In making life smaller, to see it bigger, Ugo Rondinone’s art tells us as much about why we make art as what we gain from seeing it…
Hands up if you’ve ever encountered a self-absorbed artist. Not including ourselves of course. There’s no denying the act of creating often involves periods of social withdrawal where the artist is alone with their work… and themselves.
Somewhere within an artist believes such periods are not only necessary but may ultimately offer society something of value. As the art interacts with society it can form all kinds of connections from inspiring financial investment in the artist to initiating a life-changing experience in the viewer.
Pretty grandiose stuff.
Being able to weave such magic does not a humble ego make. There’s actually scientific studies that have pinpointed higher levels of arrogance and pretentiousness among creative people. Think that study was funded by an uncle of mine.
So are we artists just full of ourselves? Does making art in our insulated studio cut us off from society, human connection and a healthy perspective on our place in the world? Are we all narcissists dressed up in artists clothing?
I find the work and words of the Swiss born, New York based artist, Ugo Rondinone a fitting starting place for exploring the issue. In particular his series of installations examining life from the air, the land and the sea.
Ugo Rondinone – Primitive
From thank you silence exhibition at M – Museum Leuven
Primitive has fifty nine hand-made bronze birds, Primal – fifty nine hand-made bronze horses and Primordial sees fifty nine hand-made bronze fish hanging from the gallery ceiling.
The act of making art holds the answers to why we make it
Watching Rondinone talk about this series of work in the video below reminded me of the deeper reasons that keep pulling me back to making art myself.
Rondinone sees art making as “a possibility to meditate about life”. That simple phrase holds the key for me. To some artists that meditation may well involve disappearing up their own backside for days on end (or an entire career). For others it might lead to painting the same tree over and over… to covering buildings in cloth… to documenting soup cans.
The studio as cave
It’s this scope and space that artists have to meditate on life that delivered us the incredible work of the Lascaux cave painters whose work allows us to time travel through history.
Lascaux Cave, France
Photograph by Sisse Brimberg from National Geographic.
Did contemporaries of the Lascaux cave painters see what they did as a pretentious, luxury pursuit when there was hunting to be done? It’s hard to imagine the cave painters meditations on life being regarded as self involved, trivial and cut off from society when they so clearly reflected what that society valued, feared and felt.
Seventeen thousand years later and an artist in New York is making little birds out of clay, casting them in bronze and placing them in a gallery so we have to carefully walk around them. We wonder at our place in that room, and, if the work speaks to us, our place in the world too.
For Primitive Rondinone sculpted one bird per day and his fingerprints and hand is evident on each of the fifty nine birds. Each bird reflects something of the mood he was in that day. As Rondinone says, this simple act of making has wider benefits to himself and society through the human connection that threads through each part of the work…
Ugo Rondinone – The wave
2011. Cast bronze (19 x 24.7 x 12 cm)
Those birds look very childlike and naive in the way they are made. You can see my fingerprints… I decided to do one bird a day and made a list of fifty nine titles… each bird is a stand-in for a natural phenomenon – from the galaxy to the dust. So each bird is standing for something bigger than themselves.
Ugo Rondinone – Primal (detail)
Cast bronze horse from exhibition at Esther Schipper, Berlin 2013.
It was for me when I made them a daily routine, a daily meditation on life. To me it’s something healing. It’s like soul food. It connects you to your fundamental desire, needs and emotional states… It brings us closer to our feelings and makes a better society.
Antony Gormley’s Field
Rondinone’s miniature hand made sculptures reminded me of one of my all time favourite installation pieces – Field by Antony Gormley.
The fifty nine animals of Rondinone’s installations probably wouldn’t win a fight with the 40,000 army of Gormley’s clay figures but they each take control of the gallery space in their own quietly powerful ways.
Both artists turned to clay for its immediacy and ability to leave the human trace intact. Both turned to something small to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Both installations turn the viewer’s gaze back on themselves.
Antony Gormley – European Field
Terracotta, variable size: approx. 40 000 elements, each 8-26 cm high. Photo from AntonyGormley.com
While Field leaves the viewer outside to look in at the occupied gallery, Rondinone invites the viewer inside – but on its own terms. Visitors must watch where they’re going. A simple, slowing act that itself encourages a more mindful, meditative state.
Antony Gormley – Field
Installation piece at Barrington Court, Somerset 2012. Image copyright BBC.
From the beginning I was trying to make something as direct as possible with clay: the earth. I wanted to work with people and to make a work about our collective future and our responsibility for it. I wanted the art to look back at us, its makers (and later viewers), as if we were responsible – responsible for the world that it [FIELD] and we were in.
Polar Bears at Dunsinane Hill
Like any good, self absorbed artist I should probably close with some of my own artwork.
Excuse the poor image quality but the early nineties was a particularly blurry period for artists. So here’s some detail photos from All Polar Bears Are White, an installation piece from way back to 1994.
Like Gormley and Rondinone I chose clay as my material of choice. Also made little animals/creatures by hand. Also played with the viewer’s sense of scale and their physical relation to it.
Me – All Polar Bears Are White (detail)
Detail of a photograph of clay fired polar bears on some rocks at Dunsinane Hill.
I won’t go into the ideas behind the work as I just want to conclude that in some ways we’ve all continued the tradition of those Lascaux cave painters.
Though thousands of years have passed between us we all shared a stepping back from daily life to reflect on that life. We found a material, created a form, executed an image and found a space to leave our mark.
A mark that we hope in some way communicates that we were here, that we saw a part of life in this way, at this time, with these hands.
Me – All Polar Bears Are White (detail)
Detail of installation from my degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone.
Ugo Rondinone quotes
Is it allowed to close an article twice? For the second closing I’d like to leave with this video of Ugo Rondinone talking some more about his art and some quotes from it below.
Drawing is an activity that just fills out your time… it doesn’t require any thinking, it gives you a lot of meditation, breathing so it’s something healthy for your self. When you draw you don’t start thinking you just want to make it the same. It has more to do with being well than thinking or that it’s for something. It’s just for you.
I operate with very childlike motives. You can always name what you see. Out of the notion that anybody should get something out of it no matter what background he has or she has who looks at it. From the child to the old person should just get something out of it without questioning why did he do it.
I see the artist as someone who gathers… brings together information. As a vessel or as a medium. It replaces religion and galleries replace cathedrals.