By Alysha Radia
Yesterday I said I was gonna do a wee lil bit of art historical visual analysis in my next SCAB, as a way of practicing my writing, collecting dots and helping with art direction. Almost as if by serendipity, today Marc gave us a masterclass on semiotics, one of the key tools used in artistic visual analysis – that being, what visual clues is an artist using in order to transmit and communicate a message, concept, idea or emotion to its audience?
It’s literally ten past midnight and I’m incredibly tired after having stayed up until 3am after an evening of scrubbing the fridge, cleaning the floor, writing two more scabs and delicately colouring in the individual feathers on the wing of a parrot with WHS coloured pencils for Dusty’s Scab competition before a full-on day of ideating in school. The things we do. The eloquent combination of words ‘tired af’ that I’ve been using all day to complain about it, don’t even begin to cover it. So instead of wasting precious time on looking for an artwork that strikes my fancy as my dot (and inevitably, because this is a SCAB, trying to pick one that I can pointlessly link back to some poignant learning of the day), I’m going to let the universe decide. Let’s get random.
So here I go, I’m grabbing the copy of ‘MoMA – Highlights since 1980’ that has been lying around the flat since I moved in and that I have not once opened. I’m bisecting the book on a page, any page. What areeeee we gonna turn the page on today? Book opened, here we go, let’s get analytical.
So here we have a work called ‘The Table of Perfect’. This work was produced in 1989 by an artist that I have never heard of called James Lee Byars in 1989. The work is fashioned out of white marble and gold leaf, and is 39 and 1/4 inches as high as it is tall as it is deep. It weights 3,000 pounds exactly. The sculpture, in essence, is a rounded marble cube (so arguably not a cube at all) that has been coated in a layer of gleaming, paper-thin gold. Its immediate impression is one of pristine purity and of exactitude.
This use of materials is interesting. The use of both gold and marble suggests that the artist is deliberately trying to give off a sense of opulence and is harking back to notions of ‘high art’, due to the literal monetary value of the substances, but also due to their associations with Classical sculpture and religious icons. These associations are clearly in high contrast with the conversely minimal form of the object he has created. By producing it in such materials, and therefore against the canvas of tradition, he is endowing the object with a sense of importance and of sacred preciousness. The use of gold emphasises this sense of ‘perfection’ that is clearly a concept on which the artist is meditating, as suggested by the title, due to gold’s association with purity and to which its value is inherently tied.
Classically, the use of marble was not only due to its attractive hue and glowing surface, but due to its carving versatility. The forms of ‘The Table of Perfect’ could have feasibly been produced in a host of other sculpture materials and would have created something completely identical in form. Its implications therefore lie solely in its signifiers as a material, as representative of the Classical ambitions to achieve aesthetic perfection, rather than in its inherent physical properties.
This notion of importance is only emphasised by the way that the work has been displayed. It sits in the centre of an empty square room, giving it a sense of grandeur and of dominance, as if an altar sat in a sacred space. The word ‘table’ in the title almost invites its audience to gather around it and to contemplate not only it in itself, but the wider questions that it invites. (nb I’m not going to address the red colour of the room and the effect it has on the object because this was a curatorial choice and this image off the internet was different to the one in the book which was not in a red room, but its interesting to think about the effect that the setting of the work has on the appearance of the work itself.)
Perhaps this display method equates the idea of sacredness within the walls of a church with the sacredness of the concept of aesthetic perfection within the actual context of the work, which is an art gallery – a Mecca to aesthetics. The irony in the work, as an interrogation of aesthetic values, of truth and of the power that materials and form can endow on an object, is that whilst it is an attempt at achieving perfection in three dimensionality, it can only be just that – an attempt. It, like any other object, can only ever exist as a signifier of perfection but can never embody the total concept.