Tracing the Ephemeral: What is Left Behind

“The end is the beginning and yet you go on”

Samuel Beckett, Endgame

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Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson

Ever wondered what ephemeral art was? What it means when an artwork can only be experienced?

Temporality and the ephemeral has always been a topic I have been interested in — perhaps this is because as human-beings we are also temporal in this universe. When we examine ephemeral art, we can see that it is usually described as an art form that reflects a desire to dematerialize the art object in order to evade the demands of the market, or to democratize or challenge art museums and collections. However, in many ephemeral artworks something much more fundamental is involved — spectatorship, memory and documentation are questioned. There are many forms of ephemeral art, from sculpture to performance, but the term is usually used to describe a work of art that only occurs once, like a happening. A clear definition of ephemeral art is difficult to give in a straightforward, conventional way, as both material and conceptual sides of the problem need to be addressed. Materiality is probably the most easily defined. Ephemeral comes from the Greek word εφήμερος — ephemeros, which literally means short-lived, lasting but a day. Therefore, it could be concluded that ephemeral arts are often made from materials and things that have short duration and form-holding capacity, such as sand, snow, or ice, or more often from materials that tend to decompose or change through natural processes, such as the case in Land art. Ephemeral art is inherently modern and contemporary. It is fundamental to many artistic movements and forms, but perhaps the most recent examples could be found in street and graffiti art.

Ephemeral Art and Its Many Forms

Ephemeral art often involves works that do not exist over a long period of time — instead, they change or decay slowly. The different physical state of ephemeral works represents a shift from the art object to communicative act. This shift is exemplified by artists working in the 1960s, particularly those influenced by John Cage and the Fluxus movement. Happenings, performances and sound sculptures were all part of ephemeral art, as were flyers and cheap mass-produced items that carried subversive messages out into the world. Following my two year post-graduate education at Royal College of Art (London) in Curating Contemporary Art, I have always been interested in the ephemeral — the untraceable, experiential art, memories and how we translate or archive these memories after. In the 1960s and 70s there was an increased mobility of people and artworks, as an appearance of new institutions of art and explosion of large international events, such as biennials began to happen. The performing arts experienced a similar development, with new working structures within the independent sector in the 1980s and 1990s globally.

Ephemeral art ushers a considerable challenge for the majority of art museums — mainly because collecting institutionalises their entire raison d’etre, expressed in their governing rules, which is to acquire work that endures into an indefinite future. In this article, I will try to expand and explain what ephemeral art is in its different forms by giving some examples to great artists who questioned ephemerality in their work.

The Ephemeral In the Eyes of Benjamin and Beaudelaire

Both Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin were prominent thinkers of modern times who both examined the materialist and conceptual theories around the ephemeral and the eternal. For both theorists ephemeral comes as a consequence of modernity, where speeding up of the everyday conditions the nature of how artwork is produced and consumed. In his statetement “By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.” [1] we can see that for him the eternal can be distilled. He very much preserves the theoretical input of the previous ages where eternal is something creatives should seek to represent; it is an ideal hovering above the transient. Benjamin on the otherhand, questions the notion of the eternal and positions it in a dialectical relation to the transitory; where in modernity ephemerality is eternalized.[2]

In modern and contemporary productions ephemeral is both defined by the materiality of the work and its conceptual underpinnings.

Land Art

As you may know, land art (also known as earth art)is art that is made directly in the landscape, sculpting the land itself into earthworks or making structures in the landscape using natural materials such as rocks or twigs, which are likely to deteriorate over time. Land art emerged as a conceptual movemen in the 1960s and 1970s. By the end of the 1960s many creatives started to avoid gallery spaces and turned to nature — mountains, deserts, and lake and sea shores as sites for their art. Site-specific artworks emerged in different shapes, but manipulations with natural environment were among its dominant methods.

The most famous land art work is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty of 1970, an earthwork built out into the Great Salt Lake in the USA. Though some artists such as Smithson used mechanical earth-moving equipment to make their artworks, other artists made minimal and temporary interventions in the landscape such as Richard Long who simply walked up and down until he had made a mark in the earth.

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Richard Long offsite commission: Boyhood Line (2015), Courtesy of Arnolfini, Bristol.

Whilst referring to ephemerality and land art, I can’t help myself but also mention Christo and Jean-Claude as well. Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (1935–2020) and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (1935–2009), known as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, were artists noted for their large-scale, site-specific environmental installations. The artist duo often worked with large landmarks and landscape elements wrapped in fabric, including their internationally acclaimed projects Wrapped Reichstag, The Pont Neuf Wrapped and Wrapped Monuments series.

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Wrapped Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, Piazza del Duomo, Milan, Italy, 1970
Photo: Shunk-Kender
© 1970 Christo

Happenings & Performance Art

Happenings were the precursors to performance art and in turn emerged from the theatrical elements of dada and surrealism. The name was first used by the American artist Allan Kaprow in the title of his 1959 work 18 Happenings in 6 Parts which took place on six days, 4–10 October 1959 at the Reuben Gallery, New York [3]. Happenings usually took place in an installation or an environment created in a gallery involving spectators and an experimental element of participation. According to Susan Sontag, Happenings tested the limit of spectators; “Perhaps the most striking feature of the Happening is its treatment (this is the only word for it) of the audience. The event seems designed to tease and abuse the audience. The performers may sprinkle water on the audience, or fling pennies or sneeze-producing detergent powder at it…The audience may be made to stand on boards laid in a few inches of water. There is no attempt to cater to audience’s desire to see everything”. [4]

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Allan Kaprow center with beard in YARD (1967) at the Pasadena Art Museum, Getty Images

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretations and Other Essays

Performance art is described as artworks that are created through actions performed by the artist or other participants, which may be live or recorded, spontaneous or scripted. [5] Despite the fact that ‘performance’ and ‘performance art’ only became widely used in the 1970s, the history of performance in the visual arts is often traced back to the Futurists and early Dada caberets of the 1910s. Throughout the 20th century performance art was often seen as a non-traditional way of making art. The liveliness and the physicality of performances offered artists alternatives to the static permanence of painting and sculpture. Now, however, an accepted art form as a part of the visual art world, the term has since been used to also describe film, video, photographic and installation-based artworks through which the actions of artists, performers or the audience are conveyed. Many international museums and exhibitions have also exhibited archives, elements of performance art as well as collecting them. Recently, performance has been understood as a way of engaging directly with social reality, the specifics of space and the politics of identity.

Performance are consists of four basic elements: time, space, body, and presence of the artist, and the relation between the creator and the public. The actions, generally developed in art galleries and museums, can take place in the street, any kind of setting or space and during any time period. The main pioneers of performance art include; Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta, Chris Burden, Herman Nitsch, Nam June Paik, Yves Klein and Vito Acconci.

The works by performance artists in the late 1960s had many influences from the political and cultural situations hapenning globally around female empowerment. Barbara T. Smith with Ritual Meal (1969) was at the vanguard of body and scenic feminist art in the seventies, which included, amongst others, Carolee Scheemann and Joan Jonas. These artists along with Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Allan Kaprow and Chris Burden were pioneers in the relationship between body art and performance art.

In the 1970s, artists that had derived to works related to performance art evolved and improved themselves as artists with performance art as their main discipline, deriving into installations created through performance, video performance, or collective actions, or in the context of a socio-historical and political context.

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Marina Abramović and Ulay, “Relation in Time” (1977)

In the mid 1970s Ulay and Marina Abramovic founded the collective The Other in the city of Amsterdam, where they started their collaboration. The main concepts they explored were the ego and artistic identity. This was the start of a decade of collaborative work. Both artists were interested in the tradition of their cultural heritage and the individual’s desire for rituals.

Examining later works of performances in the context of migration and working class, Mona Hatoum’s Performance Still has engraved in my mind. Mona Hatoum first became known in the early 1980s for a series of performance and videos which used her own body as a site for exploring the fragility and strength of the human condition under duress. Performance Still 1985 records one of three street performances which Hatoum carried out in Brixton for the Roadworks exhibition organised in 1985 by the Brixton Artists Collective. The performance consisted of the artist walking barefoot through the streets of Brixton for nearly an hour, with Doc Marten boots, usually worn by both police and skinheads, attached to her ankles by their laces.

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Mona Hatoum
Performance Still 1985
© Mona Hatoum, Tate

Politics of the ephemeral: Street art

Street art is unofficial and independent visual art created in public locations for public visibility. Street art is associated with the terms “independent art”, “post-graffiti, neo-graffiti and guerilla art. Street art is usually unsanctioned, but it covers a wider range of media and is more connected with graphic design in comparison to graffiti art. Where modern-day graffiti revolves around ‘tagging’ and text-based subject matter, street art is far more open. There are no rules in street art, so anything goes. However common materials and techniques include fly-posting (also known as wheat-pasting), stenciling, stickers, freehand drawing and projecting videos.

Street artists will often work in studios, hold gallery exhibitions or work in other creative areas: they are not anti-art, they simply enjoy the freedom of working in public without having to worry about what other people think.

Some street artists can be considered as ; JR, Banksy, Jenny Holzer and Guerilla Girls.

Food and Art

In addition to its function as a life source, food has played a key role in art movements throughout history and has been crucial to the contemporary evolution of alternative and conceptual artistic practices such as performances, happenings, and interventions. Over the years artists have expanded beyond representational imagery to explore the physical properties of nourishment as materials in the production of art. Political questions, and issues around social interaction, sustainability and consumption have been studied in greater depth through the medium of food in contemporary art.

Food is not merely a means for survival — it’s a universal language that brings people together. It unites us, and it gathers plenty of cultural, historical; sociopolitical, and ecological connotations along the way. Food is a connecting medium through which we can gain a greater understanding of people and their histories. Food has always been a connector, a universal language, an essential part of our lives — for me it has a very personal meaning. In my curatorial practice, I have always been interested in creating a multisensory experience and collaborating with cross-disciplinary artists. Artists’ relationships with food as a performative medium have always intrigued me. Jennifer Rubell’s immersive food installations, for example, or Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen, and Judy Chicago’s phenomenal Dinner Party.

Ephemerality during lockdown

On 11th of March 2020, the Coronavirus (Covid-19) was officially declared a global pandemic by WHO (The World Health Organisation), with this news uncertainties began to unfold. Shortly after, the UK was in lockdown. Suddenly, we were all confined to our homes, not knowing what the situation would be like — wondering when would we be able to touch, feel and hug again without having to worry about the virus. Whilst trying to adapt to this new norm and getting used to not seeing art physically, I really struggled to tune in to online performances (which most of the time ended up glitching and having bad connections) or anything that tried to erase the physical sense of ephemarality through technology. Now going into a second lockdown in the UK, like many other countries I was left with thinking about ephemeral art. I missed elements of sound, touch, smell and immersing myself within a space. This essay was an attempt to explain the ephemeral in the context of contemporary art with some basic examples. I hope you enjoyed this somewhat elemental introduction to the topic, as I wish to expand more in my future articles.


[1] Lewis, Mark. “‘Is Modernity Our Antiquity?’.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, no. 14, 2006, pp. 109–117. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Nov. 2020.

[2] Osborn P., Charles M., (2015), Walter Benjamin, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. [September 30, 2016].

[3] Tate (2017). Happening — Art Term | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at:

[4] Sontag, S. (2009). Against interpretation and other essays. 016 ed. London Penguin Books, p.265.

[5] Tate (2017). Performance art — Art Term | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at:

Huma Kabakcı (b. London, 1990) is an independent Curator and Founding Director of Open Space, living and working between London and Istanbul.

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