Art does not always want to be seen – at least, not easily. Since the 1960s, some of the most memorable works of art have been hidden in remote places, or knowable only through photographs.
The latest such elusive treasure is a swimming pool created in the Mojave desert by Austrian artist Alfredo Barsuglia. The pool is full of clean blue water, whose appeal under the fierce sun in the middle of the desert must surely be amplified hundreds of times, set in a white, modern structure with pool-cleaning equipment supplied so you can leave it as you found it. You are also asked to bring water to replenish the pool.
To find it, you need to get map details and coordinates from the California gallery sponsoring the piece.
Meanwhile, Ai Weiwei is hiding a work of art in Warsaw with a much longer planned timespan before it is found. To Be Found is an archaeological tease: three trenches full of broken pieces of facsimile 14th-century vases will be covered up and left in Warsaw’s Bródno Sculpture Park. The buried artwork is intended to be rediscovered by future generations.
These elusive works of art – one hidden in the lethal vastness of a desert, another buried for future generations to find – have the appeal of treasure maps and lost masterpieces hidden for centuries. Everyone likes a mystery. Yet this is also one of the regular strategies of contemporary art, laid down by conceptual artists five decades ago.
Barsuglia says his swimming pool in the desert is intended as a critique of the lazy consumerism of art today, in which, as he puts it, “art is expected to operate according to the principles of the service economy rather than following humanist ideals of intellectual or moral stimulus and education”.
His swimming pool parodies this culture of art as instant gratification. It literally provides a luxury service – a pool to play in. Yet to find it you have to make a heroic, even life-threatening, effort.
The pool is manna in the desert. It is life surrounded by death. That’s one definition of art’s spiritual value. Yet that value is reduced here to a purely physical pleasure.
It was just such a rejection of the consumer economy that first drove artists in the late 1960s to make art in remote sites, with ephemeral materials, to be found only by the committed, or by no one. Richard Long does not intend anyone but himself ever to directly experience the arrangements of stones he makes on his walks through wild landscapes. We only see his photographs of them. Visitors are on the other hand welcome to see Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, if they can get there. It’s no quick shopping trip.
To put a swimming pool in the desert or bury art for future generations to find is to try to make art special, make it rare, make it matter. Since such measures were first taken in the 1960s the art market has become ever more pervasive and art has turned into mass entertainment. The lure of deserts and dirt can therefore only grow.
Perhaps the artist of the future will be a hermit in a cave 1,000 miles from civilisation, making images for the lizards and the stars.
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