If not now, then when? 2008 Installed at Spike Island

The following text constitutes part of the installation, If not now, then when? 2008
Ayling and Conroy: If not now, then when?
by David Barrett

Institutional Endorsement

The central artwork in this exhibition is the only work that has a name. It is also the only piece that is not physically present in any way; it takes the form of an apparently simple action, and is best explained by its descriptive title, Sponsor the ICA.

If you visit the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, or view the ‘Individual Giving: ICA Investors’ section of its website, you will see a list of five Premier Investors, each of whom has given between £2,000 and £5,000 for the privilege of holding that position. In the middle of this list is the name Ayling & Conroy.

In May, the artists approached the fundraising staff at the ICA and became Premier Investors, putting the £2,000 donation on a credit card. They then took on additional jobs – working in a bar, for example – to meet the monthly payments over the coming year.

For this investment, the artists received the following benefits:

          - Acknowledgement as an ICA Investor in the ICA foyer

          - Invitations to meetings and lunches with the ICA’s artistic director,
             ICA council members and curators to discuss specific areas of interest and expertise

          - Two curator-led tours of London galleries

          - Two curator-led tours of artist’s studios

          - Invitation to two ICA suppers throughout the year with council members, curators and artists

          - 20% discount on hire of ICA Nash and Brandon Rooms

          - All standard ICA Investor benefits, such as invitations to quarterly Investor’s Breakfasts
             and private views, etc.

So while this may initially appear to be a very basic artwork, consisting of the simple act of sponsoring the ICA – a straightforward financial gesture – it also opens up the possibility of a year-long series of activities: meetings, studio and gallery tours, private-view parties, networking opportunities, etc. The work exists at a bizarre junction of performance, professional development, and relational aesthetics.

The title, being the only title that any of the works have, is important; it is a clue to the artists’ intentions. The work is not called Sponsoring the ICA, which would imply that the work is a record of the artists’ experiences while producing the artwork, but Sponsor the ICA. It is an instruction, a directive: Sponsor the ICA. The artists insist that we should all do it.

Some might interpret this work as being part of a tradition of Institutional Critique, revealing the structures behind the institutions, and following in the footsteps of artists such as Hans Haacke, Michael Asher, and – more recently – Carey Young. How much thought have we given to the ICA’s fundraising activities before now? Not too much, in all probability. Did we know, for example, that for a couple of grand you can attend ‘meetings and lunches with the ICA’s artistic director, ICA council members and curators to discuss specific areas of interest and expertise’? Is this mode of sponsorship therefore a platform for lobbyists, pushing certain artists they collect or represent? What motivates the other investors to sponsor the ICA? Is there potential for commercial benefits in being an ICA investor? What drives the former gallerist Charles Asprey (another Premier Investor), for example, or current gallerist Maureen Paley (a ‘mere’ Investor) to contribute to the ICA in this way? Sponsor the ICA certainly raises such questions, but this is not its primary focus.

For Ayling & Conroy, Sponsor the ICA highlights a method for making work within a given system: appropriating the ICA’s existing fundraising mechanisms. While this technique allows the artists to make a new, institution-specific artwork, it also opens up all kinds of new networking possibilities for these young artists. And what’s more, beyond that, it also allows the artists to promote an institution that they are fond of and whose activities they support (literally, now). So it is a positive artwork, consisting of a positive action, like planting a tree – a cultural tree. Perhaps this could be considered as a mini, institutional equivalent of Joseph Beuys’ grand-gesture artwork, 7,000 Oaks (another self-descriptive artwork, involving planting that number of trees as part of Documenta).

Instead of the term Institutional Critique, we ought to be looking for its opposite – ‘Institutional Endorsement’, perhaps? It is an unusual position for artists to find themselves in – at least in such an explicit manner. Is the artwork simply an attempt to play the system? If galleries are going to be used by gallerists, collectors, etc, then why shouldn’t artists use them for their own benefit as well, making all public galleries into artist-run spaces? If self-interested philanthropy is such a good thing, then why don’t we all do it? This is a mind-twistingly complex artwork: critical, cynical, and positive, all at once.

Where is the Artwork?

There is a tension throughout Ayling & Conroy’s practice between the direct, physical experiencing of an artwork, and the cognitive, intellectual experiencing of an artwork. On the one hand there is the phenomenological understanding of a work of art, one that rests upon the viewer being physically confronted by an artwork, and requiring the viewer to use his or her senses (which are not just mechanical tools, but cognitive and interpretive systems in themselves) in order to fully appreciate the artwork.

On the other hand there exists an extreme conceptual mode of practice where the artwork itself could take a number of forms, or never be realized, or even have no form at all, and exists as an idea or set of ideas. In truth there is a scale between these two artificial poles, and all artworks combine some degree of each position. But there is still a discussion to be had, a problematizing of these simplistic positions, and it is within this dialectic that Ayling & Conroy’s work is to be understood.

While one strand of their practice focuses on artworks that are intended to provide some kind of experiential thrill, the other strand is about the mediation of that experience. This text, which was commissioned by the artists as part of this exhibition, is part of that mediating, interpretive process. Where – they ask – do we experience artworks? Is the confrontation with the artwork the ‘place’ of art, is that where art ‘happens’? Or is it in the contextualizing, the ruminating that takes place when our eyes are not necessarily on the artwork itself? Is it in the foyer of the ICA rather than in its galleries? Or is it in the consumption of mass-reproduced images, when we’re flicking through art magazines or books, seeing a range of art that we will rarely get to stand directly in front of?

Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall is famously fastidious about the production of his artworks. He usually spends many months preparing for the staging of a single photograph, and then usually a fair bit of time in post-production too. Even the most casual-seeming image of Wall’s has been given deep consideration, with every element chosen for very specific reasons. Because of this, his works are dense with interleaved layers of meaning, although sometimes these can be opaque to viewers who do not have access to a great deal of contextual material (and the reason why Wall is often required to spell out many of his intentions and references in essays, talks and interviews).

Reproductions of a particular artwork by Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), 1993, form the central components in an Ayling & Conroy sculpture. Wall’s photograph was inspired by a work by the celebrated 19th-century Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai, and in particular his print, Ejiri in the Suruga Province, also sometimes known as A Sudden Gust of Wind. This is number ten in Hokusai’s renowned ukiyo-e woodblock print series, ‘36 Views of Mount Fuji’, which he produced between 1826 and 1833 (the most famous of which is the much-copied image, The Great Wave). Ayling & Conroy are also intrigued by this series because it was so obviously a venture in commercial reproduction for Hokusai, using a process that inevitably introduced variations between prints of the same image, due to small variations in the inking procedure. It is interesting to note that the series sold so well that Hokusai added a further ten images, so the series actually features 46 prints, ten more than its official title. Back by popular demand, you might say.

Jeff Wall’s photographs are usually presented as huge lightboxes, and are produced in small, limited editions. They are very expensive and require a lot of space to exhibit. Unless you live in one of the few major cities that put on exhibitions of high-end international contemporary art, you may not have actually seen a Jeff Wall artwork – not in the standing-in-front-of-it phenomenological sense.

You are most likely to know his work, if at all, through reproductions a few centimetres in size, printed using a halftoned CMYK lithographic process, and not presented backlit on a lightbox. The three reproductions that Ayling & Conroy present are from different books, and each has a different colour cast with the same artwork shown as having different hues. After all of Wall’s careful pre- and post-production, with every element chosen for specific reasons, we’re left with this degraded, variable experience, and this is precisely how most people consume most art. Ayling & Conroy again ask us to consider the following question: where is the experience of art? Or, perhaps more fundamentally, what is the experience?

Viral Sculpture

Curio Island is a curious sculpture indeed, existing in different versions whenever it is shown in a new location. One guiding principle for the artwork remains the same, however, and that is the idea that it is made to be photographed. Each version of Curio Island is constructed in order to be photogenic – like a supermodel sculpture – so that it is more likely to be reproduced in art magazines, websites, etc. It is a viral sculpture, mutating for each exhibition, but ultimately intending only to propagate itself through the popular media.

Curio Island is best understood as a replicator. And in this respect, it has been successful. The second version of the sculpture was reproduced in a Chinese art magazine, the evidence of which is present in this exhibition. (In fact, this magazine page is now the artwork, not the sculpture itself, which has been dismantled.) It is also notable that this image was chosen to illustrate this set of three exhibitions on Spike Island’s website, even though the artwork reproduced is not actually in the show.

The work highlights an idea that is common in the world of commercial art, but which is rarely found in the realm of fine art: the concept of producing an artwork for reproduction only. If you have ever seen an original commercial illustration, you will know that there are often poorly filled areas of retouching, which the illustrator knows will not be visible in reproduction. The reproduction technique is therefore used as a shortcut, where poor finish is glossed over. In the world of fine art, however, the reproduction process is usually looked down upon precisely because it loses vital information, such as finish, texture, and scale. (The difference between a Jeff Wall exhibition and a Jeff Wall postcard, for instance.)

Yet there are artists who have benefited from this process. One example might be Edward Hopper, whose lonesome, dehumanized scenes of 1950s American life have built up a huge fan base through reproductions in books, postcards, and posters. The paintings themselves are rarely seen outside of the US. And with good reason, some might argue; Hopper’s brushwork and handling of paint is amateurish verging on clumsy. When reduced in scale and flattened in reproduction, the scenes and characters are iconic and powerful. But as paintings they are awkward in all the wrong ways.

It’s a charge that Ayling & Conroy would happily admit to, in a sculptural sense, for Curio Island. Because the sculpture is constructed to be photographed from one particular angle, it has a definite front and back, so when you venture round it, the vivid colours and dramatic composition fall away. The artwork has not been considered ‘in the round’, but in the form of a small reproduction that looks good when displayed with the vivid glow of a webpage on a computer screen.

Round and Round

Another example of ‘the work that wasn’t there’ is to be found playing on a video monitor. This work consists of manipulated documentation of the sixth version of Curio Island, which was constructed in a large, round gallery in Croatia. Again, the sculpture itself was not the finished artwork, and actually went through stages where different elements were added and removed.

Taking on the idea of a big-top circus (which the circular gallery hinted at), the artists constructed a theme park-esque structure, with giant roller-coaster marble-runs that used basketballs instead of marbles. The cartoonish face of a large backdrop and use of basketballs might bring to mind the celebratory brashness of Jeff Koons, but the sense of slick control that marks Koons’ work is riotously disrupted by Ayling & Conroy in their choice of documentation technique. To film the work, they chose to ride round and round the space on a bicycle with a hand-held video camera. They filmed on several different occasions while the work was going through significant changes, and also happily included various people who were in the space at the time. On top of this, they added a four-way mirroring effect to the film, which left the finished artwork with a crazy, kaleidoscopic feel – a mesmerizing vibrancy that the actual sculpture could not hope to match.

4 Real

The second group of works grab the viewer more directly. They include traditional paintings to be enjoyed with aesthetic connoisseurship (clouds and mountains), paintings that literally and directly implicate the viewer in their narratives (Axl Rose organizing your party, how you have upset Hans by missing his meeting), and a calendar product that you can buy. These works are the straightmen of the show; they are to be experienced rather than discussed, and they are the necessary counterpoints to the displaced-experience works that make up the other half of the exhibition.

Including this second set of works in the show produces a disorientating experience for viewers, asking us to switch between radically different modes of understanding as we consider the various pieces. How do we appreciate artworks, the exhibition seems to ask. Do we ‘enjoy’ a ‘nice’ painting of a cloud? Do we purchase a calendar as a product – is financial transaction our method of signalling approval and appreciation? Or do we nod sagely to ourselves as we contemplate the way different printers have reinterpreted Jeff Wall’s artwork?
And so Ayling & Conroy lead us into their hall of mirrors and leave us with more questions than answers. Many of the artworks are dummies, red herrings – Stepford artworks. And for all the brash vibrancy, accusatory paintings, and psychedelic effects, we’ll most likely tell our friends about the artworks we encountered in the show which weren’t even there. These artworks are the self-replicating memes that will make their viral way through the various art world circles: ‘Do you know about the artists that sponsored the ICA with a credit card?’ The neat ideas are endlessly passed on, until eventually someone describes the same artwork back to you. Is that the experience of art? If not now, is that when?

David Barrett is Associate Editor of Art Monthly

If Not Now, Then When? 2008