Option 1: Project 2: Physical texture – assemblage and the reconnection of seemingly different

Starting definition of assemblage: (This is my understanding before any research, I will rewrite my definition at the end.)

The Tate defines assemblage as: ‘Assemblage is art that is made by assembling disparate elements – often everyday objects – scavenged by the artist or bought specially

Tate (s.d.) Assemblage – Art Term. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/assemblage (Accessed 14/12/2020).

Disparate means: essentially different in kind; not able to be compared.

I would take this to mean that the objects don’t have any obvious connection… so you couldn’t have a collection of toy cars or petals, but you could have a toy car and a petal.

By assembling elements I take it to mean creating a 3D object, sculpture, such as this:

Picasso, P (1914) Still Life. [Photograph] At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T01/T01136_9.jpg (Accessed 14/12/2020).

This is made from a length of tablecloth fringe and bits of old wood glued together. It is pleasingly balanced, has a 3D, visual harmony and is aesthetically pleasing. Aesthetically it is a conventional sculpture but materially it is unconventional being made out of scraps rather than hewn from a single piece of marble or wood.

After the first World War Kurt Schwitters, a dadaist, scavenged materials to make assemblages and collages with a political purpose (he called them ‘merz’). He wanted to destroy anything to do with the old order that could create, or continue, the devastation of World War 1. This included destroying the bourgeois commodification of art and the production of aesthetic objects by craftsman artists and replacing them with ‘non art’.

In the 1920′-1930′ the surrealists, driven by the writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud, made assemblages about dreams and the subconscious. They produced sculptures that associated fantastically unlikely combinations like the phone and lobster by Salvador Dali.

Dali, S (1936) Lobster Phone. [Photograph] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lobster_Telephone&oldid=991679966 (Accessed 14/12/2020).

In the 1950’s and 1960’s assemblage was common. It was often politically driven and anti-aesthetic and used rubbishy materials with messily applied paint to create expressionist reliefs that attacked the monetary values of the conventional gallery system. This led to them being called neo-dadaists. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are famous exponents of assemblage from this period along with the Italian arte povera movement who used materials like soil, rags and twigs.

The technique was widely by the YBA’s (they first exhibited in 1988) who included Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Assemblage continues today with artists such as Tomoko Takahashi, Christina Mackie and Mike Nelson who make huge assemblages using scavenged materials they find around them.

In conclusion… an assemblage is a 3D construction made out of non traditional materials, usually found or scavenged, that is often deliberately non-aesthetic. Before it entered mainstream art the traditional art world said it wasn’t art, but the creators self identified it as art. With children this is called junk modelling and is just for fun… but artists are either intellectuals with conceptual skills or makers with craft skills (or both) and make their assemblage into a political statement or an aesthetic object. For example the dadaists and neo-dadaists fashioned political statements, the surrealists psychological ones, and Picasso aesthetic ones.

The irony is that dadaist and neo-dadaist art is now highly collectable and has been fully absorbed into the art market.

It will be interesting to see whether the artists I research are conceptually, psychologically or aesthetically driven. And whether their assemblages are designed to educate and challenge, are just for fun, or are made to give pleasure and sell as desirable objects.

Research these artists using notes and supporting images

John Bock:

Tate/Wikipedia: German artist, B. 1965… multi-media… mainly performance… makes ‘environments’ from found materials (he leaves structure as ‘theatrical collage’) and delivers lectures in space… more recently more film/video.

John Bock (2015) UR-Unruh im Zugabteil (Primal riot in the passenger compartment) [Screenshot]: https://www.sadiecoles.com/exhibitions/523/installation_shots/ (Accessed 17/12/2020).

From: https://www.sadiecoles.com/artists/8-john-bock/

John Bock (b. 1965, Gribbohm, Germany) lives and works in Berlin. Bock was awarded the Ars Viva prize in 1999, and is renowned for his surreal installations combining performance, sculpture and film. Drawing on an idiosyncratic range of interests, Bock creates an absurd amalgamation of references from the disciplines of economics, fashion, film, politics, philosophy and music, among others. Bock’s expansive practice continually challenges the audience to comprehend and examine everyday obstacles, be they intellectual, physical, or linguistic.

It is quite difficult to find his ‘assemblages’. Most of his work seems to be large scale sculpture, the remnants of past ‘lectures/performances/happenings with embedded video; collages (mainly small and flat); and films and TV pieces. However I managed to find a 3D collage which would classify as an assemblage.

Bock, J (Ohne Titel). [Screenshot] At: https://www.antonkerngallery.com/artists/john_bock (Accessed 17/12/2020).

This is 40 x 36 x 16 cm and has a list of materials including: corrugated cardboard, photograph, acrylic, packaging, silicone, adhesive tape.

As a viewer this is a meaningless collection of waste material, but with meaning for the creator. Artistically red and black are used as a linking colour palette.

To me this is an opaque assemblage. If it was shown in a collection of A level students I doubt anybody would pay it attention. Therefore its notoriety must come from its placing in the art market, its branding and any ‘value’ added by the creator. There may be accompanying words or context that elevate it to an outstanding work of intellectual creation, or art, but as it stands without any accessible meaning, skill in making or aesthetic value I cannot see that it has any more value than the junk it is made out of.

Isa Genzken:

Tate/Wikipedia: German artist. B. 1948… Her primary media are sculpture and installation, using a wide variety of materials, including concrete, plaster, wood and textile. She also works with photography, video, film and collage.

Reading about Genzken it appears she has mainly worked on sculptures from unusual (and cheap) materials, and has had a lifelong interest in columns such as can be seen in Rose below rose in Leipzig’s museum district. ‘Rose’ is an eight metres ‘tower’ made from enamelled stainless steel, here she uses traditional sculptural materials.

I find this beautiful and thought provoking, it is both realistic and a cliched perfect rose, both true love and romanticised love. The size is a symbol of a passion that overwhelms us… it is also a commercial product of the art world with a cash value, a commodity just like the flowers on sale in any garage forecourt. It is both real and manufactured, and like an unassailable love it is out of reach. There is craft, skill, beauty and meaning in abundance for any viewer.

Genzken, I (1993) Rose. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Isa_Genzken&oldid=989499572 (Accessed 17/12/2020).

Following September 11 Genzken made some assemblages out of action figures, plastic, and waste. She set these on pedestals as if they were statues on plinths, yet these post destruction scenes have the traditional aesthetic beauty of a marble bust. They mix high art and mass produced objects, but with a price ticket of £60,000 to £80,000 in 2004 they are definitely high art…. whatever the raw materials.

Below: Genzken, I (2004) At: https://www.phillips.com/detail/isa-genzken/UK010113/34 (Accessed 17/12/2020).

At first glance this assemblage reminds me of a Christmas window display at John Lewis. Again the brand, the ‘positioning’ of the display, and language around it give it value. The value is not in the materials. However, even though this is undoubtedly beautiful, if it was ripped from its context and presented in a new era as an unknown work I would struggle to find its meaning.

Art is interpreted anew by new audiences in new generations and I fear, unlike ‘Rose’, the symbolism of this does not travel through time. Nor does it have the eternal beauty (and meaning/power to evoke response) of a Henry Moore sculpture.

Thinking about it raises all sorts of questions about the art market and commodification/branding of art and artists.

Samantha Donnelly:

British, B. 1978… she works in sculpture, photography and film. Donnelly says: https://www.contemporaryartsociety.org/artist-members/samantha-donnelly/

My studio practice is concerned with exploring representations; from objects to imagery; from the found to the self-made; from presenting individual artifacts to hybrid installations. I have a materials-led approach to making, underpinned by references to art history and popular culture – specifically photography, TV, film and advertisements. The work is made through questioning, rephrasing and reworking a range of sculptural matter, mass-produced household wares, imported fashion bargains and second-hand finds in the studio over a period of time. This way of making gives the work a strong sense of time which mirrors conventions found in the media (editing, cropping, elimination, montage, narration).

– Samantha Donnelly, March 2014

Donnelly, S (2011) Singapore Sling. [Screenshot] At: https://www.contemporaryartsociety.org/artist-members/samantha-donnelly/ (Accessed 17/12/2020).

Although made from mixed media this has the cleaness of line and color of a painting. I have read that she often references art history and looking this I can imagine she has taken the palette or formal characteristics of a named artist.

And although some of the material may be found or waste the wood, clip and ‘string’ all look new as if bought specially for the project.

Her 3D forms remind me of pieces in a Barbara Hepworth exhibition in her use of stretched string over a frame.

If I were to sum it up I would say that this assemblage is aesthetically pleasing and references both painters and sculptures. It feels like it should have meaning and is pleasing to the eye, and maybe that’s enough, but it doesn’t make me think about the world in a different way either consciously or unconsciously (as a Matisse, Hockney or Van Gogh might show me a new way of seeing).

Susan Philipsz:

Scottish, B. 1965… Philipsz’s Wikipedia entry says: Susan Mary Philipsz OBE is a Scottish artist who won the 2010 Turner Prize. Originally a sculptor, she is best known for her sound installations. She records herself singing a cappella versions of songs which are replayed over a public address system in the gallery or other installation.

Philipsz makes sound assemblages, that is instead of materials like photographs or plastic her raw material is sound, and her canvas is wherever her assemblage is played such as below ranging across London.


I found this fascinating and very moving. The concept of art being ephemeral, performative in participatory (in the sense you have to walk the streets of London to experience it) is one I am currently thinking about as I read: Bishop, C. (2006) Participation. (s.l.): Whitechapel.

I think I have concluded that ‘ephemeral art’ (art with no object/commodity such as a painting) has a different funding model to traditional plastic arts. If I make a painting I have a commodity I can sell… given the production costs of recording, erecting speakers, insurance, paying to licence the playing of music in london streets it is unlikely I could ‘sell’ enough tickets to cover my time and costs (a big art event/entertainment might but not elizabethan songs in snowy London at the weekend). This means ephemeral art has to be funded by either private or public art grants… and is reliant on the status of the creator.

It’s too big an issue to discuss here, but I am thinking about it.

In terms of assemblage it is very effective art as it affects the senses and sets one thinking anew. Even on the video I could imagine the Elizabethan city living inside the new London, the loss, disappearance, the nature of continuity and change… it was evocative, haunting and strangely beautiful.

One tiny thing I would take issue with is her insistence she is not a professional singer, maybe not professional but she has been trained and has a skill in singing that most people don’t.

Urs Fischer:

Born 1973, Switzerland. His Google entry says: Urs Fischer is a Swiss-born contemporary visual artist living in New York City. Fischer’s practice includes sculpture, installation and photography.

His Wikipedia entry isn’t clear but he seems to have dropped out of art school and then studied photography while supporting himself as a bouncer. Age 20 he (somehow) accessed a postgraduate art group after meeting somebody in a bar in Amsterdam He had early success, travelled the world and ended up in New York. His entry goes on to say: The artist employs a variety of materials and processes in his work, resulting in an oeuvre that “resists easy classification”His subversive approach to art is often considered to be influenced by anti-art movements like Neo-Dada, Lost Art, or the Situationist International.

Most of his work seems to be large scale, one could say some are very traditional and others like giant assemblages. Though even his giant sculptures seem to have unifying principle of form or colour, such as his sculpture ‘Thing’.

In the video below he talks about his work.


13 June, 2018: The Ultimate Installations & Sculptures by Urs Fischer | Studio(s) Season 2 Episode 4 | M2M TV

Here is his sculpture (assembled out of different objects but brought into one by concept and colour) ‘Thing’

Fischer, U (2017) Things. [Screenshot] At: https://gagosian.com/exhibitions/2018/urs-fischer-things/ (Accessed 17/12/2020).

And here is a very interesting video about the sculpture: ‘In midtown Manhattan, a new sculpture by Urs Fischer, entitled Things, was debuted in May 2018. Fischer and international curator, Francesco Bonami, discuss this unique exhibition with the Gagosian Quarterly. https://gagosian.com/quarterly/2018/05/29/urs-fischer-things/

By being sprayed silver the sculpture takes on a visual unity as we (on one level) read it as being made out of the same material, like a traditional marble sculpture. Conceptually it represents all our possessions travelling through us and becoming part of us.

I love his work as he is creative and imaginative, his work feels fresh and it affects both my senses and consciousness. For some of his pieces he will employ professional makers, such as the 3D scan of the rhinoceros, but he is also very skilled artist.

Available Tools

William Burroughs cut up technique:

There was a whole Exercise on this (we had to create some ‘Cut Up’ poetry among other things) and David Bowie’s lyrics in ‘Studio Practice’ so I’m not going to go into lots of detail here.

Basically you take a text or texts (it can be parts of songs, dialogue, or, I guess, pieces of sculpture/photographs/material) and cut it into pieces. The selection process comes in selecting your original texts… are you going to use teenage diaries, contemporary newspaper reports, different newspaper reports on the same event or poetry for example. Once you have select your ‘texts’ you cut them into random pieces and ‘stick’ them together.

The above generates two more interventions by the artist. Firstly the rules for cutting up your texts… do you use single words, phrases that make sense to you, images, random 1 to 10 words… the possibilities though not endless are long and certainly not random. Once you have generated your ‘material’ what are your rules for sticking it together? Do you compose directly with your ‘Cut Up’ text, use it to generate ideas, so it becomes your paint on a canvas – if you do this you might move physical phrases around with your finger and even cut words off one phrase and add it to another, so you are changing and mixing your ‘Cut Ups’ as an artist would her colours… or do you make a rule such as each ‘Cut Up’ has a number and you randomly select numbers and place each one on a different line. Again the possibilities are wide ranging.

Wikipedia says: The cut-up technique (or découpé in French) is an aleatory literary technique in which a written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. The concept can be traced to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s, but was popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs, and has since been used in a wide variety of contexts.

‘Cut Ups’ differs from assemblage because with ‘Cut Ups’ you are taking a limited number of complete/unified texts and cutting them up to reassemble them, or as a way to generate ideas. Whereas with assemblage you are taking disparate complete (or partial) ‘texts’ (where text can be anything from a piece of music, to the bark of a dog, to a laptop or washing machine) and within a predetermined unifying or aesthetic context creating a new whole… while, of course, allowing that your raw materials and working process will evolve your original idea.

People have made ‘Cut Up’ machines which you can use on the internet where you feed in your text and the algorithm cuts it up into pieces. . Here’s an example: http://www.languageisavirus.com/cutupmachine.php#.X9yNwmT7Q1I

David Bowie’s lyrics to blackout:

Here’s an online article on David Bowie’s lyrics for ‘Blackout’ where it talks about him meeting William Burroughs and details a conversation they had about ‘Cut Up’: https://www.zinzin.com/observations/2013/bowie-and-burroughs-systematic-derangement/

It looks like he took a text/texts (it doesn’t specify the original text), wrote it out by hand, cut it into phrases and then (one assumes) put the phrases on a piece of paper and moved them around.

Bowie, D (1976?) Photograph of cut up text for Blackout. [Screenshot] At: https://www.zinzin.com/observations/2013/bowie-and-burroughs-systematic-derangement/ (Accessed 18/12/2020).


11 Jan 2016. How David Bowie used ‘cut ups’ to create lyrics – BBC News

In this interview Bowie talks about how ‘Cut Up’ generates disassociated ideas that create awkward relationships (revealing unconscious relationships) which are quite startling. He uses sentences verbatim or as a trigger for composition.

Interestingly he talks about a friend who had made a computer programme for him so he can input masses of text such as newspaper articles and poems he has written and hit the ‘Random’ button, and it will generate reams and reams of material. The inference is that he then sifts this material, pulling out lines and associations to make his song. So, from the point of receiving his cut up text he works as normal, the ‘Cut Up’ machine acting as an idea generating mechanical aide.

Final definition of assemblage:

Assemblage is not described by size but by the disassociation of the objects used in its construction. These are initially picked within a formalising (and unifying) concept or aesthetic. Though, I guess, you could randomly put disassociated objects on a table to generate ideas in a similar way to Cut Up?

Mixed media uses different materials but the paint in a tube or the coloured chalk in a pastel is used as clay in a sculpture not as an object in its own right such as a tube of paint or stick of pastel.

Although I initially thought assemblage was surreal I don’t (now) think it is because there are so many disassociated objects in an assemblage as against a very limited, often just two, featured objects in a surreal painting/construction. Also the effect of an assemblage is more that of a conventional sculpture or painting (it’s just that instead of different coloured paints you have used different objects to create your unitary effect) whereas a surreal work of art is focussed on the shock/dislocation of the main (often just two) items like Dali’s lobster and telephone. Also the artistic milieu of surrealism is very distinct, to do with dreams/the subconscious, and very different from the effect of assemblages where many disparate objects lose their individual identity and are subsumed into a unified aesthetic and/or semiotic whole.

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