Sometimes I come away from ‘contemporary exhibitions’ asking myself ‘was that art?’, ‘what is art, anyway?’, and so on, often to escape the empty response generated by the exhibition just viewed, but here these questions, and a few more, are central to this exhibition by Manuel Saiz. It makes for a strange experience, of repetitive suggestions brought on by various short film installations, a plaque and a flow chart. Questions, suggestions, this is an exhibition of first principals, it asks a question of art itself.
What is art? The piece What is Art Flowchart is literal being what it says it is, and by asking the question it demands a response. What is art? that’s easy to know, isn’t it? Naturally, though, there are many answers, almost as many as there are people who would answer the question. We are confronted with one question, three possible answers and many different consequences to your own definition of art depending on the choices you make. So what is art? Objects? People? or maybe circumstances? Already I’m not happy: why am I restricted? couldn’t ‘art’ be whatever ‘the artist’ says it is? Find me someone self-declared as an artist, let them point to art, then all we have to do is ask ourselves: is this art any good? But that’s not a question of first principals, it asks a value judgement. It is much more difficult to be forced to decide not only what art is but who the artist is too.
Who is the artist? A self-declared one, as Joseph Beuys may or may not have said. Anyone can be an artist, and I have no problem with such a proposition, but there are some institutions that do care who the artist is, who do want to demarcate the lines between those inside art and those outside it, self-perpetuating institutions who suffocate………..our fundamental needs? Maybe we can accept that everyone has a potential to be an artist, that its part of the human condition, a fundamental need, but who opens the door and lets the artist in? In a way the title of this exhibition prompts that last question, pointing to those self-perpetuating institutions that define ‘art’ for us, telling us to ‘come in’ or to ‘go away’. As the exhibition brochure says in relation to the piece Pride: “The phrase on the plaque (Manuel Saiz proudly supports Galeria Moriarty) refers to an economic relationship and social structure encouraging us to reflect upon the context in which contemporary art is produced and consumed.”
There are aesthetic moments too. The video installations Social Sculptures (everybody is an artist) and The Two Teams Team are contrived enough for the viewer to see that an artist’s hand has been at work. Indeed with Social Sculptures we get from the three actors involved something akin to performance art, and that because of the repetitive nature of the video we enter into surreal moments that are quite funny: absurd moments brought on by the nonsensical repetitions of various statements: ‘everybody is an artist’; ‘anyone can be an artist’; ‘no one is an artist’; and so on, accompanied by happy/sad, fearful/angry, emotions. Repeating anything over and over, either visual or literal, muddies the comprehensible waters, but it also brings in the thought that memory is essential for knowledge, to know what you are doing means that you remember. Related is the ancient Greek word mimesis, which means ‘to represent’, one copies, and one remembers in order to copy: if anyone can be an artist then they must remember to be one.
Surely the ‘aesthetic moments’ are aroused by their contrived and conceited nature? All ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ art must be artificial, it must be seen as obviously planned that is how one enjoys the ‘craft’ of the artist. Trickery is involved, no doubt, a certain trompe l’oeil, which becomes evident in the piece The Two Teams Team, a short film where two actors take a break on set and discuss the merits of video art and the movies. Are these unguarded moments we are witnessing? The film begins and ends with the director saying ‘cut’ and the scene opening to reveal a working set. We are left questioning ‘truth and reality’, but any astute observer will understand the artificial hand of the artist, Manuel Saiz, subtly directing the film revealing the onion-like layers of meaning and interpretation, all very considered. And that’s it: this ‘made-up’ element is essential to defining what art is.
I come away from this exhibition in a conceptual loop, brought on from the video installations (videos shown in a loop for the casual visitor) and the questions revolving around my head. But I have come away with some ‘certainties’ reinforced: that art is a fundamental need, that art has to be made and that an artist must declare themselves. I believe Manuel Saiz is an artist and that he shows art, so, is it any good? Its OK, and that’s my private view, you may disagree.