I’ve seen a lot of art. In museums, on walls, in hotels, on TV, on my phone. I’ve worn it, touched it, experienced it, even tasted it, in some cases. But the most significant art experiences I’ve ever had were encounters with not-art.
What is not-art? Well, I guess its a lot of things. I think we consider most of the world we live in not-art. Radio waves, chickens, the gum on the bottom of a shoe, etc. We consider these not-art, and sequester art instead to objects in a museum, images in a magazine, music in headphones – intentional creations by artists. This is a distinction that was shaken up for me when when I studied Tehching Hsieh’s one-year performances.
Between 1977-1999, Hsieh did a series of art-life performances. The one that stuck with me the most was his One Year Performance 1985-1986, where he proclaimed that for that year, he would not make art, see art, or think about art…as art.
I really struggled to understand this for a long time. It was so simple; how could we understand it? Where was the art? At the heart of its paradox was a question: what’s the difference between art and not-art anyways?
I think ultimately there isn’t a difference; its really totally arbitrary, created by the viewer. “Where is the art?”, a question I’ve heard frequently muttered by confused tourists in contemporary museums, suddenly took on deeper meaning. Rather than locating the “art-ness” in an object, Hsieh asked to locate it as a way of seeing, something to turn on and off like a switch. In other words, art is in the eye of the beholder.
Certainly, there are societal cues that trigger this art-lens, cultural framings that signify “you are about to experience art”: the ritual solemnity of the museum, an elaborate gold frame around a painting, the rise of a curtain. Hsieh’s work prompted me to question those cues, and invent my own, to apply that analytical mindset at will to all aspects of my life. Its odd how much this mindset coincides with my Burmese Buddhist philosophy, the central tenet of which is to be conscious and aware, just as looking at art is to feel and analyze.
Its helped me find a lot of beauty in the smallest of life’s moments, and think more consciously about my interactions with the people around me. It sounds silly, but if I just turn on the art-viewing capacities of my brain, I’ll start to analyze someone’s stare the way I might interpret Abromavic, suck on candy like I might analyze Gonzales-Torres, or feel the ground underneath me like I might read a Smithson.
“Art is anything used by people as art,” so says Martin Creed, one of my favorite artists. Art is empowering; it is a means of sensitive self-consciousness. I’ve learned to turn it on and off for fun, to appreciate the art, and the not-art, in my life.