Let’s not lose the Gallery of Lost Art
A work of art is growing on-line: the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art. It catalogues pieces of modern art from Duchamp to Emin that no longer exist — or, in some cases, never did exist. Each piece is provided with images and a full essay (the text alone can be downloaded as pdfs), building an on-line space that provides the delight of discovery less like a stroll through a gallery than a delving in drawers. The curators talk of their collection being populated by ghosts who can have only a virtual existence, an art museum, as it were, which is open only after hours. These spectral presences makes us think about the processes of loss, about the art of absence and about memory (the mind’s backward eye) as a viewing-point.
On my brief visits to date I have been struck by what might be called the morality of loss. In the essay on Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I have ever slept with’, which was destroyed by the 2004 fire at the Momart warehouse, there is a quotation from the daughter of another artist, the late Patrick Heron, whose art was also lost in the same event:
Even at the worst stage of people burning books, actually, somewhere, the manuscript or the idea or the story stayed, and even if you lost the score of a piece of music, or if you lost a choreography, they can be recreated, because they exist by being reproduced. The thing about something like a painting or a sculpture or any other artefact-based art form is, once it’s gone, it has gone. It’s so absolutely final.
Though this might ignore the uniqueness of individual volumes, there is a legitimate distinction here, but it is one that this Gallery — which, it appears, will not feature Heron’s abstract art — undermines: it is a demonstration of how the death of art does not need to be final and how it can have only a limited sting. As someone who studies the history of the destruction of books, I am particularly interested in the wording in the quotation above: note the perfect tense for book-burnings, a sense of it as an activity whose existence is ended. That, of course, is not the case even though (or, perhaps, because), as I have written elsewhere, our society is culturally conditioned against this particular process of destruction. At the same time, another theme of the Gallery is that possibility that destruction itself can be artistic, vital and creative — that, to transfer it to the tradition of biblioclasm, there could be beautiful book-burnings.
Destruction as creation is the theme of one exhibit already on display in this virtual museum: Willem de Kooning’s untitled drawing which he gave to Robert Rauschenberg presicely so, in 1953, he could destroy the art through erasure. He uncreated de Kooning’s work to provide a sort of palimpsest where the upper layer is as blank as that it replaces. As the Gallery has very clear limits, it does not mention parallel cases in modern art like the Chapman brothers’ exuberant vandalism (I use the term neutrally) of a copy of Goya’s ‘Disaster of War’. But the possibility is clearly there to consider whether the process of loss is as completely negative as our perceptions of the creative would usually assume.
Perhaps it was with that in mind that the originators of this project thought it appropriate that their work should itself be transient. The clear-headed strategy is that, over the course of a year, the Gallery will be augmented each week with a further piece of art — it will expand and then collapse, disappearing from view at a pre-ordained moment in time. At the foot of the website, a countdown (like that to the Paralympics in Trafalgar Square) helpfully records the passing minutes until its death-date. Presumably at the design stage the creators also game-planned how they would respond if their decision was challenged. I want to give them the opportunity to put that plan into action because, since their work is so valuable and stimulating, I would contend they should not be allowed to make it self-destruct.
If, as I have done in opening this discussion, we take the Gallery to be an art-work mediating on the death of art, its own demise might seem to provide an elegant and ironic fulfilment of itself. But must we let it die? Or, indeed, as it so untactile, can it really die? If, instead, we term the Tate’s project to be an educational resource, then the closure of it would be all the more criminal: it would provide a deletion of knowledge which could not be re-described as creative vandalism.
Are you ready to petition the Tate? And how will they respond? Will they be ready to be counted alongside those councillors who voted send the bulldozers in and not to reprieve Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’?