The Arts Council sounds off on … Online Presentations

TED Talk with Shea Hembrey

Reviewed by Cindy Clair

I adore TED Talks (www.Ted.com). These online presentations have introduced me to brilliant artists, teachers, and thinkers. When a friend forwarded a link to a TED presentation by Shea Hembrey, I was intrigued by the title, How I Created 100 Artists. Hembrey, whose folksy speech hints at his Arkansas roots, was frustrated by much of the art he was seeing at blockbuster contemporary art exhibitions and found himself longing for art that is more accessible to a broader audience. In response, he decided to create his own biennial and launched into an ambitious, two-year project. Hembrey went beyond curating an exhibition to actually concocting 100 artists from around the world who created installations, sculptures, and films of the biennial. Crazy.

His imagination ran wild. Hembrey created a name and bio for each artist, carefully conjuring up each artist’s interests and the nature of his or her work. Among the featured artists are a Japanese art collective that creates “scratch-off” masterpieces and an artist who works “in residence,” showing up at people’s homes to live with them before creating assemblages from objects found within their home. The pieces he shared were surprising, funny, quirky, and not that far off from some things I’ve seen in museums and galleries.

Although I work in the arts and regularly see exhibits, I confess that some contemporary art eludes me. I appreciate that art pushes boundaries, that artists are drawn to experimentation. I’m not someone who needs to find meaning in every piece, but occasionally I encounter work that leaves me cold, almost devoid of response. I wonder if the artist is toying with the viewer, seeing what he or she can get away with. So I’m rather amused by Hembrey’s spoof on the art world. I don’t believe art should be made for the viewer, but I do like his criteria that he must be able to explain to his grandmother each piece in his biennial, in five minutes or less. And like him, I am drawn to art that provokes my thinking or touches my heart.

It wasn’t until I read a related profile, “One Hundred Artists Rolled Into One Man,” in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks later that I learned Hembrey has a pedigree. I’m not sure why I was somewhat surprised to learn that he attended art school at Cornell University. Maybe I assumed or even wanted him to be a true outsider. He also has a patron, which gave him the luxury of the two years to work on his imaginary biennial. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, gives him cheap rent and a stipend. Now he’s getting some flak as the newly introduced biennial catalog has a whopping $1,000 price tag. Maybe if he came off as an arrogant art snob, I’d feel differently, but his plain-talking, storytelling style made his escapade that much more appealing to me. I admire his genius in creating this wild scheme of an art project and his fortitude in taking on the art world, which can take itself too seriously.

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