Not all art is intended to outlive the artist. In fact, some art forms are designed to disintegrate or fade away before our eyes. Temporary work comes in various forms found all over the world and is often celebrated for its public or site-specific reach. Unlike a painting or sculpture found in a museum, temporary works can be found in surprising places and even happened upon by unexpecting passersby.
With roots in ancient Italy, chalk art (Gesso Italiano) is meant to be fleeting. With a canvas of pavement, street artists create chalk murals that, once appreciated, quickly dissipate with weather. San Diego students can see new works each year at Little Italy FESTA!
Intricate sand mandalas are painstakingly constructed by Tibetan Monks, using millions of grains of sand to create an image over weeks or months. Once the patterns and symbols are meticulously placed, there is a prayer, after which, the mandalas are dismantled ritualistically to demonstrate life’s ephemeral properties. Sand is either passed out in handfuls to those who witnessed the ritual or dispensed into a nearby river or stream.
Likewise, earthworks will deteriorate and site-specific works will usually have to be disassembled. When discussing the beautiful leaf, twig and ices sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy, or Robert Smithson’s famous Spiral Jetty, the notion of time, experience and memory become important. A student once asked me why Goldsworthy didn’t weigh his leaf arrangements with rocks to ensure that they wouldn’t blow away. I asked if the piece would still be as beautiful and whether it would then become a rock and leaf sculpture instead. Most students agreed it would have hidden the beautiful rainbow shading of leaves and that the piece, as intended, would be ruined.
Because we have traditionally placed so much focus on final products, some students find the concept of temporary art difficult to grasp. They don’t understand why anyone would create a piece that couldn’t last. It can be helpful to draw their attention to temporary works they are more likely to be familiar with, for example, a play. For those involved (the actors, crew, and audience), the performance is enough. Other familiar examples might be building sand castles or shaping mud sculptures. Once these events are over, all that is left is the memory and perhaps a photograph or two.
Because these art forms are process-based rather than project driven, students can slow down and really take stock of their creative and critical strides. Once students get past their desire for permanence, they can appreciate that temporary work can exist for a larger audience, and can continue to be appreciated in the way of documentation and memory. In fact, many works seem all the more poignant for their short life span.