Ephemeral Art and Long-Lasting Impact
Sometimes, that which fades the fastest makes the boldest and most lasting impact. Artists have consistently been inspired by the concept of the ephemeral in art, that which is intended not to be preserved for posterity, but rather to dissipate imminently, carried away on the wind or the waves. Indeed, contemporary artists are embracing the ephemeral in art more than ever, and celebrating the liberation it offers, as well as the symbolic impact of that which is over in the blink of an eye. From pioneering land artists working with the glacial and temporary beauty of ice and sand, to singular contemporary pieces never replicated once completed and deconstructed, ephemeral art’s enduring appeal continues to fascinate, inspire, and astonish.
When experienced in situ, ephemeral art allows viewers to experience locations in new ways, and transmits a powerful message regarding the transient nature of the world we inhabit. By accentuating the impermanence of an artwork, and by extension, the impermanence of all that surrounds it, the ephemeral artist and viewer alike gain privileged access to layer upon layer of symbolism and significance. The artwork, the materials it is constructed from, and the space in which we encounter them are mere snapshots in time, soon to transform or disappear entirely, after which they exist in our shared memories alone.
While ephemeral artworks are most commonly associated with the artistic vernacular of the 20th and 21st centuries, their origins lie in esoteric traditions of times long since past. Indeed, the meditative art of mandalas, which hold a special place in Eastern visual cultures, could be upheld as early examples. Once the mandalas, often made from coloured sand, were completed, they would be scattered to the winds. The act of creation and the focus it provides was believed to be where the significance lay, not in the finished product.
Modern ephemeral art can be traced to the Berlin and New York art scenes of the 1960s. Joseph Beuys and his Fluxus Group, an influential DIY collective who staged happenings and disruptive performative pieces, believed that art should be experienced outside the canon of gallery spaces. Their legacy is felt in countless temporary outdoor exhibitions, drawing crowds to gaze in wonder at how spaces can be transformed. Examples such as Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog X FLO, in which amorphous clouds of mist pass through city centres and natural settings, take the essence of ephemera to their logical conclusion, and to genuinely awe-inspiring effect.
Land art was among the first artistic movements to highlight the ephemeral as its raison d’être, and it plays with notions of memory, growth, and erosion, each of which are encapsulated as forces of nature, then crystallised through striking temporary works. Among the most celebrated of land artists is Andy Goldsworthy, whose creations interact intimately with their landscape. His sculptures, which often recall mandalas, utilise ice, snow, fallen leaves, and other natural materials which will quickly melt, or be washed or blown away by their surroundings.
Other land artists use ephemeral materials and settings to explore the spectacle of scale, encouraging questions regarding the nature of what art is, and what art can be. Michael Heizer’s 1969 piece Double Negative is a monumental example, and involved the digging of a five hundred metre long trench alongside a canyon. The natural erosion which took place after its completion gradually transformed the work, providing it with its ephemeral quality. Heizer himself claimed that the original artwork was, in fact, over the moment the first grain of sand shifted, thus changing the piece forever.
Today’s artists are taking cues from the legacy of Goldsworthy, Heizer, and others, using ephemeral aspects of sculpture to highlight the fragility and transience of nature. Olafur Eliasson’s 2018 artwork Ice Watch, in which twelve blocks of glacial ice were left to slowly melt in public spaces, provided a beautiful example of artistic ephemera which struck a deep chord with both its visual quality and impactive message.
Ephemeral art today reflects, both conceptually and materially, the times in which we live. Artists have always had a responsibility to hold a mirror up to the reality we share, and ephemeral art’s temporary nature provides a profound symbolic significance for those who come across it. To experience such artworks allows a sense of privilege for the viewer, and a snapshot of a moment in time to be treasured.
In this sense, ephemeral art often inherently possesses a degree of spectacle, an opportunity for artistic freedom to achieve what might not be possible as a permanent exhibition. Contemporary Slovenian artist JAŠA, for example, was given carte-blanche to redesign the interior of an entire hotel for one year, before it was professionally renovated. His anarchic approach and uniquely personal decorative flourishes resulted in a stunningly immersive artwork, utilising room after room as his canvas. In a similar vein, Cai Guo-Qiang’s light installations, which illuminate the sky for split-seconds, produce dazzling visuals which, by design, disappear in mere moments.
Martin Hill, an environmental artist from New Zealand, created a sculpture reflected in the lake by using the technique of compression and tension to make the strongest form with only essential materials.
At its essence, ephemeral art accentuates the way in which we experience artworks of all types, with one significant aspect highlighted and placed in primary position. When we see anything which elicits a sense of wonder, or which we consider to be beautiful or profound, the impact exists firstly in the present moment, then to be preserved in the memory and heightened through contemplation. Ephemeral art is, at its best, this essence epitomised, explored, and refined.
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