Art Exhibitions

Top 5 Ephemeral Art Styles

Is ephemeral art destined to vanish? It challenges art's impermanence. Rise Art explores this novel form, emerging in the 20th century. Discover our Top 5 styles!

By Cécile Martet | 14 Aug 2023

What is ephemeral art?

The term "ephemeral" attributed to a work of art is a notion that emerged in the early 20th century. Up until then, the principle of permanence was inseparable from a work of art, which was intended to be preserved to the best of one's ability over the centuries.

This expression of "ephemeral" art refers to a work that, by its nature, is destined to disappear, self-destruct, deteriorate, or decompose. This aspect is the very intention of the artist, who anticipates the disappearance of their creation—a true paradox in the history of art!

It is therefore essential for an artist who wishes to preserve a trace of their ephemeral work to involve another medium. Photography or video, for instance, allows for the preservation of an image of the work, both during and after its creation.

The viewer also plays an essential role in the memorial preservation of ephemeral artworks. Indeed, the audience becomes a participant in the work through their witness. This contributes to its preservation in the collective memory, passing down from generation to generation.

Discover 5 ephemeral artworks through 5 artistic practices: Land Art, Street Art, Performance, the self-destruction of artworks, and finally, installation art. All of these artistic practices share the same characteristic: that of creating ephemeral art!

Our Top 5 Ephemeral Artworks

1. Land Art

Land Art utilizes natural mediums such as wood, stones, vegetation, sand, etc. All these materials are naturally destined to degrade. Elements of nature itself and erosion generally contribute to their disappearance.

Land Art works are mostly created by artists outdoors. In this way, nature becomes the artwork, and the piece is situated within our natural environment. The artists aim to step outside of traditional artistic institutions, such as museums and galleries.

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty”, april 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah

The most iconic Land Art piece was created in 1970 by the American artist Robert Smithson. This artist is considered the founder of this natural art form. His work, "Spiral Jetty," takes the form of a 457-meter-long basalt stone dike. These rocks form a spiral in the middle of the water, spiraling counterclockwise.

The artwork is located on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, United States. During its construction, the water level of the lake was particularly low. After a few years, the water level returned to normal and eventually submerged the artwork for more than thirty years.

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty”, april 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah

Since then, the spiral has once again emerged from the water due to significant droughts, and then it was submerged once more. The artwork has evolved with nature and has been covered by the lake's salt, which has bleached the stone.

The use of photography has been crucial in preserving the image of this artwork that remained submerged for several decades!

2. Street Art

Street Art, encompassing various practices such as graffiti, stencils, or stickers, is an art form born from the streets. Street artists take over urban spaces and express themselves on city walls or urban furniture.

Speed is an integral part of street art. In fact, this art exists on the edge of legality, except when it involves commissioned public works. Artists must perform quickly to avoid being apprehended by law enforcement. Authorities often view these practices as vandalism of public and private spaces!

As a result, street art works are destined to be removed swiftly, either by the city authorities if the artwork is created on public property or by the owner of the surface in question.

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Stencil by C215, commissioned by the city of Reims © Twitter Ville de Reims
Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Stencil by C215, commissioned by the city of Reims © Twitter Ville de Reims

In 2016, the artist Christian Guémy, known by the pseudonym C215, had one of his stencil artworks on the walls of Reims erased by the city's anti-graffiti brigade. The artist had created three colorful works and one in black and white. The black and white artwork was removed by the brigade ten days after its creation..

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Stencil by C215 erased by the anti-tag service of the city of Reims © Twitter ville de Reims

However, the artworks by C215 were actually commissioned by the city hall, which was announcing a retrospective exhibition being organized in honor of the artist! The city's administrative services eventually apologized, and this significant mistake was rectified by the artist a few days later. C215 returned to create his stencil artwork once again at the same location!

3. Performance Art

Regarded as an ephemeral art form, performance art leaves few marks behind its passage. This primarily behavioral art confronts the artist with their audience.

Performance art takes place in a strategic location, whether urban or institutional. It allows the artist to challenge the nature of traditional artwork. It also enables the artist to question their role as an artist.

Time, space, and the artist's presence in front of an audience are essential elements of a performance. The artist's goal is to provoke a reaction from the audience, exploring the relationship they have with it.

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Marina Abramovíc, “The Artist is Present”, 2010 © MoMA

When discussing performance art, it's impossible not to mention the renowned Marina Abramović! This artist of Serbian origin, born in Belgrade in 1946, is a performer in the realm of body art.

From March 14 to May 31, 2010, during a retrospective at the MoMA, Marina Abramović undertook the longest performance of her career, lasting for a staggering 3 months! Her work, "The Artist is Present," featured two wooden chairs facing each other—one for the artist and one for anyone willing to sit across from her.

Throughout this performance, the audience took turns engaging in a silent visual exchange with the artist. Some spectators occupied the chair for a few minutes, while others remained there for hours!

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Marina Abramovíc and Ulay, “The Artist is Present”, 2010 © MoMA

During this ephemeral performance piece, Marina Abramović sat for a total of 736 hours! This was a true physical and emotional challenge, especially when her former love, the artist Ulay, took a seat across from her, a moment that filled the performer's eyes with tears.

4. Self-Destruction

The self-destruction of artworks is a conceptual artistic practice. This radical "surprise" performance allows the artist to question art itself, its future, and its commercialization.

The artistic concept of self-destruction is deliberately planned by the artist at a moment they deem most fertile. It can take place at the conclusion of the public creation of the work, upon its purchase, during an auction presentation, or even when the work is being installed within a museum.

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Banksy, “Love is in de Bin (Girl with Balloon)”, 2018, Sotheby’s 

The artist who garnered the most significant media attention for the self-destruction of their artwork is the street artist Banksy!

It was on October 5, 2018, that Banksy's artwork, originally titled "Girl with Balloon," self-destructed after being sold for over a million euros at Sotheby's in London!

The painting was partially shredded into strips by a concealed shredder built into its frame, right before the eyes of the audience!

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Banksy, “Love is in de Bin (Girl with Balloon)”, 2018, Sotheby’s © Tristan Fewings

The shocked audience immortalized that moment through videos that went viral! This socially engaged artistic gesture allowed Banksy to denounce the excesses of the art market and its economy.

The artist's statement:

"Every act of creation is first an act of destruction."

A quote from Pablo Picasso, adopted by Banksy

This self-destructed artwork, now fittingly categorized as ephemeral art, stands as an artistic intervention that has entered the annals of art history. It challenges the longevity of art and its market!

5. Installation

Artistic installations typically embrace an ephemeral nature. Created to be situated in situ, installations, also referred to as "public art," allow artists to alter the perception of a space over a temporary period.

This three-dimensional work often placed in public spaces considers the viewer's participation. The viewer becomes immersed in their temporarily transformed everyday environment by the installed artwork. As a result, the distance between the audience and the artwork is often eliminated.

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “The Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped”, september 2021 © Bruno de Hogues

The iconic artistic installation is undoubtedly the work of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped." This ephemeral artwork was installed in 2021 for a duration of two weeks. The piece that wrapped the Arc de Triomphe was composed of 25,000 square meters of recyclable silvery-blue fabric and 3,000 meters of red rope.

Through their installation, the two artists suggest the concept of transience, the notion of the ephemeral. Their primary intention is to allow viewers to pause and contemplate a monument that is part of their daily lives.

Top 5 des œuvres d'art éphémères
Christo, “The Arc de Triomphe Wrapped”, 2017 © André Grossmann

The passing of the artist Christo in 2020 did not prevent the installation of this iconic ephemeral artwork!

As you've understood, all these ephemeral artworks rely on the audience and another medium to secure their place in art history. The spectator's testimony, whether they have witnessed or participated in the creation of the artwork, as well as photography and video, are inseparable from ephemeral artworks. These elements ensure that these artworks endure in our collective memory, passing down from generation to generation!

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