Over the past year, paper sculptures have been popping up in several Edinburgh arts venues – with no clues as to the identity of the artist. This week, Kirsty Logan delves into the mystery, and explores the relationship between artists and their work...
Last March, staff at the Scottish Poetry Library found an elaborately beautiful paper sculpture left on a table: a twisting tree and gold-lined eggs filled with scraps of Edwin Morgan’s poetry.
There was no label claiming ownership, just a note calling the artwork “a gesture”. That was just the beginning.
Over the next few months, staff at many other arts venues in Edinburgh found similar sculptures. The National Library of Scotland received a gramophone and coffin inspired by an Ian Rankin novel, the Edinburgh Filmhouse got a paper cinema with charging horses, the Scottish Storytelling Centre found a dragon in a green egg on a bed of spiky leaves. My personal favourite is the one left at the Edinburgh International Book Festival: a cup of tea on a pedestal, with a chocolate-sprinkled cupcake – all made of paper.
And so it went on, with T-rexes, magnifying glasses and skeletons listening to records. Each sculpture is breathtakingly gorgeous, and each has been donated anonymously with no mention of payment or credit.
The mystery poses many questions about the nature of art and artists. How does anonymity affect how we feel about art? Is gifted art more or less valuable than bought art? Is exposure of the art more important than exposure of the artist? And most of all: why would an artist choose to do this?
Cynics may say that the artist’s anonymity is a great way to ensure an interesting story. The mystery of the paper sculptures has been covered by the Guardian and the BBC, and has garnered dozens of blog posts and retweets. The teasing messages, like clues from a Sherlock Holmes story, are much more exciting than: “a Scottish artist has made some lovely paper sculptures”. If the sculptures had been part of a small Edinburgh art show they would have been just as beautiful, but they wouldn’t have been covered by the Guardian.
The egoists among us, though, might be wondering about the point of so much coverage if it’s anonymous. It’s certainly led me to wonder what’s more important to me: for people to enjoy my art, or for them to connect it with me as the artist.
All thoughts of ego aside, anonymity is so much more than a good story. As artists, we’re often told that we must live publicly. We must build a platform and an audience. We must tweet, we must blog, we must send out an email newsletter once a month. But not all artists can – or should – work like that. Very few pieces of art stand alone, free of all associations with the artist and their previous work. The freedom to be able to create something without the weight of our age, gender, race, sexuality, geography, family, and the success or failure of our previous work must be incredibly freeing.
Art can be deeply personal, and critics and academics love to draw parallels between the artist and their art. Even if art is autobiography, there is a freedom and wonder in being able to communicate one element of our vast personalities, histories and obsessions alone from the rest of it. I’m writing a novel about pro-wrestling, and the fact that I’m a queer, middle-class Scottish woman makes that a very different product than if I was older or straighter or American or Polish or Brazilian. I like the way that my own life colours the story, and I intend to use it.
That said, we all sometimes get sick of the sounds of our own voices. Every aspect of us comes with baggage, and perhaps anonymity is the only way to make our art stand alone, without the shackles of ourselves.
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