Gary Flockhart: Art all in the eye of the beholder

IT’S often said that one man’s Picasso is another man’s spilt paint pot.But is there such a thing as “too far” when it comes to art?

By Gary Flockhart
Wednesday, 14th September 2011, 6:26 pm

But is there such a thing as “too far” when it comes to art?

That was the question posed when it was revealed earlier this week that American artist Nina Gehl wants to create artworks from human remains.

The New York-born, Wellington-based partner of Edinburgh actor Ken Stott is currently creating portraits using the ash of cremated pet animals – and now she has approached a number of cemeteries seeking ash from actual human corpses.

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“To me it’s just material,” she said. “That may sound really crass, I know.”

Whether or not Gehl’s working methods are offensive comes down to individual viewpoint. Still, it does seem that nothing is out of bounds these days.

From Tracey Emin’s unmade bed to Damien Hirst’s pickled cow bits or professor Gunther von Hagens’ shocking Body Worlds exhibition in which corpses were displayed stripped of their flesh, it would appear that the only limitations now are those of the artist’s imagination.

This was never clearer than when Chris Ofili’s elephant dung paintings won him the prestigious Turner Prize in 1998, or three years later when Martin Creed landed the same award for his Work No. 227: The Lights Going On And Off, an “artistic” creation that did precisely what it said on the tin.

And then there’s Gilbert and George, those self-styled living sculptures who specialise in provocative and explicit art, using bodily fluids such as blood and sperm in their works.

But while such works often leave a bad taste in the mouths of many, there’s no hiding from the fact that galleries which exhibit controversial art have experienced enormous success, with Edinburgh itself playing host to some bewildering and bizarre installations over the years.

Who can forget when Canadian artist Clara Ursitti invited people to sniff her body odours during an exhibition at the City Art Centre in 2007? Granted, you probably did want to forget that one, but it wasn’t the only Capital exhibition to make headlines.

Two years earlier, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, an exhibition entitled Balls (aptly named, some said) angered critics for its waste of public money. The creation of conceptual artist Martin Creed, the exhibition consisted of 800 footballs and inflatable beach balls in different colours and sizes strewn across the gallery floor.

It seemed those responsible for the public art purse really had gone loopy when, just a few months later, a staggering £160,000 of taxpayers cash was spent on David Mach’s Temple At Tyre at Leith’s Victoria Dock. Essentially a man-made mountain of old tyres and empty marine containers, the exhibition was aimed at boosting the Capital’s bid to become Britain’s City of Architecture and Design.

And no, we didn’t get the gig.