Exercise 5: Finding out more

We are asked to find two examples of still life work that include pictures of fish, so I chose two pieces from the Bridgeman site and sketched them in my notebook (there is a reason why I am interested in writing and photography, rather than in painting or drawing!).

Sketches of two still lifes with fish, 05/03/2016

The two images and notes are as follows:

  1. Sandra Lawrence, Starfruit and Fish, 1999 (acrylic of canvas)
    I liked the symmetry of the fish in this image and the way their curves contrast with the angles of the starfruit. There is also a hint of realism about the painting.
  2. Reuven Rubin, Still Life with Anemones, (oil on canvas)
    This image appealed to me for quite different reasons—I liked the stylized flowers and fish lying on a copy of the Haaretz newspaper. The painting is evocative rather than realistic and I think a boat and a tree are to be seen through the curtains. To be honest, I didn't even notice the boat-like shape until I started to make this rough sketch of the painting. Perhaps one value of sketching is that it forces us to slow down and be more attentive to what is in front of us.

The other part of this exercise involved watching a Khan Academy video on Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The speakers on the video discussed possible interpretations of Hirst's piece as well as meaning in contemporary art. Like me, one of the participants wondered if the title of the work was a piece of wordplay and mentioned that he could interpret, but felt "like I would be making stuff up."

One of the participants gave a useful quotation from Marcel Duchamp to the effect that "a work of art is completed by the viewer." I think that is a helpful insight: the artist makes some choices for the audience (one participant says Hirst "has framed the shark for us") but it lies with the audience to bring something to the exchange. Once we get away from the older still life that we saw in the previous exercise, where there is a familiar frame of reference, the artist can suggest possibilities to an audience that may reply with a range of interpretations, expected or unexpected. I think this can be both exciting and unsettling all at once.

The other line of discussion had to do with the fact that we all face death and don't like it. Hirst's shark is a physical demonstration that in spite of extreme measures—up to and including formaldehyde tanks—we cannot escape the effects of time and, ultimately, death. One speaker mentions how mummified Egyptian kings are an example of how constant the fight against impermanence has been in human history. This brought the discussion back to the issue of meaning and how much of contemporary art turns around issues of philosophy, aesthetics and the limits of interpretation: "is this a grand joke if nothing is off-limits?" Well, if the viewer is responsible for helping to bring meaning to art, then there is likely no final and satisfying answer to that question.

The additional contextual information about The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was helpful in reassuring me that there is probably no final "meaning" for a given work of art and that we are instead drawn into a discussion. Some points of view may be more informed, richer and more suggestive than others, but none is likely to be "correct."