Ephemeral Art

What is Ephemeral Art?

Ephemeral art is a type of art that only lasts for a short period of time and cannot be preserved by a museum gallery as a lasting object. How long ephemeral art lasts is dictated by the materials used to create the piece and how these materials are intended to interact. However, much of the outcome of ephemeral art is left up to chance elements, such as the natural environment, audience participation, or the nature of the object itself.

Notable Ephemeral Artwork

Yoko Ono, Apple, 1966, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967, Tate Modern, London.

Gistav Metzger, Recreation of First Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art, 1960, remade 2004, 2015, Tate Modern, London.

Yves Klein, Aerostatic Sculpture, 1957, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, 1972-76, California. Photo by Wolfgang Volz.

Bruce Mclean, Six Sculptures, 1967-8, Tate Modern, London.

Richard Long, Sahara Circle, 1988, Tate Modern, London.


History of Ephemeral Art

In the 19th century, an appreciation of ephemeral beauty was expressed in the context of Romanticism and Impressionism. Artists were creating artworks that presented a new image of beauty. Romantic artists were interested in the power of nature and its ability to shift from serene to terrifying in an instant. Impressionist artists often painted scenes from nature that were fleeting, such as a sunrise or sunset. With works such as Claude Monet’s 1872 painting Impression Sunrise, impermanence found a special place in the creation of painting and sculpture.

Early 20th century art movements, such as Futurism, were also interested in the ephemeral character of events and often depicted subjects in motion. Paintings and sculptures were created in a way that captured movement, such as Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, a painting from 1912 that captures the motion of a dog in space, its legs painted in a blur to represent their quick movement.

This era also brought a rejection of classical beauty and the ideals made popular by Enlightenment thinking. The definition of beauty, once objective and narrow, shifted to include subjective perspectives. Beauty was no longer seen as something permanent, especially as many artists began to embrace abstraction and reject the hierarchy of artistic genres set by the European art academies.

As major events such as World War I unfolded, artists began to question everything from society and industrialization to the meaning of life itself. Expressionist art reflected the deep unrest within society and embodied the strong emotions that artists felt along with their reactions to modern life. Capturing the expression of emotions in the form of a painting gave value to temporary sensations as subjects of fine art–a concept that defied the notion of fine art itself.

Art movements such as Surrealism also found value in ephemeral beauty. The ephemeral nature of dreams and memories was consistently explored in the work of Spanish artist Salvador Dalí. Paintings such as The Persistence of Memory from 1931 aim to give a sense of permanence to phenomena that are temporary, fleeting, and even surreal.

Many artists in the 1960s were inspired by the ephemeral nature of many different materials. Natural materials and inexpensive, mass-produced objects were often used to create art that carried subversive messages or critiqued an aspect of contemporary society. The use of non-fine art materials also defied artistic tradition. Much like conceptual art and performance art, the concept behind the art was an important focus of this artistic movement.

By the late 20th century, art was mostly about action, spontaneity and a rejection of commercialism. Movements such as Performance art encouraged social critique and contemplation of interrelationships. Zen Buddhism influenced the deeply introspective quality of existing art movements such as Conceptualism and Fluxus. Ephemeral art extended these ideas to explore humans’ ongoing and ever-changing relationship with nature.

At this point, examining humans and nature was not exactly a revolutionary concept. However, ephemeral art often included original artwork on a grand scale that intermingled with other artistic styles such as land art and body art, making it a unique form of expression.

Characteristics of Ephemeral Art

Ephemeral art can exist in many forms, including a work of visual art, music, or even poetry. As long as the work is short lived and changes over time, rendering its original form unrecoverable without replication, it is ephemeral.

Ephemeral art has no unifying stylistic qualities, though it often makes use of found objects and natural materials. Artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, for example, arrange objects found in nature such as rocks and twigs and leave the composition to be discovered. Wind, rain, snow and other chance factors would manipulate the piece and eventually destroy it.

Unlike much of the artwork from previous artistic movements, ephemeral art is temporary. It is always changing based on the passing of time and unpredictable factors. Street art, for example, is displayed in public spaces and left to withstand unpredictable interactions such as weather, vandalism, or outright removal.

Decomposition continues to be a recurring theme in ephemeral art. Yoko Ono’s Apple from 1966 features an apple sitting on plexiglass, left to decompose. The audience experiences the life cycle of the picked apple over the span of several weeks until it is gone. The audience is left with the memory of the apple’s original beauty but the apple itself cannot be restored, only replaced by another apple.

Preserving Ephemeral Art

Much like other art movements of the 1960s, ephemeral art was not immediately embraced by the art world. It was seen to have no financial value due to its impermanence. The only artifact that could be preserved from the life of an ephemeral artwork was its documentation. Many photographs or audio and video recordings that document ephemeral works of art still exist in museums and galleries, but they are simply a record of the piece; proof that it existed.

The ability to conserve a work of art has always been at the core of the modern art museum and art gallery system. Ephemeral art existed in contrast to the museum and gallery, as the original form of these artworks could not be preserved. It was also nearly impossible to display ephemeral artworks in gallery spaces without removing their context. However, because of their existence outside of institutional boundaries, ephemeral artworks were often accessible to more members of the public and could be interacted with freely.

The audience is an important part of ephemeral art, as the piece can change in an instant and continue to change from moment to moment. This style of art appeals to the senses in a way that previous art movements could not. Often, this is because ephemeral art encourages viewers to contemplate their own existence and mortality along with their beliefs about the definition of art.

Ephemeral Art in the Digital Age

Ephemeral art continues to be a popular form of artistic expression within contemporary art. Digital technologies such as image projection and even social media are used to reflect current events and the seemingly unending disillusion that many people, artists and non-artists, feel towards contemporary society. The versatility of materials, forms and processes guiding ephemeral works speaks to many of the societal changes faced every day.

While there is still no cohesive style or aesthetic that defines ephemeral art, it continues to be critical of contemporary society. Artist Jenny Holzer uses projectors to create large-scale projections on the sides of city buildings. These projections usually feature text elements that are reflective of the artwork itself and make a broader statement that sparks reflection in the viewer. The projections are only up for a short while and make viewers feel as though they are immersed in the work.

Even in the digital age, ephemeral art continues to be a bridge between art and life. In fact, many ephemeral artworks encourage viewers to experience the ways that art and life intermingle and become almost indistinguishable from each other.

Notable Ephemeral Art Artists

  • Joseph Beuys, 1921-1986, German
  • Sarah Lucas, b. 1962, English
  • Richard Long, b. 1945, English
  • Andy Goldsworthy, b. 1956, English
  • Michael Heizer, b. 1944, American
  • Jenny Holzer, b. 1950, American
  • Ana Mendieta, 1948-1985, Cuban-American
  • Yoko Ono, b. 1933, Japanese
  • Janine Antoni, b. 1964, American
  • Robert Smithson, 1938-1973, American
  • Nancy Holt, 1938-2014, American


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