20 August 2009

Shining Achievement

Artist Liza Lou spent five years creating a kitchen made of beads. Making a comment on the cultural expectation to maintain a 'sparkling' clean space, the 168-square-foot installation comprises about 30 million individual glass pieces.


  1. The Internet suffered a hiccup. The text to your site snapped into view, but the graphics were lost somewhere in hyperspace. This happens often enough that I read the text and patiently clicked refresh every so often. For a moment, KBCULTURE blurred into Internet Radio. The kitchen I was forced to imagine with the help of beads, sparkling clean, 30 million individual glass pieces, five years, and cultural expectation was a glittering Varenna masterpiece. Obviously, I have a soft spot for Varenna. Oh, I'll admit, the five years was hard to formulate and the 30 million pieces of glass, but to paraphrase John Keats and Joseph Stalin — How often does one have the opportunity to do that? — One glass bead is a thing of beauty, 30 million a statistic. These devolved into, well, lots of beads and an unreasonably long time. Also, I wasn't sure which cultural expectation was at stake, obviously an unreasonable one, but the term did have a nice ring to it. The kitchen that I finally imagined was brighter, cleaner and more glittering even than those impossibly perfect Poliform people in the ads. Then the graphics loaded and I was assaulted by this.

    OK, so maybe you "gals" have to stick together. It wouldn't be the first time I found myself excluded. (Feel free to file this under curmudgeon, if you like.) Or, maybe it was just its kitchen-ness that struck you, something interesting for the blog. Had you begun, "Here's a kitchen you don't want..." I might have smiled and not sat down this afternoon to write this. The problem is — and it's a real problem in my mind — it's supposed to be Art.

  2. Years ago my girlfriend at the time was getting her degree in Graphic Arts. As a favor, she took a particular Fine Arts class that would not normally be open to the merely graphical. An instructor in her department was married to an instructor in the other department and together they were very much afraid that the class might be cancelled. It was the Theory and Practice of Installations.

    Kitchens, of course, are things one installs, or has installed. The French get rather stuck on the distinction between boiling water and making it boil. The theory of installations, however, has nothing to do with kitchens or boiling water, but a lot to do with seeing how people react when you do such and such. People then as now in the presence of so-called installations have a tendency to say, "Huh," or "Hmmm," if they say anything at all, but the artists (fine artists in this case) would rush back to their clunky, desk-bound computers to report on their viewer's struggle to express the profound juxtaposition of forces, or the clash of habitual context with brutally inserted addenda. Of course, I'm leaving out the part about cultural expectations. So, like scientists with no actual experiment, they tapped away at inventing results that would finally result in grades and credit. It reminded me of a man we knew shortly before that time whose guru told him in the nicest possible way that he needed to be more spontaneous, less structured. To begin with, he needed to learn how to do nothing. You'd expect this sort of thing to be intensely private, utterly personal, but he was so proud that his guru had singled him out for this profound instruction that he couldn't stop talking about it. Thus, every afternoon at a particular time, he carried a chair into the garden, turned his back to the house, sat very precisely on the chair and for ten minutes he spontaneously did nothing.

    Well, installations work pretty much the same way.

    The instructor of the class my girlfriend ended up in blocked the doorway of a classroom with a large sheet of plexiglass and conveyored, or had conveyored three feet of dirt through an open window. It was raked smooth and made perfectly level so the tops of the chairs just protruded from the dirt like — hold your breath — a new crop of students. Sorry. Yes, people said, "Huh," and "Hmmm" and the lavishly convoluted description (or metadescription) of it tellingly, but abstrusely contained the words "earth," "classroom," and, yes, "cultural expectations."

    He deemed it a complete success. It took the longest damned time to clear the dirt away, but no one cared. It was done with grant money.

    My girlfriend, who was really quite brilliant in this area, put together an installation that was not allocated to a classroom or a gallery. It was placed in a crossroads where it could not be avoided. It asked no questions. She did not wonder how people would react, she knew exactly what they would do. The instructions were obvious and the answers were provided. It was immensely popular, talked about for months, written up in the paper, and sadly missed. It was graded down — I'm sure you're ahead of me on this one — for not following the precise parameters of the project.

  3. OK, I could go on and on like this. Instead, I'll ask a few questions of my own.

    What culture expects or values a lack of cleanliness and sanitation in its areas of food preparation? I'm not asking, are there cultures where you'd feel uncomfortable if offered something to eat? There were things in France that Julia would have downed in a heartbeat that I looked long and hard at. There's a Chinese restaurant down the street that I just happened to see through the back door of. I haven't eaten there for seven or eight years. No. What I'm looking for is a particular culture where filth and dullness are valued. If there isn't one, then what precisely is the issue?

    Had she done the entire kitchen in LEGO® blocks, what questions would she have raised? What comment would it have made or elicited? And how much less time would it have taken her? (I'm willing to bet there's a kit ready for sale.)

    Finally, in what way does this kitchen differ from any of a thousand stills in Wallace and Gromit or even Gumby?

    White Cube, a UK gallery (see artnet) maintains that Lou's work combines "visionary, conceptual and craft approaches." It goes on to say that she "makes mixed-media sculptures and room-size installations that are suggestive of a transcendental reality."

    Ladies and gentlemen, God's kitchen!

    And here's the moral: In two sentences you provided my imagination with many times more that Liza Lou's 30 million baubles provided my eyes. If she teamed up with you, she could do ten different kitchens a day, and with the stroke of a pen or the tap of a keyboard, they could all offer the smell of cookies.

  4. Thanks for your site. Sorry for the smart ass remarks.

  5. Evan, I'm sorry for not responding sooner...I've been crocheting a cozy for the garage.
    Seriously, I genuinely appreciate your comments [well, except for the gender-specific one about 'gals']. I will admit to having a similar reaction to Red Grooms' Ruckus Manhattan--to borrow your phrase, I found it an assault on the eyes, and thought it willfully [and, to the point, carelessly] disregarded the line b/twn art and craft. My opinion was not shared by many, but these many years later, I still hold to it.
    Which is neither here nor there; I am not an arbiter of art, as I am not an artist.
    But, as you point out, I can and do write. It's not my ambition nor intent to imbue the smell of cookies to anyplace or anything, least of all a kitchen made of beads. [Which, in and of itself, is patently absurd. Still, is there not a place for absurdity in this life? Perhaps not--as I grow older, I am less amused or entertained by irony, particularly in the visual arts].
    Having said that, maybe in posting such a glittery bit I succumbed to the allure of shiny objects, losing my objectivity in the process. It is something that I shall reflect on, and I thank you for engaging me on matters more weighty than tubs and toilets. It's been too long a time since I did so with true seriousness.

  6. Very thoughtfull post on achivement. It should be very much helpfull

    Karim - Creating Power


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