PRINT September 2005



To the Editor:

I would like to bring an interesting sequence of events to the attention of your readers. In my opinion, these events provide a clear picture of how art, despite its escalating value, remains an unregulated commodity, leaving artists’ ideas vulnerable to potentially unethical appropriation.

In the summer of 2004, Italian artist Lara Favaretto (previously a P.S. 1/MoMA International Studio Program participant who was recently featured in Artforum’s Openings section [May 2004]) produced a work titled E’ uno spettacolo, which consisted of a table with an outboard motor attached to make, in effect, a boat. This sculpture—shown in December 2004 at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair in the Franco Noero stall, and located in the “Statements” section—was accompanied by six framed photographs depicting the artist taking the table on a journey down the Po River in northern Italy. I should also say at this point that I currently own this work.

You can imagine my surprise when, in March 2005, Artforum published an article [1000 Words] in which curator and contributing editor Hans-Ulrich Obrist introduced a number of works by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla—among them a drawing of a person steering an overturned table with outboard motor through the water. As it turns out, this piece was a study for a video featuring a young man navigating a waterborne table-cum-boat around the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The work was ultimately shown at this summer’s Venice Biennale in the Rosa Martínez–curated Arsenale. Meanwhile, a version of Favaretto’s earlier piece was showing at the Venice Biennale in the Italian pavilion and actually won the prize for the best Italian artist. As a collector of contemporary art, I could not help but notice that Allora and Calzadilla’s new work was on sale a week after the Biennale at the Lisson Gallery booth in the Art Basel fair—and for a much higher price than E’ uno spettacolo fetched in Miami.

I know that Favaretto, who is a reader of your magazine, has chosen not to protest any possible “borrowing” of her idea, invoking instead the dogma of Alighiero e Boetti that encourages the artist to disseminate ideas as freely and widely as possible. But there are still a few lessons to learn from this story, some philosophical and others quite down to earth. To consider the latter: Someone likely saw a work of art by a relatively young artist at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair in 2004, made a replica using a different technology, then showed it in an important exhibition before subsequently selling it at the next art fair in Europe for a higher price. If, on the other hand, there is a more conceptual basis for the incredible resemblance between these artists’ works to consider, I would still argue that this type of appropriative artistic practice is not exactly original. Maurizio Cattelan, for example, has been doing something similar for most of his career; but in his case the appropriation is his declared goal.

This incident should serve as a warning to the collector: As the art system becomes more of an industry, ethical positions are being steadily eroded. While art itself does not need rules and indeed often works against them, the economy of art should be held to certain standards, like all economies. Otherwise, the buyer will never be able to judge the difference between Coke and fake Coke.

Giulio Gropello, Rome

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla respond:

Regarding Mr. Gropello’s passionate assertions, we are first compelled to say that there is nothing new about turning a table into a boat. In fact, when researching our project, we discovered that there are numerous examples of floating tables, all made by individuals who are not artists, and all of which predate—some by decades—Lara Favaretto’s version. Perhaps a more interesting dialogue would consider how the same form can be used by unrelated artists to radically divergent ends.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gropello seems to have come to some false conclusions based on his incorrect belief that Favaretto was the first person to make a table float. But let us make it clear that our intention was never to engage in some diabolical act of artistic theft. (Indeed, we were not even aware of Favaretto’s table until it was brought to our attention following the publication of our preparatory drawing in the March 2005 issue of Artforum.) Rather, our motivations stemmed from the desire to make a metaphoric vehicle striking enough to stimulate discussion around the complex issues concerning the land-reclamation movement on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Specifically, we wanted to draw attention to the phrase one often hears about the status of land on Vieques—namely, that it is “under discussion”—by turning a boardroom table into a waterborne vessel. In our subsequent video of this “boat” in action, a young man steers the table along a historic fishing route off the coast of a former American naval complex—the very contested space that triggered the land-reclamation movement by Puerto Ricans in the 1970s. This land is currently designated a wildlife preserve, which regrettably, and paradoxically, the US Navy uses as a bureaucratic excuse to defer its responsibility for decontamination and cleanup. At the same time, the recent transfer of ownership has catalyzed unchecked real-estate speculation in civilian areas while corporate forces rapidly develop the island into a tourist site.

Ultimately, then, we wished to raise questions about the terms of the negotiation process, asking who is counted in this debate and who is excluded. Contrary to Mr. Gropello’s simplistic conclusions based upon false assumptions, it was an ethical imperative for justice and ecological sustainability that sparked our imaginations. It also occurs to us that his complaints, and a misguided logic concerning “originality” and “authenticity,” arise primarily from his interest in protecting an investment. But what he owns and what we made are, unquestionably, two completely different things.