Thursday 2 July 2020

Quite a Few Short Sad Thoughts (1990)

In 2018 I created a presentation in an architect's office titled 'The Collector', wherein I recreated a number of works by well-known artists.
One of the works I recreated for this presentation was 'Short Sad Thoughts' by Mark Manders. While researching the works I came across some peculiarities and in Manders' case it was the existence of a number of exhibition copies which are otherwise unmentioned in the available literature, as well as a second copy that was sold at auction in 2014.

In the literature it is unambiguously stated that the work is in the collection of the Van Abbemuseum, which acquired the work in 1994. In their collection entry, the dimensions are given as (2x) 22,1 x 2,5 x 0,3 cm and the material is copper wire.

On the left we have the current documentation photograph of the work available on the website of the Van Abbemuseum. On the right is the work as it is was reproduced in the catalogue of the exhibition held for the 30th anniversary of the Heineken Prize for Art, in which Short Sad Thoughts was featured. This right photograph is the most recent documentation of the work at the Van Abbemuseum.
There are some small differences between these two photographs, but overall it can be said to be the same work. There are two distinct features of the version in the collection of the Van Abbemuseum. The first is that the bends at the top are not perfectly symmetrical. This can be seen in the left photograph, where the right half is clearly hung mirrored to the right half in the right photograph. The tops of both wires are slightly skewed like one would see in a lowercase 'n'.
The second feature is that one of the wires is slightly bent at the bottom of one of its legs. This is pronounced on the right leg of the left wire in the right photograph. It is less visible in the left photograph, but it's nevertheless also present in the earliest published photograph of the work, so we can assume that it's a defining feature of the original.

This photograph is from the catalogue 'De afwezigheid van Mark Manders', published on the occasion of the 1994 exhibition 'Mark Manders shows some fragments of his Self-portrait as a building' at the MUHKA, Antwerp. Please also note that the work is not titled 'Short Sad Thoughts', but 'short sad thought (2 times)'.
It can be stated with a fair degree of certainty that this is the same work as in the 2018 photograph. There is similar asymmetry at the top and, more importantly, a similar bending of the leg at the bottom.
These features are also present in the documentation of the work in the catalogue for the 1997 show at De Appel, Amsterdam and Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, as well as the catalogue of the 1998 São Paolo Biennial and the book 'Singing Sailors', published in 2003.

All three books use the same photograph for the works' documentation, a slightly grainy black and white photograph with a large amount of contrast.

The next published photograph of the work is the documentation of the 2006 exhibition 'Short Sad Thoughts' at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary art, Gateshead. This is some excellent documentation and it was used by Mark Manders for his own personal website.

This photograph is not identical to the documentation of the Van Abbemuseum. The largest difference is that one of the wires is horizontally flipped and that the nails are somewhat large and distinct in appearance. By correcting this and overlapping them it can be seen that they in fact are extremely similar to one another. It can thus be said with a fair degree of certainty that the original work from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum was on show at the BALTIC exhibition.
Two other noteworthy facts about this documentation is that the material is erroneously noted as 'Brass, nails' and that the photograph showing the work in detail is in black and white. Given that the other two photographs are in colour, this might be caused by a graphic designer trying to 'correct' the colours of the copper in the photograph to match the colour of brass before giving up and turning it into black and white.

In 2004 the work was featured in an exhibition at the Museum Beelden aan Zee, Scheveningen and from 2007 to 2009 Mark Manders was the subject of a traveling exhibition titled 'The Absence of Mark Manders', which was held at the Kunstverein Hannover; Kunsthall Bergen; SMAK, Gent and Kunsthaus Zürich.
For this catalogue the same, black and white, photograph from the BALTIC exhibition is used and the work is credited (as in all other cases) as 'Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven'. Interestingly the material of the work is again erroneously stated as 'Brass, nails'. Presumably they used the most recent available documentation when preparing the catalogue.

Up until this point everything seems fine. There is a work made by Mark Manders, sold in 1994 to the Van Abbemuseum and since then has occasionally traveled to other exhibitions, as is common with artworks in museum collections.

Then in 2010 things change.

Mark Manders is once again the subject of a traveling exhibition and this time the exhibition takes place in the United States of America. Starting from the 25th of September 2010 at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the exhibition travels to The Aspen Art Museum, The Walker Art Center and the Dallas Museum of Art, where it ends on the 14th of April 2012.
For whatever reason, it was decided to make an exhibition copy of the work.

While this copy was still credited as being in the collection of the Van Abbemuseum, it was without a shred of doubt a different version as it was not made in copper, but in brass. This is not extremely clear in my photograph of the catalogue, but the two photographs of the exhibition on the website of Mark Manders clearly show the work being brass-coloured and not copper-coloured.
What has likely happened is that in remaking the work, they again used the most recent documentation, which was the catalogue to the traveling exhibition of 2007-2009. There the materials were listed as 'Brass, nails', which was tellingly illustrated with a black and white photograph. Using only this information, it stands to reason why the copy was made in the shiny yellow and a lot more rigid brass, rather than the murky brown and malleable copper.
The shape is also markedly different, with the top edges being much more symmetrical and the legs being more straight, as is to be expected given the different characteristics of the materials.

The next exhibition to follow was the 2013 Venice Biennale. 
Once more there was a copy on view and again it was made from brass. As far as I can tell it was a different copy than the one shown between 2010 and 2012. The left wire seems more pinched together, while the legs of the right seem further apart. It is also much less clean looking, even in the photograph of the catalogue. Simultaneously it is the first time where the work is shown hanging directly against the wall, rather than on the end of the nails, suggesting that the work was either hung with some lack of care or some handsy visitors already ravished the work.

In the meantime Mark Manders published his own 'Reference Book' in 2012, which is the most comprehensive overview of his work thus far.

In this book there is a black and white version of the installation view at BALTIC, together with a new colour photograph of Short Sad Thoughts in copper. The origins of the photograph are unknown, but it is likely that the artist took the photograph himself. The photograph shows more than one pronounced shadow, which indicates poor lighting conditions. These are uncommon for a museum, but expected in an artists' studio. I thought it might be a colour version of the earlier contrast rich black and white photograph, but the differences in shape between the two photographs are patent. I am thus uncertain about the origins of the work. It is clearly different from the copper version in the collection of the Van Abbemuseum, with one wire being distinctly shorter than the other, but I don't have a clear match to any other copy reproduced in another catalogue.

Another photograph of note was the one that documents the exhibition 'Curculio Bassos' at the CGAC, Santiago de Compostella.
The shape of the work is extremely similar to the copy shown in the USA. This includes the distinguishing pointy shape left by cutting wire with a pair of pliers, which aren't present on the version shown at the Venice Biennale. However, it can't be said with certainty that these marks are present on all of the ends, which is the case in the Hammer Museum version, and additionally the brass wires are much more tarnished than the pristine version shown in the USA. It is therefore difficult to ascertain whether or not these copies are really one and the same.
Another interesting find is that while all other versions have been credited as belonging to the collection of the Van Abbemuseum, this is the first that stipulates the work as courtesy of Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

The last time I've seen the work in person was at the Bonnefanten museum, at the exhibition titled 'The Absence of Mark Manders', which at the time of writing is still open to the public.
There the work on display was once again a copy, one so brazen that I could recognise it as a copy from another room.

To the credit of whoever made it, it is at least a copy in copper instead of brass, even if the material is still listed as brass. It thus stands to reason that its maker must have had some first hand experience of the work in the past. Unfortunately, this is were my compliments end.
The first thing that I noticed, and which is very difficult to show on photographs, is that the copper had the wrong diameter. Because copper bends very easily, it is difficult to buy a solid copper rod thinner than 4mm. So what I believe they have done at the Bonnefanten museum is to simply get the thinnest copper rod they could buy and use that, which is always more thick than the slightly under 3mm diameter of the original. I had already encountered this problem when I made my own copy of the work. My solution was to use some electrical wiring, as this is sold as 6mm², or 2,76mm diameter, but does come on a spool and thus has to be straightened. I also believe Manders' used this kind of electrical wire for the original, given some slight tool marks on the work, the corresponding thickness of the wire, the 'great difficulty' of bending he constantly describes and the simple fact that the original isn't completely straight.
Possibly to keep the proportions right, I also believe this work to be ever so slightly longer than the original at 23 cm instead of 22 cm. Although it must be said that the only evidence I have of this is a blurry photograph I took while holding one of my notebooks as close to the work as possible without freaking out the guards.

In the photograph on the left one can also again clearly see the markings left by pliers, as well as the extreme unevenness at which all the legs have been cut, which is the biggest flaw in my opinion. It truly looked like somebody simply grabbed a piece of copper rod, bent in half, quickly cut the ends up at a length that looks kind of right and hung it up. A legitimately disappointing moment in the exhibition.

So this is a short overview of the many different exhibition copies that I have encountered of Short Sad Thoughts. While I understand the possible advantages of exhibition copies, the extent with which they have been present in this particular case has somewhat confused me.
Part of the reason for this is that Mark Manders is otherwise an artist who is very open about his works not being unique, both in philosophy and factual documentation of the work. The work Short Sad Thoughts can be seen as a copy of itself and Manders has copied many of his works at 88% of their original size. It is likewise quite common for him to openly retake older elements and rework them or remake them into newer sculptures, which creation dates commonly span over a decade, such as in the case of 'Notional Cupboard (1989-2003)'. A lot of his works are also casts and highly reproducible, with many of them produced in an edition of three to five. Again this is done completely openly, so that there is never a question about who owns the 'original'.
Perhaps the secrecy that surrounds these particular copies can be attributed to the fact that the work was made when Manders was only 22 years old and he thus likely didn't even anticipate the work ever traveling the world. Perhaps no adequate solution was therefore stipulated for these kind problems.
At the same time, there is a creation myth propagated by Manders himself surrounding this work. In a short text that often accompanies the work, Manders now says the following: 'This work consists of two hanging copper wires that appear to be at the mercy of an enormous gravitational pull. In reality, it was with great effort that I bent the wires, an act I then repeated in exactly the same manner.' The first instance I found of this text was in Dutch and simply said: 'In werkelijkheid heb ik het koper om moeten buigen' or 'In reality I had to bend the copper'. The first English translation I could find of the text left out the word 'great'. There the wires were simply bent 'with effort'. Not wishing to undermine the perceived difficulty of the work by stating it has been remade multiple times could be a reason to not speak openly about these copies.

As what to actually caused the introduction of these copies I can only speculate, although I suspect it has something to do with the representation of Mark Manders by Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in the United States of America. Their collaboration started in 2007, a few months before the last exhibition where we can be certain that the original was on loan from the Van Abbemuseum.
The next exhibition where Short Sad Thoughts was shown was a touring exhibition in the USA, undoubtedly facilitated in some part by this new American gallery. Since then, every single exhibition outside the one held at the Van Abbemuseum in 2018 has used a copy of the work instead of the original.
At the Bonnefanten exhibition the work was also credited as courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery and Zeno X Gallery, even though in the catalogue it was credited as Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.

Perhaps this is an absent-minded mistake but it nevertheless seems strange why they would make a (badly executed) copy for an exhibition when the original is not even 100 kilometers away, only to credit it as a joint ownership to the gallery the museum originally bought the work from.

There is one loose end in my investigation and that is a group show at the gallery Kayne Griffin Corhan. Manders himself must have been involved with the exhibition is some way, as his publishing house ROMA publications published a catalogue for the exhibition. In this catalogue the work is credited as 'courtesy Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven' and the photograph of the work is the documentation of exhibition at BALTIC. On the gallery's website they instead used the photograph of the work at the Hammer Museum.

From installation views of the exhibition I do however suspect that it was a different copy altogether and quite a bad one at that. It is difficult to establish any kind of fact from a 20 pixels wide segment, but my experience with the work tells me that it is much more rounded off at the top and more wide. It also appears to be more orange than any other copy I've encountered. These features somewhat negate the appearance of a strong gravitational pull being exerted on a piece of copper, which was the original appeal of the work.
This particular copy thus raises some questions, including its setting in a commercial gallery, but I have nothing I can say about it with any certainty.

As a final note, I wish to point out the fact that the work in the Van Abbemuseum might not be considered the original, depending on how you wish to define original.
Lot 47 of Sale 3046 held on 7 and 8 of April, 2014 at Christie's in Amsterdam was titled 'Short sad thought (2 times) (fragment from Self-portrait as a building)'.

I originally believed that this must have been a fake somehow, inspired by the recent showing of the work at the Venice Biennale. Yet direct comparison between this work and the work pictured in the 1994 MUHKA catalogue would suggest otherwise.

The shape of both works is markedly different, so it is not simply a question of reusing an older photograph. While the metal is different, indicating the originality of both works, the small sign with the title of the work appears almost identical, from the shape to the typeface to the thickness of the paper. This says that while they are different, they likely do have a similar origin. They are also almost identically spaced, even if there is no particular spacing specified in the works documentation. Most tellingly, the nails in the auctioned work rusted quite severely. I'm thus inclined to believe that this in fact is a second version that was acquired directly from the artist.
What's peculiar though is that it is stated to be edition number 2/2 on the certificate, yet the work was apparently sold in 1991, three years before the Van Abbemuseum acquired their version. At the same time, there is no mention of the work being an edition anywhere in any of the literature.
As none of the other publicly accessible entries of the museum's collection data mention edition sizes, this omission might just be a consequence of the museum's record keeping.
In either case, if the work sold at Christie's was in fact bought in 1991, it could be the first work to enter into public circulation, thereby making this the original from a copyright perspective, rather than the 'copy' from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum.

To end this post I would say that I truly wish I had some concluding remarks about all of this, even a vague opinion. I think I only set out to show how much knowledge one can gather from simply looking at a work and its descriptions.