Ephemeral art, or art that’s intentionally fleeting, can be both physically and conceptually beautiful. For example, British artist Andy Goldsworthy tactically arranged golden leaves around the base of a Sycamore tree to create the mesmerizing illusion that its trunk was glowing. Or take Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, which consist of stunning, colorful, geometric patterns made from crushed stone, laboriously created by monks only to be ceremoniously destroyed to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of the universe. Through disappearing, ephemeral artworks often force viewers to reflect on our relationship with time, loss, or the environment.
Now that we've taunted you with the imagined image of poetic beauty, we're going to turn our attention to ephemeral art that’s truly disgusting—like when a piece is actually so repulsive that an unbearable stench repels people from even getting close to the work. Does this stomach-turning art still convey meaning as effectively as its attractive ephemeral counterparts? We’ll let you decide. While the notion of the grotesque—a concept that dates back to medieval times—is difficult to define since it’s constantly evolving and culturally relative, gross art tends to involve bodily functions, food, and animals in a confronting, socially unacceptable way that makes the viewer uncomfortable. Here are some of the most disturbing ephemeral artworks (some viler than others) to have slowly decomposed throughout history.
Artist’s Breath (1960)
Let’s begin lightly, with an example of gross ephemeral art that’s as light as air, literally. In 1960 avant-garde Italian artist, Piero Manzoni, inflated a red rubber balloon with his breath, tied it off with a string that he affixed to two lead seals on a wooden base, and appropriately titled the work Artist’s Breath (the following year he would create Artist’s Shit, and you can probably guess what natural material he used). The once blown-up, red balloon has now entirely deflated and perished into a flattened puke looking mess. Manzoni told Serpentine Gallery in 1960, “When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object that becomes eternal.” While the artwork is far from everlasting, in classic art world fashion, the value of the work has only inflated as the balloon has deflated.
Into the Sea, Mold Mountain (1969)
Another early pioneer of rotting art was experimental German-Swiss writer and artist Dieter Roth, fittingly pronounced as Dieter Rot. Roth is probably best known for squishing food—like cheese, chocolate, sausage, and fruit—into his books to create pieces that would slowly putrefy. In a 2013 Artspace interview, MoMA curator Sarah Suzuki revealed that when they borrowed a copy of one of Roth’s poetry journals, whose pages were filled with a combination of vanilla pudding and minced mutton, the smell was so vulgar that they had to isolate the piece in its vitrine. With Into the Sea, Mold Mountain the artist used plaster, paper, chocolate, yogurt and fruit juice to create one of the moldiest mountains the art world has ever seen. I guess in this example the ephemeral work isn’t just decaying, but also growing new spores.
100 LANDSCHAFTSARCHITEKTUR & RODNEY LATOURELLE
Jardin de la Connaissance (2010)
If you’re mycophobic (or have an irrational fear of fungus) don’t visit Jardin de la Connaissance or the “Garden of Cognition” in Quebec. Canadian artist Rodney LaTourelle and Berlin landscape architect Thilo Folkerts of 100 Landschaftsarchitektur collaborated on this garden installation for the International Festival des Jardins de Metis. Using 40,000 books to construct walls, rooms and seats—and cultivating eight varieties of mushrooms within selected books to speed up the decaying process—the space invokes the mythic relation between garden and knowledge, while also serving as a metaphor for the decomposing state of books in our current technologically dependent society.
A Thousand Years (1990)
British art world bad boy Damien Hirst started his career with a bang (or zap) when he introduced his seminal piece A Thousand Years at the YBA exhibition “Gambler” in 1990, a year after the artist left college. The work is a large-scale glass display case divided by a glass wall with four holes in it. On one side of the glass vitrine is a giant white die with one black dot on each face, and on the other half is a severed cow’s head sitting in a pool of coagulated blood with an Insect-O-Cutor, or bug zapper, hovering above it. When does the art happen, you ask? When maggots in the glass case feed on the cow’s head, morph into flies and then ultimately fly into the bug zapper ending their short-lived lives. While the cow’s head deteriorates, the pile of dead flies accumulates. Hirst has said, when talking about the work, “There has only ever been one idea, and it’s the fear of death; art is about the fear of death.”
Fettshtuhl (Fat Chair) (1964-1985)
German artist Joseph Beuys was known for a lot—he was a Fluxus, happening, and performance artist as well as a painter, sculptor, art theorist and more. With Fat Chair, Beuys placed a triangle of animal fat onto a wooden chair and encased it in a temperature-controlled glass display case. Slowly, the mound of fat naturally decomposed, and by 1985 had almost entirely evaporated. Fat Chair, a metaphor for the human body, confronted viewers with the reality that we’re ultimately all organic, ephemeral material slowly wasting away—a memento mori of sorts that many find disturbing.
Clay Head with Turkey, Cheese and Ants (1991)
Filmmaker and artist David Lynch had some help making this food sculpture artwork in 1991—from ants. He began by forming a small ball of cheese and turkey, which he then cased in clay and mounted on a tiny coat hanger. Through an opening in the mouth he exposed some turkey in the sculpture’s eyes and ears. Subsequently, the ants climbed up the coat hanger and into the head. Within the next four days, the ants had emptied the entire sculpture of turkey and cheese. While Clay Head with Turkey, Cheese and Ants is definitely icky, it’s certainly not the most disturbing piece in Lynch’s oeuvre.
Zapf de Pipi (2005)
Represented by Perrotin, Austrian art collective Gelitin is comprised of the four artists Ali Janka, Florian Reither, Tobias Urban, and Wolfgang Gantner. Known for their risqué performances and visually enticing work, audience participation and collaboration tends to be central to their art. In the case of Zapf de Pipi, which was a sculptural installation at the first Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art in Russia, some 200,000 people participated in the work by contributing their urine and collaborating with the cold Russian winter. That’s right, Zapf de Pipi was a solid seven-meter tall and one-meter wide piss icicle that hovered outside the Moscow Lenin Museum above a courtyard. I wouldn’t want to have been hanging out in that courtyard come spring...