These days, “Artists” live for innovation (historically they lived for transcendent beauty). Art is a creative act and artists have always been creative in how they use materials to create their art. Some of these materials can strike us as unusual, even when they become traditional. For hundreds of years artists that work in tempera use egg yolks to bind pigment in their painting.
Here are ten materials used in new, exciting, and sometimes disgusting ways by so-called artists. Be careful which ones you try at home
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If you are looking for a red paint you might think that blood would make a cheap alternative. Unfortunately blood dries to a dark brown colour. One modern artist, Vincent Castiglia, works exclusively with human blood to create his nightmarish visions. Perhaps the most famous use of blood in art was when Marc Quinn sculpted his own head out of his own frozen blood. Called ‘Self’ it takes 10 pints of blood to create each bust. Every five years he crafts a new one to show his ageing process.
There were reports in 2002 that the bust had melted after being stored in a freezer that was unplugged by builders working on art collector Charles Saatchi’s home. This is unlikely however because the artwork travels with its own refrigeration unit. Part of the meaning of the piece is dependency – if the freezer ever breaks then the art melts. Marc Quinn is fairly relaxed about what happens after his death. One thing is sure, with no more Marc there’ll be no more blood and these portraits will become a lot more valuable.
While some media used in art, like marble and bronze, are meant to last through the ages there are those who prefer their art to have a more ephemeral lifetime. One artist, Lennie Payne, was inspired by the artistic potential of toast when they cut smiling faces out of toast for their child. Payne uses a blowtorch to scorch bread black and then scrapes away at it to create the right pigment. Using a number of slices he creates portraits of famous people as a meditation on how quickly fame fades. Some of the portraits he creates in bread that will eventually go mouldy will barely outlive the fame of their subject.
To help his artwork survive a little longer Payne has experimented with soaking the toast in resin and painting them with varnish. This has not always been done in time and he once lost several slices of a portrait to the nibbling teeth of mice. Everyone’s a critic…
The beauty of photography is that it can capture a moment and make it last forever. When you seductively finger fruit you no longer have to worry about the image being lost. For Stephanie Sarley her videos and photos have brought her fame and infamy – and brought her up against Instagram’s rules about sexually suggestive content.
But then challenging society’s standards is part of the point of the work. Some see Instagram and other social media company’s rules as being illogical. Why is a man’s nipple okay to see but a woman’s worth banning? If you photoshopped a man’s nipple over a woman’s would that be okay? By pushing her fingers into juicy fruit Sarley is pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable.
Some people just love to smother their food with cheese. Who can blame them, it is pretty delicious. But does melting cheese all over everything make pretty art? Yes, according to Cosimo Cavalerro. Inspired by a time when he accidentally dripped some cheese on his chair Cavalerro has put cheese on everything from sheds, to entire hotel rooms, to dresses. Once applied he takes photos of the cheesy messes to immortalise them.
He has branched out into other media, as when he made a controversial statue of Jesus out of chocolate, but cheese is where his heart is. In 2019 to protest the building of a wall along the Mexican-US border Cavalerro constructed his own out of cheese nearby to show how absurd the wall was. “It sounds cheesy,” he remarked, “but just love one another.”
What would you do if you had 200,000 ants on your hands? Probably call an exterminator, but artist Chris Trueman decided that that was exactly what he needed to create his masterpiece. Ordering ants in batches of up to 40,000 at a time he would kill them and individually position them with tweezers to make the image he had in mind. When he was done his artwork “Self portrait with a gun” was put on sale for $35,000.
The ants would be killed by exposing them to nail polish remover but eventually even this relatively human death began to bother the artist. “It took several years, not because of the actual labour, but because at one point I started to feel bad about killing all of the ants and I stopped the project for over a year. Then I decided that the first ants would have died in vain if I didn’t finish the work so I decided to continue.” It is believed that the piece ended up being sold to Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
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5 Fish heads
We tend to discourage children from playing with their food but we might be denying them a potentially lucrative source of income. For artist Anne-Catherine Becker-Echivard playing with food is at the centre of her work. Taking fish heads she crafts little scenes to place them in as if they were humans.
Her desire to play with animals, both living and dead, began in childhood when she would transfer her doll’s clothes to her pet rats. It was only when she started to train in the fish industry though that she discovered her love of severed fish heads. Her creations may not be everyone’s idea of high art but they make you smile and make you think. As the artist says:
“Take the fishes in my factories for an example, they are in uniforms. They are asexual and give a global message. That is neither the condition of women nor the condition of men. That is man, the human being, in general. The factories represent a state of conformity to the man, to the common citizen as there is so much work in the production line, ‘the modern times’. The dehumanization.”
Can fish be art? You’ll just have to mullet over for yourself.
Artists have been using pencils for art for hundreds of years, so this entry surely isn’t that weird. But it is the way some modern artists are using their pencils that is strange. Instead of just drawing with them they are turning the pencils themselves into art. While some are attaching pencils together to construct large artworks others are cutting into the graphite core of the pencil to sculpt miniature masterpieces.
Salavat Fidai is just one artist making use of his very steady hands to work on a tiny scale. Using a very sharp blade to carve out the soft and brittle centre of pencils Fidai has recreated everything from world landmarks, to Game of Thrones swords, to astronauts. While the artist needs a steady hand to make them his viewers need good eyes to see them. Some of his works are less than 0.5 mm across.
The face of Abraham Lincoln is one of the most recognisable in the United States. Featured on the 1 cent coin he appears in almost every handful of change. Those images of him are tiny however and Richard Schlatter decided he wanted to make a big one. Using over 24,000 pennies he created an image of Lincoln 12 feet high and 8 feet across.
Schlatter was inspired when he was counting out some pennies and noticed how they each varied in colour. Because of the difference in how they are handled pennies can appear as brilliant shiny copper or almost black, and all the hues in between. Schlatter decided to use these variations to create a portrait of Lincoln. Each year that Lincoln has been on the penny, from 1909 to 2017, was represented in at least one coin.
Overall it was not a bad outlay on the part of the artist. Using pennies worth around $245 he walked away with an art prize of $200,000.
2 Copper sulfate
In 2006 the artist Roger Hiorns took advantage of some high school chemistry to create some extraordinary art. Many students will be familiar with copper sulfate from a simple experiment where a blue crystal is dangled in a saturated solution of copper sulfate and the crystal is seen to grow over time. Hiorns took this crystal growth and applied it to a BMW engine – the copper sulfate crystals converting the metal into a glistening mass of deep blue jewels.
This was not large enough for Hiorns however. For his next work with copper sulfate he took an entire British apartment and flooded it with 90,000 litres of copper sulfate solution. Left to react for a month the artist returned and pumped the mixture out to reveal a home transformed into a cavernous blue geode. When the artwork was donated to a charity it took a great deal of effort to cut the whole apartment from its building without destroying either the art, or the neighbour’s homes.
There are many people with strong feelings about the effect of Facebook on society and democracy. Few people are willing to go as far as expressing their views via the medium of their own poop. Thankfully for art history KATSU, a graffiti artist, was willing to step up to the plate, or the toilet.
Using his own faeces KATSU created a more than passable likeness of Mark Zuckerburg, Facebook’s founder. KATSU apparently does not mind getting his hands dirty, though when painting with his poop he does admit to using many gloves and a face mask. But sometimes the medium an artist chooses perfectly captures their feelings towards their subject matter.
“Mark is Mark.” KATSU said. “He’s this mutation, this gross aspiration everyone idolizes… He deserves to be ridiculed… I want to let people know my beliefs.” With KATSU creating a series of poop portraits of the titans of Silicon Valley I think his beliefs are pretty clear, if not always pretty.
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