Modern Art

Posted on March 18, 2011

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Empty Shoebox (1993) at Tate Modern

Isn’t it incredible how modern art has the ability to polarise opinion? I recently visited Tate Modern on the Southbank with my friend, single-mum, who wanted to see the latest exhibition by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco (pronounced or-ross-co).

I’m always interested in artwork that challenges me to think about the meaning behind it; or where the artist has clearly put some creative effort into the finished product, but I get really hacked off when I think the artist is taking the biscuit.

Most of Orozco’s pieces I’d describe as quirky, but Empty Shoebox (1993) is exactly what it says on, well, the box. Like the object, it left me feeling vacant.

It’s a large white cardboard shoebox placed randomly on the floor among other exhibits – bravo Orozco, what a masterpiece! If it hadn’t been for single-mum telling me to watch my step, I would have flattened it. According to one member of staff, the box gets kicked about during the weekend by throngs of people. It’s certainly interactive art, I’ll give it that.

At the Venice Biennale, where the box was first shown in 1993, people apparently reacted by leaving money in it. At New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where it was last shown, the box was said to be manhandled (and rightly so). For me, this particular piece of artwork is a joke and would make the Northerner hopping mad. Who in their right mind believes this is art? According to the Tate’s curator Jessica Morgan: “He has been a leading international figure in contemporary art for over a decade now…” Really! Well in my opinion, he’s bloody well old enough to know better then.

This next artist, whose work I stumbled across on the net, is more of a fledgling. She’s currently doing an MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies at Leicester University. When she clinched a work placement at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry, Katie Boyce had no idea the gallery would commissioned her to produce an exhibition. Nor could she have predicted that her work would go on to win a regional West Midlands art award.

Inspired by a trip to South Africa, Boyce decided she would portray the devastating environmental impact of human activity on the world’s ecosystems and highlight the plight of the most endangered primates on the planet.

Uprooted, installation by Katie Boyce

Roots, which is made up of photographs as well as two installations, won the Best Exhibition on a Shoestring category in the Best of the West Awards – run by Museums, Libraries and Archive Association (MLA).

Speaking about her piece, Uprooted, Boyce told me: “The impact of deforestation on the world’s ecosystem is devastating. Some of our most endangered primates are fighting for survival.

“Of the 634 primate species in the world, 48 per cent are currently threatened with extinction, making mankind’s closest relatives one of the most endangered animal groups in the world.

“Habitat loss caused by deforestation and logging is one of the main causes for the decline in their numbers. Uprooted highlights this and what it may mean for the future of this very fragile group of animals.

“It’s been amazing getting this award and perfect timing really as I am now doing my MA. I went to The Herbert to get some experience so that I’d be able to get a job after. I didn’t think I’d win this competition, I’m still in shock….it’s all a bit surreal.”

Boyce was out walking near her home in Northamptonshire, looking for material for the exhibition when she came across a pile of logs on someone’s land. She asked the farmer if she could use a few for her piece.

She cut the logs into planks to represent the impact that deforestation has on the rainforests and the biodiversity within it. She then engraved each one with the names of different primate species. The planks were hung from the ceiling in a circular pattern, so it would represent an exploding tree with the names of the most endangered primates placed at the centre of the circle.

Uprooted, installation by Katie Boyce

Boyce told me she wanted to use her art to get a message across to people, especially children about how closely related and linked we are to other species and the value of preserving them: “After I finish my MA I will definitely look for more inspiration from the natural history world. It has a strong focal point that I want to explore more.”

Her exhibition Roots, ran alongside a large-scale photographic show from the Natural History Museum, called Face to Face, by James Mollison. He photographed captive apes over four years in different sanctuaries. The portraits of the apes have since been published in a book, which ironically I was given as birthday present from Luton-boy.

Jessica Pinson events officer for The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum said: “It was an exciting opportunity to work with a developing artist (Boyce) who is at a pivotal point in her career. We’ve had so many positive comments from both visitors as well as the MLA.

“It was an honour to commission an exhibition that was on display alongside the Natural History Museum’s work and to explore deeper the impact of human behaviour an all species on the planet.”

OK so not all modern art is going to be as educational or indeed environmental as this; but Boyce’s work definitely shows one artist who is trying to think outside of the box.

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