Finders keepers

What is art? Is it something an artist has to create from scratch? These questions were part of a debate in 1913, sparked by Bicycle Wheel, part of Marcel Duchamp’s first found-object exhibition in Paris, as well as his now-famous work Fountain, an upside-down white ceramic urinal.

This debate has raged on for more than 100 years. The Leo Gallery aspires to restart the debate with its latest exhibition, Assembling Found Images.

The exhibition features the works of three young mainland artists: Cai Dongdong, Lei Lei, and Wang Ningde. A total of 14 works inspired by Duchamp – from photo sculptures to collages and videos – show their perspectives.

Leo Gallery co-founder Vincent Chan said that found object art can pose a bigger challenge for an artist as it is less about artistic craftsmanship and more about understanding and personally connecting with an object.

For No Name No 1, an inkjet print (above left), Wang digitally applied blocks of paint in different colors and sizes to photos of clashes between Israeli police and civilians from 2006.

These may be simple additions, but they make the picture more powerful by filtering the chaotic environment in the original news picture and focusing on the terrifying scene of Israeli mounted police officers charging towards a fearful crowd. The image itself reflects the struggle of resistance to authority, while the daubs are borrowed from an everyday occurrence in China.

“In China, city officials clean up posters and graffiti by covering them with white or gray paint,” said Chan. “The artist took pictures of them in Beijing and used graphics software to overlay them on found images.”

One of the most extreme found-image work is Cai’s Obstacle – which is also one of Chan’s favorite.

The original photo is of a Chinese Civil War officer from the Eighth Route Army giving a politics lesson to several peasant militiamen.

The artist folded the photos between the two sides to highlight the gap between them.

One common argument against found art is that art should represent its creator’s unique vision – implying found artists are mainly plagiarists.

“However, in this era of information explosion, new art increases the burden on audiences,” Chan said.

“The value of found art is that it shows how artists cope with this wealth of information.”

He cited as an example Lei’s video art, Recycling, which shows how Beijing’s people, families, and society have changed over the years in five minutes of everyday images.

It shows the potential of found art, using 3,000 pieces of film that Lei gathered at a recycling plant outside of Beijing.

Chan said: “The artists take images out of their context and recreate them to magnify the original themes or give them new meaning, elevating them to an artistic level. These artworks are their new answers to the old questions.”

Assembling Found Images is running until November 7.

(This article was published at The Standard on October 11, 2019: Weekend Glitz: Finders keepers )

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