When the ephemeral becomes eternal

Looking at the recent event of destruction of the pumpkin sculpture of Yayoi Kusama in Japan, albeit layered with metaphors on the ideology of impermanence.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Aug 19, 2021

There are two broad categories of art if distinguished by the form it is manifested in – plastic and performance. The former refers to visual art, one that involves physical manipulation of a medium to make an object. It occupies space and can be viewed over an extended period of time. Performance art on the other hand is executed by actions. Photographic documentation can be made of this, but the actual work consumes time. It ceases to exist once the very act has concluded. An extension of this form is ‘happenings’ – much like an act, they exist in time but have a greater interaction with environment and audience.

01 min watch Yayoi Kusama’s work washed into the sea | Yayoi Kusama| STIRworld
Yayoi Kusama’s work washed into the sea Video: Ruttrutt, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A recent event of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin sculpture getting washed away into the sea by a storm in Japan made me wonder – what if, visual art also consumes time and ceases to exist?

Now, the idea of ephemeral art itself is not new. Such works do not exist over a long period of time. There are practices that focus on making intriguing works, painstakingly crafted, and yet, left for destruction, by design. This, in my mind is a fascinating ideology, especially at a time when disproportionate importance is given to ‘archival paper/canvas and archival ink/pigments’, to project a long, happy and healthy life of the art work! It is natural to desire for the life of the work to surpass that of its creator and owner, especially when art is seen as an asset class. Significant works with historical importance have a certain academic value and should definitely be preserved in museum environment. But why must all art ever made have this load of long-life, when our own existence on Earth is temporal?

The Spiral Jetty | Robert Smithson | STIRworld
The Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

My first ever understanding of the ephemeral in art practices was with the introduction to The Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson. Considered to be the most famous ‘land art’ work, this 1970 installation was created into The Great Salt Lake in the USA. And more recently I saw myself drawing parallels to a living artist with similar sensibilities – Richard Long. Long makes temporary and minimal interventions to natural surroundings and landscapes. Large scale and environmental works of duo Christo and Jeanne Claude is another iconic example of such a practice. Their wrapping of landmark monuments and structures with fabric creates for an experiential spectacle like none other.

Untitled installation by Richard Long |Richard Long | STIRworld
An untitled installation by Richard Long Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Being a ceramist myself, work of Juree Kim is closer home. The South Korean artist is known for her architectural work in raw (unfired) clay. I had the fortune to be a part of the first Indian Ceramic Triennale in Jaipur (India) in 2018 with her. Kim spent weeks to study the traditional buildings and craft before meticulously creating a large-scale sculpture in terracotta clay. The work was inspired by architecture of the region. It remained unfired and was placed in a glass container.

Clay sculpture by Juree Kim Image: Courtesy of Crimson Gallery

On the day of the opening of the Triennale, Kim poured water in the tub, allowing the raw clay to dissolve, slowly. In her words, "I am very interested in impermanence and the changing nature of our environment, both in its natural form and in the urban settings surrounding us. My work uses time-based installations to reflect the many scenes of our daily lives and how they interact with an ever-changing world. Clay, soil, water, light, nature and the urban environment are all elements that feature in my work."

Juree Kim’s clay work melting into water Image: Courtesy of Crimson Gallery

I will keep genres of street art and food art for another time. Painted wall in public space, especially one that is not formally preserved, deteriorates over time or takes new form with vandalism and alternations to it. And when perishable material like food is used to create work, it is expected to stay only for a short time.

The idea of ephemerality is fairly engrained in many Asian cultures. In India, for instance, it is common for traditional houses to be decorated with paintings on walls. These often use images of gods and goddesses and motifs from nature. In the urban context, the philosophy of impermanence is reinforced more strongly with the act of decorating the threshold of the entrance of homes with floor patterns.

alpana decoration | STIRworld
alpana decoration Image: Courtesy of istockphotos

Rangoli or alpana, as it is called, originated in Indian sub-continent. It uses powdered limestone, ochre, or even rice-flour and petals. A daily ritual, the ‘work’ lasts a few hours, with wind displacing the powder, people walking over it, and ants and birds feeding on the edible material. The act of making it, however, has spiritual and cultural significance that goes far beyond decoration. It enthusiastically celebrates the impermanence and is a reminder to live in the present. It is a symbolic cue that tomorrow will be renewed and to remain detached to all worldly possessions.  

Kusama’s work taking to the sea is ironically akin to the Indian deity being submerged in water. Ganpati and Durga idols are made each year. They are heavily ornate and intricately detailed, created over several months. The festival itself is celebrated with much fanfare and an all-immersive devotion. It culminates into the idol of god and goddess being immersed into the sea, as though bidding farewell, but with a promise that they will return next year. This departure is celebrated – the creator is not sad about their work getting destroyed.

Immersion of deities in India | STIRworld
Immersion of deities in India Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Increased frequency of typhoons and rising sea-levels causing the Kusama work to get destroyed is accentuating the issue of global warming and climate change. There is no doubt that this event must be taken with all seriousness to bring about corrective-action in this direction. It is also a loss of a precious art work. But for me, it metaphorically reminds of the impermanence of everything through this work of ‘visual art’ that turned into a ‘performance’. And ironically, the video footage of the large, polka dotted pumpkin, swirling with every wave hitting it, became a spectacle to witness. When spectatorship is lost, we can only rely on documentation. And memory. Hasn’t the ephemeral become eternal?... taken away by an act of God, becoming one with nature? This was probably never the intended outcome of Kusama. But would she, as the creator, view this event with similar emotion, I wonder.

I must now get to my studio to make some works in clay that will go in my next ‘high temperature glaze-firing’. They will then stay forever…OK, not ‘for ever’, but at least 500 years? Amen!

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