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Tara Donovan, “Untitled (Pins)”
(Image courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Tara Donovan’s pins are hard to miss. There are thousands of them upstairs at the new Institute of Contemporary Art. They’re smushed together almost as if dropped into a trash compactor, except instead of being bent, they form a 3½-foot-tall block of sinewy, shiny metal. This is art, and it sits in the center of a gallery at the ICA, one of the signature pieces of the museum’s collection.

Stare at “Untitled (Pins),” and you’re likely to have questions. How does this cube stick together? Is it solid or a kind of pin shell? And what of the artist? Did Donovan get pricked as she manipulated the piece? Was she wearing protective gloves? What kind of care and persistence did it require for her to turn these thousands of glittering pins into such a perfect square?

One thing you might not expect: Donovan didn’t put “Untitled (Pins)” together at all. The New York City artist figured out how to shape a mass of pins and sent instructions to the museum; the work was assembled in July, and again in August, entirely by the hands of ICA employees.

Surprised? Don’t be. Like any museum of contemporary art, the ICA is full of works built by somebody other than the artist, from Kelly Sherman’s Foster Prize-winning “Wish Lists,” a collection of personal wish lists gathered from the Internet, to “Cell (Hand and Mirror),” a mysterious Louise Bourgeois piece featuring a pair of carved marble hands in the center of miniature room.
In Cambridge, Harvard’s Carpenter Center was recently home to an installation piece of cellophane-wrapped candies laid in a golden carpet across the ground floor of the center. The work is credited to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, but was actually built by curator Helen Molesworth. (Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996.) At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, several pieces in the Spencer Finch exhibit – including a majestic stained-glass wall – were simply assembled according to the artist’s specs. And last September, when the Boston Center for the Arts hosted “Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off” by Scottish artist Martin Creed, in which the gallery’s 67 track lights illuminated the white walls and then flicked off every five seconds, not only did Creed not set up the exhibition, he didn’t even fly to Boston while it was up.

As contemporary art becomes more mainstream, and successful artists become “brands” that draw huge sale prices and big museum crowds, legions of art viewers are now finding themselves confronting “original” works created by someone other than the person listed on the wall label.

What qualifies such artwork as original, and whether it should matter whether the artist physically created the work, is a debate that has occupied academic corners of the art world for years. But if museumgoers believe – reasonably – that the point of seeing original art is to connect intimately with the artist who crafted the piece before them, they are opening themselves up to a rude surprise. In a contemporary art museum, it’s now fair to expect that chunks of a collection were never touched by the artist at all.

Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

Tomorrow: Part 2 from Edgers’ excellent article.