Ephemerality of the everyday, troubles inherent in transiency of existence, and uprooting of historically dominant concepts of structuring of the phenomenal world are some of the issues ephemeral art is integrally linked to. A clear definition of ephemeral art is difficult to give in a straightforward, formulaic way, as both material and conceptual sides of the problem need to be addressed. Materiality is probably the most easily defined. As ephemeral comes from Greek word εφήμερος – ephemeros, which literally means living but a day or short-lived, it could be concluded that ephemeral arts are often made from materials and things that have short duration and form-holding capacity, such as sand, snow, or ice, or more often from materials that tend to decompose or change through natural processes, such as the case in Land art. It can also understand a performance or other artistic form of expression where human body and bodily actions are main ‘materials’ of a work. With the development of modern technologies ephemerality is achieved through the utilization of light, image projection, and other modes of temporary image display and creation. Conceptually, however, ephemeral art is harder to pin down. It is not enough just to refer to transience of material, but also to ideal world where eternal and ephemeral are in constant clinch.
Before turning to concrete examples of ephemeral arts, it is not superfluous to make a short detour into theory of two prominent thinkers of modern times, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, which would help clarify materialist/conceptual clinch of ephemeral and the eternal. For both theorists ephemeral comes as a consequence of modernity, where speeding up of the everyday conditions the nature of how artwork is produced and consumed. For Baudelaire ephemeral of modernity is its heroic part, from which eternal can be distilled. He very much preserves the theoretical input of the previous ages where eternal is something creatives should seek to represent; it is an ideal hovering above the transient. Benjamin, on the other hand, de-classicizes the notion of the eternal and positions it in a dialectical relation to the transitory, where in modernity transitoriness itself is eternalized. In modern and contemporary productions ephemeral is both defined by the materiality of the work and its conceptual underpinnings. Although structured as temporal, no matter how temporal it may be, ephemeral art also renders our transient experiences as eternal conditions of contemporaneity.
Ephemeral art is inherently modern and contemporary. It is a staple of many artistic movements and forms, but perhaps the most prominent examples could be find in street and graffiti art. The accessibility of the form makes street and graffiti arts not just widely present as an artistic practice, but also easy to destroy or alter. Land art and the necessity to interfere with the nature is another form conditioned by the natural cycles and changes, while performances and different happenings are usually one-time occurrences that are preserved only through images or other documents. Ephemeral art cannot become a part of a museum or gallery as it is not embodied in any permanent form. It was raised to prominence in 1960s by Joseph Beuys and Fluxus group. They used cheap and mass-produced objects and turned them into carriers of subversive messages, and through performances and happenings stated their disaccord with modern world. Richard Long created his artworks while walking through nature, while Beuys created social sculpture with aim to help in restructuring of society and environment. In what follows, several examples of different ephemeral art will be presented and explained.
By the end of the 1960s many creatives started to avoid gallery spaces and turned to nature - mountains, deserts, and lake and sea shores as sites for their art. Site-specific artworks emerged in different shapes, but manipulations with natural environment were among its dominant methods. Following minimalist formulations, Land art, considered by some as a regressive force, nonetheless developed into a prominent artistic movement. Transience and ephemeral character of these works are well documented, as many works lost its original shape due to changes that are out of creators’ control. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative is among the first prominent earthwork which consists of two trenches cut into the eastern edge of the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. The trenches together are 1,500 feet long. The scale of this piece is so large that viewers cannot observe it as a whole from the ground when they visit it. Over time, due to erosion the artwork changed, raising the questions could it still be observed as an original artwork? Or have these changes destroyed the original work, making it a short-lived art before the first stone rolled down?
Controversial Russian artist became world-known through his subversive performances, in which he subjects his body to extreme conditions. Inflicting pain on himself is part of his politically charged public acts which reached wider public through photo-documentation. His acts are staged in public spaces, and often include intervention of police forces. Pavlenski’s performances are temporary but nonetheless their effect resonates within viewers long after they were finished. In one of them, he affixed his scrotum with a nail to the pavement on the Red Square, and remained there, naked on the ground, until removed by the authorities. In others, he cut a piece of his ear, or laid naked on the ground wrapped in barbed wire in front of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg. Not just being ephemeral in their duration, his performances on conceptual level attack transience and ephemerality of memory but also contemporary issues of apathy and fatalism in Russia.
Arguably the most ephemeral of artistic forms, street artworks and graffiti are remarks on time and as such are destined to disappear and change. As Roy English explains when prompted with the questions of how he feels when his works are painted over: “I don’t believe Street Art is meant to be permanent. If the owner of the building wants it down, if someone paints over it to paint something new, it’s all fine because it’s fulfilled its purpose...These moments are meant to mark time, and to remark on times. And times change.“ Street artwork of Ernest Zacharevic in Georgetown, Penang, commissioned by the local authorities is one of the examples of transience of such forms. Weather conditions and poor quality of the buildings on which his works are applied on this Malaysian island contribute to the works' partial disappearance. A subgroup of street and graffiti art named super ephemeral art takes the transience of this form to another level. Instead of using spray paint and other usual tools, artistic duo SWEATSHOPPE uses electric paint rollers to create art. Electric rollers work in concert with video projector in creation of images on the walls. The result is only visible during its creation, but SWEATSHOPPE uses camera to record each event, creating in this way a mixture of performance, street and video art.
In 2002 in New York, Cau Guo-Qiang created a light piece that only lasted a few moments. Transient Rainbow was a firework meticulously arranged so as when fired it created an aesthetic effect surpassing traditional fireworks spectacle. Jenny Holzer, neo-conceptual artist uses light-projected text onto public buildings in creation of her art. Through modern and contemporary history such and similar examples abound. Leaving the permanence of gallery and museum spaces aside, creatives became increasingly interested in temporality of effects they created and still create. However, talking about a coherent ephemeral art movement would be an overstatement considering the versatility of materials, forms and even temporal duration of each piece that may come under such category. Creatives use ephemerality of materials and transience of experiences as statements upon contemporary societies and swift changes we are facing every day. As such, ephemeral art is both conceptually and materially the reflective of the time we live in today and therefore multifaceted as reality itself.
Editors’ Tip: Andy Goldsworthy: Ephemeral Works: 2004-2014
One of the contemporary creatives who works in the domain of ephemeral arts, Andy Goldsworthy has presented in this book approximately 200 of his pieces from a series of over thousand he created from 2001 onward. They are arranged in chronological order and besides the final artworks his creative process, interactions with places, materials, things and passage of time and seasons are also recorded. Travelling from home and around the world, Goldsworthy creates his works and sculpture almost on a daily basis from materials and conditions he encounters. Originally from Scotland, he is inspired by Scottish landscape, mountain regions or France and Spain, streets of New York, Glasgow or Rio de Janeiro. Materials he uses for his sculpture are earth, snow, ice, rocks, rain, sunlight or shadows. Ephemerality of his works are bound with meanings of memory, vitality, permanence, growth and decay.
Featured images:Ernest Zacharevic, Street Art in Georgetown, Penang, image via asiadreaming.wordpress.com; Sokar Uno - The Artist and his muse, Andy Goldsworthy - Artwork; Chris Drury - Heart of Reeds, Images via Widewalls archive. All images used for illustrative purposes only.