Am I making Conceptual Art?

I’ve been obsessed with this lately.

Reflecting upon my latest work, “Dinosaur in the Cage”, I keep getting lost in thoughts about how to describe my piece. It’s not a garment, it’s not a full sculpture. It’s more like… a research finding, an interpretation and visualization of photographs, dinosaurs and Victorian fashion I gathered, churned and digested. I felt that my concept and idea was in the end, the essence of my work.

My thoughts drawn me to research Conceptual Art. Yes, that weird kind of art people usually frown upon.

According to Tony Godfrey’s book, Conceptual Art:

“Conceptual art is not about forms or materials, but about ideas and meanings. It cannot be defined in terms of any medium or style, but rather by the way it questions what art is.”

In other words, conceptual art can be anything and nothing. It’s paper thin between the greatest masterpieces and utter rubbish (and again beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Lawless.

Over the weeks I thought if this is it. 

I’ve been analyzing Duchamp’s much debated readymade Fountain (literally an autographed urinal showcased in a museum). Placing an everyday object (some say vulgar object) in the museum, Duchamp challenges the viewer to see the urinal as a piece of fine sculpture. But the real ‘art’ is not the object itself.

Why a urinal? How vulgar! Remove it! Housewives shrieking and covering the eyes of their young children.

Why in the museum? Why sign it with a pseudonym? Art connoisseurs circling and rubbing their heads, cleaning their glasses.

What was he thinking? Why would anyone do that? What does he want to convey? Why Why Why? Wonder I wonder.

This is his art.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, French, 1917; Photo: Artstor

So, what makes good conceptual art?

Just like many attempted definitions of art, there is no one answer. Since conceptual art lies on the IDEA, such idea has to be formidable and mesmerizing enough to draw the attention of its audience and transcend all flaws in execution, mediums and perhaps even poor aesthetics.

To achieve this, I think this once again lies in creative research. Yes, the spontaneity element is crucial to jumpstart the initial ideas, but first tries may not be the strongest thoughts. One needs the extensive amount of images, references, photos, prints, maps and linkages to back up such idea.

Another element that separates the good from the bad is the level of controversy.

Is it raising commonplace questions or roiling debate? Does it instigate disgusted faces or mere nonchalance? Does it lure the audience to stare or even glare? Does it urge people to touch, understand, analyze, wonder? Or do people pass by with a mere glance? As mentioned earlier about Duchamp’s work, it is such controversy that fuels the idea, separating it from common rubbish and everyday objects.

Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, Man Ray, American, 1890 – 1976; Photo: Artstor

So, am I making conceptual art?

Well, simply put, I don’t know.

It is true that I am leaning towards this realm in such that I am focusing on the concept more than the used medium. It is also true that I find more joy in honing my ideas (through different mediums) than actually making my 3D piece. But according to the criteria I set on good/bad conceptual art, I am unsure.

Did my work raise controversy? Am I pressing too many, perhaps even useless and unnecessary meanings on my work? Was it mesmerizing for the audience? Did my work challenge the traditional meaning of art? Does it have to? After all, there is no restrictive framework to conceptual art.

Does that mean my other work without any research,  just mere spontaneity, equal meaningless commonplace rubbish?

I feel I’m setting up boundaries, categories and criteria for myself in one minute, and destroying them in the next.

I’ll conclude with a thought to self: need more research.

More on Conceptual Art:

More on Fountain:

More on Duchamp:


Tabaimo & Portrayals of Women

There were several open bathroom stalls on the left. The doors were painted rustic orange with stains. The central panel had a tiny window overlooking the sunset while the right panel featured several sinks and bathroom mirrors. A half naked girl, predictively enrolled in primary school judging from the red rectangular backpack she has on her shoulders, was rinsing her face and hair. She was clothed in a mere pair of white ankle socks and white underpants, with hair neatly braided in two tails.

All the while, another woman was washing her hands at a nearby sink. Though the woman was quietly rinsing, her reflections started to rattle the mirror with a heavy duty hammer, smashing the glass and smearing her own blood all over the floor. The woman, though still washing her hands at the sink, started to bleed silently. She left the sink nonchalantly and wrapped herself in gauze, holding dear to her wound and disappeared into a nearby stall.

Public conVENience, 2006, Tabaimo, Video Installation; Cred: SAAM

This is Tabaimo’s video installation piece: public conVENience. The piece had recently appeared as a part of the Japanese artist’s Utsutsushi utsushi exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

In this installation, the artist showed highly provocative and bizarre images in a seemingly public setting. The artist found it quite interesting that although public bathrooms are public spaces, each stall becomes a private space with the division of thin walls. The artist also claimed that the piece was a metaphor for “the virtual space on the internet nowadays” in which people anonymously leave awful and bizarre comments in a somewhat public setting.

For me, what provoked my senses were the portrayals of women. The naked school girl reminded me immediately of child pornography, a popular theme in the Japanese entertainment industry. Often featured in anime and movies, young girls are subjected to the eyes of male obsessors, sometimes coined as Loli-con in Japanese, as sexual goddesses. The fact that the girl in the installation was continuously washing her hair and face, was almost a ritual in hopes of rinsing the impure and the contaminated minds of people.

The injured woman led my mind to the issue of domestic violence. Though there was no men in sight, and the injury was inflicted by the woman’s own mirror reflection, the eerie sense of silence and tolerability in the situation reminds me very much of the DV nature. Most cases of DV are not reported. In some, the wives even deny the abuse and sought to protect their husbands reputation instead of seeking help for themselves. I wonder if Tabaimo was also using her piece to reference the home as a private space, in which outsiders cannot even detect the slight bit of darkness within an abusive household.

Besides the two women, there was another woman who gave birth to a baby through her nose in a bathroom stall. She then deliberately put the newborn on a turtle’s back and flushed it down the toilet, watching it disappear with the roiling waters.

Midway through the video installation, four Japanese kanji characters appeared: 公衆便女 (ko. syu. ben. jyo). Direct translation: public bathroom girls. It is all the more interesting because the final character “女” (jyo) meaning ‘girl’ has the same pronunciation as “所” (jyo), which is the original character that makes up the phrase ‘public bathroom’.

Here, Tabaimo had substitute the character with ‘girl’, making it even more convincing that the artist was referring to the many denouncing and hell-like portrayals of women in society.

More on Tabaimo:

Utsutsushi utsushi Interview, 2016:

Interview 2009:

Artist Bio: