"Art making is a form of alchemy, in a way, because you are trying…to make gold from nothing. When it works very well is when you manage to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary."
From "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 (2009)
This episode presents artists whose works defy convention and transport us to unreal worlds and altered states of consciousness. With works at times hallucinatory, irreverent, and sublime, each of these artists pursues a vision first held in the mind’s eye.
“Art should be something really powerful,” says Jeff Koons, “but at the same time, there’s morality that comes along with that.” The segment begins in the artist’s busy studio in Manhattan, where his computer-aided but hand-made paintings and sculptures develop slowly, with a large team of dedicated assistants, in the manner of a Renaissance workshop or atelier. The segment shifts to a major retrospective at the MCA Chicago, where Koons provides a detailed analysis of two sculptures that exemplify the ethical and spiritual dimensions of art. The segment concludes outside Paris at the Chateau de Versailles, where Koons is the first contemporary American artist to have a solo exhibition, showcasing the mathematical planting of a giant flower topiary and a survey of works installed amidst the joyous decoration of the palace’s period rooms and gardens.
“Every piece of abstract art that I make has a back story,” says Mary Heilmann, who relays youthful fantasies of wanting to be a Catholic martyr, her childhood dream to become an artist, as well as the antagonism she experienced in school when transitioning from pottery to painting. Shown completing a new body of work, the segment begins in the artist’s secluded Bridgehampton studio on Long Island. “My spiritual life is very important to me and I think the artworks are icons,” says Heilmann, who believes in the ecumenical power of art to “transport a person in a soulful, rich way, without having any fear of punishment or Hell or sin.” The segment also features Heilmann’s touring retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, where she's designed colorful chairs on wheels that viewers can use to relax, meditate, or socialize with one another and have “a conversation through the work.”
“Photography used to be like alchemy back in the nineteenth century,” says Florian Maier-Aichen, who uses the computer to introduce imperfections and detach his photographs from reality, bringing them closer to the realm of drawing. Shown capturing his source images with a traditional large-format camera, the artist introduces painterly touches to his photographs with the aid of a digital stylus and tablet. “Illustration is just another level of abstracting,” he says, “it lifts you to another layer that is not necessarily linked to realism and it opens up your own world or your own myth-making.” Inspired by the idealized quality of postcards and maps, the segment shows how the artist remakes images of landscapes, from a nostalgic nighttime scene of Stralsund in GDR times to epic vistas such as a pass in the Swiss Alps, ski slopes in the Sierras, Half Dome in Yosemite, and the failed St. Francis Dam near Santa Clarita.
“Dear ladies and gentleman, I’m China Tracy—the avatar of Cao Fei—and I’m her interpreter.” Cao Fei’s digital Second Life alter ego acts as the English translator for the Chinese-speaking artist throughout the segment, guiding the viewer through seven multimedia projects. A day-in-the-life is captured in the sensitive "Milkman," corporate culture is critiqued in the surrealistic "Rabid Dogs," while the assimilation of American pop culture by Asians is celebrated in Cao's series of "Hip Hop" videos. Through a blend of documentary and magical realism, the artist investigates various aspects of role play: costumed youth and their families, workers’ dreams come to life at a Siemens light factory, and the simulated romance between avatars. The segment culminates in the artist’s ongoing project, "RMB City," an artificial island built in the 3D virtual world of Second Life that resembles a postmodern collage of landmarks, urban over-development, and Chinese landscape painting.