Turner Thermodynamics

Verdurin and I visited the Turner Prize last month before our Berlin trip. There, we saw a ramshackled shed, a bicycle with a canister of hydrogen, some photos of a quarry, an insipid watercolour of a cactus, a video of a fountain, a video of a Blackpool illuminations windwill, a video of some dancing feet, a video of a watching old lady, paintings of arses, forests and darkly-hued still lives, a room with silver, white and black gaffer tape on the floor, fibreglass birds bestrewn with paint and some handbags with mirror mosaics. Yes, of course it was all banal tat, a veritable Oxfam of an exhibition, but that’s what one expects of the Turner Prize.

My concern this time is not with the “art” (or, indeed, the arses, which weren’t bad), but with the earnest right-on claims made by one of the artists – the artist that this evening won the prize, as it happens. This is the artist whose exhibition consisted of the lean-to shack, the hydrogen-assisted bicycle, the photographs and the painting of the cactus.

His claim for the unifying theme of his work was the usual “Gaia Mother Earth Ooh Capitalism Tsk Consumes Bah Humbug Naughty Business Men” sentimental environmentalism/anti globalisation rubbish. What was particularly egregious about his brand of rubbish was his claim that his trip across some desert or other with his bicycle represented some snub to the inefficiencies of industrial capitalism. You see, his bike was powered with nothing more than hydrogen which, when it burns, produces nothing more than water. He used that water to paint the cactus, another conservative symbol of mother nature in frugal balance blah blah. People were looking at this bicycle with strapped-on canister of hydrogen and nodding sagely, in wonder at how efficient and environmentally friendly and divorced from the evils of global capital this is. Except, of course, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a trick, a lie, an idiocy easily inflicted on the scientifically illiterate arseholes who visit and judge such “art”.

You see, the curators had put up a sign saying that the hydrogen had been “taken from the desert air”. Oh, really? So the solution to our energy problems, then, is to scoop up air from desert regions and run our Happy Cars on it? All that free hydrogen that, of course, isn’t in the air. Yes, there’s lots and lots of hydrogen on this planet. Unfortunately, the reactive little devil tends to be bonded with oxygen (to produce water) and/or carbon (to produce fossil fuels). So, how do we get pure hydrogen from either of these sources? Well, in order to extricate the hydrogen atoms from their tightly promiscuous bonds, one needs to provide energy to break those bonds. Dry desert air has precious little water vapour, let alone free hydrogen. The dangly-earingged twunt who wrote the “scooped from air” sign hadn’t looked at the labelled canister. I had. It was just common-or-garden industrial hydrogen. This hydrogen would have been produced by electrolysing water, or by putting natural gas or coke through an energy inefficient conversion process. As the first law of thermodynamics makes clear, then, the artist would have wasted less energy if he’d just used a standard motorbike and run it on petrol. The picture of the cactus wouldn’t have been so pretty, admittedly.

Now, hydrogen electrolised from water via solar power, say, might have allowed him to make his point. But it wasn’t. He used standard industrial hydrogen, produced not as a part of the renewable energy cycle, but as a part of the non-renewable economy he’d thought he’d escaped: he was using the earth’s finite resources just the same, and probably creating just as much net pollution in the process. And either nobody noticed, or cared, and so allowed his little didactic lesson to pass without realising that its central premise, that which was supposed to be telling and poignant and oh so “aaaahhhh” – was, in fact, utter, total bilge. Scooped from the desert air? You stupid twat! Art? Arrgh, more like!

9 thoughts on “Turner Thermodynamics

  1. Your argument is good, right up until you put art in “”, and thus become the sort of idiotic Mail writer who cannot cope with the notion that art, in order to exist, does not need to be any good.

  2. I put “art” in quote-marks, because I have a genuine problem in defining the cultural term. Indeed, I think that “art”, as a discrete cultural entity, is divisive.

  3. I personally am very excited about the new Objects Perdu Movement in contemporary art. Their most recent work, “Restaurant, Finchley, North London, 9.30pm, 16 November 2005”, is heartstopping in its intensity. Only the forlorn details of where and when the object was lost can be recorded. The object itself remains an eigenstate which can only be resolved if or when the item is found. Once found, it can no longer be an Object Perdu, and all records must be destroyed.

  4. I thought you of all people would get it, Nick. Does it really need explaining to you? Art can be anything at all because by its very nature it is relative; every person will have a different reaction to a piece. Witness John W’s convoluted, masterful defence of John Cage’s “Silence” a while back. That you don’t like this situation is irrelevant and yes, moaning about it is a little bit Daily Mail of you.

  5. John W wrote: “Art is anything named art. Doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.”

    It actually does need to be slightly more complicated than that, to rule out the possibility of deliberate fraud.

    If the bloke who did the shed/boat thing was secretly sniggering to himself, thinking “I bet I can pass this crap off as an important artwork and win a (shed)load of money”, then his shed boat/thing was not a work of art. It was a (highly effective) scam. His scam may get called art, but it’s still a scam, formulated with the intention of making money, winning publicity and so on.

    To close this loophole, we need to say that art is ‘anything created with the intention of creating art’.

    The only drawback with this definition is that it’s impossible for us to know what the creator’s intentions were, whether they were sincere or not, and consequently whether their work is actually art or not.

    This is not such a big problem, though, since the question ‘is it art?’ is almost never worth asking. A better question to ask might be ‘am I prepared to queue up and spend money to see a shed?’ and each of us can make our own mind up there.

    Many things that are art are not worth seeing. Many things that are not art are worth seeing. As JohnW has already pointed out, being art doesn’t necessarily count for much.

  6. Invoking the Daily Mail no longer works as an argument stopper. It has become the same as invoking Hitler. Get over the fact that at least one of your opinions will have coincided with an opinion expressed in the Daily Mail at some point.

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