A curator from M+’s Visual Art team introduces two of the oldest and newest visual artworks that will be on display in the museum next year.
How did you two meet? is a ‘recipe’ for a public programme from the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. The CCA invited us to put our spin on this recipe at M+. Our How did you two meet? recipe goes like this: Pick two seemingly disconnected objects in the M+ Collections, usually by juxtaposing some of the oldest and newest objects, and narrate a story that connects them.
Pauline J. Yao, M+ Lead Curator, Visual Art, was challenged with connecting two of the oldest and newest visual artworks that will be on view when we open to the public next year. Below, we share the result of this ‘meeting’.
One of the oldest visual artworks that will be on display: Red III (Aka no samban) (1954) by Shiraga Kazuo
Pauline J. Yao: Red III (Aka no samban) by Shiraga Kazuo (1924–2008) belongs to a small group of crimson-coloured paintings that Shiraga made using his body—specifically, his hands and fingers. He produced few of these during his lifetime, and even fewer are known to exist today.
Shiraga Kazuo belongs to one of the most important art collectives to emerge in Japan’s post-war era: the Gutai Art Group (also known as the Gutai Art Association). Their core principle was to engage physically with materials and to create a dialogue between action and matter. Seeking a new approach to painting, they embraced total abstraction by directing attention towards process and the act of making.
Shiraga became known primarily for making paintings with his feet—one of the few parts of his body, he realised, that hadn’t been trained in traditional Japanese Nihonga painting. Using his feet freed him from the conventions of painting that he’d been taught and allowed him to physically enter the space of the artwork. Similarly, for his performance piece Challenge to the Mud (1955), he immersed his body and thrashed about in a large pile of mud. Red III (Aka no samban), from 1954, is an early work that Shiraga made using his fingers and fingernails. From there, he moved on to using his palms and, eventually, his feet.
These initial works marked the beginning of a lifelong quest to insert his body into the process of art-making. Close-ups show the action and movement of his fingers and fingernails scraping the paint surface—you can feel the energy of his entire body channelled into just his fingertips. You can also see cracks in the painting that he decided to leave in to embrace the idea of spontaneity.
One of the newest visual artworks that will be on display: BOB (Bag of Beliefs) (2018–2019) by Ian Cheng
Fast-forwarding almost seventy years, we have a work by Ian Cheng (b. 1984). Cheng is a Chinese-American artist who creates computer-generated artworks that mutate and evolve. He’s inspired by video game design and cognitive science, and he merged these disparate fields to create BOB (Bag of Beliefs).
BOB is a sentient creature who lives inside a set of screens—a sort of digital terrarium, if you will. BOB responds to directives and actions from the audience. To interact with BOB, you download an app onto your phone. The app acts as a shrine, with charms that you can send along with little instructions. Audiences can see the snake-like creature represented on screen as a life form that moves and jumps to grab the different charms.
As BOB responds and reacts to these directives, this behaviour evolves and changes. Cheng uses forms of AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning so that BOB’s actions are not fully predictable. Cheng is, in creating this work, keen to explore the human capacity for change. He also explores the idea of creating a holistic world that starts preprogrammed and then goes in its own direction, walking the line between chaos and order.
How are these objects connected?
These works may seem to be worlds apart. You have something as traditional as an abstract painting from the 1950s next to a 21st-century digital simulation. But there is an underlying thread that connects them: the idea of interaction. Both artists embrace the concept of action and movement as a means to disrupt normal ways of art-making, and both are deeply invested in inventing new visual languages. With Shiraga, the artist physically inserts his body into the art-making process. With Cheng, although the interaction is not physical and may feel remote, there is still a direct sense of touch as you interact with BOB through your smartphone or tablet.
Both artists also incorporate an interesting dimension of playfulness into their works. At the end of the day, they are both taking risks and doing things that haven’t been done before, and, in that sense, trying to redefine the way we think about art.
This talk as been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.