The Kubrick-inspired monoliths that appeared around the world last year—unclaimed, often shoddily built towers of sheet metal, begging to be Instagrammed—might not have much aesthetic merit. But they are an example of something artistically interesting. They’re sculptures born out of a meme, grown and evolved through the internet and realized in the real world. The first monolith stood dormant for about four years before something clicked in the culture and it began to replicate, reaching Romania, the Netherlands, Australia, and eventually every continent, a total of over two hundred structures found so far according to the continually-updated Wikipedia page.
Like many of the best internet memes, the monoliths are a mix of satire and homage and sincere social art. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, they herald a jump in human evolution, a symbol of how, as a species, we’re continually faced with things bigger than us, ideas beyond our control. In 2020, they meant much the same, an expression of impotence in the face of spreading disease, and the growing sense that ideas are coming alive inside our screens.
From the anonymous monoliths to Beeple’s crypto collage, art is finding a firmer foothold in the digital space—but the idea of an artistic meme isn’t limited to the internet. Take Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, for example, created by rubbing out the work of the famous abstract expressionist. It’s a stunt that questions the assumption that art is always additive, “not a negation, a celebration” of how concepts succeed each other, as Rauschenberg described it. In the tradition of generational memes, there’s also Nikolas Bentel’s Erasure of Rauschenberg, which sold sections of a Rauschenberg sketch, Rag paper, for advertising space, then used the proceeds to purchase and cover up the work.
Other offline meme creators include the art vandals, who make headlines every few years for acts against the world’s most famous pieces. These are people motivated by the conviction, like the New York Fluxus group, that art should flow with the rest of the world, and not be distilled with white gloves and glass boxes. When artist Mark Bridger poured black ink into Damien Hirst’s Away From the Flock, a lamb preserved in a tank of formaldehyde, he argued he was simply carrying out the next evolution of that idea. The same goes for Tony Shafrazi, the gallery owner who graffitied ‘Kill Lies All’ onto Picasso’s Guernica; the several artists, including Brian Eno, who have peed in Duchamp’s Fountain, and the South Korean couple who recently mistook one of JonOne’s street art-inspired pieces for a collaborative painting, and defaced it.
These evolving artworks remind me of the childhood game Exquisite Corpse, as it’s officially, gruesomely called. To play, a section of a body is drawn and then hidden by folding the paper over. It’s passed to a friend who draws another section, and the process is repeated until the figure is complete and unfolded, revealing a strange, hybrid beast.
In this way, artistic ideas can grow long tails, passing between hands and changing to fit the next blank space on the cultural page. They can last for so long that what once seemed gimmicky or meme-like becomes part of the furniture—principles like abstraction, immersion, realism. Sometimes, they’ll lie dormant for decades until they’re spotted by an artist in search of inspiration and retooled for our current moment.
It’s a biological view of how artistic ideas progress, which gives them a drive to persist and replicate, like the monoliths slowly spreading across empty lands. It makes artists seem more conduits than immaculate creators, bringing to mind Phoebe Cummings and her unfired clay works, which dry and decay over the course of a show, taking on unanticipated forms before being recycled into something new. Or Urs Fischer and his melting wax sculptures. Two artists who promote flux, their pieces mutating beyond their control. Warhol’s Do it Yourself sends the same message in a different way; a half-finished landscape dotted with paint-by-number instructions that spell out the collaborative relationship between artist and viewer.
Some artists might believe they’re highly in control of their work, but I doubt any think that they’re fully responsible for what they create. Even the most solitary outsider artist is involved in this grander relay race of ideas, adding their mark and folding the paper over, making hybrid beasts that continue to evolve far beyond them. It’s a paradox that I think digital art will poke at more and more: the artifice and temporality of artworks, and the aliveness and unpossessability of the ideas they contain.
Cover illustration: Jess Shadrick
Trains in the Basement is a series of essays on time-bending, self-isolating, mask-wearing artists and their designs for living.