x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Outsourcing the creation of art

Is the value of art affected according to who physically creates it? It's a continuing debate and one which raises questions of concept versus craft.

The British artist Damien Hirst poses in front of his painting The Importance of Elsewhere - The Kingdom of Heaven. Kerim Okten / EPA
The British artist Damien Hirst poses in front of his painting The Importance of Elsewhere - The Kingdom of Heaven. Kerim Okten / EPA

Very public spats between artists - Picasso and Matisse, for instance - have become a rare beast.

But in January, Damien Hirst, the world's richest living artist, got a swipe from one of the UK's best-loved treasures, David Hockney.

The poster for the senior Hockney's retrospective of paintings at the Royal Academy in London contained the footnote: "All the works here have been made by the artist himself, personally."

Hockney later confirmed that the statement was a jab at Hirst: "It's a little insulting to craftsmen, skilful craftsmen," he told the UK's Radio Times magazine, his charge being Hirst's reliance on at least 150 assistants to produce his works, notably the Spot Paintings - roughly 1,400 dotted canvases, geometrically relentless, spread out in galleries around the world. Over 300 of these went on exhibition in 11 outposts of the Gagosian Gallery earlier this year, illustrating the scale of Hirst's operation.

But while this might sound like grumbles of one generation towards another, Hockney may have a point. Hirst may direct things, but who does the creativity in producing these works lie with?

One only has to wander around Art Dubai to see the increasing prevalence in outsourced work and use of ready-made, found objects in art passing through these shores.

Take Fayçal Baghriche, who Art Dubai invited to be an artist-in-residence for three months leading up to the art fair. "Fayçal realised four or five different projects while he was here and for all of them, he used either found media or outsourced the work," says Antonia Carver, the director of Art Dubai. "His work is looking at the conceptual side of ideas and plays on the fact that its production is outsourced."

Indeed, Baghriche took one of the huge faux-ancient stone incense burners that line the waterfront of Madinat Jumeirah and had it recreated in wood by carpenters in the city. He kept it looking scratchy, half-painted; a self-conscious commentary that beneath the sheen and glamour, all things - "icons" of culture included - can be fabricated.

"As artists in the region increasingly work in more experimental ways and engage with conceptual art, then it becomes necessary to outsource production of their work," Carver continues. "A healthy environment of critique and honest curation keeps artists away from glib statements and easy, fashionable concerns."

Carver says that, in the past, conceptual art posed some problems to those buying work in the region. This is changing, she explains, through the more daring purchases of such collectors as Sultan Al Qassemi and Ramin Salsali, both of whom run private museum-like spaces in the UAE to showcase their collections.

"I think the idea is the core of an artwork," says Salsali, the founder and director of the Salsali Private Museum in Dubai. "Execution of the idea can be done directly by the artist's hand, or it can be passed over to craftsmen who help the artist realise their idea."

But looking through the works that Salsali has amassed shows a notable slant towards painting and sculpture that have been wrought in the artists' own hands. There are, of course, exceptions - Barbie dolls stuffed into a car stereo by Kambiz Sabri, and Behdad Lahooti's Farsi-inscribed squat toilet. "Sometimes it's a dilemma for me," says the collector. "How far can we go with conceptual art?

"I look at the result of the work and if it suits my expectations, taste and areas of interest, then I don't ask whose hands has created it but care about the idea."

The Tunisian artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke thinks Hockney's attack on Hirst was misplaced as the two artists work in very different ways.

Kaabi-Linke says that having craftsmen produce her work allows her to push her ideas and better express them. One of the key pieces in her last Dubai show at Lawrie Shabibi was a legion of glass-cut bugs crawling across a shelf, which were produced by master glass cutters in Kiev. "My own work has moved towards a new path and become a lot more conceptual. I still enjoy working with my hands and producing things in my studio but it's often not enough for me."

Much of the Middle East's art history is built, in part, on craft traditions - ornamentation, design and architectural features. The Jameel Prize is based in London's Victoria and Albert Museum and celebrates those artists who engage with the region's historical background of craft and the handmade, such as the JP 2011 nominee Monir Farmanfarmaian (who works in the Persian craft of mirror mosaic).

But many artists tend to engage with a craft for a body of work, rather than work within it and learn it over a lifetime.

"I think it's an answer to the zeitgeist of the time that we are in," says Salsali. "In the past, it took a certain time frame to produce a painting. Today, I think the speed of life has forced many artists to ask themselves, 'Why should I go and learn how to make a sculpture when I need to get my idea out now?'."

In a 2009 op-ed in the New York Times, the now late philosopher of art Denis Dutton explored exactly this temporality. Dutton's concern - specifically with the pickled sharks, Damien Hirst-end of art not produced by the named artist - was that the concepts and observations that have significance now may not have the same oomph in the future. "Unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work," he wrote, future generations might relegate many of these concepts to "historical curiosity".

Yet there are many examples of good work produced in a situation when the artist is a director rather than craftsman. The balance lies in ensuring that ideas are airtight, that they're inventive and, it could be argued, that there's some longevity beyond immediate, short-lived statements. Art still has to be worth its salt, whoever is putting it together.

clord@thenational.ae

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