trash or treasure? Liz Magor at the MAMAC de Nice

acs_0120 Last week, with snowflakes hitting me in the face, I set out for my first visit to MAMAC, the musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain de Nice. 

It’s hard to miss. The museum is housed in a neoclassical building that crosses over a busy street, flanked on each side by chunky white marble towers. The space comprises a library, theater, and a lot of locked doors. It took me a full ten minutes of crossing back and forth through slush puddles before I found the entrance.

View from the MAMAC

Inside, I found a small but interesting collection ranging from Pop Art to modern surrealist acquisitions. I spent the most time strolling through the temporary exhibit: an entire floor devoted to recent works by Canadian artist Liz Magor.

Her work included lots of old objects. Open cardboard boxes, a stack of towels, a stack of paper, the “bloodied” head of a deer, all of it in lofty white rooms. Some of the objects were real, some were casts.

The work had the ability, if not to inspire, then certainly to provoke. I watched groups of people rolling their eyes and snickering as they walked through the rooms. When I later looked up reviews of the exhibit, many were scathing.

Liz Magor, Whisper Glitter

I’m all for modern art, but this is too modern.

Some accused the artist, and by extension the museum, of le snobisme.

An insult to human intelligence. 

Several reviews were self-concious, noting they knew they’d be considered stupid or unsophisticated by others, but really, they had to say it, this was just dumb.

It was indeed one of those exhibits where you wonder if it’s all just a big trick–a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes exhibit, where you hope it’s not some prank being filmed for Jimmy Kimmel. Watch these mindless losers think they’re appreciating sophisticated art! Really, they’re staring at someone’s trash! 

I had a suspicious encounter with a broom that I think was just a left-behind cleaning tool, but there is a chance it was part of Magor’s collection. Even as I tiptoed around it I thought, this is what’s so fascinating about modern art. Put something in the sacred space of a museum and even if we hate it, or even if it produces no emotion at all, most people will agree to treat the object with respect, at least in practice.


Liz Magor is something of a surrealist, and surrealists have always had the power to shock and awe…and incite fury. Some feel delighted upon seeing the playful, subversive reinterpretation of a urinal as a fountain…others are insulted.


But art isn’t just about beauty. Beauty is subjective, after all, and there is beauty in ugliness.

It isn’t just about skill or time spent or effort, either. How do you assign value to ideas? Sometimes it’s the idea that makes meaning, rather than any work of the hand.

Sometimes, especially in surrealism, I think the artist dares you to say that sucks, dares you to think for yourself. Just like with Duchamp’s Fontaine, where his message was not ‘I am the all-important artist,’ but rather, ‘how far can I push the art world?’

And as far as the accusation of snobisme, I say just because you have to work to appreciate something doesn’t make it highbrow or a scam. Does it make you think? If a piece fails to inspire me on a conceptual level, I like to use it to think about the art world, about the business of art, or maybe about that age-old question “what is art.”

I like to ask questions like: how did this get here? Does anyone actually like it or is it just the artist who makes it “good?” Is it good? What is good? And just like that, you have a reason to stare at a cardboard box for a few minutes.


Magor’s work made me think about a lot of things, such as the transformation of found objects into art. At what point can you assert authorship?

“I made this.”

Well, kind of, Liz. You mostly just found it in a thrift shop, but sure. 

But the more I read about Liz Magor’s ideas, the more I appreciated what she does.

Magor’s work is all about objects. Stuff. Rarely is there a human image in her work, but the displays suggest a human presence: someone has just left or will soon return.

She likes to find old, discarded things and revitalize them, perhaps putting a worn, stuffed puppy on a literal pedestal and sticking it on the wall, or draping dresses in garment bags over the backs of chairs, arranging them in various states of “repose.” Magor has said she works by taking an object and seeking to find what made it valuable to someone in the first place. Why did someone buy this?


Our most practical relationships are perhaps with our things. Chairs and toothpicks and gloves and barrettes and notepads and forks and hairdryers, all the little objects that foster a Western lifestyle. The value is in the service these things provide. Magor, it seems to me, aims to restore some aesthetic value to these found, once-loved things. She lends interest, even dignity, to what might otherwise be trash.

She also works with the more insidious emotions of guilt and fear: hiding stacks of beer cans under folded towels, cigarettes under clothing, Cheetos under a mound of rocks, all facades that don’t quite manage to conceal the bad habit or addiction.

The secret life of stuff, you might call it. Or maybe: the secret stuff of life.

4 thoughts on “trash or treasure? Liz Magor at the MAMAC de Nice

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article. In addition to writing poetry and keeping up my with my blog I am also a bit of an artist myself. I mostly enjoy water color & mixed media though I would hardly call myself a professional. I’m also a collector of art and appreciate a wide variety of different mediums and genres. One thing I have discovered since blogging is how much I enjoy connecting with other writers in their various fields. Your article caused me to pause for a moment and reflect on some if my own work which I must thank you again. Your blog is definitely a treasure! Please continue writing. I look forward to reading more if your work.


  2. Great article. Very thought provoking. It really comes down to the issue of what is art and it seems like you’re saying that her work is art and mainly because it is conceptually driven and causes you to engage with the subject or more broadly with the subject of art in general.

    I’m very sympathetic to this view and generally intrigued by this question (as well as the same question regarding beauty). I’m not convinced though for a couple reasons; i think the main one is that I am unswayed by the related line of thought that a thing ‘becomes’ art by placement in a gallery or ‘art’ context. There’s a couple problems with this itself imo, first is that you can’t really define art as things which are placed in an art gallery, this is somewhat like saying music is anything we listen to on headphones. You can conceptualise lots of things that you wouldn’t call music which you might listen to on headphones (sounds of the forest say or a lecture or white noise). Course, this is kind of the point of modern art, throwing an unmade bed in a gallery (or a pile of towels, stack of papers) and what exactly is it?

    My general point is, it’s an unmade bed in an art gallery. If a thing is given the status of art because a person put it there it’s almost the same as admitting we have no idea what art is. Which, that’s fine too.

    Also i’m not sure how much conceptual interest there is in say for example the deer. It’s very blatant and doesn’t really require much high brow or cerebral interpretation or consideration. In my opinion, same as the unmade bed; yes, it’s directly representational of a messy life, not filtered through any form of craft or personal input; its just the unmade bed. I think this is what it comes down to for me. A thing requires what you said too, the conceptual interest (at least to be a really great piece of art) but there must be some semblence of organisation, personal input and craft as well, otherwise you just found a thing and put it in a building. This doesn’t have to be strict, lots of the best art is poorly crafted (especially the case in music: citation: almost all punk music) and some of the worst art has ridiculously high levels of craftsmanship (also music; there’s whole subgenres which are listened to only by other guitar players).

    Sorry, this became a huge somewhat divergent discussion of What is Art. I’m just throwing thoughts around. I really enjoyed your article. It made me spill out a couple paragraphs instead of getting on and making dinner.I should make dinner.

    : (

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points. Thanks for your dinner-delaying thoughts.

      “Course, this is kind of the point of modern art, throwing an unmade bed in a gallery (or a pile of towels, stack of papers) and what exactly is it?

      My general point is, it’s an unmade bed in an art gallery. If a thing is given the status of art because a person put it there it’s almost the same as admitting we have no idea what art is. Which, that’s fine too.”

      This is challenging. Because I agree with you: it’s an unmade bed in an art gallery. Maybe it’s true, that we have no idea what art is. So I’m interested in the question: when does a found thing become art? (Think again of Duchamp’s urinal fountain, how does that compare?)

      Furthermore, how did it get there? The stack of papers, the bed. Do you think it’s primarily due to the influence of the lauded “artist?” Or do you think conceptual explanations suffice to sway those who have the power to choose what the public sees in artistic spaces?

      I’m not sure I possess the philosophical sophistication necessary to satisfy the “what is art” question. Most every criterium I can think of can be disproved. Frustrating. But fun, too. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The What is Art Question has been unanswerable to anyone’s real satisfaction throughout the entire history of philosophy. I think it was Wittgenstein who put forward the family resemblance theory of language, which is easiest explained through an example. Games all different (soccer, chess, tag, darts, snooker, hide and seek) but we all instinctively know what a game is. There is very little commonality between say chess and rugby and solitaire but we recognise all of them as games. Art may be like this, something we know by a general family resemblance.

        The question around found art is thought provoking. My answer to the question of when it becomes art would probably be; often times it doesn’t. When it does it’s the result of the artist mixing their labour with it in someway. I’m fond of Duchamp’s fountain, because in many ways I see it as a middle finger to an increasingly esoteric art philosophy. Is it a piece of art though? Perhaps because it is one of the earliest examples of this type of found art, I might want to say that it is, but certainly many of the pieces that followed it I would be disinclined to accept into the artistic cannon.

        Thanks for your considered response.


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