Craigie Horsfield, How the World Occurs

Upon entering the exhibition How the World Occurs (Centraal Museum Utrecht) on the contemporary artist Craigie Horsfield, one is immediately overwhelmed by an enormous photograph on the opposite wall. Viewing the surface from a distance, it is difficult to determine from which material it is made. However, a closer inspection reveals that it is a massive tapestry. By enlarging a photograph of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, and making it into a tapestry, Craigie Horsfield merges history and the present. The photograph of rubble from the WTC-buildings in front of buildings that are still standing merge with the soft materials of the tapestry. The size of the photograph makes a great impact on the viewer, the material however softens the scene. My first thought upon seeing this artwork was a series of questions: Why this picture? Does using a historical medium to address a contemporary event constitute art? Or is it a fake sensation, definable as kitsch?

The comprehensive solo exhibition How the World Occurs focuses on ‘relations’, including connections between humans, a person’s relation to the world around them and the ways in which history determines a person’s life and, in return, that person becomes part of that same history.[1] Horsfield achieves this by combining the subjects of his photographs with the material in which the work of art is ultimately composed. A photograph of the devastation and rubble of September 11 is transformed into a tapestry to combine the fear and devastation of the present with the old tradition of depicting battle scenes on tapestries. According to Carol Armstorn, who has written on the phenomenon of turning contemporary photographs into tapestries, these digital files ‘guide the weaving of large modern wall hangings that are then exhibited as artworks in galleries or museums, rather as medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque tapestries used to adorn palace walls.’[2] One could conceptualise this artwork by Horsfield as weaving together the past and present. However, I was suspicious of the fact that the photograph used for this tapestry seemed like an anyone-can-klick-the-camera-button sort of pictures. Of all the circulating photographs of the September 11 devastation, why was this one definable as art? Is the transformation of the photograph into a historical and outdated medium the only reason to define this work as art? Using an old medium to depict a contemporary scene can arguably provide new insight into this historic event. However, the political or historical meaning of this work of art seems to disappear completely when one reaches the last room of the exhibition and finds two rhinoceroses depicted in the same fashion: on tapestries. There are no obvious political or historical ties between the depictions and the medium or between the first and last tapestries in this exhibition. The subject being depicted ceases to matter, as the use of material assumes greater significance.

The international term ‘kitsch’ is commonly used in modern language to refer to ‘bad art’ or ‘bad taste’. It recalls objects that are cheaply produced, and therefore lacking in true aesthetic value. However, objects in this category do not necessarily have to be cheaply produced to be considered kitsch. Kitsch can also express a concern about the originality of a work of art. In his famous publication, Five Faces of Modernity, Matei Calinescu has stated that the most obvious difference between modernity and kitsch is that the former implies anti-traditional presentences, experimentation, novelty and a commitment to change, while the latter ‘– for all its diversity – suggests repetition, banality, triteness.’[3] Kitsch is not innovative; it is, by its very nature, ‘incapable of taking the risk involved in any true avant-gardism.’[4]

In my opinion, it is this second meaning of the term ‘kitsch’ that applies to the opening tapestry in the exhibition How the World Occurs. When one disregards the tapestry format and materiality in which the photograph is presented, a picture of the September 11 devastation is all that remains. It is an image so familiar and pervasive that it can no longer be considered art – it should be referred to as a journalistic photograph. This work by Horsfield thus depends on the historical medium for its originality. It is possibly that the combination of the medium and image qualify the tapestry as an actual work of art. However, applying the same technique to photographs of rhinoceroses eradicates the political or historical meaning. Using an impactful historical medium to display an otherwise mediocre photograph, seems to be just a clever way to generate emotion and effect.

A quality that ‘good art’ and kitsch do share ­– according to Gilbert Highet – is that, once seen, they are both not easily forgotten.[5] Being confronted with the enormous photograph of the September 11 deviations, at the beginning of the exhibition does make a huge impact.
However, that does not necessarily mean this tapestry should be defined as a work of ‘good art’. One could argue that merging history and present, in form and material, generates meaning. However, portraying two rhinoceroses on the same material within the same exhibition renders that argument irrelevant. What remains is the empty shell of Horsfield’s form; the pictures alone do not generate meaning, and the form is merely kitsch.

Photograph by Karen Polder, Exhibition: How the World Occurs (Utrecht, January 13th 2017).

[1] How the World Occurs (Utrecht, 29 October 2016 – 5 February 2017)
[2] Carol Armstron, ‘Time and Materials: Carol Armstron of Craigie Horsfield and Tapestry’ Artform International 47 (2008) 2.
[3] Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, second edition, Durham 1987, pp. 225-226.
[4] Ibid., p. 231.
[5] Gilbert Highet, ‘Kitsch’, in: A Clerk of Oxenford, New York 1954, p. 211.