The Art of the Empty Package
By Sofi Thanhauser, whitehot, New York
Everybody knows the story of the Emperor's new clothes. Most of us belong to the braying crowd, too insecure to say anything when the king walks by us naked. An unlucky few play the King himself, strutting forth clothed in delusion only. Then there are the one or two bold fools who easily exclaim, "The king is wearing no clothes!" Whit Lasker is one of these last.
Lasker was living in
Utrecht ,when he began to be troubled by two things. One, that art today is whatever is convincingly presented as art. Two, that contemporary art is overwhelmingly experienced second hand; in magazines, in the newspaper, in the voice droning over a PowerPoint presentation. "I thought it would be interesting," he said, "if the secondary presentation of the piece became the piece itself." At the same time, he wanted to poke fun at the notion that anything, when properly packaged, constitutes art.
With this in mind, Lasker carefully assembled the necessary 'packaging', in the form of a slick power point presentation and a speech loaded with academic jargon, to document a series of acts so intentionally "childish," so "completely inadequate," as art that if anyone were to consider them as such it would be mostly due to the legitimizing, convincing role performed by the presentation format. He created, essentially, an elaborately wrapped box with nothing at all inside.
The first reception of his piece is illuminating. The power point presentation was given before a panel of academics at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten
Utrecht in the . As the stream of images passed before them; a suit of clothes photographed after being worn; food after the artist had played with it; the professors became incensed, nay, insulted. "This isn't art!" they declared. Which, of course, it wasn't, which was the point, which point eluded them wholly.
One could point fingers at the stodginess of the academy. One could say the piece was too ambitious. One could say, also, that Lasker shot himself in the foot when one of the professors demanded to know the difference between "you playing in the sand" (deemed an 'earth work' in the presentation) and "a four year old playing in the sand," and instead of leaping to explicate his concept Lasker replied wearily, "I'm older."
Redemption, however, was not long in coming. Three days later the same presentation was brought before a board of students in the MFA program at HKU. The students, Lasker says, asked the right questions, understood what he was getting at, and responded with excitement and accolades.
For this article, Lasker suggested that I ought to invent a whole phantasmagoria of projects and attribute them to him, thus creating still another empty package- this time with media attention, rather than PowerPoint, as the wrapping paper. The idea tempted me. However, unsure whether the bluff would count as his art piece or my journalistic hoax and fatigued by the idea of theorizing the thing before I began, I respectfully declined.
Cheeky he may be, but Lasker is no postmodernist. No mushy simulacra chat from him: real art does exist, he says, and can be intuitively recognized. Like God and like Cool, Art as a concept that is essentially indefinable, he says, but whose infinite manifestations are always recognizable as such when, and only when, they are genuine.
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Sofi Thanhauser is a freelance writer in New York City.