The Thing

October 1, 2014


From Elizabeth Grosz and Jane Bennet’s readings, I was reminded of a particular exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum “Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” in 2011. Lee’s body of work revolves around the notion of existence and encounter, experiencing the ‘bare’ existence of what is actually before us; his ‘technological’ object or thing producing a thing-power that Grosz and Bennett address.

Lee’s sculptures, arrangements of stones together with industrial / man-made materials such as steel plates and planes, make us question whether the stone is a thing or object in a network of relations based on our perception, the materiality and ‘setting’/site. Lee’s sculptures hold a power in linking the familiar to the unfamiliar; what is more ‘real’ in his arrangement? The ‘untouched’ stone, set against the industrial steel; we can’t quite understand whether this is a coherent entity ,fragments of objects placed together and if so, what is the relationship between the two things? This art piece, if we will call it that, displays a scenario consisting of questionable things or objects, an assemblage similar to Bennett’s “Trash” that holds power to “addle and rearrange thoughts and perception”.

What, then, do we term Lee’s visual arrangement of things or objects? Without a narrative, the ‘beings’ and their relationship makes it difficult for us to contextualize or locate them in any particular space or time. They become questionable entities, an assemblage of items that are ‘no objects’ for us (humans), as it exists in that particular moment in space and without a possible before “for the human representational act that encounters it”. In this sense Lee successfully captures so-called things, that is, as entities not entirely reducible to the context in which (human) subjects set them:  the stone, in its thing-in-itself, “belongs to an unknown world” beyond the self and outside modernity, evoking ‘the other’ mentioned in Grosz’s passage.

This leads me to question Cindy Sherman or Jeff Koons whose process involves ‘blowing up’, literally in Koons’ case, ordinary ‘objects’ to create entities that now function as ‘things’. The Balloon Dog that Koons creates is no longer that object: taken out of its context, constructed out of scale and out of another material, when (dis)placed in the gallery it stands as a ‘thing’, an entity that viewers experience or relate to differently to its original counterpart (a balloon). Cindy Sherman does something similar by arranging fragments of ‘objects’, waste, debris in a frame that give viewers a sensation, of discomfort and confusion: in Untitled #175, we see a landscape of thought-provoking ‘things’ rather than an assembly of objects.

This, in turn, is rather ironic as these ‘things’, as we term them in being void of human use, are actually staged by the mentioned artists (human) for a specific purpose. What exist in Lee’s sculptures are objects that have turned into things, standing out against the backdrop of the world in which they exist. However, what becomes of the actual sculpture/ canvas/ photo in itself, where does this thing extend or boundaries end? Placed within the infamous Alfred-Barr-white-walls of a museum, is it still an object?

The concern is then a rather broader question of whether art is a thing or an object? Is there a difference between art and artifact? Daniel Arsham in his sculptures of eroded, decayed ‘objects’ also address a similar question; transforming objects from our present into what he calls Future Relics or things that would exist as relics as such, in the future. Created to exist in another realm of space and time, are they, then ‘things’ at present ? Today, in the New York art scene, it has become a question of whether Art is now a commodity that embodies intangible ideas by transforming them into material objects, commercial and sellable. ­


Lee Ufan, Relatum, 2006. Rock, iron plate; Rock 70(h) x 60 x 50 cm, Iron plate 200 x 180 cm

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994–2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 × 143 × 45 in. (307.3 × 363.2 × 114.3 cm)

Cindy Sherman, untitled #175 ,1987. Chromogenic color print; 46 7/8 x 71 1/2″ (119.1 x 181.6 cm)

Aura Phongsirivech

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