Graham & Kosuth “Pavilion of Babel”

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Blerina Berberi, The Netherlands, 2005

Dan Graham and Joseph Kosuth

End of story:

The Pavilion of Babel

Conceptual art is commonly stated to have started around 1960. Robert Hughes wrote that the ‘sparkle’ of conceptual art is Robert Rauschenberg, who invested in the assumption of art existing anywhere in whatever form, material and for any purpose and destination such as in his telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so”[1]. Furthermore, Robert Rosenblum stated that artists after 1960 ‘owned’ to Rauschenberg the challenging of restrictions of art and the belief in all life is open to art[2]. Rauschenberg also referred to Marcel Duchamp and the use of “readymades”. His influences were also interfused with those theories of Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. He wasn’t the only one to ignite the ideas about conceptual art.

The basic definition of conceptual art lies in its conception since according to Duchamp “All art is conceptual because art only exist conceptually”[3]. But conceptual art doesn’t completely get away with the object since some artists such as Dan Graham tried to establish a new relation between object and idea, physicality and meaning. According to Williams conceptual art is less a movement and more a “reorientation of artistic strategy”.

During 1965-1975, the Van Abbe Museum in the Netherlands had its ‘doors’ wide open to the new works of conceptual art. The exhibition of such artworks depended a lot on the director of the museum, co-workers, and other political and economical factors. These experimental and technological artworks were welcomed while diminishing the traditional and conventional disciplines. The different forms of visual representation, such as films, videos, photography were consolidated in the idea of challenging the concept of art and the values of visual manifestations.[4]

The social and political circumstances of the 60s and 70s ‘encouraged’ the young generation to question most of traditional forms and beliefs concerning society, museums, and above all art. This ‘reorientation of artistic strategy’ or as Kosuth might say “new methotodology” breeds a wide range of different artworks still under the same conception on conceptual art.

But how black and white is this?

‘Analytical’ artists, such as Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language group, rejected the pre-established notion of art, its theory and practice. The basic change was the dematerialization of art works. Joseph Kosuth’s works rejected formalist and aesthetic views demonstrating it in his art theory in his works. One of his works in 1965, One and Nine- A description, is a series of ten identical glass sheets, showing different words describing the quality of the same object: clear, glass, square, etc. His idea was that the essence of something is shown by “an idea contained in language”. This was an artwork neither a sculpture or painting. It was formless and colorless. In his First Investigations, represented definitions of different words taken from dictionaries, on the basis of stating that language ‘pertains’ concepts such as meaning. Therefore no forms needed to represent ideas. The Van Abbe Museum catalogue states:

“By bringing language into the context of visual, Kosuth was able to replace the pictorial image with a linguistic definition”[5]

Kosuth’s works are titled Art as Idea as Idea which express his viewpoint on the artwork as concept, since that is all that’s important. The basic shift in his thinking about art was its context. The main idea of Art as Idea as Idea was changing the idea of art itself. New forms can’t be formed but new meanings yes. He explains:

“So I felt that all art was abstract in relation to cultural meaning, in the way that the noises we utter called words are meaningful in relation to a linguistic system, not in relation to the world”[6]

He also found that “there was more of a transcultural response to achromatic color-black, white, and gray-than to the chromatic scale, which had a much more marked difference among specific individuals as well as between cultures”[7].

Kosuth advocates not to make art for its own sake because that is dependent on its tradition for meaning, through form, which speaks to itself. Furthermore, he states that language as a cultural system is parallel to art, by being both useful in theory and practice. Therefore, ambiguity on art’s role is something that is part of the culture, language. More explicitly he states:

“I choose language for the ‘material’ of my work because it seemed to be the only possibility with the potential for being a neutral non-material; considering the transparency of language meant it use in art would, in a sense, allow us to ‘see’ art, while still focusing on the social/cultural context it’s dependent upon for meaning…art would tell us something about our art by being our art..”[8]

Regarding his new ‘methotodology’ that artists should consider, he expresses his position in relation to art institutions, politics and society. He says that “institutionalized ‘individualism’ divides us”. In this case he is referring to museums and art market whose role is considered to be negative in the evaluation, categorization, appreciation of art and the social connections in a society. He also wanted his works that by the use of the labels one person can read at a time. Therefore each individual would feel at ease “looking” or rather say reading his artworks, contrary to the crowd in front of Mona Lisa’s in Louver. Another important issue for Kosuth is that artists should talk and explain their works more than critics, since critics’ position is different and might lead to a variety of misinterpretations.

The ‘famous’ concern of many artists is something, which according to him is a simple choice if you understand the mass population of the world. He states:

“…there’s a lot more dumb people out there than there are smart ones, so if your goal in life is to be popular, and/or rich, the choice isn’t a difficult one”[9].

Briefly, Kosuth main characteristics are his new ideas on the conception and context of art, in relation to language, culture, society, institutions, politics, etc.

But what about other conceptual artists? How different were they? The difference between Kosuth and some other American conceptual artists, is that the Americans were a bit keen on Minimalist art, something which Kosuth disliked.

Is it possible that different conceptualist artists, even though their artworks are so different, can be compatible conceptually?

During the late 60s, Dan Graham came up with his Magazine Pieces where their ideological and cultural context eliminated the unambiguous. Those magazines weren’t just presented as artworks but also as art criticism. Thus his art magazines weren’t ‘merchandise’ since artworks are reproduced in magazines. In 1969 Dan Graham started focusing on performance, film and video art. His main interest lied in processes of perception, social and psychological aspects between the artist, audience and surroundings. Furthermore, he was one of the first to use video not just for recording but to expose the viewer’s conditioned behavior. In his Yesterday/Today 1975 a monitor was placed in the museum and the audience could see different scenes and people in the other rooms of the museum live, while the sound was recorder one day earlier but at same time. His intention was to show to the public what was hidden to them, the presumed neutrality of such an art institution.

The young Graham, owned a gallery which exhibited works of Sol LeWitt minimalal artist, which later on went bankrupt. In his works he was focused on video and other theories because: “I think about video in terms of its self-reference. It is a kind of mirror that reflects the unconsciousness of the subject”[10].

Later on he gave up films because he couldn’t afford making them. Graham’s interest on the concept of video as mirror, has followed his later works in glass. One of the “latest” and well known artwork is his pavilion on the DIA center in Manhattan 1995 formed of two-way mirrored glass which is transparent and reflective depending on the changes of light. Graham is really into art and architecture and he also studied different European gardens. According to Cooke, the origins of this sculpture-architecture object lies in Minimalism art, which focused on pure forms of physical contexts.[11] The basic function of this project is public rather than private. Furthermore Cooker states on the forms of his pavilion:

“The outer rectilinear structure of this site-specific sculpture makes reference to the city below: to the grid pattern which determines its topography; to the predominance of modernist and modernist-derived architectural styles in its high-rise architecture; and to its framing of the dual character of urban social experience, of seeing and being seen, of spectatorship and spectacle…the viewer cannot escape consciousness of his or her-self image as mirrored in the glass, and hence of his or her agency in the act of vision…Graham’s work speaks much to a phenomenological as to a psychological reading of the self and its constructions”[12].

Furthermore, Cooker in her essay explains that the inner cylinder is formed from the ‘bodies of viewers’ as from the adjacent watertower, a feature of the Manhattan skyline. Graham, himself considers his project as a microcosmos of the whole city, where different social activities take place and people interact. The social participation is related to the understanding of an artwork where looking is an experience of recognizing and contributing to this activity. In the rooftop there is also a lounge/café room where different videos are shown for free or not.

In an interview, Graham states that he is would like to make really large galleries in order for artists not to have competition and feel free to present simple things. He is against art market per se when there is not intellectual interest in the content of art world[13].

Therefore, Graham as a conceptual artists, also at some extent a minimalist one, differs from Kosuth on his representational forms and some ideas, which are mostly psychological due to his ‘fixated’ use of mirrors and glass.

To conclude, the main idea of this paper is that Graham and Kosuth are compatible. Why?

Ernst Gombrich states that in the late 18th century some ideas were centered around primitive and child art, which consisted on the use of language of symbols not natural signs. Thus art grounded not in seeing but knowledge, so art operated with “conceptual images”. For example, kids are satisfied with conceptual scheme of tree not its branch and detailed characteristics. Therefore more important is conceptual construction rather imitation. Gombrich in more details states:

“All art originates in the human mind, in our reactions to the world rather than in the visible world itself, and it is precisely because all art is “conceptual” that all representations are recognizable by their style”[14]

Conceptual art and pictorial images are just as looking at ‘different angels that still derive the same information’, and there are no correct or false answers. Also, language doesn’t give names but articulates our world of experience so concepts can’t be right or wrong. They can be useful for formation of description.

Therefore, Kosuth on the idea of art as represented by language is ‘looking’ from a different angle form Graham, but still both do derive at same information or idea, conceptual art. More importantly, Kosuth in his early works made use of glass as Graham did in his latest artworks in parks and the one in DIA building. Shortly, the later Kosuth is ‘closer’ to the early Graham. Both of them in general are against some museum conventions and do accept the role and participation of the society and culture as determining and apprehending works of art, though at some extent. Both of them would agree with Gombrich that: “The form of representation cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency”[15].

Still, while the formless and context of Kosuth refer to language in relation to art, Graham is more an artist-architect whose ‘public service’ of art is more exercised than Kosuth. But most importantly let me explain the title of this paper:

The story starts with the tower of Babel, which was supposed the reach Heaven. But God, in order to stop the workers raising it so high, he confounded their languages so that they were not able to communicate and understand each other so that the project failed.

This story emphasizes the importance of language. Therefore, even though Graham has a different interpretation of his pavilion in DIA, still it is language that made his art work possible. Furthermore interpreting or better say conceptualizing Graham’s psychological and psychoanalytical theories of glass and mirror, it is possible that mirror and self-reflection are somehow related to Narcissistic tendencies. Narcissus who fell in love with his image in the lake, lacked the understanding of the importance of the language. Thus he died because he didn’t communicate through language but “loved the image, object”, so he ignored language, and fate the fatal destruction of not believing in the power of language as building or connecting realities.

Getting back to what is being mirrored and reflected in Graham’s pavilion is not just some people and buildings of the city. What is reflected in that pavilion is what language has created. Therefore Kosuth is right in relating language to art, since the meaning of art is also to be found in language which built the city and the pavilion. Therefore the pavilion is a symbol finalizing the tower of Babel project, which didn’t arrive at heavens but at the highest pure idea of the concept of art.

[1] Hughes, Robert, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change,Thames & Hudson, ed. 2002, p.334

[2] Hughes, Robert, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change,Thames & Hudson, ed. 2002, p.334

[3] Williams, Robert, Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004, p.221

[4] Van Abbemuseum. A Companion to Modern and Contemporary Art. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2002, p.106

[5] Van Abbemuseum, A Companion to Modern and Contemporary Art. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2002, p.101

[8] Kosuth, Joseph, Painting versus Art versus Culture in : Art after Philosophy and after: Collected writings, 1966-1990, MIT Press, 1991, p. 92

[10] Nonomura, Fumihori, Manga Dan Graham Story, in Brouwer, Marianne (ed). Dan Graham. Works 1965-2000. Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001, p.387

[14] Gombrich, E.H., Art and Illusion. A study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1956, p.87.

[15] Gombrich, E.H., Art and Illusion. A study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1956, p.90


Some of our paintings are missing…

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Some of our paintings are missing …

Is state-owned art in safe hands?

By Brian Brady, March 2009

They are some of Britain’s most prized public treasures, jealously guarded by the Government on behalf of the nation. But not, it appears, when they are placed in the hands of ministers, ambassadors and civil servants.

State-owned paintings worth hundreds of thousands of pounds have been lost, stolen or damaged while on loan to government departments in the UK and around the world over the past four years.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has admitted that 19 works from the Government Art Collection have been reported lost or stolen from buildings as far afield as Jakarta and Sao Paolo since 2005. (Four of these, including Strand on the Green by Rodney Burns, were later found elsewhere on the same premises.)

Twelve more were damaged and had to be repaired at a cost of thousands of pounds. Repairs to two works at 10 Downing Street, which included a portrait of Sir Robert Walpole (for “tears in the canvas – cause not established”) cost £5,000 alone.

The DCMS is considering demanding compensation for the losses, recovery and repairs running into thousands of pounds.

But opposition politicians last night complained that ministers and officials were “too casual” with the 13,500 treasures in the Government Art Collection, which range from original works dating back to the 16th century to limited-edition prints. The Conservatives called for stiffer discipline to force staff to take more care with the valuable items entrusted to them.

“When people reach a certain level in public life, they are given access to the Government Art Collection, but this art still belongs to the public and it needs to be looked after,” said the shadow Culture spokesman, Jeremy Hunt. “These figures suggest people are becoming far too relaxed about the art that is on loan to them.”

Eight years ago, five paintings worth almost £250,000 went missing while the British ambassador to Argentina was moving to a temporary residence in Buenos Aires. The then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, pledged that his department took the safety of official premises seriously and was reviewing security at the embassy as a result.

The DCMS pushed for a financial penalty against the FCO to compensate for the losses but later dropped the issue. However, an inventory of the collection’s missing works has revealed that more than half of the 27 instances of theft, loss and damage in this period happened at Foreign Office premises around the world. Six mishaps occurred at the department’s main building in Whitehall.

Two paintings worth more than £80,000 were taken from Somerset House, in London, in February 2008. After a huge international police operation Shipping, by John T Serres, and Sir William Chambers, by Francis Cotes, were eventually recovered.

Several works were damaged because of problems with the paint or canvas, but in two cases the explanation was simple: “fell off wall”.

Ten Years Later, Ten Days with Mother Teresa (2007)

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Tirana – September 5th marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa. To honour this occasion, ten days of tribute were organized in Tirana by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and resulted in being a superficial publicity campaign. The events began by unveiling a plaque on the wall of an urban villa. The plaque blatantly attempts to twist history, and translates into English as “The family of Mother Teresa lived in these house”. Aside from an incorrect translation, the plaque has nothing to do with Mother Teresa herself. Her family lived in Tirana a decade after she had left home, and she never set foot in that house.  (click here for image of the plaque) (More images at bottom of page.)

Posters & Banners

There were more mistakes. Massive posters with the image of Mother Teresa were scattered throughout Tirana, and the seemingly English phrase “In memorial” topped them. However this was in fact a spelling mistake of the Latin phrase “In memoriam”.

Several were corrected by pasting the letter m over top of the letter l which looked like Memoriahn, while others remained unchanged.


It quickly became obvious how little preparation had been made. Blunders like these suggest a Government with unqualified people working within it. The fact that these errors “slipped through” demonstrate poor attention to detail and indicate last minute planning.


Art & Exhibitions

The following day the art exhibitions began. Exhibits were held in the International Cultural Pyramid Arbnori, The National Gallery and the National History Museum and of the three, only one clearly indicated it was about Mother Teresa.

It was not apparent what the viewer was looking at in the exhibit entitled “The Miracle of Love” at the National Gallery, and though slightly more relevant the same held true in the Arbnori. These exhibits could have been about anything. Beautiful but uninspiring works were chosen, and while it is the task of a curator to select relevant pieces, these had a very obscure connection to Mother Teresa, if any at all. In a country where at times favours outweigh integrity, it is no surprise to see the irrelevance of the pieces selected.

Days later, politicians described the exhibitions as “spiritual”.

At the National History Museum, there was a well organized display of paintings, photos, relics, sculptures and a short video. The theme of this exhibit was clear, and was to draw attention to the fact that Mother Teresa was Albanian. This was indeed a meaningful exhibit for Albanians, however it was not a commemoration of her life’s work and humanitarian achievements, simply one of birth and ancestry.



The following week, the “Great PEACE Concert – Homage to Mother Teresa”, was held at the National Theatre. Organized by the wife of the Prime Minister, Liri Berisha and The Minister of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sport, the concert featured classical artists from Europe and the Balkans, including an orchestra, a choir and several soloists. It was by invitation only with politicians, high society, and foreign dignitaries among the guests.

Blue and white sashes resembling the clothes of Mother Teresa were distributed at the door, and youth in traditional Albanian costumes greeted guests. A statue of Mother Teresa stood behind the performers on the stage. The musical selection appeared well calculated, closing with the symphony which is used as the anthem of the European Union. Cell phones were in action until the end, and people’s attention drifted. Theconcert to promote peace excluded virtually all Albanians, while those who attended seemed to wish they hadn’t. While the concert added to the high culture of Tirana, it did not contribute a great deal either to peace awareness or to Mother Teresa’s work. She opened soup kitchens for the hungry, hospitals for the sick, orphanages for the homeless, not concerts for the elite.

That same night countless children and their families slept outdoors in the streets of Albania, cold, hungry and wet from the rain. It is unlikely that any of these people even knew about the “Great Peace Concert”, which more suitably could have been called “Peace, by invitation only”.



Later that week, Prime Minister Berisha proclaimed “Mother Teresa, an Albanian who with her spiritual force could occupy the hearts of all humanity and all citizens, is the honour of our nation.”

Beautiful and empty words. A news report that week about Tirana’s hospital, ironically named Mother Teresa Hospital, explored the hospital’s poor equipment, lack of beds, and inadequate staff and supplies. A week later, scandals involving blood infected with HIV made headlines, followed the next day by heroin dealing within the hospital. These seem not so unlike the conditions Mother Teresa herself worked in for so many years in the gutters of Calcutta. But this is the major hospital in the capital city of a nation who claims her as its own, and while 50,000 euros worth of art exhibitions, peace concerts and commercials promoted her name and heritage, the sick and uncared for remained sick and uncared for.

Mother Teresa was an advocate for the poor and helpless. Her mission was, in her words to care for the “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.”


Basic Services

On the anniversary of her death, basic services at Mother Teresa Hospital in Tirana were free to the public. This act was a true reflection of her legacy, and was by far the most significant and most relevant act made throughout the entire ten days.

During these two weeks, there was no word of anything done by other ministries, including the Ministry of Social Affairs and Equal Chances, who could have certainly offered service to those “shunned by everyone”. With a small degree of communication, several ministries could have cooperated to organize a socially just and relevant tribute to Mother Teresa.


Sculpture and plaque

(see gallery below)

Towards the end of the tribute, politicians, dignitaries and a contingent of media gathered at Mother Teresa Airport to unveil a four metre bronze statue of her. The sculpture was commissioned in conjuncture with the opening of a new terminal earlier in the year, but was not ready and thus added to the anniversary events (in ceremony, not budget).

President Topi gave a speech with words to the effect of Mother Teresa being a universal saint who never forgot she was Albanian, and that she was a role model for everybody to follow. The ceremony was brief and lasted a no more than 10 minutes. It isn’t known what the cost of transportation and security for the dignitaries was, but it is certain the money would have been more effectively spent on hospital supplies and increased care, and it wasn’t.

Albania is a country where the media portrays the leaders as demi-gods, flashing them on TV dozens of times a day. These ten days gave The Prime Minister, The Minister of Culture and The President two weeks worth of positive exposure. Other things the country gained from this tribute included a chance for the upper crust to mingle, and plenty of “on the job training” for the Prime Minister’s security team.

It also gave Albanians two weeks of blind nationalism, reminding them that a famous person came from an Albanian family (albeit she was a pioneer in the Albanian brain drain, leaving at a young age to learn another language and help another country). The failures of this event heavily outweighed any successes. The event showed a government lacking professionalism, cooperation and attention to detail. It showed it can exclude its citizens, and it can present a version of history appropriate to its agenda. The people truly in need saw little to none of the benefits of these events, and after all is said and done little has changed. The hungry still scavenge, the homeless still sleep in the streets and the unwanted are pushed further away.

I find it unlikely that Mother Teresa herself would have attended any of these events, for she would probably rather have found herself at the hospital, or in the streets helping those who needed help.



Image Gallery of Mother Teresa Sculpture at Tirana International Airport

2007 Inauguration


Below are the shoddy repairs to the base of the scupture, after being hit by a car in 2009.  On the right is the state of the plaque as of May 2010.

June 2010

The plaque has been fixed.

August 2010

Back at it again…this time at the National History Museum in the city centre of Tirana.  Notice who’s name is bigger and bolder?!!