In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and declared it a work of art, baptising it Fountain. Before patenting his own shade of blue (International Klein Blue), Yves Klein (see above) went one step further than Duchamp by adding his signature to the sky itself. The atmosphere was his ready-made. One of the problems we have, if we have a problem, with Found Art is an inability to trust the artist who has set himself or herself up as a trickster or a charlatan. We don’t mind being fooled but we don’t want to be told in advance. In this sense, it’s not the object we have the problem with in some tight-arsed philistine sense of “that’s not art.” What unsettles is the thought that the object isn’t the focus of attention and credulity but rather we are. We are feeling the anxiety of what Lacan called the Gaze.
Here are three works of art that do not exist as such except in my head. A series of circles and arrows spray-painted like mysterious arcane hierogylphs onto the tarmac of a border road, marking the site of wreckage where a joyrider spun out fatally into a tree, a scene onto which I stumbled late one night. The second is a series of grubby playing cards scattered on every detritus-strewn street of Phnom Penh, a city where gambling is banned and therefore omnipresent. The third is a former girlfriend’s home video holiday footage, as personal, charming and innocuous as any, except the setting of the upper floors of the World Trade Centre is no longer there and never will be again, what fills those cubic metres of space, the corridors they walk down, the people they walk past, all gone.
You need not be an artist to see that context, and our awareness of it, has done something to these things. Some process of metamorphosis, some alchemy has taken place. Circumstance has created art from ephemera, junk and private keepsake. Walter Benjamin was too pessimistic is assuming the age of mechanical reproduction will destroy or at least degrade the ‘aura’ of things as he called it. It’s still there. We just need a more discerning eye to detect it.