same way that I imagine a lot of you are fangirls/boys/people for Sherlock and Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and all that (I also love those things, but not as much as I love Felix). I hate saying that he was a participatory artist in the 1990s because I don't really think of his work that way; I see it as more neo-minimalist. It is also participatory at heart. And it's my blog, so I'll call it what I want, which I can't do when I'm submitting work to art historians because they have a rigid way of thinking about the world, not least of all because that's the only way for them to set up a value system for contemporary art.

Anyway. I fell in love with Felix in 2012. I was studying his work Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) which is on view most of the time at the Art Institute here in Chicago. Ross Laycock was Felix's partner. Both of them had AIDS. Ross died in 1993, after which Felix made Portrait of Ross. Felix died in 1996. 

Portrait of Ross is a pile of multi-colored, multi-flavored hard candies weighing 175 pounds at the outset, which was Ross's approximate body weight when he was healthy. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece. As the days go on, the pile dwindles, simulating the process of death by illness. The certificate of authenticity states that the owner provides "endless supply" of the candies, so eventually the pile is refilled.

There's a lot going on in that artwork. For one, for his candy piles Felix generally chose to use one flavor and color of candy (see Placebo). Ross is the outlier here, which says a lot about how Felix felt saw Ross and why he loved him - the artwork is full of bombast and color, it's a kaleidoscope, there's the act of matching color and flavor and having so many different kinds of candy to choose from. Ross was not a monolith, he was a whole and complex human being.

Then there's the act of depleting and refilling. Many critics (and I have read just about everything there is to read about this artwork) claim that this is a way to watch Ross die, the way Felix had to, and inasmuch as that's the case it was a way for Felix to "rehearse" his feelings about death. "Rehearse" is Felix's word, and he used it - to my memory - to talk about the act of letting go of artwork and putting it out into the public space. I think something else is going on in Portrait of Ross entirely.

Because it's an endless supply. The body never dies. It's depleted and refilled. That's not the process of death - that's the process of resurrection. Rather, it's the process of life: We shed skin cells and grow new cells; trees shed their leaves and sprout them again come spring; stars explode and swallow planets in the process, expelling particles into space, and eventually the force of gravity gathers the particles in new combinations and forms new stars and new planets. Felix didn't make this artwork to have Ross die over and over - he made this so that Ross would live indefinitely.

And inasmuch as that's the case, it's the most beautiful elegy I've ever seen in my life. I am heartbroken and in love.

What do the clocks mean? The clocks are Felix's artwork Untitled (Perfect Lovers). When the artwork is displayed, two matching clocks are hung on a wall lying tangent to each other. This forms the illusion of an infinity sign. Fresh batteries are put in, they're set to the same exact time, and they're started at the same exact time. Eventually, because of natural variations in the batteries, one of the clocks starts to slow more quickly than the other, and it stops ticking.

It's a meditation on time and mortality and what it's like to watch someone you love - your perfect lover - die. And not just that, but to know your time is approaching, too. It's the sensation of having this love that feels like it could go on forever (into infinity) but facing the bodily reality that it can't. It's the sensation of being a man with AIDS in a couple.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres had the great accomplishment of expressing that very complex, very particular, very core human experience with two simple wall clocks. Try telling me that any author has ever expressed an idea as elegantly as that. Try telling me that anyone has ever used any medium so well as Felix Gonzalez-Torres used his to express the most vulnerable parts of the human experience, death and love.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres is the single greatest artist and rhetorician I have ever come across. By many, many heads. I aspire to that level of genius and ability, and I know I will never reach it.

Felix is a personal love of mine. I could proudly have his work tattooed over my hands and my sternum and my neck and pretty much my whole body. Felix saved my life. One day in 2012, when I was doing my primary round of research on Portrait of Ross in L.A., I was reading through a stupendous interview he did with Tim Rollins. At the time, I was considering the possibility of applying to graduate schools for art history programs, which is why I was doing all this work. It was the summer. I had been in an abusive relationship for seven years. I was obsessed with the idea of having obligations: Obligations are the reason that I stayed in that relationship. I had made a commitment and I was going to keep it come hell or high water because keeping your commitments come hell or high water or predation or abuse is just what you do. I had married this man and no matter what sacrifices were asked of me I was going to make it work. I was a doubtful but dutiful Christian wife.

Then I read this:


I have a major problem with the cultural traps and constructions of God. I think that it is a good excuse for us to accept any kind of situation as natural, inevitable. Once we believe that there is no God, that there is no afterlife, then life becomes a very positive statement. It becomes a very political position because, then, we have no choice but to work harder to make this place the best place ever. There is only one chance, and this is it. If you fuck it up this time, you've fucked up for ever and ever... There's nothing except here - this thing, this table, you, me - that's it. That becomes a very radical idea because you have to take responsibility to make it the best.

"It is a very good excuse for us to accept any kind of situation as natural, inevitable." I must do my duty. I must fulfill my obligations. I must stick to this commitment no matter what the consequences are for me. This is what we are meant to do.

I left my husband about two months later.

What are the clocks? The clocks are my new conception of god: I do not believe in god anymore. I believe in the power of the human imaginative capacity. I believe in the possibilities that come along with change. I believe in letting things go. I believe in working with the real resources we have at hand to create something new and better. I believe in art.