A giant installation made of a 14 meters high easel and a 5 by 7 meters canvas with an image of Mona Lisa has been installed in Clapham Common Park, to celebrate the competition Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. This ironic gesture looks like the representation of all the achievements of modern art.
The competition of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year began yesterday on Sky Arts 1 HD. The initiative has previously started with a survey commissioned by Sky Arts where 2,000 people had to choose their favourite portrait of all time. The results show the icon of Leonardo Da Vinci at the top of the chart chosen by 24% of the people as their favourite portrait.
The competition, which is developed through several steps and challenges, firstly asked each artist-participant to submit a self-portrait which has been used to compose the image displayed on the big canvas in Clapham Common. The big Mona Lisa was produced by digital artist Quentine Devine who turned the self-portraits into 1000 pixels that compose the image of the Da Vinci masterpiece.
At first sight, this art piece seems to reassume all the major challenges that modern art has faced since the 19th Century such as original vs. copy, artist vs. maker and representation vs. abstraction. To begin with, looking at this massive portrait it is easy to think about Marcel Duchamp and his famous appropriation of this icon in his work “L.H.O.O.Q.”. In a way it is the modern practice of appropriation itself and above all the invention of the ready-made that is celebrated with the big installation of Sky Arts.
From this point of view the most interesting aspects of the art piece are the appropriation of the ready-made image of the Mona Lisa, the fact that the icon has been chosen by the public from the initial survey and the realization of the image through other ready-made objects (the self-portraits of the artists). In other words the work of art seems the celebration of Duchamp philosophy about art; the artist as the one who chooses (non-maker) exemplified by the ready-made technique and the idea of the spectator as “active partner” (as per Thierry de Duve definition in “The ready-made and the tube of paint”, a chapter from his book “Kant after Duchamp”) of the artist.
It is particularly interesting that the use of the ready-made pixels to compose the Mona Lisa resembles the technique of divisionism practiced en plain air in France in the second half of the 19th Century (also evoked by installing the image of the Mona Lisa on an massive easel in the open space of the park) .The painting technique of divisionism and especially Seurat paintings were particularly praised by Marcel Duchamp in the way they engage the spectator who recombines the colors of the painting in his/her eyes. It also allows even the non-expert person to be engaged (in line with the more socialist view of modernism).
The position of the easel in the middle of the park in Clapham Common seems to engage the public in a similar way; everybody can understand such popular icon, everybody can recompose with his/her own eyes the big image and everybody can engage with it. Additionally, even the subject matter of the installation is chosen (ready-made) by the audience since it is the one at the top of the chart of the survey.
Definitely the controversial aspect of authorship is emphasized by this operation. If modern art erased the idea of author in traditional sense, what we can see here is the representation of the paradox (or maybe reconciliation) between the traditional role of the artist as maker and the one of modern artist in Duchampian sense (the artist chooses rather than makes).
If there was a genre in painting that was deeply influenced by the emergence of photography in the 19th Century, that was portrait painting. Therefore it is even more remarkable that the competition asked the applicants to produce self-portraits, the representation par excellence of the artist-maker typical of western pre-industrial society and the self-celebration of the artist as creator.
On the other hand the installation is the result of a calculated collaboration of different figures such as the participants, the digital artist, the public (via the survey and in the park), and Sky Art. If the installation is conceptually modern, it is postmodern in the collaborative aspect that produced it and hence draws a trajectory between art of pre-modern times, modernity and postmodernity.
What are the challenges offered to artists and the public with competitions like the one launched by Sky Arts?