Are some works of art just destined to disappear, decompose, or self-destruct? That’s exactly the case when talking about Ephemeral Art. This artistic practice challenges the temporality, the destruction and the impermanent nature of art! Today, KAZoART is doing a deep dive into this completely novel art form, which appeared in the West at the turn of the 20th century, by taking you through our Top 5 essential ephemeral art styles!

What is Ephemeral Art?

The “ephemeral” nature of a work of art is a notion that appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, until then, the concept of sustainability was inseparable from the work of art itself, seeing as one wished to preserve the work of art the best they could, in order for it to stand the test of time.

This idea of “ephemeral” art therefore refers to a work which, by definition, is doomed to disappear, to be destroyed, to deteriorate or to decompose over time. This is the will of the artist, who anticipates the disappearance of their own creation: a real paradox within the art world!

 It is therefore essential for any artist who wishes to preserve any trace of his ephemeral artwork, to use another medium to help them do it. Documenting such events with photography & videos make it possible to preserve the image of the work, during and after its its exhibition.

sablier référence œuvres d'art éphémères

The viewer also plays a key role in conserving the memory of said ephemeral works of art. Indeed, the audience becomes a major factor for the work’s success thanks to each person’s individual reaction and testimony. Their documentations and testimonials therefore allow for the preservation of the art installation within the collective memory, to be passed down from generation to generation.

KAZoART is here to introduce you to 5 ephemeral art styles, through 5 different artistic practices: Land art, Street art, Performance art, Auto-destructive art, and last but not least, Installation art. All these artistic practices share one thing in common: the creation of ephemeral art!

Here are our Top 5 Ephemeral Art Styles

1. Land Art

Land art uses natural mediums, such as wood, stones, vegetation, sand… All these materials are naturally destined to decompose and degrade with the passing of time. Generally Nature and the elements also contribute to the natural degrading process of these temporary artworks. 

Most of the time, Land art is set up in exterior locations. Thus, nature becomes part of the work of art itself, allowing it to take place in a natural environment. These artists wish to leave the usual artistic institutions where art is normally showcased and displayed, such as museums and galleries, in favor of more outdoor settings. 

Robert Smithson, Spirale Jetty, avril 1970, Grand Lac Salé, Utah œuvres d'art éphémères
Robert Smithson, Spirale Jetty, April 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah

Probably the most iconic work of Land Art is the one produced in 1970 by American artist Robert Smithson. This artist is considered the founder of this more natural art style. His work, Spiral Jetty, is a 457m long basalt stone dam. These rocks form a spiral in the middle of the water, in an anti-clockwise rotation.

The work can be found in the United States, more specifically northern Utah, on the Great Salt Lake. When it was built, the water level of the lake was particularly low. After a few years, the water level rose to a more stable level which ended up submerging the work for over thirty years.

Robert Smithson, Spirale Jetty, avril 1970, Grand Lac Salé, Utah œuvres d'art éphémères
Robert Smithson, Spirale Jetty, April 1970, Great salt Lake, Utah

Since then, the spiral has reemerged out of the murky depths once again, thanks in large part to great droughts. The work has evolved and continues to evolve with nature, and has been transformed by the salt residue from the lake, whitening the stone.

The use of photography was therefore essential to preserve the image of this work, which had remained underwater for several decades!

Art by Land artist Sam Dougados on KAZoART

2. Street Art

Street art, encompassing several practices such as graffiti, stencil work or sticker slapping, is an art form that stems from inner city culture. Street-artists use the urban spaces at their disposal to express themselves on the walls of railway stations, bridges or underpasses of their home towns. 

Speed is an integral part of street art. Indeed, this art actually borders on illegality, except when it comes to public commissions. The artists must therefore complete their art piece at full speed, in order to avoid being arrested by the police. The State considers these practices as vandalism of public and private property and has been known to severely punish artists who try to disobey them!

Thus, street artworks are bound to be removed quite quickly, either by the town government if the work is made on a public surface, or by the owner of an apartment block or garage.

Pochoir de C215, commande de la ville de Reims © Twitter ville de Reims
Stencil work by artist C215, commissioned by the town of Reims © Twitter City of Reims
Stencil work by artist C215, commissioned by the town of Reims © Twitter City of Reims

In 2016, artist Christian Guémy, known under the alias C215, had one of his stencil works erased by the city of Reims’ anti-graffiti brigade. The artist had made three works in color, and one in black and white. The latter was erased by the brigade merely ten days after its creation.

Pochoir de C215 effacé par le service anti-tag de la ville de Reims © Twitter ville de Reims
Stencil work by artist C215 erased by the city’s anti-graffiti brigade © Twitter City of Reims

As it turns out, C215’s works were all commissioned by the city, which announced a retrospective it was organizing in his honor! The city services that were responsible ended up apologizing and this huge misunderstanding was corrected by the artist a few days later, when he returned to the same locations and reproduced his stencil work. This time without it being jeopardized by the authorities!

3. Performance Art

Considered an ephemeral art form, performance art leaves very little behind once the event is over. This mainly behavioral art form confronts the artist with a public audience in front of whom they performs various artistic acts, all within the bounds of public decency, of course.

Performance art is carried out in a strategic place, whether it be in an urban setting or within the confines of a fine arts institute. It allows the artist to challenge more traditional works of art in an attempt to try something different, something new. The performance also allows them to question their role as an artist.

Time, space and the artist’s presence in front of said audience are essential to performance art. The artist’s objective is to incite a reaction from their audience, strengthening the relationship they have with them.

Marina Abramovíc, The Artist is Present, 2010 © MoMA

When talking about performance art, it is impossible not to mention the world famous, Marina Abramovíc! This Serbian-born artist, born in Belgrade in 1946, often known as “the grandmother of performance art“, is a specialist in body art

From March 14 to May 31, 2010, during a retrospective exhibit at MoMA, Marina Abramovíc performed the longest performance of her career, which lasted 3 months! Her work, The Artist is Present, featured two wooden chairs facing each other, one for the artist and one for whoever wanted to sit opposite her!

During this performance, the audience took turns in sitting down for a silent visual exchange with the artist, face to face. Some spectators could only sit on the chair for a few minutes, while others managed to stay there for hours!

Marina Abramovíc et Ulay, The Artist is Present, 2010 © MoMA
Marina Abramovíc and Ulay, The Artist is Present, 2010 © MoMA

During this ephemeral performance piece, Marina Abramovíc sat for over 736 hours! A real physical and emotional challenge, especially when her childhood love, artist Ulay, took his turn to sit down in front of her, which made the performer’s eyes well up with tears! 

4. Auto-destructive Art

An auto-destructive work of art is a conceptual artistic practice. Oftentimes taking the viewer by surprise with its self-destructive nature, this radical outcome allows the artist to question art, its future and its commodification.

The conceived timing of the work’s self-destruction is systematically programmed by the artist, meaning that they choose the moment at which the art begins to self-destruct. This can happen at any time, whether it be at the end of the public run of said work, at the time of purchase, at auction, or indeed the moment the work of art is installed in a museum. 

Banksy, Love is in de Bin (La Fille au Ballon), 2018, Sotheby’s
Banksy, Love is in de Bin (Balloon Girl), 2018, Sotheby’s 

The artist who made the most amount of buzz off doing this kind of artistic stunt, is world renown street artist, Banksy!

It was on October 5, 2018 that Banksy’s work, originally titled “Girl with Balloon,” self-destructed after it sold for more than €1 million at Sotheby’s in London!

The painting was partially shredded into strips by a shredder hidden in its frame, much to the shock and dismay of the audience at the auction! 

Banksy, Love is in de Bin (La Fille au Ballon), 2018, Sotheby’s © Tristan Fewings
Banksy, Love is in de Bin (La Fille au Ballon), 2018, Sotheby’s © Tristan Fewings

The shocked audience reaction was immortalized with videos of the event going viral! This committed artistic approach allowed Banksy to call out the excessive and greedy nature of the art market and its purely financial look at fine art.

A word from the artist…

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. 

Pablo Picasso quote reworked by Banksy 

This self-destructive art style, finally became a category within ephemeral art, and is seen as a true turning point within Art History, questioning the durability of art and its market!

5. Installation Art

Installation art is, generally speaking, usually ephemeral. Created to be set up in situ, installation artworks, also known as “environments“, allow artists to modify the perception of a certain space during a temporary period.

This three-dimensional art style, oftentimes placed in public settings, takes into account the viewer’s participation. Said viewer is then immersed, in their daily environment which is henceforth temporarily modified by the installation. Therefore, the distance between the viewer and the work is often drastically reduced.

Christo et Jeanne-Claude, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, septembre 2021 © Bruno de Hogues
Christo et Jeanne-Claude, L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, September 2021 © Bruno de Hogues

The go-to artwork that comes to mind when talking about art installations is undoubtedly the work performed by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude known as L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped. This ephemeral work of art was installed in 2021 for two weeks. The work consisted of wrapping the iconic Parisian Arc de Triomphe in 25,000 square meters of bluish silver recyclable fabric, and 3,000 meters of red rope. 

Through this installation, the two artists suggest the idea of transience and the notion of ephemerality. Above all, they wish to allow the viewer to freeze his or her gaze on a monument that they usually set their eyes upon everyday and see it in a new light, with a new perspective.

Christo, L'Arc de Triomphe Wrapped, 2017 © André Grossmann
Christo, L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped, 2017 © André Grossmann

The death of artist Christo in 2020 did not prevent the installation of this iconic ephemeral work of art from going ahead!

As you can see, all of these ephemeral artworks depend entirely on an audience as well as another medium to capture the moment, in order for them to find their place in Art History. The viewer’s testimony, having seen or participated in the creation of the work, is therefore essential to ephemeral works of art, as well as the use of photography and videos to document the installation. These two things combined allow these art pieces to remain in our memory, and to be passed down from generation to generation!

Artists inspired by our environment on KAZoART