An Oak Tree, 1973 - The Tate Modern, London.

Last week, some colleagues and I wound up talking about modern art. I was reminded of an exhibit I saw at the Tate Modern museum in London, way back in 2005, by Michael Craig Martin in 1973. There are those who regard all modern art as a waste of time, but in general I love it. The MCA in Chicago and the LACMA in Los Angeles are full with a lot of brilliant stuff. That said, it really can be a haven for the lazy fraud, desperate to be artsy but lacking any kind of actual ability. In other words, wankers.

"An Oak Tree" is a glass of water on a glass shelf mounted about seven feet above the floor, presumably to prevent museum visitors from spitting in the art, or, god forbid, drinking it. There is a printed caption mounted on the wall, explaining why the glass of water is an oak tree, converted by Martin's Powers Of An Artist. If he's having a joke on the art world, the museum doesn't seem to be in on it. I was given to wonder what art works were turned down in favor of displaying An Oak Tree in what is surely some very expensive London real estate.

It's possible one would argue that this art work, of al the exhibits in the Tate, obviously left the strongest impression on my mind, since I talk about little else I saw there at the Tate. I counter that by pointing out that I remember little from the year I spent in Seventh Grade other than the experience of having my nose broken. This doesn't make it a wonderful thing, nor does it mean that I'm happy with my experience of crunching bone and surprising amounts of blood. Leaving a strong impression is setting the bar pretty low for art. Spending a night in a dumpster would leave a strong impression on a person, but that doesn't make it brilliant work of genius. However, if there were people who would regard sleeping in a dumpster as their art, they would definitely find a welcome home for their work at the Tate. It's true that we're still talking about An Oak Tree over Forty years after it's creation, and some would insist this is a fine testament to it's quality. Please remember that we also talk about the Black Death after all these years, but that hardly qualifies it as an achievement. This is not true of all of the exhibits at the Tate. About ten percent of the stuff there is really interesting and/or exciting.

Here is a photo of An Oak Tree, complete with it's caption, the full transcribed text of which appears below the photo.

"Oak tree". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikipedia.

[Begin artist's text.]

Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?

A. Yes, of course. What I've done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

Q. The accidents?

A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size ...

Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?

A. No. It's not a symbol. I've changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.

Q. It looks like a glass of water.

A. Of course it does. I didn't change its appearance. But it's not a glass of water, it's an oak tree.

Q. Can you prove what you've claimed to have done?

A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.

Q. Haven't you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?

A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.

Q. Isn't this just a case of the emperor's new clothes?

A. No. With the emperor's new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn't there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.

Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?

A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.

Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?

A. When I put the water in the glass.

Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?

A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.

Q. Then intention causes the change?

A. I would say it precipitates the change.

Q. You don't know how you do it?

A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.

Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn't that the case?

A. I'm flattered that you think so.

Q. But aren't you the only person who can do something like this?

A. How could I know?

Q. Could you teach others to do it?

A. No, it's not something one can teach.

Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?

A. Yes.

Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?

A. There is no glass of water anymore.

Q. The process of change?

A. There is no process involved in the change.

Q. The oak tree?

A. Yes. The oak tree.

Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.

A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category 'oak tree' or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.

Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?

A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.

Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?

A. Until I change it.

[End of artist's text.]

The Wikipedia article on Oak Tree mentions this (below). Gotta love the Australians.

It was once barred by Australian officials from entering the country as "vegetation".[11][12] Craig-Martin was forced to inform them that it was really a glass of water.

Lastly, it seems a strategic mistake for the Tate Modern to place their "donations, please" box at the exit of the museum, as opposed to the entrance. Asking for money after the visitors have seen all the exhibits affords the thinking patron the opportunity to blow a snot rocket into the money slot, and then to shrewdly explain to the angry staff "That's not a lump of snot. That's one hundred pounds. I have converted the snot into money without altering the accidents of the snot rocket. I am a powerful artist. You're welcome."


[lrf] said...

Not one of Monty Python's best sketches. It runs on a bit long.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

HAH! Well done, lrf. Please come again.


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