When the inert is reactive

When considering materiality and permanence in art, Robert Barry’s ‘Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion’ of 1969 is key. As a gesture pointing to the real but imperceptible, Barry released five gases of known volumes of (then considered) noble gases into specific sites around Los Angeles to equilibrate with a boundless infinity.

I often think about how, at the time of making this work, Barry was guided by the scientific understanding that the gases he was working with were noble, nonreactive or inert. However, as science has evolved, the theory of the nobility of these gases was tested and it was proved that compounds of xenon, krypton and radon exist.

If an artwork is an idea tied to specificity but the boundaries of specificity then change, does the artwork also change? The answer would of course be framed by your definition of specificity; whether you consider the work to be defined by knowledge, space and location at the time of inception or action, or whether specificity is centred on substantiated fact, stability and practicability. From the title of Barry’s work, it appears that the decision to select these gases was at least partly based on the understanding by the artist that these gases shared a common ‘inert’ characteristic.

Barry’s work therefore signals a complex but often not discussed question of conceptual art: if the idea is paramount to the work but the ideas of the materials used to execute a conceptual work change, does the work still ‘exist’? This logic could also apply to the certificates and contracts generated by conceptual artists of this time to separate them from market influences, object which themselves have shifted as legal systems and definitions that influence their meaning also change.

Robert Barry, documentation of  Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion , 1969.

Robert Barry, documentation of Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion, 1969.

<first> affect

Steve Bishop,  Deliquescing . 2018 (installation detail) via the  artist’s website .

Steve Bishop, Deliquescing. 2018 (installation detail) via the artist’s website.

In the absence of markers such as beauty, realism and the skilled application of structural devices that traditionally signalled the degree of ‘success’ of an artwork, how can conceptual artists evaluate their work?

It is interesting to frame this question in relation to the potential of works to prompt affect: the human experience of perceiving relationships between objects and aesthetics relative to space. Within this experience an extra-sensory state can be evoked that allows for the formation of non-didactic meaning. The ability for work to create this type of non-didactic meaning, I would argue, is a key factor in determining the relative success of conceptual artworks.

Affect is an important aspect of conceptual practice because conceptual art relies on individuals becoming agents: active participants in the (co)creation of meaning. However, complex ideas and their consequences often discussed in art are very rarely linear. Therefore communicating certain ideas to an audience requires an equally non-linear communication method that allows for ambiguity, experienced through the lens of an individual’s own history, to be understood by way of nuance and feeling. This aspect of ‘feeling’ is important because there is an inherent relationship between feeling, power and agency.

invisible entities

Hans Haacke,  Helmsboro Country , 1990 via  Frieze .

Hans Haacke, Helmsboro Country, 1990 via Frieze.

Drawing on the complex nature of the connection between inside and outside; internal and external; private and secluded; power and liberty, the socio-politically charged conceptual practice of Hans Haacke is revealing in it’s ability to discuss specific power structures and systems while also allowing individual works to retain an element of ambiguity. The ambiguity of Haacke’s works stem from their deep connection to knowledge, time and context; a knowledge or at least a peripheral understanding of the social systems, political conditions and/or natural systems that form the basis of his works is often needed to understand them entirely. For this reason, Haacke often presents contextual didactic panels in proximity to installations.

Yet for me the magic of not-knowing, of being confronted with half-understood slogans, logos, arrangements and political messages is the most intriguing aspect of Haacke’s practice. Particularly when considered it in the present context of the Trumpian “Fake News” era. For example, one may not entirely understand why the American Bill of Rights has been printed on a larger-than-life pack of Helmsboro cigarettes cascading out of its deck (Helmsboro Country, 1990) but that is exactly the point. Not being able to completely understand a situation we are presented with or confronted by or even simply being allured by the aesthetic qualities of political messages, advertising and symbols reflects the smoke and mirror tactics that corporate and political systems use to disguise intents and achieve objectives. Most of the time we only ever know corporations or political systems present want to tell us, as opposed to what we want or need to know, i.e. motivations for wars, the health impacts of products or decision making processes.

As Australia transitions into a new cycle of political leadership, now squarely defined by the Australian Federal Police’s ABC Raids, Haacke’s works provide a timely reflection on the nature of power.