To be or not to be: Even lost art can still exist

In his 2011 Booker Prize winning novella The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes wrote “if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives – then I plead guilty”. Some things in life you can never get back, no matter how hard you wish for it. These are hard facts, but we accept them … begrudgingly.
A new online exhibition looks set to readdress this sense of loss that endures in the art world: the painful absence of significant works from over the last century. These works of art have lost themselves to the abyss through deliberate destruction, theft, rejection and incompletion, among others. In most cases, none of them will ever be “seen” again.
The Gallery of Lost Art is a huge collaborative project that will last for one whole year before, ironically, becoming “lost itself”. It is curated by Tate, designed by ISO, a digital studio, produced in partnership with Channel 4 and supported by The Arts and Humanities Research Council.
It’s a wonderfully immersive experience, orientated from a sort of birds eye view. The virtual space creates a quasi-real aesthetic, seeming to exist in an expansive and desolate warehouse that has, modestly, been filled with trendy office furnishings.
Interspersed amidst this, divided by categories – stolen, destroyed, transient, rejected, unrealised, discarded, missing, ephemeral, erased and attacked – are what can best be described as ghosts: the works of art that “once were and no longer are”.
“The brief was quite undefined. They wanted something more exploratory and didn’t want a traditional way of navigating content,” Mark Breslin, ISO co-founder, told Design Week. “They wanted it to become an experience so it was about trying to translate a physical space onto an online website.”
Like a traditional real-life gallery, the art feels really engaging and if anything, it is exceptionally rich, comprised of the lost works, blogs, newspaper cuttings, letters, photographs, essays and videos. You simply cannot help but stumble from one thing to another and before you know it: closing time. Only not; you remember that this is a virtual space, there is no limit.
“We wanted to tell the stories of significant works,” Jane Burton, Tate’s head of content, told the Guardian. “We thought if we could capture the traces of these works, we could bring them back to consciousness.”
The exhibition, which launched on July 2nd, starts with 21 artists, with no real thematic bond – though of course it exists – other than the shared loss permeating through their experience of life and art. Following on from that, over a six-month period, a new work will be added to the space until the curators are satisfied that they have covered the entire lot of their brief.
From Tracey Emin to Daniel Buren, Joan Miro to Paul Thek, and Rachel Whiteread to Diego Rivera, the stories behind the artistic impoverishment of the introductory figures is riveting, a rollercoaster ride of stories that shock, entertain and fascinate. Buren’s story perhaps best articulates the breadth and depth of this project and its commitment to challenging what we understand about loss.
In 1971, Buren, a French conceptual artist, made, in-situ, Painting-Sculpture for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It was in two parts: a huge 20-metre long and ten-metre wide black and white striped cloth and a smaller version. The former was to go outside, the latter inside, the idea being a suitable link to the interior and exterior facade of the mesmeric building.
It was installed the day before the Sixth Guggenheim International group exhibition and was met with severe criticism from other artists who felt that the sheer scale of the work obliterated the presence of their contributions. It had a “disproportionate” presence. Shockingly, the curators acquiesced, and the work was taken down, without Buren knowing about it.
This was seen as a perverse act of censorship and, aside from some photographs, it has never been seen in public since, folded up and put into storage. It probably never will be shown for it was a site-specific and time-specific work, that lost its resonance when it was shockingly buried by his contemporaries. Et tu, Brute?
It is then odd that this homage to lost art is itself transient. There is something beautiful in that but, equally, it’s unnerving and seems to distort the whole concept of the online gallery, a sort of contradiction, but deliberately constructed. It leaves the viewer in a problematic position. This space, free, accessible day and night, is not going to last. As a resource it is astronomical, yet we are aware that it has a limit.
Maybe it’s a comment on life itself. Yes it is a shame that moments can’t last, but if they did, wouldn’t they lose their value? Everything that has a beginning has an end, and the idea of immortality would perhaps reduce everything to nothingness.
In the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, one of the minor characters remarks to the protagonist: “Benjamin, we’re meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?” As hard as it is to reconcile, she has a point.