Why Artists Gillie and Marc aren’t angry in the face of criticism
By Chloe Gunn
When infamous American art critic Jerry Saltz penned a scathing review of Gillie and Marc’s latest monumental sculpture, his words went viral.
The work in question, aptly titled ‘The Last Three’, consists of a 5 metre tall sculpture representing the last three Northern White Rhinos in existence – Sudan, Najin and Fatu – each meticulously rendered in bronze. The husband and wife artist duo behind the work, Gillie and Marc, created this sculpture as a way of bringing vital awareness to this critically endangered species, and emphasise the importance of wildlife conservation among future generations.
Erected in Astor Place in New York only last Thursday, the presence of ‘The Last Three’ has already caused quite a stir, eliciting a strong response across its audiences both in New York and online. Indeed, no voice was more pronounced than Saltz’s blistering account, during which he laments “It is an ugly, bathos-filled folly that proves my adage that 95 percent of all public sculpture is crap”, before adding, “Thank goodness this crap is only temporary”. Saltz surmised his thoughts by labelling the work as a “surreal-ish kitsch monstrosity” and a “travesty that theatricalizes calamity”.
Harsh? Perhaps. However the heat of Saltz’s vitriolic commentary undeniably raises a number of very compelling questions that have (and will continue to) plague the art world. Most pertinent of which, what is the role of the art critic in contemporary art? And who does the art critic speak for?
An avid user of social media, Jerry Saltz unsurprisingly holds an extensive online following, where his sharp wit and sometimes polarising remarks can be seen to feed into his own notoriety, and reaffirm his status as an important heavy-weight in the global art scene. Within these terms, Jerry Saltz can perhaps be seen as merely dutifully performing his role as the decisive and controversial art critic, who holds the power (in 140 characters or less) to carve out what should be considered as art or, by his account, what should not.
By extension though, does Saltz’s very choice to engage with Gillie and Marc’s work (which he tries so hard to vehemently undermine), actually serve in some way, to validate it? With so much art being readily available for consumption (an accessibility further exacerbated by social media), the fact that Saltz has selectively decided to zero-in on this particular work would certainly appear to hold some significance – even if only as the target of his derision and scorn.
The nature of this interaction between the art critic and artist also serves to underline the different ways we come to understand and define contemporary art. For instance, does this kind of recognition (be that good or bad) elevate and legitimate the work, by mere virtue of it being noticed? What is more, when the work provokes such an intense response amongst its audiences, could that not perhaps be read by some, as a measure of success? This is not to say that all art needs to be loud, confrontational and subversive to be effective, but merely that such strategies are sometimes willingly administered by the artists to communicate their own artistic intent.
Indeed, Gillie and Marc have created a work that was intended to shock its audiences. This was done to reflect the artists’ own lived experience, referring to the time they spent with the Northern White rhinos, burdened with the knowledge that others would never have a chance to see the species in the flesh for themselves before becoming extinct. This fact cannot be overstated, because it is absolutely mind-blowing and deplorable that unsustainable human practices have condemned yet another species to certain extinction.
In response to this, Gillie and Marc created a sculpture that is visually striking, representing the last three tenuously perched on top of each other, and communicating their precarious state, on the brink of being wiped out completely. It is clear that the artists are hoping that this work inspires a reactive affect, in mobilising the public to reconsider policies around wildlife animal poaching and the illegal distribution of rhino horn.
Whilst it is still too early to tell if this ambitious work will be able to enact real change as it has set out to do, the question remains, should we really admonish the artists for trying?
In turn, whilst ‘The Last Three’ may not be to everyone’s aesthetic appeal, it nonetheless represents a brave exploration into the complicated and fraught intersection of where activism meets art.
Furthermore, Gillie and Marc are certainly not the first artists, nor the last, of who’s work will be hotly contested and be subjected to the wrath of the critics. Historically, there are many instances in when artists have fallen in ill-favour, for instance in 1863 in Paris with the famous Salle des Refusée. More recently and perhaps more relatedly (in appraising the work of a fellow Australian artist) London’s Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak memorably described John Olson’s energetic painting ‘Sydney Sun’ as a “cascade of diarrhoea” at the 2013 Royal Academy’s ‘Australia’ exhibition. In response Jeff Koon’s ‘Balloon Dog’ (who incidentally, Saltz mentions in his article), late critic for Time magazine Robert Hughes described Koon’s by proclaiming; “you can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him”.
Perhaps in comparison, Gillie and Marc got let off rather lightly.
As for the artists themselves, they welcome Saltz’s commentary and appraisal, with Marc confirming; “we like creating Kitschy Monstrosities, they can bring awareness to a cause and enact change”.
Photo courtesy of Gillie and Marc.