Artists often go out of their way to make their work last. They make sure that they use quality paper and colors. Some crayons and pencils don’t fade as easily. These pigments are lightfast. Also, they try to frame and store things carefully. Precautions are taken to keep works on paper from being dog-eared or getting dirty.
Other artists don’t care about such things. They use cheap newsprint paper, poster paint, house paint and kids’ crayons. Many are in the middle. They try to use the best quality materials yet will compromise when they need to.
Then too, there are those of us who employ risky mediums upon risky surfaces just for the joy of it.
This includes most street art. If it’s outdoors and on public view, it may well end up being destroyed. The most beautiful mural in the world can be tagged, defaced or painted over.
My own art on Detroit’s abandoned J.L. Hudson’s building was destroyed when the structure was imploded in 1998. Over 500 of my chalk drawings went down with the building. Two years’ work was gone just like that.
My friends Jim Puntigam and Vito Valdez painted an extraordinary series of paintings on the interior walls of Detroit’s Cobo Hall parking garage. This was one of my favorite unsung Detroit art projects. It ended up being painted over.
Detroit’s Tyree Guyton has had his Heidelberg project artwork torn down by bulldozers and burned by arsonists. He uses abandoned houses as a foundation to create upon. This sometimes leads to this work being targeted.
There seems to be a mural boom going on here now. Hopefully these include some good ones. I need to take the tour and figure out my take on it. They’re all fragile, though. Public murals don’t always last for decades. Some don’t even last a month.
Artist Keith Haring did a series of chalk drawings in the subway stations in New York in the early 1980’s. I saw some of this work at the time. This work was obviously temporary. I liked that. It’s clean and fast. This work was one of the factors that inspired me to use chalk in my own street art.
In the past 30 years, I’ve done hundreds of sidewalk chalk drawings. I also did a series on some railroad underpasses. By its nature, this work contains the seeds of its own destruction. Chalk is far more impermanent than paint is. If I were ever threatened with arrest my plan was to tell the police “Just give me a bucket of water, some soap, a scrub brush and a few hours and all of this will disappear.”
The whole idea of temporary or ephemeral art often takes it out of the realm of money. You can sell sketches of the work or photos of the work, yet the work itself is usually unsaleable. Much of this work is public work. It brings art to people who rarely go to museums.
Environmental art is another type of ephemeral art. Often not many people see such works, when they’re built in out-of-the-way places. In these cases, the only way to see it is to travel to it.
Some, like Robert Smithson have used bulldozers and machines. Others, like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, employ large teams, including volunteers and construction workers, to execute their plans. Their work is almost always temporary. They remove all traces of it when it’s time to take it down.
Then there are people like Andy Goldsworthy. He goes off into nature and stacks rocks or arranges leaves or twigs. This is painstaking work. He goes to a lot of trouble to create lovely things which won’t last long and that few people get to see.
My photocopied handouts can also be seen as a form of “disposable art.” Some of them I send out in the mail. Others I give away in person. I’ve looked at my passing them out in public as performance art. This has been a sort of parody of people on street corners passing out commercial flyers.
Some of these giveaways end up in the trash or get recycled. Yet some are appreciated, kept and even treasured. I try to offer people something magic: art, poetry, quotations, cartoons.
Temporary art seems to stand against the art world hierarchy and politics. We try to create art that’s direct and reintegrates itself into real life. It’s not tied to commercial influence. Away with false barriers! Hooray for ephemeral art!
Land Art/ Earth Art:
Christo and Jean-Claude: