Monday, May 23, 2011

"Boy with Frog" as Installation

Detail from "Boy with Frog" installation
Ever since Marcel Duchamp first displayed a urinal in an exhibition a certain strain of art has asked us to think about how our sense of the "aesthetic qualities" of a work can depend as much upon the context in which we see something as on the object itself. It asks us to pay close attention to context, as in some cases the context is everything.

I don't think context is everything in the case of "Boy with Frog," but I now realize that, actually, it's far more interesting and suggestive than the sculpture alone.

One can say that the "Boy with Frog" subverts, through its subject matter and materials, the tradition of monumental marble public sculpture in Italy. But more simply it subverts this tradition far more thoroughly in another way: it is not a public sculpture.

It is a private sculpture, commissioned by François Pinault, displayed in one of the most prominent public spaces of Venice. It is a part of Pinault's massive and influential collection of contemporary art. Pinault also owns the art auction house of Christie's.

If people can debate the merit of the sculpture itself, there can be little debate about the work's value. That is, market value. We are reminded of that quite literally 24 hours a day. By the armed(!) guard stationed at the "Boy's" side while the Punta della Dogana is open; by the protective case that surrounds it after hours.

In contrast, say, to the Mona Lisa, whose fame (and value) long pre-dated her special security measures, Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog" entered the world with its security apparatus intact. The security insists upon (one could argue creates) the sculpture's worth right from the get-go. Which is what leads me to suggest that "Boy with a Frog" be considered not as sculpture but as installation.

The fact is, that armed guard and that large protective box are as integral to the work as the frog itself. (The boxing of the sculpture each evening and its unboxing each morning are as ceremonial, in their own their own small way, as the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace.) It is impossible to see the work without either the one or the other--and to ignore either guard or protective box is to miss what I now think are the most suggestive aspects of the work.

"Boy with Frog" as installation is an exemplary work of contemporary art precisely because of the way it foregrounds (among other things):

--the privatization of public space, and public works, and public welfare, that is occurring throughout the West. (Venice's Carnevale itself, to cite a fairly innocuous example, is now run by a private company.)

--the way in which the market value of a work of art is manipulated from the very outset by those who have the most to gain (quite literally) from it. 

--the way in which private interests require the constant surveillance of public space. (Imagine the auction house value of a sculpture displayed for years on such a prime Venetian spot.)

I'm generally no fan of graffitti, but in the case of Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog" installation, the first sign that the work has finally become an actual public part of the city in which it resides will appear with the sloppy spray of a paint can or scrawl of a marker.

You can see more on this sculpture here:


  1. (I still have troubles leaving comments for you! If there are multiple comments from me, destroy all but this one, please.)

    So, who is paying for the security presence? And, you'd have Buckley's chance(none) of getting near there with an aerosol or marker pen. The guards might find their task VERY boring, but they do it well.

    I thought the lad was going to be removed. What happened to that idea?

  2. I'm sorry you're having trouble leaving comments, I should look into and see if there's something on the site that has to do with that.

    In any case, I suspect the security is paid for by the Pinault Foundation that has the lease on the Punta della Dogana. Or I should write, I HOPE it is, as I lived in NYC long enough to have seen plenty of examples of tax payers picking up the tab on facilities, for example, that lead only to huge private profit. (Alas, that now seems to be what is meant by "The American Way.")

    I did see an old article from 2009 quoting Venezia's mayor as assuring everyone the work would be up only until the end of that year's Biennale... So why is it still up? You got me...

    I'm not advocating that anyone try to mark up the piece, just imagining what might happen if the work was left alone as a sculpture--left that is, exposed to the social elements of its actual surroundings.

    As it is, I think it's unfortunate that a public site once so important to Venetians & visitors alike--where, to quote the artist himself in a 2009 NY Times piece, "couples have fights, break up, get engaged, and have their first kiss"--is now monopolized by a purely private interest.

    For the sake of historical education, I'd suggest they at least put the guard in an early 19th C. French or Austrian uniform.

  3. I like your take on it as an Installation, with the guards an integral part! I think the guards shouls have to wear gondolier outfits or Carnivale costumes. Agree that it would fit right in with all those crazy sculptures in the DC Mall (many of which I really love).

    I hope you'll keep us posted about any unique/interesting/bizarre art that's around town during Le Biennale this summer.

    Just an FYI - there have been problems with Blogger and commenting for several weeks now. It's not just your blog. :)

  4. Annie,

    I think your suggestion of costumes would be more in keeping with how most people (certainly visitors) respond to the statue: as a fun spectacle. Which is the kind of positive response that most artists would love to get.

    But having (perhaps obviously) spent far too much time sitting near the sculpture and taking the whole scene in while being eyed watchfully by whichever guard happened to be there, I was struck by how the presence of the guard eventually made it seem a little like the monument of some occupying force: as unwanted and unappreciated by the residents as anything posted by the French or the Austrians must have been in the 19th century.

  5. Annie,

    I'm really looking forward to the Biennale and hope to see a lot--or why not all?--of it. I didn't realize until this year that it ran so long (from June 4-November 27). I just came upon a "comprehensive guide" online that looks promising:

  6. We enjoyed seeing the statue in Venice a few years ago, and I do like seeing modern art in older settings. It would never have stayed, and indeed, it was taken away in 2013. A couple of years ago, I was visiting the Getty Museum here in Los Angeles, and what a surprise ... there was the Boy With Frog on the front steps! I believe this is now its permanent home, but I have to say that I think it was better suited to the edge of the Grand Canal. It seems a little bone dry in its current location.

    1. In some ways, Chapps, it seems like the Getty Museum is a pretty ideal location, because of the statue's pseudo-classicism--but I guess not if you've seen it before at the water's edge in Venice. I can see how that kind of land-locked setting would seem second-best in that case. But was the Pacific Ocean at least visible in the distance? And I'm assuming there wasn't an armed guard beside it at the Getty, was there? Just seeing the piece by itself would be nice.

    2. Here's a great L.A. Times article on the installation of the statue at the Getty, including a host of pics showing its new location. Scroll down to the bottom to get an idea of how it's first viewed on the monumental staircase, as you step off the tram.

  7. It's a great piece - monumental, yet accessible. It always brings a smile to people's faces. The site in Dorsoduro was very hard to beat. Unfortunately, in it's current location on the large entry staircase to the Getty, the ocean is not visible. At the top of the staircase, yes, you can take in a spectacular view, encompassing a huge swathe of the coast and Pacific Ocean - and the beautiful gardens. I really wish they'd move it to one of the promontories over the garden. No armed guards. When you're up at the top of Getty's 'Acropolis' (it really does resemble a modern version of the Greek original), you're in the bubble of protection, with guards somewhere nearby and cameras of course everywhere. I'm just very glad that I got to see it in its original Venice location. Ephemeral beauty.

    1. Thank you for the reference to the LA Times piece, Chapps, and for your own description and opinion of the piece in each of the two different settings. You make me want to visit the Getty again, and not only to see the boy with the frog. The last time I was there was so long ago that Madonna and Sean Penn were still a couple--dating or newly married, I don't know, but I do recall them in their matching LA uniform of that time period of plain white crew neck T and expensively distressed blue jeans running and laughing and calling a lot of attention to themselves in one of the big galleries. So though I was surrounded by timeless objects, those two succeeded in forever dating the experience in my memory.