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 Closer to Luck

Installation  2020


Closer to Luck
Anthony Yung

What does the artist want us to see? As we step into Closer, out of habit our eyes search for a focal point, but to no avail.

Could this be the artist’s intention, not letting us see anything? Nothingness is indeed a prominent subject matter in 20th century art. It originated from debates on Reductionism, where the final destination is to arrive at the essence of art (and a myriad of things), but risk pulling all values toward nihility. Vacuity is a rather constructive phenomenon in science, referring to a spatial condition in which no matters are present. The notion of Nothing in art, however, does not lend itself to the same meaning as in science or denote the riddance of all matters (although there exists the concept of de-objectification), but rather, the very thing an artist seeks to remove is everything that is not art. Needless to say this is self-contradictory and violates science. In art Nothing is simply a reference point, or a reflection, from which the artist hopes to find something in the end, though what that entails undoubtedly differs from person to person. Artist Daniel Spoerri puts it nicely, “Everyone’s Everything is different, and everyone’s Nothing is different.”

What are we supposed to see in Closer? To think about this question, let’s consider a completely reversed scenario that could also take place in an art museum: A famous painting is on view, and a big crowd of people scramble to catch a glimpse of it, even forming a long, winding queue. The famous painting is merely an object, but because of people’s burning desire to see it, it assumes a divine eminence likening to a deity. It is such a rare opportunity to see the painting, so if we don’t seize the chance we’d suffer a great loss. The question is, so what if we saw it? What’s the good of seeing the painting? I believe most people have no idea even after setting eyes on the work. There is only one satisfactory answer to that question, and that is: At least I get to take a photo.

A frequent anxiety for many city dwellers is finding ways to kill free time. People generally believe it is a sin not do anything on weekends, best if they can do something meaningful. Visiting an art museum appears to be a qualified pastime. Museum goers throw in their precious leisure time, expecting to see something extraordinary, something beautiful, something worthwhile. Unfortunately most of them walk away with disappointment.

Looking at art is a completely meaningless activity for the majority. Most artworks they see in a museum quickly vanish into oblivion. Even so, our society continues to be asked to invest large amount of resources to satisfy the public’s “demand” for art or fulfil the obligation to provide art education. Art is indeed an all-around waste of resources by the society at large in this regard.

The commoditization of everything is the greatest impetus for creativity in the contemporary world. Visual pleasure has been developed into a profiteering commodity in an age of information, even though the desire for visual experience often leads to consumption and expenditure. Twentieth century art leaves with us a practical warning: We must beware of those that please the eye. The wisdom of art cannot fight against the torrents of time, but art itself should at the least stay clear of visual pleasure. However, this could be a flight without end. Marcel Duchamp spoke about his readymades in a forum in 1964: He would plan his schedules in advance and decide on the days when he should make art. On those days, he would go to a hardware store, choose the dullest thing at which he would normally not cast a second glance, and that would be the object he turned into a readymade. Alfred Barr asked upon hearing this, “But Marcel, why do they look so beautiful today?”  To that Duchamp responded, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Duchamp used an almost comical way to negate beauty. This negation has turned into a famous incident in art history, but the truth is it cannot escape the fate of being engulfed by and labeled a standard of beauty. Perhaps Duchamp anticipated the inevitability, that even his shovel, his wine rack would ultimately be considered “beautiful.” In any case it is truly ironic. If Duchamp failed to negate the standard of beauty, it is because his repudiation was nevertheless based on existing standard of beauty—people do not find the object beautiful nor do they think it has anything to do with art, well, by all means I shall call it art. We believe Duchamp did not really consider a readymade a “better” kind of art than painting, but rather was making a point by saying these objects can be art. In that sense he succeeded in showing that standard is fluid; the mainstream will eventually accept your standard no matter how absurd it is.

Nonetheless after Duchamp achieved this milestone, we then realized that the outcome betrayed his very intention, which was not to create a new standard to replace the old one; what needed to be negated wasn’t a particular standard, but standard itself. Why so? Possibly it is because “art” and “standard” are essentially two concepts that do not mesh. What is art? What constitutes beauty? We do not agree there should be standards for people to agree on, as the definition of art and beauty should be open to free interpretation. To be sure, art is a common cause for mankind, but it arises from discourses instead of trials. An artist’s work is a personal journey, and a record and sharing of clues he finds along the way. Artists should not provide absolute conclusions. No one can.

In observing Lai Chih-Sheng’s practice, we can perhaps assume that the aforesaid viewpoint describes his understanding of art, and that this assumption makes perfect sense to explain Closer. The artist does not generate an object for our gaze, nor does he intend to conquer our sensibility. His renderings of the void or space is only a means and not an end, for the artist creates a circumstance but provides no plot or route for perception. He is willing to let you depart from here, heading anywhere. The only formulation he draws up is a zone to neutralize our pace, a prompter of acute sensibility to the environment around us. His method is similar to that of Haiku: Using minimal words to allow the imagery to radiate on its own. Words remain unsaid yet it is not a riddle, without secrets or hidden symbols. Everything about the work lies in plain sight.

Lai’s key actions are omission and preservation, as opposed to production. To the artist, art-making is a training exercise for observation and perception, whereas to the audience, artwork provides the training. The structure he employs is often this: First there is a condition, then without altering that condition, he makes a subtle change to hint at the possibility of transcending the mundane from ordinary life. Closer adopts an approach similar to those evident in previous works such as Border and Canton Flower Bridge, where he constructed a temporary dimension in an existing space, thereby creating a delicate distance between the audience and that space. This temporary dimension hints at something that is unsteady, even borderlines danger—but of course there is no real danger, except a sense of unfinishedness is reintroduced into the finished space.

The temporary dimension in Closer entails a few uneven platforms that encircle the beams and columns in the corridor on the third floor of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Traditionally exhibition galleries are the primary constituent in a museum building, whereas the auditorium, event rooms, office areas and even stairways, cloakroom and restrooms play a secondary role. This particular corner on the third floor of the museum is all the more irrelevant than those elements. It is functionally an awkward architectural presence, a leftover between exhibition galleries, like an intermission where the audience is given the opportunity to make for the door without being rude; or an appendix given at birth but can do without for its tendency to be inflicted by inflammation. For that matter, this space is physically located at the heart of the building but in reality it is peripheral. Closer’s platforms, although in the center of the heart, are in the periphery of the periphery.

Born to be lonely, this space will never be showered by the audience’s gaze. However, the artist does not intend to decorate it to increase its appeal, but to heighten that sense of loneliness to its extreme. A feeling of aloofness is likely to ensue as we set foot on these platforms and come face to face with the big void in the museum’s lobby from a bird’s eye view. Perhaps it makes us think of the experience when we stood on the observation deck on top of a mountain. Why do we find pleasure in looking out from a vantage point? In Chinese we say “in full view,” implying our craving to see. Too often we lower our heads, buried in the things in front of us, mired in the crammed living conditions. This can cause a biological malnutrition that can only be cured by having some distance. It makes perfect sense: Ascend and behold, we shall be able to revisit distant memories, allowing our thoughts to swim towards vast imagination. This is certainly beneficial to our well-being.

In this way, distance appears to be the core theme of Closer. We can be quick to conjure up the notion of “farther,” but the title of the work is none other than “closer.” Climbing onto the platform, we are a step away from exhibition galleries and the exit. Everything that we are meant to engage in the museum now lie further beyond. What, then, becomes closer? Light and air flow become markedly lucid, but really they are not. We only feel closer to them. That said, it is our feelings that changed. In other words, what the artist hopes to occur here, is for people to grow a little closer to themselves.

Needless to say this is just one way to approach this work. But if we follow this train of thought and arrive at this given point, we will realize what the artist hopes to happen does not necessarily have to take place in the specific site of Closer. The purpose of Closer is to infer a kind of awareness that can occur to anyone, at any given moment. When we head out in the wee hours of the morning or at nightfall, when we walk the extra distance on our way home, when we take an unusual turn, or even if it is only looking up momentarily while walking down a familiar lane… perhaps we can all capture that sensibility to transcend the mundane in our daily life. This awareness, a possibility of beauty, is what Lai Chih-Sheng most hopes to bring about.

Some artists want to take total control with zero risk, while some artists know to humbly accept, that their audience may or may not encounter the arrival of art in their work. Or to put it more precisely, the re-arrival of art. But still, he is willing to try his luck, which is a fascinating thing. Closer would let us know, that every day, in any given moment, in any place, we can try our luck to encounter art.


Translated by Jenning King


2020.06.25-2021.06.06  Lai Chih-Sheng: Closer, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan