The (Non)Existence of Invisible Art - If Seeing is Believing, then the Art World is Blind

December 16, 2015

“Art is about imagination and that is what my work demands of the people interacting with it. You have to imagine a painting or sculpture is in front of you.” This is what Lana Newstrom said about her controversial display of, well, invisible art… To be honest, she wasn’t completely off regarding the first part of her statement, you do, indeed, have to possess a certain amount of imagination and perspective to perceive art as such, and not as just a random collection of lines, objects or shapes. And she was spot-on about HAVING to imagine a painting or sculpture in front of you, because in her display, there really weren’t any. But hey, no actual existence of art didn’t stop her from being an artist who can “fetch upwards of a million dollars.” So, would you pay millions for something that you’re told is there, but you cannot actually see? For something that you have to imagine into existence? The peculiar case of Lana Newstrom stretched our capacity of understanding art to the limits beyond visible experience, and made us wonder how far the world of art has come…

Article reporting on the invisible art fetching millions video business search
Article reporting on the invisible art fetching millions

A Perfect Scenario for a Prank

Playing soccer without a ball? A man emerging from a Y2K bunker after 15 years? Do these stories seem a bit too far-fetched for you to take them seriously? Well, you’d be absolutely right to take them as hoaxes and lies, because that’s what they essentially are. These are just some of the titles made by the CBC Radio’s satirical This is That show. Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring are the professional radio parodists who come up with these somewhat insane titles that often go viral and actually fool quite a lot of people into believing they are true reports. So, you’ve probably guessed it by now, Lana Newstrom was just another creation of the parody duo. But this one struck a chord within the art world that had shaken the perception of quite a lot of people. In this day and age it has become quite difficult to discern a true story from a fabricated, or at least an embellished one. And, perhaps the best niche of people to fool with a completely fabricated hype actually would be the art community. After all, when you look at some real examples of what is considered and lauded as a masterpiece of art nowadays, it doesn’t quite come as shocking that a lot of people bought into the story of invisible art of Lana Newstrom.

Tom Friedman - Untitled (A Curse) 1992 video business search
Tom Friedman - Untitled (A Curse) 1992

The Literally Inexplicable Creativity behind the Invisible Artist

It all began on September 23rd of 2014, the Canadian broadcasting network CBC aired This is That’s fantastical tale of a New York artist named Lana Newstrom, praising her minimalist art. The story was mostly covered through this audio documentary where the show’s hosts traveled to the artist’s empty studio to learn more about the prominent creator and her unusual artistic process. With a few cleverly placed remarks by the “artist” and her “agent,” the audience gets the impression of the inexplicable creativity behind her process, where the artist supposedly puts hours into her work creating a particular piece. The agent, Paul Rooney, firmly believed that Newstrom was one of the greatest artists alive today. They even went so far to say that once the artist started describing what you can’t see, you began to realize why one of her invisible works could fetch up to a million dollars. Now, the whole thing literally took off on the social web, garnering tens of thousands of shares after the publication and broadcast. But, one of the key points which was obvious from the start, got lost in the thousands of comments and the hype that started generating. The fact that it was a scenario made by a spoof radio program, hosted by two comedians who usually fabricate stories satirizing current affairs, was absolutely overlooked in the upcoming waves of people who simply wanted to gulp down such a tale.

Yves Klein - Void Room (Raum der Leere), 1961
Yves Klein - Void Room (Raum der Leere), 1961

Invisible Art is Nothing New

News outlets and blogs picked up the story, which was already generating more than enough momentum from the social media, and represented it as an idea that people would throw their money away on art that doesn’t really exist. This notion was greeted with much anger and dissatisfaction from various art communities, so the heat quickly grew. But soon, the whole charade began unfolding. A quick Google search of Lana Newstrom would not show any results, and it was quickly uncovered that the installation photo from her supposed gallery show was, in fact, an altered version of a Bert Stern show in Italy. The critics and the audience were so eager to attack the collectors and art aficionados who would enjoy and pay money for “invisible” art, but if they would have taken a step back and examined the situation more thoroughly, they’d realize that this was not the scandal they yearned to display. In fact, this artistic stunt was not the first of its kind. These radical ideas in art have been introduced numerous times before, perhaps, some might recall John Cage and the Dada movement which revolutionized and “broke” the pre-conceived notions of art. For example, it was in 1952 that David Tudor went on stage of the Maverick Concert Hall in New York and sat down at the piano, playing absolutely nothing for four and a half minutes. The silent piece was named 4’33, and it was a conceptual work by John Cage. More contemporary examples of these radical manifestos can also be witnessed in other works by various artists, such as Marina Abramovic’s last year exhibition in London which was about “nothing,” where the Serbian artist tried to prove you can actually make art with nothing. Ironically enough, the show raised more controversy for plagiarism, because another artist claimed prior rights in the concept of “nothing.”

Blank canvas
Blank canvas

Blank Canvases presented as Art have been Around for a Long Time

Ultimately, since this kind of artistic expression is nothing new, it is not so unusual to see that a lot of people were fooled by the hoax. But, what was a bit more concerning and brought to focus was the fact showing just how much we hated the rich and pretentious artsy-fartsy people who would jump on an opportunity to be the first ones to own “invisible” art. On the other hand, if you look at some winners of one of the most prestigious awards in the world of art – the Turner Prize, the 2001 award went to Martin Creed for his Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, which was essentially an empty room with lights going on and off… Apparently, we’ve come to a point where art is anything if the artist calls it as such, regardless of the opinion of the critics and the audience, even though they often only confirm the notion. But, let us not be fooled by the hoaxes and pranks which take a jab at the art community, for they have been part of the creative world pretty much since forever. The mere phenomenon of invisible art can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when artists first started displaying monochrome canvases as tongue-in-cheek jokes. Eventually, the monochrome pieces evolved into blank white canvases being displayed as pieces of art, which have been a running gag in the art world ever since. Surely, there are many artists who intentionally push the boundaries of the community, testing to see how far they could go in what is considered as art, but in the end, if YOU find any artistic merit in something, then you don’t need any pompous critics or professional opinions to validate your view. Even if you’re belonging to a minority of one, art is in its essence a subjective matter, made only to fit the eye of the beholder.

All images used for illustrative purposes only
Featured images - Lai Chih-Sheng Life-Size Drawing 2012 ; Lana Newstrom's exhibition of invisible art, which was in fact it is a doctored image of a show in Milan with the exhibits removed ; Martin Creed - Work No. 227 - The Lights Going On and Off, 2000 ; Gianni Motti - Magic Ink 1989