John Grindrod: The enigma that is temporary art

First Posted: 3/4/2014

While there is, I’m sure, a certain part of me deep down that envies those who have embraced the arts and have demonstrated talent to create, I must admit much of what those artsy folks embrace speaks a foreign language to me.

Sure, there are some aspects of the arts I enjoy immensely, say, a well-performed song or a well-done movie or play. Even when it comes to the classical pieces of art, I have stood in awe, especially last fall in Rome, staring up at Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and later standing before his statue of David in Florence’s Accademia Gallery.

So, I figure when it comes to artistic endeavors, I’m not a complete Neanderthal. Now, having said that, I will admit that during some rather infrequent visits to larger cities’ galleries, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York’s Guggenheim, I’ve stood relatively unimpressed and unmoved by art that those around me lauded.

But, there’s one particular type of art that I’ve seen a number of times in my travels that really mystifies me, not so much because I don’t recognize and admire the beauty of what has been created but because of its ephemeral nature. While I’m not so arts-inclined to know if there’s a more appropriate term for it, I think you’ll know what I mean when I call it temporary art.

Now I suppose all those street performers I saw in Venice on that Italian trip that I’ll cover in greater detail in my travel columns in “Our Generation’s Magazine” later this year qualify because they certainly have to call it a day and go home sometime. However, they were trying to make money, so I kind of get it. I saw the open guitar cases on the sidewalk beside the singers and the box with some Euros tossed in beside the motionless performer dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

For me, it’s the art that is on the clock, so to speak, from its inception, that mystifies me as to why someone would invest such large amounts of time in something that won’t endure.

I recall a walk on a Hilton Head beach a few years ago and taking note of a sand artist. The structure he was creating was a castle, one that had such detail, it impressed me greatly. As I watched him work with an array of tools, from levels to shovels of various sizes to an array of trowels, much like those who work in mortar, I couldn’t shake the idea that the several hours in time invested to create the elaborate scale art wouldn’t amount to a hill of sand after the next high tide rolled in.

Those artists who work in sand are the warm-weather versions of those who sculpt snow. Of course, I’m not talking about kids who strive to create the perfect Frosty and adorn it with pipe, scarf and hat after their blizzard-bag assignments are done, but the grownups who worked for hours last month at Gateway Park, Navy Pier, in my birth town of Chicago creating their masterpieces out of 10-foot blocks of snow for the city’s annual winter festival, Snow Days Chicago.

I’ve also seen those in Florence not far at all from the building that houses Michelangelo’s David in roped-off sections of the street. There, on bended knees that made my arthritic knees hurt in sympathy, they created elaborate chalk art, some that created the illusion of three-dimensionality. The whole scene, while certainly interesting, made me despair a bit for them, knowing that the next Italian line of thunderstorms would erase their efforts that took the better part of a day. And, believe me, there are frequent Italian lines of thunderstorms.

And, finally, I’ll mention my well-spent time last fall at the Circleville Pumpkin Festival in Southeast Ohio. During my time there, amidst the plethora of booths serving pumpkin-themed foods and selling pumpkin-inspired art and clothing, I happened upon Gus Smithhisler, a professional pumpkin carver, who takes about four hours to intricately carve 400-pound pumpkins. When I saw Gus, the Pumpkin Carver, he was working on a beautiful and elaborate American bald eagle on the surface of a massive member of the Cucurbita family. Using a little sentence-ending rhyme, it was a bald eagle that was destined after its brief stay… to decay.

I don’t know. Perhaps there is some degree of satisfaction in the process itself for those who deal in temporary art, and, as the saying goes, nothing lasts forever, but I’d sort of expect something I created that took hours to finish to have a longer life span than one that ends with the next high tide, warm spell, cloud burst or gust of air.

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