conceptual art

Trevor Abes (Photo credit: Sandro Pehar)

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

As a writer who nerds out on visual and performance art but who can’t paint, draw, sculpt, or act for shit, I’ve devised a book project provisionally titled The New Frontiers of Conceptual Art. This project allows me to work in the styles of my favourite artists in these and other disciplines with only written language at my disposal. It involves notional ekphrasis: I invent artists and write about their work so that it reads like poetry. What brings my favs together, at least for present purposes, is that they’ve all worked with what many would call banal material, using it to challenge and expand the idea of what art was for their time.

Joseph Beuys experimented with fat in sculpture and on stage as a way of using art to incite direct social change. His work stood in opposition to the Fluxus movement members he hung around with in the 1960s and ’70s, as he staged performance events and actions not to undo the capitalist art establishment but to co-opt it in an effort to improve the environment and encourage people to be more empathic toward one another.

Robert Rauschenberg’s combines and glut sculptures speak to and delight in complicating the space between art and life by collaging found objects like scrap metal, Coke bottles, tires, tennis balls, and discarded lamps and dressers. He demystifies abstract expressionists’ belief in the inner self as a privileged source of raw material for art by instead drawing from the outside world, as we do to build ourselves.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s massive site-specific works in polyethylene fabric are about the inevitability of impermanence. Because they tend to last only a few weeks, they stand in opposition to eternal canonization in a museum. The works are free, open to the public, and devoid of corporate sponsorship, emphasizing art as experience and effectively entrusting their survival to the memories of visitors.

The New Frontiers of Conceptual Art will contain parafictional artists and poem-artworks that, much in the spirit of the artists above, are rooted in the everyday—namely, in the patients, nurses, doctors, colleagues, and customers of the hospital gift shop where I worked for the last two and a half years. I’m not trying to replicate anyone in the style of Synecdoche, New York; instead, I’m focusing on the details of my exchanges with them—details to which my attention was particularly drawn—such that each person might register a familiarity in the resulting poem text. Each poem in the book features a different artist creating one piece, and I have upwards of 50 at various levels of completion. That’s a lot of people I care about, a lot of people to worry about pissing off.

By deriving art from the mundane happenings in my life as a shopkeep—like seeing the same cleaning lady ten minutes before closing five days a week, like unboxing and shelving new merch overnight, or like having a chatty colleague—I hope to have a similarly redefining impact on current artistic standards. I bypass gallery commodification—the cult of art as prized, exclusive objects for the intellectual and wealthy—by using the cheap, shareable, and more easily critiquable medium of text to produce poem-artworks in the traditions of the greats I admire. I’m on a bit of a democratizing art mission, hoping to show that, even though writing has recourse to the visual only through language and the imagination, it can offer an experience comparable to witnessing a painting, installation, or performance firsthand.

I bypass gallery commodification—the cult of art as prized, exclusive objects for the intellectual and wealthy—by using the cheap, shareable, and more easily critiquable medium of text …

My plan to keep the peace with my gift shop micro-community is simple but temporary and far from foolproof. It’s to tell each of my subjects that I’m writing about them and to ask them to trust me. I’m a pretty calm person, so that has worked out really well so far. But as soon as the book is done, I’ll be left having made use of aspects of my friends’ and acquaintances’ characters to create compelling poems—with nothing but the hope that this is enough to assuage their anxieties of being written about and the full knowledge that, in spite of my best efforts to explain my writing, they may never be completely satisfied.

I’m uneasy about this, of course, because part of me believes that anything can be art and that everything I experience should be fair game in my creative endeavours. I should be able to cut up and rearrange anything within the limits of my senses; I shouldn’t have to worry about other people’s personal lists of what’s too sacred to their self-definitions to become inspiration for art.

But this other side of me realizes that, generally, people include their personalities on those lists, the contents of which they don’t protect very well from others’ commentary. A poem read in the wrong light can change the way someone experiences your presence, and I am scared of that prospect. When drawing so much from other people and their stories it’d be best, in the interest of not derailing any relationships, to exercise a little discretionary concealment by inventing names, changing contexts (without losing tension), and grounding my parafictional artists in fabricated origin stories (without being untrue to how my gift shop family members carry themselves in real life).

conceptual art

Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram

One of the poem-artworks in the book is a performance piece in tribute to a volunteer who worked with us Mondays and Wednesdays. She schmoozed with customers, made sales, and perhaps gave opinions on the appropriateness of greeting cards, onesies, or stuffed animals. I turned her warm, extroverted presence into an artist (somewhat after Yves Klein) called Esther Schlosser, who goes from business to business, offers to determine how sociable each location is (by performing her patented calculations), and presents managers with reports and bills for services provided.

Another poem is based on a customer with chronic back pain who takes very strong medication to cope day-to-day and kills time in our store before appointments. She became artist Doris Pacheco, who shoplifts in our store for the adrenaline rush to make up for the lighter medication she has to use when she travels.

The poem about my chatty colleague tells of an artist, Athena Salih, who films her conversations at work. She edits them down to just the clips in which her colleagues, once they realize they won’t get much of a word in, can be seen inching away from her. She sells these clips as correctives for conversational balance, establishing a new niche in the self-help market.

I’m aligning my generative strategy for The New Frontiers of Conceptual Art with Shea Hembrey’s TED Talk, “How I Became 100 Artists”: after nobody signed up for his new biennale, Hembrey populated it himself by inventing identities for 100 artists and creating two years’ worth of work for each of them. His project restores clarity and humanism to conceptual art, a field that often equates quality with obscurity, by grounding whichever hilariously trippy tangents he followed to make each piece of art in the quirks and interests of its fictional artist. Throughout his talk, he refers to each artist by name, as if they were real, getting involuntary chuckles from audience members who slowly realize that, if he hadn’t referenced the project’s fictional nature, they would have been totally fooled.

Like Hembrey, I’m writing about artists who do not exist but who feel real and whose art is, nevertheless, real. While he establishes believability by tying intelligible, intelligent, and emotionally impactful concepts to characters with honest motivations, I’m relying on my hospital peeps’ honest motivations for solid concepts backed up by their established reality: it’s a chiasmus of a relationship. I’m also treating my book as a space for and way of ordering the weird, out-there ideas I have all the time but don’t necessarily know what to do with. Finding more of this space feels like unlocking the puzzle of creative longevity.

I should be able to cut up and rearrange anything within the limits of my senses; I shouldn’t have to worry about other people’s personal lists of what’s too sacred …

I am writing this project to be more fully of the world, am making my intentions known, and am transforming my source material enough to avoid simply appropriating others’ experiences, but is this any easier to defend than Damien Hirst using animal’s carcasses or than Richard Prince getting richer by ripping off instagrammers? In one sense, perhaps. Prince didn’t tell the mostly 20-something women featured in his New Portraits show that he was using their Instagram photos, but in working on pieces about specific colleagues, I’ve gone as far as brainstorming with those colleagues.

I don’t think that means I’m off the hook. If someone were to take issue with a poem-artwork that uses them as a starting point—any issue beyond poor quality—I would likely defend my writing above all else. I would, in fact, defend an all-inclusive artistic licence on the universe and its contents for artists who care to exercise it. It’s the world I want to live in. Problem is, I believe in this deregulation as much as anyone might believe they are the ultimate authority on how they are portrayed. That’s the world, I dare suppose, that most of my muses want to live in. We have thus arrived at an ideological stalemate, and a universal societal fact: brush your life up against someone else’s, and it may not be reciprocated with affection in kind. But when fulfillment is at stake, there is no other option.

Trevor Abes is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Torontoist, untethered, (parenthetical), and the Hart House Review, among other publications. He is currently a theatre critic at The Theatre Reader.

One Comment

Sharon Goodier

This is fascinating. I look forward to reading your book. I am not very cerebral myself but I enjoy being stretched by those who are. I always thought I was conceptual but I’m beginning to doubt it. My poetry is often metaphorical, which is a kind of conceptual, I suppose. I suck my heart up into my head at times and I think you may do the same thing only with better results. I hope I find out when your book comes available. Sharon Goodier, Toronto poet and co-founder of The Art Bar Poetry Series who has had a mere 21 poems published in the last three years, mostly in the U.S. But even Jesus said a prophet is seldom recognized in his own country and among his own people, or at least those words were put in his mouth by gospel writers who did much like what you do. They took an actual person and created versions of that person with elements from their own viewpoints and the needs of the audiences they wrote for. Good luck.


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