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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I wondered if people would look at anything.

So I took Nothing, its inverse, and I put it high on a pedestal.

I made half-hearted signs, no photos, please, and I waited. And they came, hordes: wandering, stuffed, eager to gobble more– not beauty, but what then?

They pointed cameras at Nothing, and snapped snapped snapped.

They threw peace signs and held ice cream cones and aimed cell phones at their faces, with Nothing lit up behind them.

They gazed at these pictures, admiring their faces: stoic or charming or coy. They saved pictures of Nothing, for they had seen Nothing, they had captured Nothing, and they walked away, shuffling sandals on pavement, forgetting and satisfied. img_2886

Note: seeing as how I am living in a high-profile, heavily-touristed area for the first time in my life, I figured it might be interesting to approach tourists with a writer’s eye. There is certainly no shortage of people to watch. Fueled by Lonely Planet’s doubt of Cannes’ ability to retain a soul amidst its “celebrity playground” status, I wonder if writing consistently on this topic will lead me to any new insights. The goal is to produce 10-15 pieces on the subject.