Walking the West Bottoms

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Something draws us to the West Bottoms. People come here to commemorate important life events, weddings and graduations. They use its tall brick walls as a backdrop. Maybe they want something solid and unchanging to frame a fleeting moment. Maybe they don’t realize that change is the very definition of the West Bottoms, the only constant in its turbulent history.

The Bottoms have seen native tribes and displaced Indians, traders and fur trappers, immigrants and escaped slaves, cattle and livestock on trains, merchants and travellers on steamboats. From the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, steel workers sent the tanks floating downstream that would eventually land on foreign beaches and defeat the Axis powers. And, oh, the cattle. You could once look in one direction and hardly see anything else, while a whole city of houses and churches, bridges and elevated rails, flour mills, schools, hotels and train depots stretched to the foot of the bluffs behind your back. Most of this was washed away by fast-rising water. The water is a constant too. After every flood some things are repaired or built again. Others are forever lost or abandoned.

We come here now for other reasons. Back-alley bars with live jazz slinking through port hole windows. Fugue-inducing 3 AM concerts with ten drummers and all manner of electronic instruments.  Burnt ends slow cooked and drenched in a sauce of tomato and molasses. Grown men riding angry geldings. Giant pork tenderloins between crappy wood laminate walls. Framed photographs and vibrant paintings in stark white rooms. Moscow mules in a copper mug. People live in old flour mills, work in grain warehouses with charred beams and open elevator shafts. People come here to buy, to sell, and to explore. People come here to create things.

I’m walking down the street on a March day, sky electric blue. It’s still cold, especially when the clouds swirl over the sun, or I walk in the shade of the brick buildings. Every so often the wind picks up and pelts my face with tiny grains of sand and loose gravel. A few bikers idle as an orange train clatters by. A building curves to match the bend of the tracks below, ghosted layers of paint still visible on its brick facade. Rail spurs reflect the sun. Something draws us to the West Bottoms, something far more than nostalgia. We’re drawn here by the excitement, the rarity of finding a place so specific and so distinctly urban, yet so undetermined, expansive and full of possibility.

Words and pictures by Gavin Snider


conversations public and private

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here is how i gloss your response [see posts by sonya blesofsky and jack rees below] as a series of questions: 1) what gives our art-making logic? 2) what makes one’s own work consistently engaging? 3)what is it that makes jury-rigged forms so compelling? initially, number three engages my attention, maybe because the logic of a response in (and to) pictures is so undefined (read: open ended).

i agree: that which is cobbled together smartly, is often oddly compelling. My shorthand for this is kluge: the quick fix, the temporary solution constructed from material at hand that ends up “working.” what i find compelling about a good kluge is the way it marries things that in other, more considered, frames would not be part of the same solution—elegance and awkwardness, form and idea, necessity and impermanence.

one example might be drawn from the etymology of jury-rigged: a temporary mast erected on a ship when the permanent mast is no longer functional (WordOrigins.org). in this situation the revised object must function under great stress yet all involved understand it to be only as functional as needs be—life saving necessity meets just good enough.

form and idea are, of course, often married in art yet in a kluge, allow for what might be called category shifting which is a singular mark of distinction. the picture you selected of the water bottles hanging from the seat rack of a motor bike is a case in point. in that circumstance, hanging the bottles from their tops is a satisfying kluge, unexpected but just “right.” one admires the solution because the idea is good, novel, and ad hoc while the form is pleasing.

so as not to beat a dead horse, i would make an analogous argument argument for elegance and awkwardness yet; to my mind, these deserve special consideration. our visual world is so cluttered with crafted yet meaningless objects that one is tempted to depend on a lack of craft (or even the semblance of a lack of sophisticating in making) as a way to call attention to the handmade object. the implicit claim is: this work means something simply because it is not “polished.” sadly, the implication does not hold up to scrutiny. not polished is not polished and significance, though inexorably tied to form, is not automatically present by virtue of an object being hand-made.

in this context, i wonder at your seeming pride in removing alchemy from the mix. why is it that magic and transparency are contradictory? seems to me the trick is to present in the objects we make, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts—just like a good kluge.

Constraints and Joy in Superstruct

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As a designer and an architect, I truly enjoyed visiting Plug’s latest exhibition Superstruct, which offers a mirror to reflect on issues of design, habitation, and spatial relationships, in both their binding terms and more optimistic (partial) escapes from superstructure. Aside from related historical queries that bounced initially to mind, such as Piranesi’s prisons drawings or the deconstructionist investigations of Tschumi and Eisenman, it was particularly stimulating to peruse through Brady Haston’s sketchbook on display. What grabbed my attention, as it frequently does when afforded the privy of one’s ideas in her/his sketchbook, was in the evolution that occurs chronologically, and witnessing the return to larger themes and ideas through time. For me, what resonated most was in Haston’s use of the gridded and parallel lines of the notebook through a couple of years. The constraints of the lines and grids beckon happy violations, but these still often return to the imposition of the page’s order and limitations. Seeing how one day’s drawing bore on a later work reminded me of some of my own desires and inclinations, particularly in geometry as it applies to space – the desire to break and be happy, while still fully aware of the constraints.
The design of the Rocket Grant project Elizabeth and I are working on has wrestled with similar questions, albeit in three dimensional form. We have chosen to pursue a project a form that is structured by social/historical knowledge, not just in the contents, but in the composition of a cabinet with legs, a base, and a display top, with straight lines and stretched surfaces that seem to offer freedom, but in reality create constraints for intentional mediation and violation. The cabinet attempts to dissolve and resolve an understanding of the world, which occurs manifestly in its physical form as well. Particularly, how a taut membrane can be redefined as flat, gridded tiles, with openings to view works of art and intellect within. Such an effort encompasses a struggle with the grid, and an attempt to make something greater of this order to create, ultimately, some glee between the lines.

a private conversation in public (sort of): A Response

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In what circumstance is ignorance a virtue?

With my artwork, I am in no way an advocate for some anti-intellectual “intuition over logic” kind of mentality.  Nor do I think my process is as straightforward as: informed here, not informed there.  There are a few ways I could go with this conversation, and maybe I’ll splinter off some ideas that relate to my interests as an artist, my process, and the artistic process in general.  1) The question you’re posing relates directly to what I would call “The Rules” in an artist’s process.  2) I’m interested in challenge and discovery in my work.  3) I’m interested in the saying “necessity is the mother of all invention,” and I’ve recently been very drawn to objects and architecture that are make-do, jerry-rigged, and cobbled together.

1) Jack, you and I talked about how we start a piece, or an installation, or an idea.  Hearing your process reminded me just how arbitrary “The Rules” of making art often are.  As young artists, someone else (an instructor) is usually making the rules for us.  As an Instructor myself, I find that my students do best with clear parameters, and strict limitations in regards to materials and processes.  As we learn to define our own interests, we leave behind others’ rules for our own.  My rules are as arbitrary as the next artist, but for me there is logic in those rules.  Perhaps this is what makes art so awesome and fascinating –that each set of arbitrary rules correlates to some twisted artist’s logic, which then leads to a work of art.  I guess you’re asking, “what gives your rules logic?”  Wow, I’ve just talked around the issue, and I’m finding myself without readily available answers.

2) I want there to be transparency in my work; I want the viewer to see exactly how it’s all made, and the layperson to realize that there is no alchemy taking place here.  I make the work with some prior knowledge, but no formal training in the materials I work with.  (Listen, no one teaches you in school how to sculpt with paper.)  That’s what makes my work continually engaging to me: I am constantly challenged during the process of creating.  With every new piece I have to teach myself how to make it. Yes, at this point, I draw on a lot of prior knowledge with the materials, and fortunately, this has helped tremendously when making new work, but in general, I learn as I go.  It would be less interesting for me though, if someone were to tell me exactly how each piece should be engineered.  This would remove the process of discovery.  I’m interested in mimickry, and how I can best describe an object or architectural detail based on how it looks, not on how it has been constructed; I’m not an engineer or an architect, and therefore I have different priorities than someone of those professions.

3) I’m going to address this idea with found images culled from the internet

a private conversation in public (sort of)

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sometimes art is an image, sometimes it is a conversation, always it is an experience. in the case of the current show at plug i found my way to the experience through a conversation. It was with one of the exhibiting artists, sonya blesofsky, and it helped me both see and situate the work.

to anyone who has been around the art scene in kansas city for more than a couple of years, sonya’s piece, an installation in the window at plug, is going to look familiar—maybe even disconcertingly so. fact is there are both formal and procedural similarities to the work tammi kennedy was exhibiting ten years ago. (has it really been that long?)

this does not disqualify sonya’s work as worthy of consideration. to make the art in “artwork” about who got there first, is to confuse the world of making with the world of selling. We must guard against such conflations.

i also think we should guard against taking the word of artists on their work at face value. artists have a way of talking about whatever interests them at the moment which usually, in my experience, obfuscates rather than clarifys (of which i am also guilty). be that as it may, it was through an exchange with sonya that I began to really look at the work.

early in the conversation sonya remarked how her process involves a lot of research before she begins fabrication—at which point she produced a photograph on her phone of a jumble of furniture in a storefront window, the product of a catastrophic flood in the west bottoms. this was the first bit of information to encourage a reinspection of the furniture-like shapes that comprise her piece. in this circumstance, the visual context conveyed by a bit of information, proved decisive as the motivation for a careful inspection.

later in the conversation she remarked, insisted really, that in making the work, she endeavored to remain as ignorant of engineering as possible. ?warning bells? why this contradiction? why insist knowledge in one domain is advantageous while knowledge in another is undesirable? it smells to me of a peculiarly american strain of anti-intellectualism where intuition is posited as a kind of direct knowing, unsullied by the hard work required to actually arrive at knowledge through information. more to the point it ignores the ways that tutored intuitions are thicker than untutored intuitions.

sadly, our conversation was interrupted. happily, sonya has agreed to continue our exchange in public on the plug blog. so, whataboutit sonya, in what circumstance is ignorance a virtue?


Sarah Sze

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Sarah Sze (Image Courtesy TryHarder.com).

SARAH SZE, STILL LIFE WITH LANDSCAPE (MODEL FOR A HABITAT). On the High Line, between West 20th and West 21st Streets, June 8, 2011 – June, 2012. (Image Courtesy TheHighLine.org)

Sarah Sze’s work is always a crowd pleaser. I first encountered a Sze installation years ago at the MCA in Chicago. Encountering a work of Sze’s is always best when one rounds a corner, completely unsuspecting. Sze transforms everyday object into intricate and sensitive arrangements always according to place. Her signature move is utilizing perspectival space to add a visual twist in relation to the viewer. Achieving bends in space that reward the eye and defy logic.

Sze’s work makes a perfect addition to the Superstruct show both inside and outside at Plug projects. I wish I could have caught her recent exhibition, Infinite Line, at the Asia Society Museum that closed this past mid-March. Sze is nearly a household name these days and will be representing the US in the next Venice Bienalle in 2013.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times Sarah Sze: Infinite Line Ms. Sze's installation “Random Walk Drawing (Window)” at Asia Society Museum evokes a Japanese rock garden. The show also features her rarely exhibited drawings.



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By Mark C. Taylor

Jan 30, 2012

In ways that are not immediately obvious, today’s overheated art market can help us understand the recent collapse of the overleveraged global economy. Though few have made the connection, developments in the art market have been following the changing investment strategies in financial markets. The global growth in the art market parallels the worldwide spread of finance capitalism. In recent years, the value of art assets has often risen faster than the value of real estate or financial assets.

This growth has, of course, been driven by the exponential increase in wealth among those who benefit most from the new financial system. Each week brings another account of a newly rich hedge-fund manager buying art at a ridiculously inflated price. This preoccupation with “celebrity” collectors, however, obscures a more interesting and important development: The titans of finance capitalism are also transforming the art market through the financialization of art. They manage their art collections in much the same way they manage their portfolios.

Speculative History

Speculating in art is not, of course, new. In one of the most intriguing investment schemes in recent history, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito purchased van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” in 1990 for the then-record price of $82.5 million. Immediately after taking possession of the painting, he secured it in a climate-controlled vault where it remained for seven years. By 1993, Saito’s financial empire had fallen apart. Since his death in 1996, the location and ownership of the painting have remained a mystery.

This investment strategy treats art like any other commodity purchased for speculative purposes. The investment game changes significantly when art is regarded as a financial asset, rather than as a consumer good. Speculators in the art market have recently established hedge funds and private equity funds for the purchase and sale of art. These funds extend the principles of finance capitalism to art. Take the example of mortgages. As we have seen, since the early 1980s, mortgages have been securitized as collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs) so that they could be bought and resold in secondary and tertiary markets. While the value of these derivatives is supposed to be determined by the value of the underlying asset (the price of the real estate), in a rising market the value of the derivative increases relative to the collateral on which it is based.

With the growing volatility of financial markets, investors attempt to hedge their bets by trading derivatives using different variations of portfolio theory. When mortgages are bundled and tranched, the evaluation of risk has nothing to do with the value of a particular asset but is calculated using mathematical formulae to determine the statistical probability of defaults of the underlying mortgages. With this practice, the derivative drifts farther and farther from its underlying asset until the virtual and the real seem to be completely decoupled.

Some enterprising investors are applying this model to the art market. London financier Philip Hoffman, for example, has established Fine Art Management Services Ltd., which speculates in art rather than stocks. Bloomberg’s Deepak Gopinath explains Hoffman’s strategy: “Melding art and finance, art funds aim to trade Picassos and Rembrandts the way hedge funds trade U.S. Treasuries or gold — and collect hedge-fund-like fees in the process. Hoffman’s Fine Art Fund, for example, charges an annual management fee equal to 2 percent of its assets and takes a 20 percent cut of profits once the fund clears a minimum hurdle.”

Bundling Artworks

This strategy securitizes works of art in the same way that CMOs securitize mortgages. Just as mortgages are bundled and sold as bonds, so works of art are bundled and sold as shares of a hedge fund. In other words, rather than owning an individual work of art, or several works of art, an investor owns an undivided interest in a group of art works. In these schemes, what is important is not the real value of the company, commodity or artwork; what matters is the statistical probability of its price performance within a specified time frame relative to other portfolio holdings. Furthermore, insofar as investors hedge bets by using portfolio theory, the value of any particular work of art is determined by its risk quotient relative to other works of art held by the fund.

Like investors in CMOs, who know nothing about the actual real-estate holdings whose mortgages they own, investors in art hedge and private-equity funds know nothing about the actual artworks in which they are investing. Investors in art funds could conceivably sell their shares, thereby creating secondary and tertiary markets. As trading accelerates, derivatives (fund shares) and underlying assets (works of art) are once again decoupled, creating a quasi-autonomous sphere of circulating signs in which value constantly fluctuates.

This financialization of art is a genuinely new phenomenon that even Andy Warhol could not have predicted. The most prominent representative of the financialization of art is Damien Hirst, who is notable for his creation of works of art specifically designed for new financial markets. A newspaper editorial in 2007 observed that Hirst “has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art.” The most ostentatious example of his strategy was the production and marketing of his $100 million diamond-studded skull ironically titled “For the Love of God.”

The financial machinations surrounding the sale of this work were as complex and mysterious as a high-stakes private- equity deal. One year later, Hirst mounted his own sale at Sotheby’s in London at the precise moment that global financial markets were collapsing. Though the sale was an enormous financial success, it is clear that this unlikely event marked the end of a trajectory that had been unfolding since the end of World War II.

Critical Edge

There are, predictably, some critics who argue that Hirst, like Jeff Koons, is, in fact, satirizing or criticizing the market from which he nonetheless profits so handsomely. While this argument is plausible in the case of Warhol, the art of Koons and Hirst, like the critics who promote it, has lost its critical edge.

If each era gets the art it deserves, then the age of finance capitalism deserves the carcass of a rotting shark that no amount of formaldehyde can preserve. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” harbors a lesson worth noting: Reality might not be completely virtual after all, and far from impossible, death is unavoidable.

The commodification, corporatization and financialization of art represent the betrayal of principles and values that have guided artists for more than two centuries. The notion of modern art and related ideas of the avant-garde emerged in Germany during the last decade of the 18th century. In the wake of the failure of the French Revolution, idealistic philosophers and romantic poets were forced to reconsider the interrelation of religion, art and politics. When religion and politics failed to realize what many imagined as the kingdom of God on Earth, artists and philosophers fashioned new strategies, which more than two centuries later continue to shape our world.

The commodification, corporatization and financialization of art subvert the artistic mission that the 18th-century German critic Friedrich Schiller memorably described as the desire to transform the world into a work of art. When the artist becomes a commodities trader, corporate executive or hedge-fund manager, criticism gives way to complicity in an economy that absorbs everything designed to resist it. With asset values rising at an unprecedented rate, the market seems to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. But just at this moment of apparent triumph, the bubble bursts and everything must be re-evaluated. Though profoundly unsettling, the collapse of finance capitalism creates the opportunity for a reassessment of values that extend far beyond money and art.

The crisis of confidence plaguing individuals and institutions is a crisis of faith. We no longer know what to believe or whom to trust. At such a moment, art might seem an unlikely resource to guide reflection and shape action. If, however, God and the imagination are — as Wallace Stevens insisted — one, then perhaps art can create an opening that is the space of hope. Perhaps, by refiguring the spiritual, art can redeem the world.

(Mark C. Taylor is the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University. This is the second of two excerpts from his new book “Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy,” to be published March 20 by Columbia University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)


Thanks weisslink!

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