Dissecting the Urchin: A Skeptic’s Analysis of Cornell Council of the Arts’ 2016 Biennial: Abject/Object Empathie

The Urchin

Surely you have noticed their incongruous presence. Two large-scale sculptures have been put outside for display (so far); one on The Arts Quad and another on The Slope. (Other, less ostentatious pieces are on display in designated galleries.) All part of Cornell Council of the Arts’ 2016 Biennial: Abject/Object Empathie, a campus-wide exhibit which addresses ways in which, as stated on their website, “feeling is form and explore[s] how the objects, buildings, clothing, machines, languages, and images we construct are shaped by our intentional or implicit emotional, interdependent relationship to others.”

Confused as to what that means? Not everyone can be as enlightened as an “empathetic form” artist. Try this one:

“Whether by framing a connection that already exists or by providing the condition for new connections, what we create can either merely extend our own personal desires, goals, and directives, or can alternatively function as a bridge between who I am and who you are so that aesthetic experiences are interdependent, collaboratively generated and inherently reciprocal.”

Still confused? Good. This Chomsky-esque abstract pretty much represents this entire project: if you make it obscure and broad enough, anyone who dare criticise the piece ends up looking like an uncultured fool. So let’s do just that.

Upon my first viewing of The Urchin, I, like many others, had assumed it was a stack of chairs to be used for an event. Only later did I find out that it was a stack of chairs used to “rethink the common plastic chair whose aggregation forms a space in which the chair itself loses its meaning as an object that affords sitting and becomes instead an architectural surface whose formal and material qualities are allowed to come to the fore”

American Spolia

American Spolia

A similar experience occurred with my viewing of American Spolia. I figured that the large metal and scrap-wood-looking structure was a temporary scaffold-type object for the installation of lights on The Slope. Later that night a letter lambasting what I had assumed to be scrap, was released by The Native American Students at Cornell and shared on Facebook. The letter detailed the historical inaccuracy expressed by the piece. The letter “strongly denounced the rhetoric being used”, and accused the piece as being “fundamentally flawed”. The artist has since completely rewritten their statement about the piece and issued a proxied and aloof apology.

Native American Students at Cornell

Native American Students at Cornell

I was drawn into these pieces by their scandalous statement and the aesthetic discomfort evoked. I thought this display would be an appropriate time to ask a question which is not asked enough: What makes good art?

Asking what question: “what is art?” is nearly impossible to answer. Try to exclude any idea or object and there will be a line outside your door of ornery artists arguing otherwise on the basis that “art is subjective”. I believe that statement is true. But at what point does it shift from personal art to public art? The quality of art can be assigned to three levels, which are not mutually exclusive.

1. Is it pretty? – “Filling a space in a beautiful way. That’s what art means to me.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
A lot of modern art and motel-art fall into this category. The work done is often minimal, banal, or fails to be impressive, but is, nonetheless, quite pleasing.

2. Is it impressive? – “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” – Johannes Brahms
If the technique used to create a particular piece of art is not one commonly used or known, one cannot appreciate how a modern-style or untraditional artist created their work in the same way one can appreciate how an oil painter or an architect created their work. This category is reserved almost entirely for crafted and abstract art. An ornate porcelain teapot, or the A.D. White Library are both very impressive, but the intended meaning, if any, is lost is the form.

3. Is it meaningful? – “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and…then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling—this is the activity of art.” – Leo Tolstoy
This is the top 1% of art. Any painting, sculpture, drawing, poem, piece of music that can— without the assistance of an artist’s statement—evoke meaning that is not explicitly apparent from the piece whatsoever will fall into this category. Think of Picasso’s Guernica which ever-increasingly disturbs the viewer with a colossal stretch of gruesome, deformed, and uncanny figures, all serving to offer a raw perspective of the odiousness of war. Or Claude Monet’s Water Lilies which hypnotises the viewer into questioning how such a seemingly realistic, almost photographic scenery, could be evoked from a blurred stroke of colors.



Let’s analyze one of these pieces together. Where does The Urchin fall into this category. Well let’s go down the list.

Is it pretty. To me, no. Personally I find the white plastic both distracting and slightly blinding, especially when juxtaposed with the beauty of the arts quad. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s say that I am an exception, and the aesthetic quality it is, in fact, revered by most of the student body.

Is it impressive? It’s hard to assess the impressiveness of a piece of art if the method used to create it is not a traditional method. I, and most others, are familiar with what constitutes skill in a painting, but not so much with chair sculptures. Contrary to its seemingly shambolic appearance, “The exhibit took a year and a half of planning and construction to complete, O’Donnell said. The team arranged the chairs in different ways, experimenting with various connectors. The structure was also modeled with computer-generated images; designers were even able to see the structure in a three-dimensional virtual reality with goggles before it was built.” That sounds pretty impressive. A lot of time and technology were used to create this piece. But that begs the question and brings us to our third level, does that make it meaningful? Had the structure been that of a randomly computer-generated program, would it hold the same meaning, especially to the common passer-by?

It appears the answer is yes. From her own words, Artist Caroline O’Donnell said: “Turning a chair upside down, making a chair not able to function as a chair forces you to think about the chair differently. Now that you cannot sit in it, you notice other things about chairs. You see the spikiness, the material, the way the light comes through. Then you start asking questions. Who designed them? Who made them? Are they recycled? It forces people to ask questions.” Would the questions be any different if chair 201 was removed? What about if the piece contained 3 chairs? Suddenly this piece doesn’t seem so impressive anymore.

Art is a unique and utterly transformative experience. I try to frequent the Johnson Museum while I’m here, or The Met while at home in NYC. And while my appreciation for artists and art in general is usually quite generous, every so often a piece sticks out at me, either as a work of unparalleled beauty; or, like in this case, as a piece with an ambiguous motive; however, if the artist’s goal was to stretch beyond what is considered art, only to force the contemplation of the questions elicited while observing this piece, then not only does the motive become clear, but the artist succeeds in the most subtle way: by using ambiguity and discomfort to force introspection about the piece.

I encourage everyone to visit and regard both outdoor pieces, as well as the many others scattered in galleries around campus.