The Readymade Remodelled by Elizabeth Homersham

 

Level Structures, as Long has titled one of his most recent series of works, are dynamic and bright, reminiscent of Lego, Meccano and other building block games we might have played with in our formative years. Assembled using standard high-visibility yellow spirit levels, they have an instantly uplifting quality that can be found in Long's wider body of work. Among these are the gleaming Brass Bandstand project (2009), the absurd Poubelle de Jour (2007–09) and the toy-like Pick N' Mixer (2010). But whereas Pick N' Mixer takes inspiration from working class British culture comprising physical labour, leisure, and the occasional flutter, Level Structures (2010–) explore the idea of artistic labour as a fulfilling process of learning from which anyone can profit, regardless of class.

 

Class and social mobility are topics of great interest to Ben Long. As the son of a builder from the North of England, his decision to train as an artist was neither obvious, nor openly encouraged; Long's first visit to a gallery was made in his late teens. Awareness of the social and financial obstacles that his background placed before him means that Long has deemed it unsatisfactory to approach art as a realm of total freedom and a tabula rasa from which to work. The salient features of Long's artwork are a gaudy pop aesthetic, industrial materials, vehicles, and stereotypically British imagery — bandstands, phone boxes, 99 Flake ice creams. Level Structures fit readily into this iconography, but the shift they announce from figurative to abstract forms signals a slight withdrawal from working class imagery and reveals the artist's growing keenness to universalize the experience of his art.

 

Class signifiers that were previously foregrounded in socially loaded materials and objects give way in Level Structures to readymade components that embody the idea of the neutral. It was in the context of a search for a neutral object that the readymade first made an appearance in art: Duchamp insisted that the artist's choice of a readymade should be governed by his indifference toward the object.[1] In Level Structures, there is no sense of artistic affection for the readymade, yet Long's choice cannot quite be called indifferent. The employment of the spirit level might more accurately be described as a strategy. It is a socially ambiguous instrument: though it is the tool of the carpenter, the bricklayer, and the technician; professions that are associated more or less with the working classes, it is also an object that we are likely to find in any household for the purposes of DIY and home improvement. Its function to measure horizontal equilibrium, the perfect physical state of rest and balance, is utterly indifferent to conceptions of society based on hierarchy, and to culture defined as 'high' or 'low'. 'I want to make work that rejects elitism or cultural snobbery', Long has said. And the spirit level used as artistic material acts as a metaphor for this desire.

 

Long clearly believes that art should be for all. The idea isn't new. It sounds less radical, less utopian, perhaps, than Joseph Beuys' belief that 'Everyone is an artist'. However, the Beuysian mantra sought to demystify the idea of creativity as the unique preserve of a traditional artist making traditional works, and to encourage people of all occupations that society would improve should they approach their daily tasks creatively. Long, on the other hand, is more interested in demystifying the category of art as we conventionally think of it; as the somewhat hermetic field in which artists, galleries, and artworks have traditionally appeared, often to the bemusement of the general public who consider themselves inexpert, even discriminated against or intentionally misled. In the making and presentation of Level Structures lies the objective to challenge the bemused and the angered, or engage with those who think they don't know how to look, or what to say.

 

The careful choice of materials described above will obviously not suffice to make the work of art less prohibitively imposing: the space in which the work is shown must be levelled after a fashion too. Long's awareness of this sees him confronting the elitism of the traditional gallery, and in doing so, readdress an issue brought to light by Brian O'Doherty in 1976. In his essays written for Artforum that year (collected and published since 1999 as Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space), 'Doherty decries the intimidating nature of the gallery:

 

'For many of us, the gallery space still gives off negative vibrations when we wander in. Esthetics are turned into a kind of social elitism — the gallery space is exclusive. (...) What it contains is, without initiation, well-nigh incomprehensible — art is difficult.'[2]

 

For this reason many of Long's previous works could be encountered outside of the gallery; in public spaces, including on the road. The Great Travelling Art Exhibition (2001–) is one such project that could be set in motion again at any time. It involves the artist drawing figurative imagery in the layer of dirt that collects on the backs of white lorries, before climbing in alongside the driver to gauge the impact of his efforts en route. Long's account of this project's reception evidences the positive engagement of a non-exclusive audience with art shown outside of the gallery space:

 

'Usually, on the motorway, if the drawing is good enough, people show their approval by waving from their cars as they pass. There are lots of thumbs-up and noddings of heads. If we stop for a delivery, people take out their mobile phones to photograph the drawing or ask if I'm the artist and how it's done. Inevitably most people I meet are a little perplexed about the impermanent nature of the work but ultimately they're likely to conclude that it's a good work of art and that what I've done is worthwhile.'

 

The gallery was avoided in a more conventional way when Long presented his Scaffolding Sculptures (2004–). Stags, horses, and dogs, made in collaboration with construction companies who donated scaffold materials, were built in full view of the general public in South London's Elephant & Castle area, and Central London's Economist Plaza. Both of these locations play host to public sculpture on a regular basis. The idea behind Scaffolding Sculptures was not only that they would be encountered by a wide demographic, but that they would also offer subtle introductions to art history. Stag Scaffolding Sculpture (2008), for instance, is a three-dimensional interpretation of Sir Edwin Landseer's Monarch of the Glen (1851), an oil painting in which a stag stands proudly centred and foregrounded against the atmospherically misty backdrop of the Scottish Highlands. Destined to hang in the Refreshment Rooms of the House of Lords, the painting was eventually sold to a private collector following a withdrawal of the artist's commission. Long's appropriation of Landseer can thus be read as an attempt to make visible the essence of an image that has been shrouded by elite and private structures. Realising the stag in scaffold was a further act of subversion: an exchange of expensive media with a bourgeois history for an industrial material that Long was given for free.

 

Long drew upon specific personal experience in his decision to use scaffolding as a sculptural material: the idea for the project had been formulating since the late '90s, at which time Long was labouring on building sites to financially support his education at Camberwell:

 

'The builders I worked with only ever came into contact with art when they read about it in the tabloids during tea-breaks. The stories would provoke hostile responses from them, and because I was studying art I would somehow always get the blame for whatever they didn't like about what Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin were doing. Scaffolding Sculptures were then partly motivated by a desire to make art that appealed to these kinds of audiences, as well as ones that already had a developed appreciation of art.'

 

The tabloid's negative conditioning of the worker's response to art recalls the even greater fury the media generated around Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII. In 1976, The Daily Mirror reported on the Tate's acquisition of this Minimalist work in its customary sensationalist tone: its front page headline, followed by the work's denunciation as an ordinary 'pile of bricks', read 'What a load of rubbish'. The tabloids were not the only guilty party, however; in fact the Tate's purchase was first condemned in the Sunday Times. Reading beyond the news reports in retrospect revealed that Andre scarcely sought to shock: interviewed by Art Monthly in 1978, the artist modestly suggested that the UK public had placed too great an importance on his work. Apparently unconcerned with courting the specialist, Andre hoped that the audience of his exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery might consist of those simply taking shelter from the rain and that his intervention with Stone Field Sculpture in Connecticut would encourage 'loitering, standing about, taking lunch, leaning against stones and talking to your neighbour'.[3]

 

It is easy to draw a comparison between Andre and Long in terms of their shared hope for sculpture to gain a non-exclusive audience. The knowledge that Andre fell short of realising this goal, and that the layman still doubts the validity of Minimalist forms, has been extremely influential in the making of Level Structures. Long wants to expose the making of the inaccessible object of Minimalism; diminish the suspicion surrounding it while in no way denying its place in the Modernist canon. For this reason, the geometric forms of Level Structures explicitly appropriate the Minimalist aesthetic of not only Andre but also Donald Judd and, yet more obviously, Sol LeWitt. The clean, stable lines and the geometric simplicity of LeWitt's Open Geometric Structures emerged from his desire 'to recreate art, to start from square one'. This is an ambition to which the spirit levels are perfectly adapted. If the making of a perfect cube might ordinarily be a hard task, its construction with spirit levels makes it easier by a degree or two. The spirit level also gently sends up the clinical detachment of Minimalism; the LeWittian cube or larger geometric structure conceals the way in which its cool platonic perfection has been attained whereas Level Structures see artistic geometry regain a human quality: the level makes us think of someone — a perfectionist, a careful worker — going to the trouble of judiciously measuring his work.

 

Taking care and trouble over one's work is something that Long encourages in his audience too: not content with merely bringing humour to the legacy of Minimalism, the way in which the modular Level Structures should be presented will allow for the gallery visitor to choose from the series' variations and make it for him/herself, according to a set of instructions provided by the artist. The process may be something like building a piece of IKEA furniture from a universally comprehensive drawing. We have few suspicions about putting flat pack furniture together, and in approximating the production of a work of art to such a normal act, Long wishes to diminish the general sense of distrust surrounding Minimalist forms. The encouragement of hands-on audience participation is a totally new strategy for Long. But it is also perhaps the most logical step forward given his insistence since the beginning of his career that a simultaneous rejection of snobbery and an embrace of the traditionally elitist history of art — from Landseer to Minimalism — is absolutely viable, indeed essential.

 

Long's position with regards to art history and his audience very closely echoes that of Jeff Koons, to whom:

 

'(...) the issue of being able to capture a general audience and also have the art stay on the highest orders is of great interest (...) I purposely always try at least to get the mass of people in the door, and if they can go farther, if they want to continue to deal in an art vocabulary I hope that that would happen, because by all means I am not trying to exclude high-art vocabulary.'[4]

 

Koons' Equilibrium Tanks are a prime example of an attempt to 'get the mass of people in'. Consisting of basketballs floating in the very centre of a glass display case, they use the imagery of the sport that best incarnates the American Dream to ensure their popularity: '(...) maybe they get a kick out of the sensationalism of seeing basketballs just hover' Koons speculates. But in his utterance the 'maybe' is key: the mass appeal of basketball in the United States surely hinges on the ball's capacity to be bounced, passed and dunked by any person; on its reinforcement of a society based on a right to rise to the top through ambition and hard work. With its use value removed, and encased in glass, the ball as art object holds less popular allure, and more art collector appeal. In possession of One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank you could, as Archer suggests, 'clean the living room, play a game (...), in which instance(s) you would be doing no more than to return the object to the life for which it was originally intended.' But 'It is also obvious that this would sully the purity of the object and destroy its existence as a work of art (...), it is that very tension which exists between the potential to do these things and the denial of permission actually to carry them out that lies at the core of their status as artworks in the first place'.[5]

 

As they continually perform their intended function, the levels in Level Structures maintain both their status as art and their use value: clicked into place according to Long's instructions, they must always still actively measure. Moreover, in the work's potential to be made, unmade, and re-made — by the artist, collector, or gallery visitor — the spirit level is conceived as a new kind of readymade object: one that is actively connected with other components and people, and one that facilitates technical practice having once made it appear redundant. Fisco, Stanley and Hultafors, Long's spirit level brands of choice, put an empowering slant on commodity sculpture. Koons' preferred Spalding, Wilson and Nike, evoke the slogan 'Just Do It'; 'an immediate call to action with no thinking involved'. The spirit level, removed from the mass marketing strategies in which the multimillion dollar industry of basketball is engaged, calls forth the alternative principles of Do It Yourself, which encourage us to contemplate with our minds and to learn with our hands.

 

— — —

 

[1] In response to Pierre Cabanne's question: 'What determined your choice of ready-mades', Duchamp said: 'That depends on the subject, because, at the end of fifteen days, you begin to like it or hate it. You have to approach something with an indifference, as if you had no aesthetic emotion. The choice of ready-mades is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.'

 

See The Purposes of the 'Ready-mades', Jack Burnham, Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art. New York: George Braziller, 1974, pp.71

 

[2] Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. California: University of California Press, 1999, pp.76

 

[3] Carl Andre, interviewed by Peter Fuller, Talking Art: Interviews with artists since 1976, Patricia Bickers and Andrew Wilson (Eds). London: Ridinghouse, 2007. pp. 73 – 94 (originally published Art Monthly issues 16 and 17, May and June 1978)

 

[4] Michael Archer, Jeff Koons: One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank. London: Afterall Books, 2011, pp.30

 

[5] Ibid. pp.90