Sarah Thornton’s new book explores the colourful cast of characters in the art world


Thornton's new book is an intriguing and surprisingly personal look into the lives of a variety of artists.

Thornton's new book is an intriguing and surprisingly personal look into the lives of a variety of artists.

Sarah Thornton’s new book introduces to a colourful cast who inhabit the art world.

The Marina Bay Sands convention room was packed – standing room only. Journalist/author Sarah Thornton was having a conversation on her latest book, 33 Artists In 3 Acts, on the sidelines of Art Stage Singapore in January. Her reputation from her best-selling first book, 7 Days In The Art World, with the inside track on the murkier manoeuvring in the global art market, had preceded her.

The new book, with its brand of “hip-happening art-writing”, zeroes in on the leading living art icons. The big question asked: “What Is An Artist (today)?”.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei (C) holds up his phone on speaker as he and journalists listen to the verdict of his court hearing at the courtyard of his studio in Beijing, July 20, 2012. A Chinese court on Friday upheld a 2 million fine for tax evasion against the countrys most famous dissident, Ai Weiwei, after baring him from attending the hearing, in a case that critics accuse Beijing of using to muzzle the outspoken artist. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei (C) holds up his phone on speaker as he and journalists listen to the verdict of his court hearing at the courtyard of his studio in Beijing, July 20, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

Her featured 29 bona fide artists (the “33” in the title is a misnomer, the others are curators and family members) are presented with their idiosyncrasies and artful approaches. From 2009 to 2013, a total of 130 artists and stakeholders spoke to Thornton during chance or arranged encounters (at exhibitions or in their studios) spread over 14 countries across five continents. 33 Artists In 3 Acts is also divided into three categories like politics, kinship and craft.

Thornton’s book is not unlike a group show where she gets up-close and personal with a hit list that includes top names like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, the serial rebel Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama (the Empress Dowager of Pop Art) to the intensely absorbed performance artist Marina Abramovic (six pages of interesting text in Act 3, Scene 5), Cindy Sherman (the Selfie Queen of Art Photography), Maurizio Cattelan (seven appearances at the Venice Biennale), Wangechi “Scissorhands” Muthu and the husband-and-wife tandem of Caroll “Tip” Dunham and Laurie Simmons.

“Artists don’t just make art,” writes Thornton in the book’s introduction. “They create and preserve myths that give clout to their work.”

British journalist/author Sarah Thornton at Art Stage Singapore in January. Her new book 33 Artists In 3 Acts is an intriguing and surprisingly personal look into the lives of a variety of artists.
Journalist/author Sarah Thornton at Art Stage Singapore in January.

The archetypal artist is no longer the dreamy romantic given to bouts of maniacal Van Gogh splurges with paint or other materials. He/she is, at once, a solitary philosopher, a social scientist, an activist, a showman, an interlocutor, an entertainer, a magician, a sensationalist, a provocateur, an iconoclast, even a total crackpot – or parts of all of the above or all of them together.

Ai argues that the artist is an enemy not of the state but “of general sensibilities.”

Artists today “art-ify” whatever they do, imbue the work with so-called meaning (and a modicum of power), elevate it from the purportedly mundane or ordinary, to a work worthy of being admired, coveted and possessed.

For his ceramic sunflower seeds, Ai employed some 1,600 people to make 100 million units (of the work) over a two-and-a-half year period. Some artists are an industry unto themselves: Koons boasts of 120 fulltime workers, Hirst has 150 (he once had 250!). Really nothing new, as even in Rembrandt’s time, there were the atelier assistants. While Ai thrives on the “in-your-face” confrontational nature of his works, Koons and Zeng Fan Zhi avoid what could be harmful to the commercial nature of their works.

The artists create their own reality – real, separated or fabricated/staged, and what is termed “intentionalist fallacies.” This is more so in Ai’s case of political verbalising through objects or protests. “If it is not publicised, it’s like it never happened,” declares Ai.

Sherman’s works are fictional as she is not wont to reveal her “fantasies, personality traits, desires, or disappointments.” She holds the record for a photographic edition (limited to 10) when her Centerfolds sold for US$3.9mil(RM14.1mil) each.

Hirst intones: “Your image is something you wear. It is not something that you are.”

Some of the realities are wacky. For instance, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan was coaxed by Thornton to attend his own unauthorised requiem in the exhibition Maurizio Cattelan Is Dead, organised by the “errant” gallery Triple Candie, with its philosophy of “not fetishising art nor apologising for or glorifying artists.” Cattelan himself was a sultan of deceit, employing Massimiliano Gioni (Venice Biennale 2013 director) to impersonate himself as one with articulate views, from would you believe it, 1998 to 2006?

In another, there’s the spoof 6th Caribbean Biennale 2999 in St Kitts, complete with fictitious full-page advertisements. They actually attracted visibly miffed art stakeholders.

In a bizarre art world dominated by a menagerie of inflatable dolphins/lobsters and formaldehyde sharks (The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, Damien Hirst), the New Art is also seen as being about rarefied pronouncements.

“Most artists internalise the myth in the process of their development and then strive to embody and perform it,” says Andrea Fraser.

Elsewhere, Martha Rosler sees the artist as “somebody whose sensibility puts a twist on the utterance in such a way that you recognise both its meaning and its composition.”

Kutlug Ataman, in an indirect dig at Ai, says: “All art is political. But political art is often facile. Art is not supposed to repeat what you already know. It is supposed to ask questions.”

Ataman also finds Ai’s works “derivative.” Another artist, Muthu, who volunteers his opinion on his peers, sees Ai’s sunflower-seed beads as “sperm.”

Then there is that almost pornographic interest in the prices. Works sold by Koons and Hirst get significant mentions. However, Belgrade-born Abramovic, who uses her body as the raw material, stays true to her art, never having ever sold any of her performances. The setting of the interview was in her kitchen in Malden Bridge in upstate New York, surrounded by nature which is the source of her strength.

She also never repeats her successful acts. As one who relishes in the “immaterial energy” of “non-verbal interaction,” Abramovic is best known for her The Artist Is Present (2010) in her Retrospective. In it, she ran a monologue for some 700 hours over three months, where she stared down some 1,700 visitors at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Most of the artists are represented by gilt-edged galleries. Zeng Fanzhi, who Thornton notes smokes Cohiba cigars, is represented by Gagosian. He has since dropped to No. 2 as the most expensive living China artist, behind Cui Ruzhou.

Like showbiz, lurid even gory details of superstar artists are entertainment fodder, lapsing into a “10 Things You Didn’t Know about X Artist” type of trivia.

Koons, who was once married to the porn star Illona “La Cicciolina” Staller (a union celebrated in the poster still of the fictional movie Made In Heaven), has eight children. The play on the “Banality” title in one of his works is also palpable.

On the otherhand, Kusama is partly marketed on her power hallucinations and suicidal tendencies ... like Edvard Munch.

Gone are the self-taught flagellants who rose by dint of hardwork, of practices and practices.

Most of the featured artists are well educated, while Thornton hints at influences of earlier career paths too.

Ai was an antique dealer (by inference he should be able to appreciate a Han Dynasty urn) while the more calculative and self-promotional Koons was once a commodities trader.

Further along, there is even self-absence, but cleverly marketed as death and disappearance. Artists can be found claiming glamour to surrogate art done under their direction, guidance and supervision. Artworks are commissioned even to non-artist types rather than appropriated. One artist just collates face drawings done by patients in a Chilean psychiatric hospital.

There are also developments like the damaging floods in Chelsea (Manhattan, New York), which brought out the communal spirit of the rivals pitted in a cut-throat industry.

There’s the hostility with Hirst, smarting from her stinging criticisms published in The Economist. He grudgingly relented to be interviewed by her in his major show in Doha, Qatar.

In the end, it is about the artists’ own sense of vulnerability and credibility, legitimacy and integrity, a “rehearsal of self-belief” in creating and believing in the art persona they seem or choose to represent, to enhance marketability and visibility.

In it, Thornton also repositions Marcel Duchamp, famed for his fountain urinal, as a seminal figure of what is happening all over again today.

A sociologist, Thornton delves into events, issues and personalities with intimate anecdotes and details. A refreshing take marking the journalistic trend set forth by the likes of Robert Hughes, Suzi Gablick, Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, Calvin Tomkins and Jerry Saltz rather than the weighty historicity tomes of the Clement Greenberg-types.

Sarah Thornton , Book